By Scott Ross
Friz Freleng employed two of Looney Tunes’ finest animators in his unit: Gerry Chiniquy and Virgil Ross. Much of the elegance of Freleng’s best vintage shorts stems from these two masters.
Virgil Ross, left, going over a Tweety and Sylvester storyboard with Freleng.
Bugs explains his origins to “Lolly” Parsons in A Hare Grows in Manhattan (1947)
A Hare Grows in Manhattan. Bugs is singing his inimitable version of “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady,” complete with tap-clicks. When there was dance in a Freleng short, it was usually Gerry Chiniquy’s work.
Freleng created the lisping cat Sylvester and Bob Clampett an embryonic, squab version of Tweety, but it was only when Clampett left the studio that Freleng had the inspired notion of pairing them. The result was a series of visual gag cartoons that are among the funniest, and most inspired, in the Warner canon. This is the first of them, 1947’s Tweetie Pie.
Tex Avery and Bob Clampett each tried his hand at a Bugs Bunny “Tortoise and the Hare” short. This is Freleng’s attempt, the 1947 Rabbit Transit.
Coals to New Castle? Perhaps. Bugs in the only human persona he could reasonably inhabit, as Groucho Marx in Freleng’s superb Slick Hare from 1947.
Slick Hare: Bugs’ guitar solo and samba, another piece of brilliance by Gerry Chiniquy, ranks among the greatest bits of elegant character animation in all of American cartoons.
Freleng with his layout man Hawley Pratt. Freleng liked to say of Pratt’s best work that “He took what I gave him, and plussed it.”
As we shall see, 1948 was an awfully good year for Freleng. Buccaneer Bunny is one of his most inventive, and hilarious, Bugs vs. Yosemite Sam shorts. Here, Bugs as-Laughton-as-Bligh, dresses down “Mr. Christian.”
At the climax of Buccaneer Bunny, that “crazy doggone idjit” of a rabbit tosses a lit match into a ship’s hold stuffed with gunpowder. (“Whatcha trying to do, blow us to smithereenies?”) Sam blows it out. Bugs throws a second. Sam retrieves it, then rebels: “If’n ya does that jest once more, I ain’t a-goin’ after it!”
Sam, desperately trying for nonchalance as the third match burns…
The inevitable result…
Kit for Kat (1948) Sylvester attempts to lure his rival for Elmer’s affections into committing mayhem. Need I add that this backfires spectacularly?
Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948.) Virgil Ross at work: Bugs dances. Sam “takes it” from Bugs… and gets shafted.
Back Alley Oproar, another concert music-inspired 1948 masterpiece. Sylvester “serenades” Elmer Fudd, with cataclysmic results.
Above and below: A pair of beautifully prototypical Freleng “Tweety” gags.
Bad Ol’ Putty Tat (1949). The opening is a variation on Clampett’s aggressive gags in the first unofficial “Tweety” cartoon, A Tale of Two Kitties (1942.) The climax is pure Freleng: Tweety, inside a smug Sylvester’s head, runs him like an out-of-control locomotive. The gag builds and builds, in the patented Freleng style, turning what had been just a clever, funny short into a minor masterpiece.
Tweety’s immortal, baby-talk phrase was a cleaned-up version of something Clampett wrote on his first sketch of the birdie: “I tawt I taw a titty-tat!”
Freleng designed and directed the charming “Get Ready, Freddy” number for the Doris Day-Jack Carson musical My Dream is Yours in 1949. Harry Warren wrote the melody. Ralph Blaine and Mel Blanc penned the lyrics. Tweety makes a cameo appearance.
Dough for the Do-Do. A 1949 color re-make of Bob Clampett’s stunning black-and-white opus, Porky in Wackyland. Clampett began the job, but left Warners before he’d finished; Freleng completed it.
Here, a comparison of cels from the two shorts. I prefer Clampett’s unbridled black-and-white surrealism, myself.
High-Diving Hare (1949.) Friz Freleng and his writer, Tedd Pierce, wring change after hilarious change on a single, one-joke set-up: Bugs, forced by Sam to to do a high-dive. As brilliant and gut-busting in its own way as anything Chaplin or Keaton ever did. Of Sam’s numerous (and increasingly funny) falls, depicted in a single, static shot half-way up the diving board ladder, Freleng later said he didn’t know how he had the nerve to do it.
Curtain Razor (1949) posits Porky as a theatrical agent auditioning prospective clients, including a wolf with a sure-fire routine that presages the climax of Freleng’s own, later, Show Biz Bugs.
Big House Bunny (1950): Prison guard Sam hasn’t got a chance.
The finale of Freleng’s Bunker Hill Bunny (1950): The funniest joke in the entire cartoon may just be the very notion of all-American Yosemite Sam as a Hessian mercenary.
Golden Yeggs (1950) Daffy tangles with a new Freleng character: Rocky, the hilariously diminutive gangster. Freleng clearly relished satirizing his own small stature.
1950’s Canary Row, one of the funniest of the Tweety and Sylvester shorts. Granny (voiced by the great Bea Benaderet) one-ups our determined putty tat.
A superb piece of gag motion-animation from Canned Feud (1951) Left behind on the family’s vacation, Sylvester battles a vindictive mouse for control of a desperately-needed can opener.
Ballot Box Bunny (1951): Sam and an especially well-drawn Bugs woo the voters.
Ballot Box Bunny. Sam falls for his own I’ll-play-one-sour-note-so-you’ll-be-forced-to-hit-the-key-the-TNT-is-wired to, “Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms”-routine.
Ballot Box Bunny: After the “dark horse” candidate is elected “mare,” there’s only one things left to do. Sam hits an empty chamber and passes the gun to Bugs…
… who does exactly what you’d expect.
Putty Tat Trouble, a 1951 Freleng masterpiece chock-full of hilarious visual gags. Here, Tweety meets a strangely silent friend. Their tandem dipping, beautifully animated (and perfectly scored by Carl Stalling) is a moment of quiet joy amid the usual tumult.
Snow Business (1953) Granny’s left her cabin to get food; her pets are snowed-in. But all she’s left them is… bird seed.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross