Saturday, February 02, 2008

WB Cartoons Devolve Steadily Before They Rebel

Animator and historian Milt Gray has written an article about what he feels are Bob Clampett's contributions to the Warner Bros. style.

This post is just to give some background context to get a feel for what was happening at Warner Bros. cartoons in the early days.

The very first Looney Tunes by Harman and Ising were really cartoony.

The characters looked cartoony, had big expressive eyes and did crazy impossible things.

After about 8 of them they quickly decline and get blander and more on model, less cartoony.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

If you watch the first 8 or so cartoons of Bosko you can find everything you would imagine a bunch of cartoonists would want to animate, including dirty jokes.

"Even with their limitations, these are frequently surprising and frisky cartoons. In "Bosko's Holiday" (1931), for example, Bosko whispers something (naughty?) in Honey's ear. She becomes indignant. As she turns her back and tilts up her nose, a little dog slips forward and licks her bottom. Now angry, Honey turns around and smacks Bosko (as if he would lick her bottom!). These cartoons could also be shockingly violent: in "Bosko's Store" (1931), a mischievous baby cat grabs a strand of barbed wire and pulls it between Bosko's legs -- making Bosko wince as his crotch is ripped to shreds."


Mike Fontanelli and I watched a pile of the first five years of Warner cartoons one night in chronological order and what became clear was the cartoons actually showed a steady decline in fun, design, cartooniness and humor.
Buddy prepares to croon.


I remember when I was in elementary school, I would race home every day at lunch to watch "Cartoon Carnival" which was a mixed bag of syndicated cartoons from the 30s and 40s.

They would run 3 cartoons for a half hour and usually I was pretty satisfied with my peanut butter sandwich and Woody Woodpecker and Daffy Duck cartoons. I knew these were older cartoons than the ones that ran in network cartoon shows. The prints were faded, scratched and full of splices ; even so, I loved the bouncy zany animation and great characters...BUT! There were 2 kinds of old cartoons that made me mad!

1) Animal Orchestra Antics: Any cartoon that had zany cartoon animals playing in an orchestra and knocking the toupees off each other with trombones infuriated me!

2) Things Coming To Life At Night Cartoons: These drove me nuts too. The ones where the old man would close up shop at night and head down to the graveyard and everything would come to life in the store. Salt shakers fell in love with toilet bowl cakes and then the evil potato peeler would chase them and try to rape the little blue virgin cake. Aaargh!

Whenever they ran one of these 2 types of cartoons in the middle of my sacred half hour cartoon lunch , I felt violated. Cheated out of my respite from education!

Here's one that made me wanna gouge my eyes out. I couldn't figure out why any real cartoonists would want to make stuff like this. Can you imagine stubbly men in suspenders, chewing on cigar stubs grinding out stuff like this? It happened a lot!


If you watch the early WB cartoons you will probably notice that same decline in fun and cartooniness...and in just plain appealing design! The cartoons get more and more conservative.

It sure doesn't give any indication that Warner Bros. will be a studio that rebels against Disney to create a whole new cartoony style that knocks Disney off its throne.

It's as if they made their first cartoons naturally - throw a bunch of funny cartoonists in a room to come up with gags, characters and stories and they did it with no thought as to what should a cartoon be. They assumed cartoons should be funny and magic. How naive!

But as Disney became popular, other studios started imitating what they thought Disney was doing. But as happens in almost all trends, the imitators imitate the worst parts of what is popular.

WB (and other studios too) copied the bland stories of Disney, the bland character designs and the less impossible gags. Disney was evolving in techniques, but Warners didn't have the budgets to copy the higher production values and more skilled animation that Disney was doing.

So as Disney evolved in one direction during the early 30s, Warner's was devolving in every direction.

Anyway, don't take my word for it. Watch the cartoons in order and see if you have a different observation.

Tex Avery showed up in 1935 and started a new unit with Bob Clampett, but you didn't see much change starting until 1936.

"I love to Singa" is much like Freleng's "My Green Fedora" but has a smarter edgier sarcasm to it. Same animators, same kind of story, different director.

Frank Tashlin also appears and starts making funny clever cartoons.

Bonus: Here's an early example of great off-model licensing art.

Keep posted for Milt's Clampett article comin' up...