By Scott Ross
As with Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng’s draftstmanship declined as the 1950s went along. Some of this was doubtless economic (shrinking budgets), some perhaps the dolorous influence of UPA. But if his cartoons attained a flatter, less beautiful, aspect, his gag and timing senses remained sharp.
In the ’50s, Freleng resurrected Frank Tashlin’s Goofy Gophers, the Alphonse and Gaston of garden pests. This is their best short, I Gopher You (1954). It’s the one set in a canned goods factory that features Carl Stalling’s use of the Raymond Scott “Powerhouse.”
Tweety’s S.O.S. ( 1951): The actual ship on the waves doesn’t bother Sylvester, but a drawing of it, maneuvered up and down and from side to side, makes him sick.
Rocky returns, this time with Bugs: Bugs and Thugs (1954)
Speedy Gonzales (1955): Robert McKimson created the Mexican mouse for Cat-Tails for Two; Freleng added the sombrero. Speedy is a bit annoying — Freleng himself disliked him — but the best visual gags in this early short featuring Sylvester are blissful.
Rabbitson Crusoe (1957): Freleng’s running gag with Sam and a lurking shark gets funnier and funnier as the short goes on.
The Three Little Bops (1957) is one of Freleng’s finest shorts. Narrated (and voiced) by Stan Freberg and featuring Shorty Rogers on the horn, it’s one of the few jazz-related cartoons that still holds up. “I wish my brother George was here.”
Show Biz Bugs (1957): Freleng’s ultimate show-biz satire, in which Bugs is elevated to over-the-title stardom while Daffy is relegated to the toilet. Literally. (“There can only be one explanation for white tile in a dressing room!”)
Above and below: Some terrific cartoon hoofing by Hawley Pratt.
Knighty Knight Bugs (1958): None of the Looney Tunes animators won Oscars for their best work. Typically, it was this one that captured the Academy’s heart. It’s a funny short, and the dragon is endearing. But it’s far from as good as Freleng got.
Apes of Wrath, a 1959 variation on Robert McKimson’s 1947 Bugs Bunny short Gorilla My Dreams. “Papa” has just discovered that the bundle of joy smacking him with a baseball bat was an erroneous delivery by the stork.
Hyde and Go Tweet (1960) is a very funny Jekyll-and-Hyde parody.
The Last Hungry Cat (1961) is a sly parody of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, complete with silhouetted Hictchcockian narrator. Here, Sylvester attempts to calm his guilty nerves.
A Laughton stand-in graces Freleng’s Shishkabugs (1962), in which the monarch demands “hossenfeffer,” otherwise known as rabbit.
When Warners closed the animation studio in 1963, Freleng took up with his associate, the producer David DePatie. Their first great break was the job of designing the main titles for Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther in 1964.
The Pink Phink (1964) was one of the few Panther cartoon directed by co-producer Freleng — Hawley Pratt helmed the majority — and it’s a beaut. The premise is simplicity itself: A painter swathes everything in blue paint. The panther switches it to blue. But the UPA-like design, and the ingenuity of the gags, mark the short as an endlessly inventive set of comic variations.
What was I saying about Freleng not winning Oscars for his best work? Mea culpa.
The distinctive design of the nameless little everyman who will be the Panther’s eternal antagonist may owe something to the mustached Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther film and its sequel, A Shot in the Dark, for which DePatie-Freleng also created the title sequence.
In the subsequent DePatie-Freleng series, The Inspector, the character design is even more pointedly Sellersian. The unit gave him a phlegmatic assistant, the curiously-named Deux-Duex (the moniker actually belongs to a female character in A Shot in the Dark,called “Dudu” in that film): His surname is French but his voice and physiognomy — in as much as he seems to be a caricature of Pablo Picasso — are clearly Spanish. Pat Harrington, Jr., provided the voices for both.
Freleng’s partnership with DePatie gave him a much-needed creative outlet. Here, the elegant title card for all the Pink Panther shorts:
The Ant and the Aardvark (1969) heralded a new series, the first of which was directed by Freleng. John Byner’s voice-over for the Ant was a Dean Martin sound-alike, while the Aardvark was based on Jackie Mason. Which I guess makes him arguably the first Jewish cartoon star.
Friz Freleng died in 1995, leaving behind a priceless legacy of brilliant shorts, and the unalloyed affection of several generations of animation fans. (Although Michael Barrier, author of the magnificent history Hollywood Cartoons, does not seem to be among them.)
“The key to cartoons is creating characters people like and are comfortable with, characters with their own personalities. That’s why Sylvester and Tweety were so popular and why Porky Pig was so beloved. I always tell people that Bugs Bunny is not a cartoon. He is a tall rabbit who lives somewhere in California whom I sometimes draw pictures of. He is as real a person as a real person.” — Friz Freleng, 1991
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross