Sunday, February 10, 2008

Milt on Clampett pt 2 - early history

Clamett Baby Photo

Bob was born in San Diego in 1913, and from the time of his earliest memories he was fascinated by the color comic strips in the Sunday newspapers, and he would try to copy the drawings of the various characters from the comic strips. As Bob got older, and could read and write, he began making up new gags and situations for the various characters, oftentimes continuing from the end of the strips as they appeared in the newspapers. He also became acquainted with the various early-century children’s adventure books, with their rich illustrations and fantastic stories.

Eventually Bob’s parents moved to Los Angeles, when Los Angeles was a much smaller city than it became later, and lived in a neighborhood that included several theater stage performers and movie actors. Movies were still in their primitive early days then, and of course were black-and-white and silent, but they seemed like magic to the young Bob. And stage theater in Los Angeles then was pretty elaborate, so it made quite an impression as well. Bob was experiencing and thinking about these things all the time, imagining new things that could be done in these various mediums. Along the way he was also introduced to puppetry and magic acts. With Bob’s enthusiastic and self-confident personality, he began attempting to impress the neighborhood kids by creating puppet shows, which he performed on the back porch, hiding behind the railing to manipulate the hand puppets.

As a teenager, Bob played with a home movie camera and attempted to make an amateur short live action movie -- another example of thinking staging, continuity and cutting at a relatively young age. (He even went to Leon Schlesinger’s Pacific Art and Title Studio to have title cards made for his movie. This was the first time he met Leon Schlesinger.)
Los Angeles in those days had about five different newspapers, and Bob frequently submitted cartoon drawings into the cartoon contests in the papers. His cartoons won prizes and eventually attracted enough favorable attention that he was offered a contract with the Hearst newspaper syndicate, which guaranteed him full employment at $75.00 a week once he finished high school (which was still a few years away then). In those days $75.00 a week was big money, and Bob had his Dad keep the contract for him. In the meantime, the Los Angeles Hearst paper paid Bob’s tuition to Otis Art Institute, where Bob was introduced to serious illustration and the Fine Arts, and also let Bob hang around in the art department at the newspaper offices, where he observed real professionals doing their work.
But then animated cartoons appeared in the movies, with Felix the Cat particularly catching Bob’s interest. Bob went to the projection booth and asked the projectionist if he could see some of the actual movie film, to see how Felix was drawn for motion. The projectionist cut out a section of the film and gave it to Bob to take home and study.

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Eventually the theaters began showing sound movies, including Disney’s Mickey Mouse, and that’s when Bob realized that sound cartoon movies was the medium that would allow him the fullest outlet for his ambitions as a cartoonist and a performer. appealed most to Bob was the realization that in animated cartoons, like the Felix the Cats, literally anything was possible, and so the artistic and entertainment possibilities were unlimited.

Somewhere along the way, Bob’s family ran into hard times. Bob’s father became unable to financially support the family, and (I’m not clear on the details) somehow dropped out of the picture. Bob had to leave high school early, before completion, to get a job to support himself and his mother. Despite his contract with the Hearst newspapers, he decided to get a job in animation at the Disney Studio, but the Disney Studio was at that moment overcrowded and was building new work space across the street. They told Bob to come back when the new space was completed, but instead Bob went across town and got a job at the new Harman-Ising Studio, where he began working on the first cartoon in the new Merrie Melodies series.

I think what makes Bob stand out among other animators, is that his style is not only inspired by other animation. He is inspired by the overall world of entertainment. He loved Jolsen, Cagney, comics, Jazz and he put all this entertainment and performance energy in his cartoons. It's entertainment first with Bob. It was this philosophy and strength of character that allowed him to resist the lure of imitating Disney. While Walt was such an overpowering influence in the industry and so many others blindly tried beating him at his own game, Clampett just did what came natural to himself.

I would say Avery and Tashlin also had this built in resistance to following trends, but Friz seemed always content to be mature and do what the current acceptable style is and get it in on time. If singing teapots is the current rage, fine; if sarcastic wiseguys come into style, he'll do that too, although a bit more reluctantly.