Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Milt Gray On Clampett's Black and White Cartoons


In case someone wonders what I am referring to as Clampett’s “successes” in his black-and-white cartoons, I thought I might identify some of them here.

I was thinking primarily of the use of expressive animation (movement) to express a spirit of cartoon zaniness, and zany characters. Nothing like Clampett’s version of that had ever existed in any prior Warner cartoons (except in Clampett’s own animation of Daffy Duck in Avery’s “Porky’s Duck Hunt” 1937). To audiences today, being so familiar with the zany animation in so many different directors’ cartoons of the 1940s, it is easy to overlook how unusual it was in the late 1930s in Clampett’s low budget black-and-white cartoons.

Clampett Revived Early Film Creative Spirit As Animation was Drifting Towards “realism”

Back in the silent era it was routine for outlandish, impossible things to happen, even though those things usually had a dull, heavy-handed feel to them. In the early sound era, it was mainly the Fleischer studio that gave more of a spirited feel to “impossible” gags, although those generally had more of a nightmarish feeling to them. By the mid-1930s, the studios were generally following Disney’s influence in being much more realistic and literal.

From about the mid-1930s on, it was almost only at Disney’s that an effort was made to make the animation (movement) itself expressive, such as the actions of the drunk mouse in “The Country Cousin” (1936), and Goofy’s walks.

Clampett Revived Early Film Creative Spirit As Animation was Drifting Towards “realism”

The 1930s Fleischer studio did develop some eccentric walks for their Popeye cartoons,


and at Warners, Frank Tashlin invented a kind of rolling waddle-strut for his rotund version of Porky Pig, as when Porky struts confidently to Petunia’s house, or the cocky strut of the look-alike pig bank robber in “Porky’s Double Trouble” (1937). But for the most part, at the non-Disney studios in the mid-to-late-1930s, animation had become simply literal walks and runs, with no more expression of personality in the movement than that of amateur actors in a school play. (There are of course many instances of characters running around super fast in the Warner cartoons of the 1930s, but I don’t regard that as zany so much as just greatly speeded up.)

Clampett Brought Zany Movement And Expressive Animation To Warner’s

At Warners in the late 1930s, it is mainly in Clampett’s cartoons that expressive animation and zany characters appear -- and only occasionally, since Clampett was burdened with the tiniest budgets and the most beginner animators. Porky and DaffyIn fact, I would have to say that it is all the more remarkable that these things happened in Clampett’s cartoons at all, given the limitations of Clampett’s crew.



Inside Out Garage

So, specifically, what am I referring to? Here’s some examples: In almost the opening scene of Clampett’s first cartoon, “Porky’s Badtime Story” (1937), even though Clampett did not write that cartoon himself, he depicted Porky’s garage being ripped inside-out in a snappy, very rubbery action when Porky’s car roars out.

Compare that to the same gag in Tashlin’s “Porky’s Railroad”, made and released at the same time.

In Railroad, during a train race, the fast train goes through a tunnel, which looks like a tunnel commonly seen on toy train tracks, thereby closely resembling a stand-alone building like Porky’s garage, and that tunnel is pulled inside-out by the great speed of the train -- but in the most literal, unimaginative way.

This is typical of the differences I’m trying to point out between Clampett’s occasionally inspired moments and the conspicuous lack of such moments in practically all of the other 1930s Warner cartoons.

Goofy Clampett Dogs

In Clampett’s second cartoon, “Get Rich Quick Porky” (1937), is a very goofy-acting dog who typifies the kind of characters that Clampett later excelled in. Bits and pieces of this kind of thing continue to appear here and there in Clampett’s next few cartoons.

Injun Trouble

Moving down to Clampett’s eighth cartoon, “Injun Trouble” (1938), there is a very striking example -- a totally zany hillbilly kind of character who acts and moves almost identically to Scribner’s expert animation of the same character in the 1945 remake, “Wagon Heels”.

Porky’s Party

Clampett’s ninth cartoon, “Porky’s Party” (1938), has remarkable extended animation of a silly drunk dog (probably animated by Chuck Jones), and even zanier animation (probably not by Chuck) of a character called Loosey Goosey (especially in his introductory scene, coming in the front door).

Turning Point: Wackyland

The next two cartoons, “Porky and Daffy” and

“Porky in Wackyland” (1938), are to me amazing (for their time) in the intensity of their comic business. The next cartoon, “Porky’s Naughty Nephew” (1938), has very excellent character personality acting -- not particularly by 1940s standards, but compared to almost anything else at Warners in 1938.

This walk that Porky's nephew does is hilarious and highly skilled. It's a caricature of sickly sweet Disney cuteness and makes the story even funnier. Clampett, more than any other director tailored the animation in his cartoons, to not merely be professional and smooth but to emphasize the story points and make each bit as entertaining as can be. - JK

Porky In Egypt

Now we come to some real breakout cartoons. “Porky in Egypt” (1938) is hilarious, in gags and execution, with the hysterical camel going completely crazy in the desert heat.
This scene is particularly funny, not because it's "zany" but because it is so realistic in such a crazy cartoon. You would never expect this kind of thing in a cartoon, which makes Clampett such a unique character - jk

Porky’s Tire Trouble

And just a couple titles later, “Porky’s Tire Trouble” (1939), is another masterpiece (for its day), with the crazy antics of a dog gone all rubbery (having swallowed too much “rubberizing solution” in a tire factory).

And this just brings us up to early 1939; other highlights beyond include “Africa Squeaks” (1940), “A Coy Decoy” (1941), “We the Animals Squeak” (1941) and “The Henpecked Duck” (1941).
Cartoons are Up and Down

Admittedly there are some misfires here and there in between the winners. I am not enthusiastic about all of Clampett’s black-and-white cartoons -- too often the animation is quite poor -- but as I’ve already stated, he had only the beginner animators -- and too often the business and gags are very pedestrian -- but as Clampett himself admitted, “How could I do much else, when I didn’t have animators that were capable of better acting?” But once Clampett was given a color unit with better animators, no excuses were necessary -- his cartoons set an all-time high average.


John’s Response

Hi Milt

I don't disagree with all the points you made about the black and white cartoons in your article, but I think it leaves out many of the less obvious skills and innovations he had.

Your article, if I remember right, focused on how zany the animation is, and I don't think anyone needs to be convinced of that. "Zany" is all any of the critics will give Clampett.

What I think is less understood by animation fans and writers is how important his contributions to the characters, stories, acting and what is very hard to define or explain - the sheer character magnetism and screen presence his characters instantly have.

In no one else's cartoons at that time (excluding maybe the Fleischer Popeyes) does anyone have characters that seem motivated from within. While Tashlin and Avery contributed their own innovations to the Warner's style, it seemed completely up to Clampett to make the characters seem alive, motivated and charismatic.

Porky, in both Avery and Tashlin's cartoons is just this animated thing that shit happens to. You don't care about him at all. He's merely the focus of the story. In Clampett's cartoons the characters cause the story and what happens always seems spontaneous and immediate - and as a result, unpredictable. It is happening now, unplanned by a tyrannical director who merely needs characters to plug into his plot and gag structure. Clampett's unique talent is to make it appear that you are watching something in real time; animation that is shot live.

He was also handicapped in this by having been forced to star Porky in every single cartoon. He did the best Porky, but Porky is basically a straight man, so Clampett had to create tons of other characters who could carry more comedy. There are some cartoons that star Porky only in name, because he got tired of ONLY directing Porky cartoons and wanted to try something different. But my point is, that only in his cartoons at the time did any of the characters seem like they were causing the action, rather than the writer and director causing the action and just plopping any old characters into the storyline.

It would take some more careful study of the cartoons to find words to describe what techniques he is using to make this happen, but I think that is something even more astonishing than how zany his cartoons are. Everyone assumes being zany is easy and irresponsible. I don't know why they think that. I think your article does a lot to show that being successfully zany is an amazing skill in itself, and we need that.

One point you made I do disagree with. You said much of the animation is primitive. Maybe you are talking more about the drawings, not the motion. To me the motion in his early cartoons is amazing and full of innovation and impulsive inventions. It's non-stop innovation.

Many animators were looking for rules and formulas at the time, and Clampett had the sheer creative talent and fortitude to ignore all that and just make a ton of stuff up like a custom tailor. No pre-set pattern. he would invent an action out of nowhere that just totally suited the needs of the gag, characterization or scene.

I wish to God I had animators like that today to work with. I could provide the drawings and ideas. All I want is that beautiful motion and sense of comedy those guys had.

Clampett also did some of the first real "stories" - the kind Mike Barrier and his ilk love to praise. The ones with a clear clean beginning, middle and end. "Rover's Rival" is one of those. It's a crazy cartoon, has all the earmarks of a Clampett cartoon, zaniness, great personality, beautiful animation and it has a totally crisp tight story with a morally satisfactory conclusion. It should be at the top of Barrier's and Solomon's perfect cartoon list.

I could go on forever about Bob! But when I make these kinds of statements, I feel more comfortable when I have the evidence in scene clips and stills to back them up, because so many people are prejudiced against Clampett and only want to give him "zany" as his one natural talent.