As real a person as a real person: Isadore “Friz” Freleng (Part Three)

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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.

“Southern Fried Rabbit” (1953): Scarlet O’Hara, eat your heart out.

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.

The finale of “Tweety’s S.O.S.”

Rocky returns, this time with Bugs: Bugs and Thugs (1954)

“Roman Legion Hare” (1955)” One of Freleng’s most polished series of gags involves Sam and a den of lions.

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.

“Hare Brush,” a 1955 variation on “The Hare-Brained Hypnotist.”

“Pizzicato Pussycat “(1955): Another concert-music gem.

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.

Daffy’s “killer” finale.

“Birds Anonymous” (1957): The adenoidal “B.A.” cat (who sounds somewhat like Marvin the Martian) attempts to dissuade Sylvester from his carnivorous state.

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.

What does a 200-pound canary eat? Anything it wants.

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.

“The Unmentionables”: In this 1963 television take-off, Bugs cuts a rug as a slightly anachronistic flapper.

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.

Freleng’s splendid main title sequence for “The Pink Panther,” which launched a very successful series of theatrical (and, later, television) shorts.

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.

Publicity for the Panther’s first solo short.

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.

“A Shot in the Dark” main title sequence. Jerry Beck, who literally wrote the book on the Panther series notes, “The titles were boarded and designed by John Dunn and the animation production was farmed out to George Dunning’s studio.”

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.

A Freleng self-caricature as cranky producer.

Freleng’s partnership with DePatie gave him a much-needed creative outlet. Here, the elegant title card for all the Pink Panther shorts:

Two significant cartoon stars duke it out in this Freleng sketch from 1974.

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.

Two masters of their art at MOMA in 1985: Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng.

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

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Plussing It: Isadore “Friz” Freleng (Part Two)

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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 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, bu 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 blow 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.

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 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

A flurry of sounds, a flurry of drawings: Isadore “Friz” Freleng (Part One)

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By Scott Ross

In his memoir Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones wrote: “Friz is a musician as well as an excellent draftsman, and it is not surprising that many of his films are a disarming and intricate web of music (a flurry of sounds) and animation (a flurry of drawings). No student of animation can safely ignore the wizardry of these cartoons — if he can stop laughing long enough to seriously study their beauty.”

Freleng in the 1980s.

Freleng’s best work is distinguished less by originality than by the strong, often elegant graphic style of the characters, an impulse to send up show biz tropes, and gag and timing senses second to no one in animation. Many of Freleng’s masterpieces play without a word of dialogue, and many of the rest could have.

Freleng worked, briefly, at the Disney studios. An old Kansas City hand, he joined Disney in 1927. He and his old colleagues Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising, left to form their own studio, which produced the early Bosko cartoons distributed by Warner Bros.

Here, the Disney staff poses with Margie Gay, the star of its “Alice in Wonderland” shorts after the studio relocated to California. The next tallest person in the photo is Friz.

Both Harmon and Ising were contemptuous of Disney, but never, as far as I can determine, produced a single short that has any real lasting appeal, and very few that contain enough interest to even make them less than a waste of your time. Their first, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, was a sort of test-reel a la the Flesichers, with Ising at the drawing board and the team’s obnoxious new star coming, as it were, out of the inkwell. There seems to be some confusion about whether Bosko was intended as a Mickey Mouse knock-off or a little black boy, but his voice (at least in this short) clearly marks him as a racial caricature — one, furthermore, with a near total lack of charm.

Be that as it may, Harmon-Ising’s eventual distribution contract for Bosko at least got Freleng, who was part of the team, to Warners. I don’t know who animated which sequence in the test, but Bosko’s bit with a piano may, given Friz’s love for music, and his ingenuity with it, provide a clue.

A Freleng Christmas card from the 1930s.

I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935) The first appearance of Porky Pig. Warners badly wanted an animated studio mascot to rival Mickey. The character was designed by Freleng, and named for a childhood friend. The studio preferred his sidekick, Beans, but Tex Avery disagreed, and Porky was soon Warners’ first cartoon star.

I Haven’t Got a Hat. Porky’s original voice was provided by Joe Dougherty, a Warners extra who stuttered; his impediment eventually became so pronounced that Freleng sought an actor who could pretend to stutter. Mel Blanc, who started his tenure a year after Porky’s debut, proved the perfect solution. Before Blanc, the character’s stuttering felt uncomfortably real, and could even seem a little cruel; after Blanc, it was fully integrated into the comedy.

“The CooCoo Nut Grove”: A 1936 Freleng send-up of Hollywood personalities including a porcine W.C Fields and an all-too-accurately equine Katharine Hepburn.

During the silent-era, combining live action and animation was a surprisingly common occurrence: Max Fleischer often cavorted with Koko the Klown, and in his Kansas City days, Walt Disney’s Alice shorts featured a live girl interacting with animated characters. The technique had waned after sound came in. With You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940) Freleng brought it back with style and verve.

Side-note: Leon Schleshinger, the Warners animation honcho, had a plosive lisp (which, among other things, inspired both Daffy Duck and Sylvester.) An actor dubbed Schleshinger’s voice for his scenes; he was delighted with the result.

Side-note the second: Freleng, who had briefly decamped for MGM, may have made the short as a thank-you to Schleshinger for taking him back. He is also said to have based its central Porky Pig/Daffy Duck rivalry on the antagonistic relationship between his fellow animation directors, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, with Porky as a stand-in for Jones.

Side-note the third: The studio director whose take Porky spoils is Gerry Chiniquy, one of Freleng’s finest animators.

The Tex Avery Influence: “The Trial of Mr. Wolf” (1941) In which the accused attempts to re-cast himself as the victim.

“The Wacky Worm” (1941) stars a caricature version of the then-popular radio comedian Jerry Colonna. The title of the worm’s second Freleng short, 1943’s “Greetings, Bait” was a pun on Colonna’s trademark, “Greetings, Gate!” One can only imagine with what puzzlement children today regard things like this.

Chuck Jones: “Actually, shooting motion pictures, including animation, and performing music are very similar indeed — one, impinging a successive series of varied sounds on the ear; the other, impinging a successive series of varied sights on the eyes. It is no coincidence then, it is just plain good sense, that Friz Freleng set down the timing of his films on musical bar sheets.”

Rhapsody in Rivets (1941) is one of Freleng’s first great shorts inspired by concert music. Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody performed by a crew constructing a high-rise building. Brilliant timing.

The Hardship of Miles Standish (1940) I searched in vain for a cel from this very funny short, in which Elmer Fudd is John Alden, a Hugh Herbert caricature is Standish, and an ersatz Edna May Oliver is Priscilla.

Best moment: A cross-eyed Indian whacks his compatriot over the noggin with his tomahawk. To an instantly recognizable waaaah-wah-wahwahwahwah horn solo on the soundtrack, the injured warrior clearly mouths the phrase, “Goddamn son of a bitch!”

In The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942), an early Freleng rabbit short, Bugs gets more than he bargains for when he puts Elmer Fudd under.

Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk (1943) features a giant who looks exactly like the one in Disney’s The Brave Little Tailor. Many of the gags were later appropriated (and improved upon) by Chuck Jones for his 1955 Bugs and Daffy short Beanstalk Bunny.

 

Pigs in a Polka. A beguiling 1944 short, one of Freleng’s concert-hall specialties. For some reason, this rather strange recurring dance-gag always makes me laugh.

“Little Red Riding Rabbit” (1944) A typically well-designed Freleng title-card for a Mike Maltese-written gem.

“Little Red Riding Rabbit”: Bugs outwits the wolf…

… then puts the obnoxiously adenoidal Red (“I’m bringin’ a little bunny rabbit for my grandmother… ta have, see?!”) in the wolf’s place. That’s the voice of the great Bea Benedaret as Red.

Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943) With Bugs Bunny in the ascendant, Porky was in decline. Teaming him with Daffy often made for memorable shorts. Here, Daffy corners talent agent Porky; the result is a gag-stuffed masterpiece.

Bugs Bunny meets a formidable foe in Freleng’s 1945 Hare Trigger. Bored with Elmer Fudd’s imbecility, Freleng turned what was essentially a self-caricature into one of his most endearingly dyspeptic creations.

“Hare Trigger”. Mike Maltese’s dialogue includes such double-take inducing non-sequiturs as this: “I’m Yosemite Sam, the meanest, toughest, rip-roarin’-est, Edward Everett Horton-est hombre what ever packed a six-shooter!”

A caricatured Freleng from the ‘50s. The red hair and diminutive size were not the only traits he shared in common with his greatest creation: Friz also had Yosemite Sam’s explosive temperament.

In Stage Door Cartoon (1944), Elmer chases Bugs into a vaudeville house. Caught on-stage as the curtain unexpectedly rises, Bugs manipulates the mortified Fudd into an impromptu strip-tease.

Herr Meets Hare, a war effort from 1945. Freleng’s previous anti-Axis satire, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, is brilliant, but deeply offensive. (Although it should be remembered that, during the war, even that gentle humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt publicly referred to “The Japs.”)

Chuck Jones’ later masterpiece “What’s Opera, Doc?” clearly owes something to Freleng.

Baseball Bugs, Freleng’s marvelous 1946 cartoon with the rabbit up at bat, solo, against the terrifying Gas-House Gorillas.

Baseball Bugs is, I believe, the first Bugs cartoon in which the rabbit outmaneuvers an opponent in a verbal joust by switching positions in mid-stream: The ersatz Ref begins by calling Bugs “Out,” and ends up warning him that, when he says someone is safe, they’d better not argue.

Look for this fence ad in the outfield: “Mike Maltese, Ace Detective.” The writers and animators who didn’t get official, on-screen credit often inserted themselves into the shorts this way.

Freleng’s Racketeer Rabbit (1946) featuring characters of two Warner Bros.’ mainstays, Peter Lorre and Edward G. Robinson, with Bugs as a ringer for George Raft. It also contains one of my favorite lines from a Looney Tunes short, courtesy of the great Michael Maltese: Robinson’s response to a set of curtains. (“Awww — they’re adorable!”) Guess you had to be there.

“Holiday for Shoestrings,” a charming fairy tale from 1946, includes a pair of shoemaker’s elves who resemble a certain well-known comedy team.

Rhapsody Rabbit (1946) Arguably Freleng’s most brilliant classical music-inspired short, with Bugs as a concert pianist bravely taking on one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. (Even the actual pianist was dismayed by the tempos Friz demanded.) The moment where Bugs turns to the camera and lifts his eyebrow at the audience, perfectly timed to the score, is one of the high-water marks of Looney Tunes animation. It also must have made a marked impression on Chuck Jones.

“Rhapsody Rabbit.” Ted Pierce and Mike Maltese wrote it, and Virgil Ross and Gerry Chiniquy are responsible for much of the short’s magnificent animation.

In a coincidence too pointed to be anything other than the result of intra-studio espionage, Hanna and Barbera prepared a Tom and Jerry cartoon that year that reflected Freleng’s Rhapsody Rabbit in nearly every way. Need I add that it’s nowhere near as funny?

Rhapsody Rabbit. No less a figure than James Agee wrote (in The Nation) that this cartoon was “the funniest thing I’ve seen since the decline of sociological dancing.”

“Rhapsody Rabbit.” Bugs and the mouse inside the piano engage in a delightful, impromptu burst of boogie-woogie.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity: Chuck Jones (Part Three)

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By Scott Ross

As the cost of animation began to outweigh the returns in the mid-to-late ’50s, more and more studios shut down their cartoon departments. And as the animators themselves aged and adapted to the harsher economic realities, their work suffered correspondingly. While Chuck Jones was always — and quite correctly — dismissive of what he called the “illustrated radio” school of “limited animation” for television, without a strong personality such as Michael Maltese to reign him in, his own work became more discursive, less action-oriented, more design-oriented, more labored in the drawing style — and, consequently, less funny. But that was in the future.

Wile E. in a prototypical moment.

“Robin Hood Daffy” (1957): Arguably Jones’ greatest teaming of Daffy and Porky Pig.

Key animation drawing from Robin Hood Daffy. The Disney animators often complained that too much soul was lost between art and complete product (which was why the old-timers were so thrilled when the Xerox system came in, allowing them to retain a sketchy quality to the finished movie.) When you look at something like this, you may think they had a point.

Friar Porky reacts to Daffy’s feats of derring-do.

“How jolly can ya get?”

“Shake hands with Friar Duck.” (Cue duck’s bill to flatten, upwards.)

Hare-way to the Stars (1958) In this underrated gem, Bugs matches wits with a Martian. Need I add that he’s over-armed for the contest?

Baton Bunny (1959) A brilliantly sustained pantomime, and one of the last great animated shorts of the studio era.

The title-card for High Note (1960): One of Jones’ most inventive shorts, as great in its way as the later The Dot and the Line.

Jones’ forays into feature animation were not successful. He and his wife Dorothy wrote this amiable but unexceptional 1962 UPA musical, directed by Jones’ old Warner Bros. associate Abe Levitow and featuring a pleasing score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

Images from The Dot and the Line (1965) Jones’ and his designer and co-director Maurice Noble’s superb adaptation of the Norton Juster’s jape, subtitled A romance in lower mathematics. Drolly narrated by Robert Morley, this was one Academy Award winner that actually deserved to be.

Juster’s perfect, if groan-inducing, final line.

The Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry of the early-to-mid 1960s.

After his Warner contract expired and the studio closed the animation unit, Jones was uneasily paired at MGM with Tom & Jerry. It wasn’t a pretty sight.He later said they weren’t his characters, that he “didn’t understand them” and had essentially made the pair “A cat and a mouse in road runner and coyote drag.”

Jones fared much better collaborating with his old Snafu cohort Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, on a television adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was an instant classic in 1965. It’s become a perennial.

Jones’ Grinch looked less like Seuss’ than narrator and voice-over star Boris Karloff… (Although Geisel complained that the creature resembled Jones himself.)

… And there are times he more closely resembles Jones’ Tom of Tom & Jerry.

Promo and LP cover art taken from one of Jones’ production cels.

Chuck in the late 1960s or early ’70s.

Jones’ 1969 Walt Kelly adaptation, The Pogo Special Birthday Special did not please its originator; Kelly, a former animator himself, reportedly hated it, But the character designs are true to the subject, just as Kelly’s comic-strip mode of whimsical satire certainly seemed to suit Jones.

Jones attempted an ambitious live action/animation project in adapting Norton Juster’s novel for children, The Phantom Tollbooth (Completed in 1968; unreleased until 1970.) It was not a success, commercially or artistically.

Jones directed, and co-authored the screenplay. Butch Patrick was Milo, and the voices included Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Candy Candido, Hans Conried and June Foray. The songs — which Leonard Maltin correctly terms “icky” — were perpetrated by Dean Elliott. After the retirement of the great Carl Stalling from Warner, Jones only ever had one good musical collaborator: The Broadway composer Albert Hague, who wrote the Grinch songs.

Juster said recently he avoided the movie for years. When he finally saw it, he couldn’t finish watching it. I know just how he felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horton Hears a Who: A perfectly delightful 1971 adaptation of the Dr. Seuss fable, with a charming Hans Conreid providing most of the voices.

A 1973 Chuck Jones adaptation of the great George Selden novel A Cricket in Times Square. Shortened to fit a 30-minute time-slot, it was less than ideal. Nor could Jones’ character designs rival those Gareth Williams created for the book. But Jones churned out two sequels.

Perhaps archy and mehitabel would have proven a closer match to Jones’ sensibilities?

“Drag Strip.” The many feminine faces of Bugs Bunny. Most are from Jones cartoons.

Jones and his long-time colleague Friz Freleng designed and directed the first season of the television Bugs Bunny Show. Here’s Jones’ hommage to an especially memorable Freleng duet.

A late Jones sericel based on Bully for Bugs, and celebrating one of the rabbit’s most well-remembered phrases.

Action atatomized, a la Muybridge.

Chaplin was an early Jones influence. Here he pays homage to “The Kid.”

Jones a la Dali (or vice-versa): “The Persistence of Carrots.”

Picasso in his Gray Period?

Duchamp a la Daffy: “Nude Duck Descending a Staircase.”

The ACME™ company finally comes through with something useful…

“Motivation” poster, Chuck Jones-style.

Turn-about being fair play…

Two Old Masters: Jones and Freleng. The MOMA exhibit, 1985. Wall art by Chuck Jones.

Cover art for Jones’ splendid, insightful 1990 memoir “Chuck Amuck.”

