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

Standard

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 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 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

Advertisements

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

Standard

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 completed 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 terribly successful. He and his wife Dorothy wrote this amiable but unexceptional 1962 UPA musical, directed by Jones’ old Warner Bros. associate Abe Levitow. The best thing about it is its pleasing Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg score.

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 admitted they weren’t his characters, that he “didn’t understand them” and that he 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. He had a point.)

… 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 termed “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 the charming drawings Gareth Williams created for the book. But Jones churned out two sequels.

Perhaps archy and mehitabel would have proven a closer match to his 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.” (It must be said that Jackie Coogan was cuter than this kit.)

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…

Motivational 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 college newspaper 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