Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Milt On Clampett 3 - inbetweener, animator

It was hard to find good illustrations for this section of Milt's article. There aren't many drawings or photos from this period-that I could find anyway.


Bob was still a teenager when he joined the Harman-Ising Studio in 1931, while virtually all of the others were in their late 20s, and they generally looked upon this “young, punk, snot-nosed kid”, with his brash enthusiasm and wild ideas, with suspicion and resentment.

Friz Freleng admits this decades later...

The studio held weekly story meetings, which everyone was invited to attend, but Bob quickly learned that the studio was very determined to follow strict formulas -- mainly they were just imitating the increasingly literal things that Disney was currently doing, with little variation.


Bob did offer ideas, but his more original, “crazy” ideas were generally ignored, and only his Disney-like ideas were accepted. Bob found this working environment stifling, and wanted a chance to have more artistic freedom. But, working as an “inbetweener”, there wasn’t much chance.



Bob’s creativity did not go unnoticed, however. Leon Schlesinger’s brother-in-law, Ray Katz, who was generally watching over the Harman-Ising Studio, noticed Bob, and so in 1933 when Leon ended his relationship with Harman-Ising and set up his own cartoon studio, Bob was the first person from Harman-Ising that Leon hired.

Unfortunately, Leon, who was significantly older than the people at Harman-Ising, evidently also regarded Bob as little more than an inexperienced kid, albeit a kid with ideas. So Leon set about hiring “experienced” animators and directors from other studios, with Bob given only the chance to continue learning animation, under people like the ex-Disney animator Jack King.


In 1935 Leon hired Tex Avery, formerly from Universal (and five years older than Clampett), to direct, and assigned Bob -- who was by then a full-fledged animator -- to work with Tex. For a while it was just Tex and Bob working together, alone in a separate shack of a building, which they dubbed Termite Terrace.


Tex had only a little more professional experience than Bob, but Tex got the director’s job because -- Tex admitted years later in interviews -- he bluffed his way into the job by claiming to be significantly more experienced than he actually was. But Tex and Bob were more compatible than the other people at the Schlesinger Studio then, who were still focused on imitating Disney.


Many animation fans, and some animation historians, credit Avery for starting the Schlesinger Studio in a more cartoony direction, and indeed it is in these early Avery films that a fresh new cartoony sensibility does begin to emerge. But for all the credit that Avery actually deserves, I say that Bob actually deserves most of the credit. I say this because if anybody makes the effort to look at all the Schlesinger cartoons from that era in chronological order, they will see that the emerging cartoony quality only lasts in the Avery cartoons until Clampett leaves to begin directing his own cartoons.


One special case in point: Avery’s groundbreaking, inspired cartoon, Porky’s Duck Hunt, which introduces Daffy Duck. On that cartoon, Clampett was helping write the gags, Clampett drew the storyboards and did many of the layouts, and Clampett animated the most inspired scenes of Daffy, the ones that established Daffy’s “woo-woo” personality and a refreshingly new approach to animation, not just at Schlesingers but at any animation studio.

Then the emerging cartoony quality continues strong in Clampett’s cartoons and mostly disappears in Avery’s.


Avery’s cartoons, after Clampett leaves, become close imitations of Freleng’s cartoons, which in turn are labored imitations of Disney -- except that Avery too often took refuge in the most uninspired mock-travelogues.

This continued until almost the end of Avery’s stay at Schlesingers.

Milt and I had some disagreement over this section of his article. While I too think that Clampett should get a lot more credit for changing Warner's style and direction, I also think Avery and Tashlin made the first obvious changes.

I discussed this with Milt :

Do you mind if when I put it up, I disagree slightly with a couple points?

No, that's okay. I feel that having different viewpoints and open debate is healthy.

Like, I don't think Avery was imitating Friz at all in the late 30s. His animation was not as focused as Clampett's but he had a kind of street smart sarcastic humor in his cartoons that was very anti Disney and a big part of what became known as the Warner's style. And Friz was over at MGM at the time anyway, wasn't he?

Friz was at MGM for about a year and a half, from September 1937 to April 1939, but he had largely set the tone and graphic style of the Warner cartoons, with Leon Schlesinger's approval, for about the mid-1930s through the late-1930s. To me, Avery basically followed the graphic look and animation style that Freleng had established. There are none of the zany characters or "springy-boingy" graphics or animation in anyone's cartoons then that kept re-emerging in Clampett's cartoons in the late 1930s. But you do have a good point, that the "writing" in Avery's late-1930s cartoons has the kind of "street smart sarcastic humor" that did become a big part of what became known as the Warner's style.

And I also think in the early to mid 40s Chuck was very experimental with film techniques, cutting, staging, timing, production design. I don't think he was following the live action film rules.

Chuck wasn't following live action film rules exclusively, but there were many articles in film magazines back then by critics who speculated about what could be added to live action films, and these are what Chuck was following. To me, Chuck's experiments feel forced, self-conscious, and tacked-on -- like, for example, in "Hold the Lion, Please" (1942), the cross-dissolve from one scene of laughing animals to another scene of bushes moving in the same position and basic shapes as the previous animals. Many more such examples could be listed. I do love the abstract backgrounds that Jones sometimes experimented with, such as those in "The Aristo Cat" (1943). About the only original animation style that first appeared in a Jones cartoon was the abrupt "smears", which most people associate with "The Dover Boys" (1942), but even that was the invention of animator Robert Cannon. By contrast, the innovations by Bob Clampett feel (to me) more natural, intuitive, organic, holistic -- they seem to originate from inside the characters, as a natural expression of those characters' emotions, as if the intensity of their emotions affect all of nature around them.

My theory on Friz was that he just wanted to do what was already established by others. A milder version of it.

Mike Fontanelli and I watched piles of Looney Tunes from 1930 Boskos through to 1935 when Tex got there and what I noticed was that during that period the cartoons actually devolved! They got less funny, less imaginative and less cartoony. By thinking they were imitating Disney, they were devolving while Disney evolved.

I agree totally.

Wasn't Friz pretty much gone while the Warner's style emerged in the late 30s? When he came back he even made a cartoon about it. "You Ought To Be In Pictures" which to me is his best film because it's about how he really passionately felt. He's the sensible reliable Porky and Bob is the crazy uncontrolled Daffy who turns the studio upside down while Porky (Friz) is away.

To me, the style that Friz had established at Warners by the time he left to go to MGM was exactly the style that Clampett (and Avery, in his "writing") was trying to break away from. I get sick in my stomach every time I read that Friz, or one of his fans, try to claim that Friz was one of the founders of Termite Terrrace.

A lot of people think that all Warner's cartoons were done at Termite Terrace. Bob told me once that "Friz wouldn't be caught dead in Termite Terrace."

He figured he was above them, doing the serious cartoon work while they were the cheap unit just fooling around animating nonsense.


Next- Bob's Black and White cartoons totally depart from the studio style.


Andrew said...

Fantastic article. Thanks a MILLION.

Kent B said...

Wow! There's so much "untold history" here. Thanks for publishing this story. Maybe this will help Bob get more of the recognition he deserves.

litlgrey said...

This is a truly excellent post that offers both historical perspective and a lot of top-notch, educated speculation.

As much as I adore Avery for his contributions, his a) racism makes me cringe, and 2) both his endless, harrowing, witless travelogues and MOST of his parodies of Pete Smith Specialties are so desperately unfunny that they turn my insides to brown liquid. There's about two of the "...of Tomorrow" series completed after 1950 that I don't mind, because by then Avery and his crew were in full swing.

As regards Clampett and Avery, it might be safe to say that they had a sense of healthy competition, to see who could go further out. Without question, at Warner's the winner was Clampett. Once Schlesinger was out of the picture and Avery was gone from the studio, I think they moved in such different directions that it's hard to compare their work. Beyond Droopy Dog, Avery never had a breakout character again... well maybe Chilly Willy, if you're desperate.

Now as we examine Avery's earliest offerings in the Director's chair, we find hints of what would become his later stamp - he was the master of the one-shot novelty picture. You see it in his tribute to John Held, Jr., "Calling Miss Glory" (most likely a triumph of style over substance), and of course, in what may his ultimate - and rightly beloved - opening salvo of rebellion, "I Want to Singa."

If one examines the Merrie Melodies of Freleng from 1934-35, one sees the horrific Disney/Harman-Ising (and Kansas City itself?) stamp of what Rod Serling would later call Glorious Conformity. Compared to this, the fact that Avery's "Owl Jolson" does NOT relent of his rebelliousness (and is eventually supported by his father once he sees a cash cow threatening to vanish) is a monumental breath of fresh air, and an early hint of the attitude to follow from Termite Terrace.

Ohhh, Billy Bletcher... I should build a statue to you, man. Seriously.

Kali Fontecchio said...

This was a fun read- thanks Milt and John!

Charlie J. said...

I'm really glad you're continuing the clampett thing! Thanks a ton both of you!

by the way, have you ever seen a cartoon called "Pettin' in the Park"? It was Bob's first screen credit, but I think he did more than just animation on it. The first part is a typical merrie melody song thing, but the second half is this really cartoony part about all these rubber hose ducks racing each other. Also, the credited film director was Bernard Brown, the music director, so I think Bob may have been the real brains behind it.

He also re-used the duck gags in some cartoons a few years later.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Niiiiice!!!!! A terrific article Milt, and the illustrations and added commentary by John make it really fun to read! !

Ryan Cole said...

"The innovations by Bob Clampett feel (to me) more natural, intuitive, organic, holistic -- they seem to originate from inside the characters, as a natural expression of those characters' emotions, as if the intensity of their emotions affect all of nature around them."

I know this is a very common principle and every serious animator should know it, but I was wowed by the kind of clarity in the way Milt spells it out. That when a character's in the spotlight, everything he/she feels, does, acts, everything he/she is, is now the center of the universe for however long it takes.

Chip Butty said...

Holy shit, "A Day At The Zoo," I haven't seen that travelogue since I was an infant and I can see the Clampett touch now! I totally didn't get the pink elephants or "bread n' butter" gags, either

JohnK said...

I don't think Clampett had anything to do with "A Day At The Zoo".

That seems totally Avery to me.Clampett was already directing his own cartoons then.

PCUnfunny said...

Yeah that was only Avery. On that subject though, Clampett did finish Crazy Cruise when Avery left Warners.

DrSpecter said...

Avery's first few years at MGM were pretty incredible, but he was constantly recycling gags and tended to be pretty hit-and-miss.

Clampett's Warners career just seems more cohesive. He had this really special blend of the crackpot and the genius that defines "cartoony" to me. His later Warners cartoons are a really stunning body of work!

diego cumplido said...

GREAT. I can't get tired of Clampett. I heard once that Joe Dante was going to make a movie about the termite terrace, about the similarities between the animators and their cartoon characters. Anyway, most of Dante's movies suck, he's not such a great filmmaker, so maybe is a good thing that this movie wasn't done. But the project is interesting anyway. God, I hate Chuck Jones.

patchwork said...

yes, I love reading anything and everything I can about Mr. Clampett

John A said...

Well Diego, it's probably just as well he didn't. He was such a close friend of Jones's, it's no mystery who would have been the most prominent figure in the movie.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

I fucking KNEW it! Chuck hated Bob, and Friz is the one to say so!

Man, if I weren't at work, this article would be my afternoon!

To be continued....

Thanks a ton John and Milt!

- trevor.

Robert said...

I always thought it was weird how alcohol (here, via the pink elephants bit) was portrayed as some wildly hallucinogenic drug in old movies and cartoons.

And one drink would give you incessant hiccups!

I can't figure out the mindset on that. Maybe the fiction was created so all non-drinkers could feel superior and all the regular drunks who weren't seeing things or hiccuping could pretend they were somehow moderate.

Barbara said...

Finally--I haven't been able to get on here for days because your site keeps freezing up when I try to get to it...this place is too fat! Doesn't seem like anyone else has this problem, though...

Marc Deckter said...

Great read! Thanks for the great post Milt and John.

That "Lady Play Your Mandolin" cartoon is really fun - the gorilla waiter walk is hilarious, as well as all the drunk horse scenes. I wonder which scenes Clampett animated?

Bugs said...

What I remember most about Bob was he kept trying to put me in a dress. I mean, once per picture was fine with me, but Bob kept saying, "No, keep the dress, lose the carrot." By '43, he had me wrapping my bra around Porky's head. The guy was nuts -- but in a good way.


paul etcheverry said...

Milt - Any chance you'll put out an e-book of your writing and interviews? I'll buy it.

And John, mucho thanks for posting this and adding your commentary.

Tex, Tashlin and Clampett saved Warners. They established the groundwork that allowed everything that followed to happen.

akira said...

oh man i LOVE these historical posts! and it's VERY interesting to have a debate about it instead of reading one guy's viewpoint and suspect it may be biased.

thanks so much!