I sent Chuck Jones a fan letter, accompanied by my printed review of Chuck Amuck, and received a very nice note from his daughter, telling me that he was too busy to answer personally, was pleased with my note, and that she was enclosing a copy of Chuck Reducks, autographed — which she emphasized was not something her father did often. I cherish it beyond price.

Impossible Dream: Cover art for Jones’ second memoir.

A charming 1990s book for children, with a Ralph-like wolf and a very un-Pepe-like skunk.

C.J. by C.J.

Chuck and Bugs, mid-1990s. (Copyright © Everett Collection)

The Phil DeGuard-inspired cover of Ian Frazier’s collection of humorous essays proves once again how ubiquitous Jones’ creations have become in American culture; no explanation was necessary for anyone to get the joke.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man. Chuck Jones, 1999.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

So many innn-teresting people: Chuck Jones (Part Two)

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By Scott Ross

It’s difficult to think of another director of animation who had a greater period than Chuck Jones between 1948 and 1957, when he produced one great cartoon short after another, even as the medium in which he worked was, essentially, dying.

Although it has forever ruined the Rossini overture for me (and, presumably, for countless others) The Rabbit of Seville (1949) is one of a large handful of peerless animated masterpieces. The timing and sheer compression of the gags, the respectful but free-form use of the music, and the spectacular animation make this one of the undisputed champs in the field. If I was forced to choose one Bugs cartoon, or one Jones, for that proverbial desert island, it would probably be this one. Bravo!

Herewith, portions of the deathless libretto by opera bouffe master Michael Maltese…

How do?
Welcome to my shop,
Let me cut your mop
Let me shave your crop…

Daintily… Daintily

Hey you!
Don’t look so perplexed,
Why must you be vexed?
Can’t you see you’re next?
Yes, you’re next
You’re so next…

What would you want with a wabbit?
Can’t you see that I’m much sweetahr?
I’m your little sen-yer-it-er
You are my type of guy!
Let me straighten your tie
And I shall dance for you…

Bugs ends the war of attrition. Flowers, candy, a ring. Who could resist?

Bugs and Elmer, married to the strains of Rossini in the breathless finale.

In Frigid Hare (1949) Jones and Maltese walk the tightrope between sentiment and anti-sentiment, and emerge triumphant. Note the ice-cube tears; that’s how you take the mickey (Mickey?) out of these things.

For Scent-imental Reasons (1949) None of the Warner Bros. directors won an Academy Award for his best work. Not once. They had the misfortune to release their finest shorts during “the MGM years,” when that studio routinely took home the statuette, regardless of the worth of the nominated film. For Scent-imental Reasons is a perfectly enjoyable cartoon, but it’s hardly among Jones’ finest.

Rabbit Hood (1949) The Sheriff of Nottingham kneels to be crowned by a Laughton-like Bugs. Is he ever asking for it.

“Arise, Sir Loin of Beef.
“Arise, Earl of Cloves.
“Arise, Duke of Brittingham.
“Arise, Baron of Munchausen.
“Arise, Essence of Myrrh…
“Milk of Magnesia…
“Quarter of Ten…”

Bunny Hugged (1950) Bugs vs. “The Crusher.” One way to get out of a clinch: Produce the sound of ripping trunks.

The surpassing brilliant 1950 Daffy Duck masterpiece, “The Scarlet Pumpernickel.”

Daffy: Ha ha! You ain’t got a chance! I’m the hero of this picture, and you know what happens to the villain.

Sylvester: So what’s to know?

Self-portrait, 195-?

Rabbit Fire (1950) is the primary installment in the famed Bugs-Daffy-Elmer “Hunting Trilogy.” The first Looney Tunes outing in which Daffy is less the madcap of yore and more a foil for Bugs. This is also the one in which Daffy first says, “You’re… dithpicable!”

Rabbit Fire contains one of Mel Blanc’s most impressive voice-overs: First, as Daffy imitating Bugs, then vice-versa. (Why do have get the distinct feeling Daffy is about to get his beak re-arranged?)

One of the many great gags in Rabbit Fire. Bugs suggests Elmer take up elephant hunting. Cue the pachyderm with the Joe Besser voice: “You do and I’ll give ya such a pinch!”

“Rabbit Fire”: Uh-oh.

Chow-Hound (1951) features one of the most grotesque, disturbing finales of any animated cartoon — an ironic comeuppance of truly Shakespearean proportions. I saw this once, in 1980, and it’s haunted me ever since.

Beep Beep (1951): The Road Runner doesn’t actually say, “Beep-beep.” It’s more like, “Meep-meep.” (In France, the character is known, phonetically, as “Mimi.”) Jones and Maltese got the idea from the Warners layout artist Paul Julian, who could be heard coming down the hall hoisting some enormous layout and that familiar warning cry.

Above and blow: Latin genus a la Jones and Maltese.

The counterpart to Accelerati Incredibilus.

A fateful move.

More placards. More drag. Quintessential Jones.

In The Wearing of the Grin (1951) Porky Pig, in a beautifully surreal nightmare sequence, is driven nearly mad by a pair of leprechauns. Porky, once the studio’s biggest animated star, saw his popularity eclipsed by that of Bugs Bunny in the 1940s. Only Jones seemed to understand how to use him effectively in the 1950s.

In Dripalong Daffy (1951) Porky, as the duck’s “butte buddy”(!) emerges the laconic winner. It set a pattern for subsequent Daffy-Porky teamings by Jones and Maltese.

A classic Jones pose: Porky reacts to strong drink.

Wile E. speaks! “Operation: Rabbit” (1952)

The card says it all.

The many faces of The AMCE Company. All defective.

Feed the Kitty (1952) The stalwart Marc Anthony, thinking his kitten has been baked, gives an Oscar-worthy performance of hilariously emoted canine grief. One of Jones’ masterpieces.

Bugs and Gossamer, redux. Water, Water Every Hare, a 1952 variation on Hair-Raising Hare.

“My stars, if an innn-teresting monster can’t have an innn-teresting hairdo, then I don’t know what things are coming to. In my business you meet so many innn-teresting people — bobby pins, please — but the most innn-terersting ones are the monsters…

“Oh, dear, that will never stay. We’ll just have to have a permanemanent.”

“Rabbit Seasoning” (1952) The centerpiece of the “Hunting Trilogy.” Bugs, in drag, gets… um… a rise… out of Elmer. Tex Avery was notorious for his erection caricatures, but that is a rare one for Jones.

Rabbit Seasoning:

Daffy: Let’s run through that again.
Bugs: Okay. (Deadpan) “Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?”
Daffy: (Similarly) “Shoot him now; shoot him now.”
Bugs: (As before) “You keep outta this, he doesn’t have to shoot you now.”
Daffy: A-hah! That’s it! Hold it right there! (Aside) Pronoun trouble.

Mel Blanc. In a late interview, Jones opined, “No one did hesitates like Mel.”

Example:

Daffy: Oh, no, you don’t. Not this time. Uh-uh.

Don’t Give Up the Sheep (1953) introduced Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, two workaday figures who start each cartoon punching a time-clock and exchanging laconic greetings (“H’lo, Ralph” “H’lo, Sam”) And if Ralph resembles Wile E. Coyote, well, how many different ways can you draw these things?

The utter astonishment that is Duck Amuck, Jones’ 1953 masterpiece that is both a wildly funny Daffy short and a canny, if surreal, meditation on the animator’s art.

Best hidden joke: How do Daffy’s big flippers fit into those tiny boots?

“That’s strange. All of a sudden I don’t quite feel like myself. Oh, I feel all right, and yet I… I uh…”

The finale of “Duck Amuck”: The classic reveal. (“Ain’t I a stinkah?”)

Much Ado About Nutting (1953) A low-key, silent charmer depicting a squirrel’s attempts to crack a coconut. Aside from an occasional pose like the one above, the rodent bears almost no anthropomorphic traces.

Duck Dodgers in the 24th and ½ Century (1953) A raucous comedy and a knowing satire on war and human (and Martian?) ambition.

“You’re… dethpicable!”

Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953) The final entry in the “Hunting Trilogy.”

Daffy: Well, I guess I’m the goat.
[Bugs holds up a sign; Elmer shoots Daffy. Again.]

Bully for Bugs (1953) The overlords of Termite Terrace were a notably dispiriting bunch. First was the lisping Leon Schlesinger, who never got that Daffy Duck and Sylvester were parodies of his own speech impediment. Then, Eddie Selzer, whose clueless decrees (“No pictures about bullfights! Bullfights aren’t funny!”) led to gems like this. At least Leon more or less left the boys alone. (And no, in point of fact, bullfights aren’t funny. Except when written by Mike Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones.)

Wile E. (and Charles M.) in action.

Punch Trunk: A charming and very funny one-off from 1953 concerning a tiny elephant in the city, who disturbs everyone in town. Naturally, only this tippler seems un-fazed. After consulting his watch he mutters accusingly, “You’re late.” As he sulks off he complains, “He always used to be pink!”

Claws for Alarm (1954): The best, and funniest, of a series of Jones cartoons pitting a silent Sylvester against homicidal forces of which Porky is oblivious.

The climax of Claws for Alarm. A desperate Sylvester does the only thing a loyal cat can under the circumstances: Smashing his master over the bean with a baseball bat and high-tailing it out of (ghost) town.

Bewitched Bunny (1954) introduced the immortal Witch Hazel, voiced by the peerless June Foray. Her trade-mark: A zip off-screen followed by an immediate return, an aside to the audience, and a zip off again, as her bobby-pins clatter to the floor.

“Bewitched Bunny”: Bugs uncovers an especially unsavory Hansel and Gretl.

Beanstalk Bunny (1955): Bugs and Daffy, under glass. A brilliant sequence illustrating the effective use of silence as Daffy begs with, pleads, cajoles, and screams at an unflappable Bugs without our hearing a word of it.

One Froggy Evening. This 1955 masterpiece has been called everything from “a morality play in miniature” (Richard Corliss) to “the Citizen Kane of animated film” (Steven Spielberg.) Only Jones could have directed it, and only Mike Maltese could have written it. Along with the authentic period numbers is the great ersatz Gay ’90s composition by messrs. Jones, Maltese and Milt Franklyn, “The Michigan Rag.” This is the sort of cartoon that was utterly unique to Warners, and which should have won Academy Awards but never did.

Jones and the brilliant Philip DeGuard, his peerless layout man in the 1950s

Broom-Stick Bunny (1956): At the mercy of Witch Hazel, Bugs resorts to the oldest trick in the animal playbook.

Rocket-Bye Baby (1956) Another one-off, playing on every expectant father’s anxieties. Baby “Yob” at work.

“Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z” (1956): The elegant “Batman Suit.”

The Road Runner cartoons, Jones said, operated under a series of rules, although Mike Matlese claimed he never heard any. The first was that the bird would never knowingly hurt the Coyote; he’d do that to himself. Another was, “Never look down.” A third might have been, “When flying gracefully through the air, open your eyes.”

Placard signs, especially (although not exclusively) for silent characters is a hallmark of Jones’ output from the 1940s onward.

“Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z”: A plaintive request from the Coyote, in mid-plummet, which Jones and Maltese mercifully grant.

Ali Baba Bunny (1957): Him Genie, da light-brown hare.

Ali Baba Bunny: Jones was a master at the tiny detail that illuminates character… and causes the viewer to fall apart: A lifted eyebrow, a sidelong glance at the audience or, as here, Daffy’s reaction to a treasure.

“Ali Baba Bunny”: Daffy hits the jackpot.”I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well-off.”

Wile E. about to launch himself… with predictable results.

“Brunhilde” Bugs makes his (her?) entrance in the wonderful, the ineffable, the iridescent What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) Philippe DeGuard created the stylized Wagnerian backgrounds.

No Wagnerian take-off would be complete without a fat diva. But since Bugs is svelt, the honor falls, hilariously, to his horse.

“What’s Opera, Doc?”: A delicate pas de duex (or as Bugs might say, “Pass da ducks.”)

“Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

Descriptive text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

What Joy is All About: Chuck Jones (Part One)

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By Scott Ross

21 September 2012 marked the centenary of Chuck Jones’ birth. I can honestly think of no single creative artist whose work has given me more pleasure throughout my life than Jones. At his phenomenal best his animated shorts are both silly and profound, thoughtful and wildly funny — and, as sheer living works of art, astonishingly beautiful. At his worst he could be too-clever-by-half, and his later work had a tendency to replace movement with verbal pomposity. But in his prime only Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Jones’ old Warner Bros. bete noir Bob Clampett, and a few of Disney’s animators (Bill Tytla, Jack Kinney, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson) could touch his genius. And none of the Disney artists above directed their finest movies, as Jones did.

Eight-year old Charles Martin Jones, Ocean Park CA.
Wile E. Coyote was no doubt taking notes.

Three of the Boys of Termite Terrace: Tex Avery, Chuck, and Bob Clampett. Jones often cited Avery, along with Friz Freleng, as one of the two greatest short-subject directors. But when assigned to Clampett’s unit in the ‘30s, he chafed under the yoke of that often shockingly unfettered imagination; theirs was a relationship that only grew more contentious with the passage of the years.

Jones was made a full-fledged director in 1938. A year later he tackled Daffy Duck for the first time, in Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur. The unnamed caveman’s voice bears a canny resemblance to that of Jack Benny. (And yes, the club is floating. Amazing what they can do in these modern animated cartoons, isn’t it?)

Old Glory (1939) is beautifully animated but almost unbearably “patriotic” in a way that seems impossibly square today. Jones drew a nice Porky Pig, though.

5 - Presto Changeo

 

Prest-O Change-O (1939) was Jones’ third short as a fully-fledged director of animation. One of the entries in a series featuring two pups — much less anthropomorphic than Disney’s Pluto — this cartoon also contained a pesky rabbit modeled on Ben “Bugs” Hardaway’s bunny from Porky’s Hare Hunt.

This representative shot from Curious Puppy (1939) should give you a good (or bad) idea of just how precious Jones’ early work as a director could be.

Jones’ first attempt at refining Bugs Hardaway’s bunny was the not-terribly successful Elmer’s Candid Camera of 1940. The posture is right, but the character design — and the coolly annoying voice — are all wrong.

Jones hit an early high-water mark with the brilliant and utterly charming 1940 pantomime short Good Night, Elmer. The young Chuck Jones once watched Charlie Chaplin filming; this 8-minute gem is the greatest Chaplin short Charlie never made.

 

Elmer’s Pet Rabbit (1941) The first short in which Bugs was billed as the star. A later bunny would doubtless have commented on that sign: “Dey don’t know me vewwy well, do dey?”

Elmer’s Pet Rabbit: The character design for Bugs is better here, but for some reason Jones eschewed the now-familiar vocal Mel Blanc first employed for the figure we now know as Bugs Bunny in Tex Avery’s A Wild Hare of the previous year in favor of one almost infinitely less effective.

Jones’ logo for Bugs’ first credit as a fully-fledged cartoon star.

Many of Jones’ early shorts as a Warners director are a bit drear, what with cute puppies and a sniffling mouse. His first indisputably great cartoon was the brilliantly stylized 1942 “Rover Boys” burlesque, The Dover Boys at Pimento University (that’s “P.U.,” to the cognoscenti.)

Here the Dovers — Tom, Dick and Larry — pause in their search for perennial “coward, bully, cad and thief” Dan Backslide (modeled on Schlesinger studio gag-man Tedd Pierce) when they hear a familiar damsel’s call of distress.

The Dover Boys with Dora Stanpipe, their perpetual inamorata. Hearing the laughs this superb short received, Jones realized he was on the right track at last: “Once you have heard a strange audience burst into laughter at a film you directed, you realize what the word joy is all about.”

Dan Backslide is rather fond of Dora as well. (Or at least, of her father’s money.)

My favorite moment: Dan Backslide spots a convenient runabout: “I’ll steal it!” He confides to the audience. “NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW!!!”

“Dainty” Dora Standpipe makes short work of the wicked Dan Backslide in the breathless climax of “The Dover Boys.”

Conrad the Sailor (1942) marked a new emphasis on design in Jones’ cartoons, when Eugene Fleury began doing his backgrounds and John McGrew the layouts. Their stylized backgrounds deliberately eschewed the Disneyesque realism of Jones’ early work — sometimes to his own detriment. The eponymous cat was voiced by Disney veteran (and Goofy voice-man) Pinto Colvig, in very definite Goof mode. (Especially when singing, “Over the sea/Let’s go, men…”)

My Favorite Duck, 1942. Jones’ first teaming of Daffy with Porky Pig. One of the hallmarks of his early ’40s style was the sudden, and often hilarious, halting of action, often with one or more of the characters caught in mid-air.

Hold the Lion, Please! (1942) Notable, aside from the rather inappropriate stylized Fleury/McGrew backgrounds, for such throwaway bits such as the hilarious way the other denizens of the jungle feign terror at the very dopey King of the Beasts, and Bugs gardening while sporting a cunning green bonnet.

“The Draft Horse,” 1942. A war-time gem

Case of the Missing Hare (1942) is noteworthy as the first short in which Bugs says, a la Groucho Marx, “Of course you know, this means war!” This time, the stylized Fleury backgrounds worked perfectly with Jones’ form and fantastic content.

Produced for the U.S. Army, the Private Snafu shorts (the character was created by Frank Capra) began promisingly, with Jones directing, and Theodor Geisel writing the rhymed dialogue. The off-screen narrator was quick to reassure the audience — mostly G.I.s — that the acronym “SNAFU” stood for “Situation Normal, All — All Fouled Up.” The wink was more than implied. The shorts did get in a fair amount of adult humor, though, and even the occasional taboo word.

Charles M. Jones, late 1940s.

The Aristo-Cat (1943) introduced Jones’ urban mice characters Hubie and Bertie, here tormenting the titular figure. In this outing, Hubie and Bertie were voiced by Jones writers Mike Maltese and Tedd Pierce. In later editions, Stan Freberg and Dick Nelson did the chores; Nelson was later replaced by Mel Blanc. Once again, the Fleury/McGrew backgrounds worked with, rather than against, the comedy. Who can ever forget the sight of the pampered cat, hemmed in by the forced-perspective backgrounds, with his hilariously heart-rending cry (“Meadows!”) for the butler who’s just given notice?

Jones’ “Inki” cartoons, featuring a diminutive African hunter, are seldom seen today, although they’re infinitely less racist than some of the stuff the Disney and MGM artists — as well as Jones’ own Warners compatriots — were turning out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most memorable aspect of Inki and the Mynah Bird (1943) was the Mendelsohnnian fowl, always seen silently hopping to the strains of “Fingal’s Cave.” Jones later said that Walt Disney was puzzled by this cartoon and asked him to explain it. “It takes place in the Fourth Dimension,” was Chuck’s response. “And I don’t understand the Fourth Dimension!”

1943’s Wackiki Wabbit featured more stylized backgrounds; this time the layouts were by Bernyce Polifka, Gene Fleury’s wife. The shipwrecked derelicts who take after the rabbit are caricatures of Jones’ then-current writer (Tedd Pierce) and his future one (Mike Maltese), antagonists in what we laughingly call real life.

In Tom Turk and Daffy (1944) the canvasback anti-hero hides a fellow fowl from Porky’s gun… until he realizes that, by doing so, he’s passing up a fine Thanksgiving meal. Quoth the turk, from inside the snowman: “Qusiling.”

Among Jones’ best occasional stars were The Three Bears, whom some have cited as unconscious prototypes for Archie and Edith Bunker and “Meathead” Mike Stivik. In their initial 1944 outing, Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears, Mama — dolled up a la Veronica Lake — makes a play for a startled Bugs.

Odor-able Kitty. This 1945 short introduced (as “Henry”) the ever-oblivious Pepe LePew. In his initial appearance, interestingly (and rather like something out of one of Frank Tashlin’s erotically-tinged cartoons) it’s a male cat Henry believes to be a fellow skunk. He never made that mistake again.

Hare Tonic (1945) Bugs, as “Doctor Killpatient,” convinces the gullible Elmer he has “rabbititis.”

“Hare Tonic”: Another patented stop-the-action-in-mid-stream Jones moment..

Hare-Conditioned. A minor masterpiece from 1945, featuring a department store manager Bugs says reminds him of “Da Great Gildersneeze.” The Harold Peary sound-alike voice was the work of an un-credited Dick Nelson.

Bugs looks fetching, but his color sense leaves a great deal to be desired.

Trap Happy Porky (1945) a very funny Jones short anatomizing the pig’s increasing frustration with his un-welcome guests. Not nearly as great as the similarly-themed Clampett masterpiece Kitty Kornered a year later (which introduced an embryonic Sylvester) but awfully good on its own terms.

Hair-Raising Hare (1946): The placard sign, mostly (but not always) for silent characters like the Coyote, was another Jones trademark, borrowed from Tex Avery but refined; where Avery used them to indicate spot-gags (“This is an electric eel”) Jones put them to use in heightening and further illuminating character.

“Hair-Raising Hare”: Bugs encounters the living hairball later designated as “Gossamer” for the first time.

A Feather in His Hare (1948) features a newly stream-lined Bugs doing battle with a notably dim-witted Native, the Elmer Fudd of the bow-hunting set.

“Haredevil Hare” (1948) introduced Marvin, of the immortal Iludium-Q36 Explosive Space Modulator.

Haredevil Hare: Jones’ growing mastery of poses for comic and psychological impact is manifest in these reaction shots, as Bugs reacts to landing on da moon.

A memorable one-off for Bugs, My Bunny Lies Over the Sea (1948) pits the wily wabbit against a fanatic Scotsman.

Bugs as “Leopold” (whisper who dares) in the Jones masterwork Long-Haired Hare (1949) With Mike Maltese now firmly-ensconced as Jones’ story writer, the great glory days begin.

“Long-Haired Hare”: Bugs as teeny-bopper (complete with saddle-shoes): “Frankie and Perry just aren’t in it! You’re my swooner dreamboat loverboy!”

Fast and Furry-ous (1949) began as a joke: Bored with chases, Jones and Maltese decided to spoof the genre with The Chase-to-End-All-Chases. They were all too successful, ushering in what proved to be a long-running series starring the later-named Wile E. Coyote (Carnivorous Vulgaris) and the Roadrunner (Accelleratii Incredibus.)

The Jones-Maltese aesthetic in operation: The bogus Latinate genera bespeak both intelligence, and a sublime sense of the ridiculous.

Coyote model sheet for “Fast and Furry-ous.”

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Knowing how people move: Madame Medusa takes off her makeup

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By Scott Ross

When The Rescuers opened in 1977, I went to see it, as a dutiful but not terribly hopeful 16-year old who felt that the Disney animators had pretty much lost their way. I grew up on their stuff, of course, and counted a 1967 reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs among the most powerful movie-going experiences of my then very young life. I had loved Cinderella on reissue as well, but I was absolutely potty about The Jungle Book when I saw it in 1968. It became my world: Jungle Book comic books, Jungle Book puzzles,Jungle Book Colorforms and paint-by-numbers scenes, a whole box of Royal Pudding customer premium Disneykins figurines (dear god, how I wish I’d held onto those!), the Jungle Book soundtrack album (I drove my parents to despair with that one.) I was, I think, at just the right age for it: A cartoon-mad seven year-old, seeing his first new Disney feature, not terribly long after Walt’s death.

But while I had enjoyed The Aristocats, and Robin Hood, and a mid-’70s reissue of The Sword in the Stone, I got much more from 101 Dalmatians and Pinocchio and Fantasia and Dumbo when they went into rotation. By comparison to the new, Walt-less work, those pictures had a richness with which the more recent movies couldn’t really compare. It wasn’t the post-50s Xerox process that struck me, however vaguely, as thin; it was the stories themselves, and the characters, and the means by which the Nine Old Men were telling those stories and presenting those characters. In retrospect, I suppose it was largely the fault of Woolie Reitherman, the named director of the features. His pictures aren’t terribly inspired, and he seemed to abhor heart — I don’t mean sentimentality, but genuine sentiment. 

It’s something Disney himself may have embraced too heavily at times, but I would rather the unabashed emotional pull of, say, the “Baby Mine” sequence in Dumbo than anything in The Fox and the Hound.

Some of the fault may lie with Disney himself, more aloof as the years went on and far less involved in the production of his studio’s animation (although he was still the greatest editor his animators ever had.) Somehow, though, someone — perhaps John Lounsbery or Art Steves, who co-directed with Reitherman — managed to get that heart back into The Rescuers, whatever Woolie’s reticence; it’s present from the first moment, and the first notes of the Artie Butler score (I have only to hear are the initial strains of “Rescue Me” and I go misty) and it’s seldom far from the action. Situated within those more emotive parameters, however, is Milt Kahl’s superb, satirical character work on Madame Medusa, the movie’s hilariously frumpy villain.

Kahl said the character was his vengeance on an ex-wife, but Medusa’s facial design surely owes something to the great Geraldine Page, who provided her voice. (Kahl did nearly all of the animation for the character.)

Madame Medusa and her vocal (and performance) alter ego, Geraldine Page.

Like his confreres Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, Kahl was a master of behavioral animation. (Kahl worked his special magic on the Tar Baby sequence in Song of the South, the amusingly narcissistic Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the slightly befuddled Fairy Godmother — as well as the pugnacious King and his humorless Duke — in Cinderella, Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone, and the suavely frightening Sher Khan — as well as King Louie and Kaa — in The Jungle Book.) “Anyone worth his salt in this business,” he said, “ought to know how people move […] You have to understand movement, which in itself is quite a study. You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance.” With Medusa, his final work on a Disney feature, Kahl gave the performance of a lifetime.

A Milt Kahl sketch of Medusa in all her over-the-top glory.

Madame Medusa is personality animation with a vengeance. Her every movement is fulsome, from her big, sagging bosom and the ghastly hips her walk leads with, to her set of damn near independently working teeth. Much of Kahl’s inspiration no doubt came from Page’s ripe, deliberately hammy vocal work, but Medusa is his creature. (There’s no remotely one like her in Margery Sharpe’s “Miss Bianca” novels, on which the movie was based.) And her crowning moment as an animated figure, and Kahl’s as her creator, is the simple removal of a false eyelash.

I can still remember the genuine sense of awe I felt when I first saw it, even as the moment made me laugh out loud. It could only have been done with animation, and only then by an animator who understood movement and personality to his bones.

One of Kahl’s original animation drawings from the “make-up scene” in “The Rescuers.”

The sequence comes as Medusa attempts using child psychology on Penny, the small orphan she’s kidnapped to help retrieve a priceless diamond from the grotto of a Louisiana bayou. As she talks in what she believes is an encouraging manner to Penny, she’s removing her voluminous makeup before a mirror.

Page gives a particularly rich reading to the line Medusa is speaking during the action of pulling off the second of two false eyelashes (“Then we must try harder, mustn’t we?”) her voice taking on a slightly irritated lilt that works beautifully with the action Kahl animates. It’s a perfect illustration of “squash-and-stretch” animation.

The first two images represent the lash that doesn’t give Medusa trouble.

It’s the other one that’s the source of her brief, wonderfully comic struggle:

Kahl’s animation drawing and, below, a finished cel from the next moment in the action.

Above, and below, Kahl’s animation drawings. The final stretch, as it were. What’s missing (because I couldn’t find it online) is the way the aging flesh around Medusa’s eye, freed from the lash, undulates briefly before sagging back into place — the topper, as comedians say, to the joke.

If this isn’t “putting on a performance,” I don’t know what is. A simple moment of action, wholly incidental to the narrative but infinitely rich in personality. 36 years later it still makes me smile — and marvel.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross