The bloom is off the rose: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth in decline, 1969 – 1972

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By Scott Ross

Partly as a result of getting older, I suspect, the allure of Saturday morning cartoons began to abate somewhat as I turned eight. But only partly. I was still wild about animation (even the “limited” sort Chuck Jones once astutely termed “illustrated radio”), still spent my allowance on comic books, still went to every Disney movie that opened, and still listened largely to cartoon-related records. But the Great Moment was ending, and I think I sensed it. From the highs of Jonny Quest and The Banana Splits and The Mighty Heroes, there were more and more items like Hot Wheels, which — quite rightly — brought the ire of the FCC down on the network. And there was worse yet to come.



1969.
Old Business: The previous season Bugs Bunny moved from ABC to CBS, and was coupled with the Road Runner series under the omnibus heading The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, alleviating my 12-noon, which-should-I-watch? conundrum. Whew!

the_bugs_bunny_road_runner_Show

New Business: The networks took their Saturday morning fare very seriously in those days. Each typically ran a 30-minute promo on the Friday evening before unveiling their new shows. On one memorable Friday night in 1969, CBS aired not only their promo piece but a full half-hour pilot for what it was obviously expecting to be its breakout hit that year. More on that anon.

the_bugs_bunny_road_runner_hour

1969 comics insert
I was more interested in a few other items on the slate. First, one of two Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races spin-offs, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. The voice of the villain was provided by my favorite Bewitched warlock and Hollywood Squares regular, Paul Lynde. The fact that my family had just moved from Canton, Ohio to Mt. Vernon, birthplace of the then-ubiquitous Mr. Lynde, was serendipity.

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop

Penelope seems dubious. Perhaps she knows something about Paul Lynde? (Who, if they had eyes and ears and a little imagination, didn’t?)

The other was Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, a strange series revolving around Dick Dastardly attempts to shoot down a carrier pigeon during World War I (“Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon now!”) “abetted” by, to paraphrase MAD magazine, a gang of the usual idiots. Since D.D. was voiced by Paul Winchell, using the same voice he’d employed in Wacky Races, his “side” didn’t seem to have been the Germans. But he could hardly have represented the Allies, especially as he’s clearly the villain of the piece, and is always foiled. See what I mean when I say it was strange? Still, I loved it. One of my most vivid memories of that time is walking back home from the YMCA on a bitterly cold Ohio January Saturday and finding my DDandMITFM Fan Club package in the day’s mail.

Dastardly and Muttey in Their Flying Machines
The other new show that tickled my fancy was a rare live-action series, The Monkees. Of course at the time I had no notion of just how ersatz and pre-fabricated the band was, or how determinedly the people behind the group (among them Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider) aped The Beatles in their feature films. But I suspect that, even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I found them, and their show, cheerful, charming, and fun, from their famous “Monkees Walk” to their under-cranked antics. And it certainly didn’t hurt that their British component was the adorable former chorus-boy Davy Jones.

The Monkees

The show that CBS had pinned its hopes on turned out to be its big winner that year, but I found Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! a let-down. I liked the big, dumb Great Dane (memorably voiced by H-B stalwart Don Messick in the manner of Daws Butler’s Snuffles character from the old Quick Draw McGraw series — and his derivative, Astro of The Jetsons — especially in Scooby’s adoration of “Scooby-Snacks”) and the first image of the main title gave me a pleasant chill: Bats screaming from a prototypical haunted-house. Oh, boy! But in the pilot, as in every single episode after, the plot’s seeming phantasmagoria turned out to hold (yawn) a logical, and all too human, explanation. Like most children, I loved the eerie, the creepy, the ghastly, the ghostly. I wanted to be scared. I wanted ghouls. I wanted blood-thirsty monsters. Not some old guy running around in a rubber spook suit. (Nearly a decade earlier, Jonny Quest got it right. Were the networks now bowing to parental pressure?) For this 8-year old viewer, Scooby-Doo violated my expectations in the most prosaic fashion. I continued watching the show, but for the characters — such as they were — and for the cute blond Freddy, not for the series itself, its lame mysteries, or its anti-spectral solutions.

Scooby Doo

The Mystery, Inc. gang has been the collective victims of countless Internet porn spoofs… especially, in the gay arena, Shaggy and Fred.

The NBC line-up continued to be great fun. I remember tearing this promo spread from a Heckle and Jekyll comic; although I thought the artwork was strange, even a little crude, something about it appealed to and intrigued me.

1969 NBC insert

Along with the returning Banana Splits and Underdog, the most enjoyment was to be had with two new NBC series. The Pink Panther Show provided a forum for airing the Friz Freleng/David DePatie-produced theatrical Panther shorts, along with new ones, including a curious series called The Aardvark and the Ant in which a Dean Martin sound-alike emmet is menaced, Wile E. Coyote style, by a Jackie Masonesque anteater. (The Inspector shorts followed later.) But the cream of the crop was the genuinely bizarre Sid and Marty Krofft offering, H.R. Pufnstuf.

H R Pufnstuf

Pufnstuf was a comic fairy-tale in which a cute adolescent (the adorable Jack Wild, the Artful Dodger of Oliver!) washes up on an island populated by costumed characters, led by a Southern-accented dragon. Jimmy is perennially pursued by the ineffectual camp villain Witchipoo (Billie Hayes) because she wants her talons on the magical talking flute the boy carries in his pocket(!) There was also a big frog in leotards and a derby who looked like she wandered in from a Bob Fosse musical (she was called “Judy,” so perhaps the Kroffts were invoking Garland), evil trees, talking alarm-clocks and a sneezing house. It was crazy, atrocious, and enchanting.


1970.

1970 comics insert CBS

Hanna-Barbera continued exercising its pop music bent with two new shows, Josie and the Pussycats and The Harlem Globetrotters. Filmation likewise mutated The Archies (Archie’s Funhouse Featuring the Giant Juke Box) and the Kroffts followed up the quasi-musical H.R. Pufnstuf with The Bugaloos, a bunch of adolescent insect musicians menaced by yet another wacky wiccan, this time played by Martha Raye, on NBC. The Archie Andrews universe also gave birth to Sabrina and the Groovie Ghoulies, fright-show refugees who (naturally) have their own rock band.

Josie and the Pussycats

Josie, which looked like an animated Hefner fantasy, at least had the distinction of having an integrated trio. The Bugaloos was also integrated. I wonder why I don’t remember how cute John Philpott was.

the-bugaloos-1970

I’d loved watching the real Harlem Globetrotters on television, and I enjoyed seeing them on Saturday mornings, even in lousy Hanna-Barbera animation and saddled with dumb plots and a little old (white) lady bus driver. They also sang, quite well (especially Meadowlark Lemon) and the eventual Harlem Globetrotters television soundtrack LP is still a cheery, funky delight.

The-Harlem-Globetrotters

Meanwhile, over at ABC…1970 ABC comics insert

While I was looking forward to Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down! (and which I now scarcely recall…)

Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down
Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp

… the winner of the bizarro sweepstakes that year was, hands down, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Almost indescribable, LLSC starred a cast of costumed primates playing out a Cold War satire (although the chief villain had a monocle and a vaudeville Cherman accent… don’t think about that too long) and riding around on chopped motorcycles complete with training wheels, with the lead’s voice performed à la Humphrey Bogart.

A part of me finds this sort of thing cruel now, but at the time it amused me no end.


1971.

I continued to spend now-wasted hours in front of the tube on Saturdays at 10, but with an increasing loss of enthusiasm. Even comic books, my mainstay since the age of four, had begun to pall on me, what with paltry narratives, indifferent artwork and increasing cover prices. (The obvious exceptions being those featuring reprints, such as the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge.) The magic was waning.

The new Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show was mildly intriguing. Even more interesting than the teenage versions of the Flintstones’ and the Rubbles’ somewhat bland offspring — their sidekicks were quirkier, and more fun — was the fact that they were voiced by Sally Struthers and Jay North. Poor Jay North.

Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show

Archie’s TV Funnies

Archie Andrews’ world was re-jiggered yet again, with the utterly weird Archie’s TV Funnies. I was a comic strip maven, so I enjoyed it, but it’s hard to fathom that the Filmation team imagined 1970s kids would be turned on by animated versions of Nancy and Sluggo, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids (or The Captain and the Kids, as it was known) and Smokey Stover. Broom Hilda was at least current, but Russell Meyers’ strip was far funnier, savvier, more clever, and better drawn, than what showed up on this curious piece of mishegoss.

The finest new show was not a cartoon but a revival of a 1950s series. You Are There dramatized historical events, and was hosted by Walter Cronkite. I still recall many of its episodes, notably the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson, and the confirmation of the Zimmerman telegraph. Instructive, never condescending, always intelligent, they brought history to life in a most immediate and engaging manner.

You-Are-There-The-Alamo-1971-16mm-Film

One of Hanna-Barbera’s endless sausage-factory entries this season was Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch! which the author of the venerable TVParty.com site succinctly regards as “stupid beyond belief.”

Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch!


Lidsville Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick

1972.

The Kroffts returned again, this time with Lidsville. Starring another of my early crushes, the erstwhile Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, the show also featured former Witchipoo Billie Hayes as Weenie the Genie. (Weenie the Genie”?) But the greatest pull was the villain: The great Charles Nelson Reilly, described by TVParty.com as “the biggest queen ever to parade across the Saturday morning screens.”


The most pleasing of the new cartoons this season — the only good one, really, especially for a Filmation show — was without doubt Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Hosted by Bill Cosby and based in part on his childhood memories, and the use of them in his stand-up comedy LPs of the 1960s, the show gave voice (and presence) to urban black youth for the very first time on Saturday morning. The characters were quirky, funny and engaging, and while there were what I now think of as Dread Moral Lessons packed into in each episode like a pill you try to hide in your pet’s puppy-treat, the series, which ran for an astonishing 13 years, was (at least in the beginning) often very fine. Far above the Filmation norm… although if, like me, you saw what might be regarded as the pilot, the 1969 special Hey, Hey, Hey! It’s Fat Albert, when it first aired and it might have seemed to you that the characters, in their slicker Filmation incarnations, lost more than a little style and a great deal of soul, in the process.

Hey Hey Hey It's Fat Albert

fat albert and the cosby kids

This was the last year I really cared to sit around watching the Saturday morning shows, at least without something else to do… a pad to draw in, something to write, maybe a comic book. My interests were changing (novels, as opposed to comics, for example.)

I was certainly changing. But the seemingly endless Saturday morning party was coming to a close. The shows were becoming cuter (The Smurfs, The Care Bears) and more opportunistic (The Jackson 5ive first, then The OsmondsThe Brady Kids and finally, the nadir, The Partridge Family 2200 A.D.) It wasn’t enough to engage a halfway intelligent adolescent mind (if that isn’t an oxymoron) and certainly a plunge into the abyss after the highs of my childhood.

The CBS Children’s Film Festival ad

One pleasant after-note: In 1971, The CBS Children’s Film Festival “officially” joined the Saturday line-up. Although, curiously, it was not on the ballyhooed schedule until then, I had been enjoying the show (presumably in syndication) since the mid-to-late ’60s, drawn initially by its hosts, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but held by the many splendid movies that followed the opening segment. The films themselves had charm and appeal, and while they were often about troubled youths in difficult circumstances in foreign climes, they never felt didactic or moralistic to me. And they had, in KF&O, the perfect, gentle hosts. Naturally, the Kuklapolitans were eventually axed by CBS, like Captain Kangaroo on weekday mornings.

The party was definitely at an end. And there are few things more dispiriting than a sugar-cereal hangover.

The CBS Children’s Film Festival

Judging from the CBS mike in Kukla’s hand, and the cunning winter duds, I assume K, F & O are reporting from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Thanks once again to TV Party.com for much of the information gleaned for this essay.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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 once-fresh, ultimately 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 elegant 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 pink. 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 pretty obviously 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

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 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

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.

Friz 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. Warners badly wanted an animated studio mascot to rival Mickey. The pig character was designed by Freleng, and named for a childhood friend. The studio preferred his sidekick, the tough kitten 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; Leon 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.

(front) Michael Malteste, Friz Freleng, Paul Collier, Paul Marron, Smokey Garner; (back) Jack Miller, Harold Soldinger, Johnny Burton, Henry Binder

Side-note the fourth: That’s Mike Maltese, in the studio guard uniform. Freleng is next to him, in the hat.

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. (“Love… speaks for itself, dear.”)

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: 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 self-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. It was Friz, in this short, who first came up with an oversized Wagnerian horse.

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 caricatures 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. They also won the Oscar for theirs. 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

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 short masterwork 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 small handful of truly 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.

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 surpassingly 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): 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… dith-picable!”

Rabbit Fire contains one of Mel Blanc’s most astonishing 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. Naturally, that talented putz Eric Goldberg thinks it’s one of the funniest gags he’s ever seen.

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 “Mi-mi.”) 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. Note the discreet bloomers.

In The Wearing of the Grin (1951) Porky Pig, in a beautifully surreal nightmare sequence, is driven nearly mad by a pair of vaguely  sinister 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 – 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… deth-picable!”

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 great 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 a notably unsavory, piggish 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 whisper 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 svelte, 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 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, partially obscuring Jones’ face (deliberately?) Jones often cited Avery, along with Friz Freleng, as one of the two greatest short-subject directors. 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. Since Mel Blanc nailed it so perfectly in Avery’s A Wild Hare, I can’t think why Jones felt the need to tamper with perfection.

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

Elmer's Pet Rabbit - Jones.jpg

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?”

1bd86-10-petrabbit2

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. (Is anyone or anything ever partially-fledged?)

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 (“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. Quothe Backslide, “Help, Tom! Help, Dick! Help, Larry!”

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 backdrops deliberately eschewed the Disneyesque realism of Jones’ early work — sometimes to its 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 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.

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.

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 almost aggressively 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 (Bea Benaderet here) 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. (“Tell me more about my eyes.”)

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 (and which featured an embryonic Sylvester) but, on its own terms, awfully good.

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-Pugh 36 Explosive Space Modulator.

Haredevil Hare: Jones’ growing mastery of poses for comic and psychological impact is manifest in these reaction shots, as Bugs realizes he’s landed on “da moon.”

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

With Mike Maltese now firmly-ensconced as Jones’ story writer, the great glory days begin.

Bugs as “Leopold” (whisper who dares) in the Jones/Maltese masterwork Long-Haired Hare (1949).

Long-Haired Hare: Bugs as teeny-bopper (complete with saddle-shoes) requests an autograph from Giovanni Jones: “Oh, Mr. Jones! Frankie and Perry just aren’t in it! You’re my swooner dreamboat lover-boy!”

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, Sam Clemens-like sense of the ridiculous.

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

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross