But in spite of the possibilities, there are very few people who have taken advantage of animation’s full potential. One of those people is Tex Avery. Having arrived in Hollywood in the early 30s, by the middle of the decade he had his own unit at Warner Bros. where he helped to create and refine characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. By 1942 he was working at MGM, which is where he made the cartoons most closely associated with him.
By the early forties Avery had refined his approach to the point where his best films had a distinct style. Most of his cartoons revolve around a conflict between two characters, and the surreal mayhem that ensues. The artists and animators at MGM were skillful enough to deliver pretty much anything he wanted, making the action flow swiftly and smoothly no matter how bizarre the situations.
I used the word “characters” in the last paragraph. Actually, Avery wasn’t really interested in characters. The dogs, cats, canaries and wolves that populate his cartoons are strictly two-dimensional. Northwest Hounded Police features a stoic little dog and a wolf on the run from the law. That’s all he needs to set up the ridiculously simple premise. Everywhere the wolf runs, the dog is there waiting.
It’s a one gag movie, and the gag was actually used by Avery in more than one cartoon. How does he get laughs when he’s repeating the same joke over and over? Part of the answer is that this basic joke becomes progressively more absurd. Another thing that makes it work is the tension between the little dog’s deadpan face and the wolf’s increasingly outrageous reactions.
But for me the most important factor is the sadistic glee that Avery shows in tormenting the desperate wolf. This is a dynamic that runs through a lot of the director’s work. Often one character tortures another for the full length of the cartoon. Sometimes the victim is finally caught, as in Northwest Hounded Police. Sometimes he loses his mind (Slap Happy Lion). And in one case he’s so maddened by the relentless trauma he just explodes (SH-H-H-H-H). People who knew Avery described him as a smart, funny, talented guy, but they also agree that he had his demons. There’s something insane about these frenzied exercises in non-stop mayhem, and that insanity is ultimately the reason I love these cartoons.
The movie begins with the wolf’s escape from prison. We watch him careening around a map of North America, swimming across the Great Lakes, and finally ending up in Canada. When the wolf first realizes that the dog is on his trail, he takes off at top speed. We get a series of lightning fast shots where he moves from extreme foreground to extreme background in the blink of an eye. With the help of the artists at MGM, Avery imagines an amazingly flexible landscape that expands and contracts as we follow the manic chase. We fall from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a lake, parachute from a plane’s cockpit, swim across the Atlantic. At one point the wolf is moving at such terrific speed that he ends up skidding off the film frame, past the sprockets and into an empty white space.
And this is another of the director’s favorite devices. Reminding you that you’re watching a movie. Avery lets his characters tell you what’s going to happen next. Sometimes they even tell you the end of the story. They suddenly run out of Technicolor and the landscape turns black and white. There are cartoons within cartoons. Avery didn’t just work in the medium. He played with it, commented on it, twisted it this way and that to suit his own needs.
His limitless imagination finally did hit some hard boundaries. By 1953 he was exhausted and left MGM for the Walter Lantz studio. He only did four cartoons for Lantz, and when he quit in 1955, that was the end of his career in theatrical animation. While Avery continued to work in the field, the market had changed. He never again had access to the same resources or the same kind of outlet for his unbridled creativity.
But you can still watch Northwest Hounded Police. Just click here.