Breaking the Pain Barrier: Blake Edwards and Inspector Clouseau

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By Scott Ross

Peter Bogdanovich is fond of citing an anecdote involving the screenwriter-director Leo McCarey, a nightclub gathering and a painstakingly prepared (and casually undone) bow-tie as an example of extending comic effect: What, in the trade, is called “topping the topper.”* Blake Edwards was equally enamored of one McCarey told him, about being on a hospital patients’ panel and hearing an elderly woman’s personal story of piled-up woe, the last element of which — her husband being blown in a freak accident through the wall of his hospital room and into the maternity ward — reduced to hysterical laughter not only the civilian McCarey but the medical personnel on the panel as well. The woman’s history wasn’t remotely funny; indeed, it was genuinely, agonizingly tragic. It was simply the appalling accumulation of painful detail that made that last, fatal indignity so irrepressibly hilarious — the description of that final explosion to her listeners, McCarey said, “broke the pain barrier.” Edwards also liked to elaborate on one of McCarey’s simple silent-comedy set-ups, concerning a character bidding his sweetheart farewell as she embarks on a streetcar, that evolved into a series of perfect toppers, a comic paradigm the younger man ever bore in mind as he constructed his own. Edwards, who more than any of his contemporaries both revered and meticulously studied the great comic masters of the silent era, was also unique in successfully replicating, and building on, their effects. Although there have been countless attempts to revive the slapstick gag in the decades since talking pictures arrived, few in sound pictures have ever really worked. Edwards’ nearly always do.

I am, obviously, generalizing; there have been many successful comedians since the silent era who utilized physical comedy successfully (Laurel and Hardy are the most obvious examples, and we can certainly include The Three Stooges) and some filmmakers who, while perhaps not being known primarily as comedy directors, could either make a very good one (What’s Up, Doc?, Bogdanovich’s often hilarious 1972 screwball, comes to mind) or insert a slapstick moment or two into their otherwise largely verbal comedies in a way that showed how well their makers understood what makes physical humor work. I’m thinking particularly of Billy Wilder, whose occasional employment of a broad physical gag in, say, The Major and the Minor or Some Like it Hot, results in riotously funny moments precisely because he and his co-scenarists were so adept at setting them up, and Wilder as the director so expert at framing them. Conversely, the periodic, and almost completely un-motivated, bursts of wild physical mayhem in the comedies of Preston Sturges nearly always leave the muscles of my face entirely unmoved. Sturges doesn’t really understand physical humor — he just throws it in now and then to reduce a character’s dignity, or for its own sake: Think of the Ale and Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story, for example, or of the many unfunny pratfalls poor Henry Fonda has to take in The Lady Eve and how these moments diminish (although, it must be admitted, never fatally) those otherwise peerless social comedies.

I’ve often thought that perhaps the reason violent humor in sound pictures so often falls flat has to do with the silence of silent comedies; you could see a scream of pain, but you couldn’t hear it. The sounds of anguish disturb us, and can kill humor pretty quickly. Not always, obviously: Oliver Hardy cries out in pain a great deal in his sound shorts and features with Stan Laurel, and we still laugh. Indeed, sometimes, as in their very first sound comedy, the 1929 Unaccustomed As We Are, the bleat Ollie makes off-screen as Edgar Kennedy punches his nose is, because we don’t actually witness the blow, all the funnier. It is character, then, and logic, that make the difference. And Edwards, virtually alone among physical comedy directors of the post-War era, understood how to create characters to whom slapstick violence can happen without our wincing in empathy, to build a series of effective gags, why they were amusing to begin with, and how to pile up the incident so that it breaks the pain barrier and plunges the audience into the same helpless laughter that gripped that patients’ panel.

I would argue that Edwards’ finest use of the McCarey principle is the long party sequence near the beginning of the 1981 S.O.B during which Richard Mulligan, standing in for Edwards himself and walking around in a daze of deeply numbing depression, repeatedly attempts to commit suicide, each foray leading ultimately to someone else’s distress or pain, a situation so fraught with mental and physical anguish that, when Edwards tops the topper, resulting in a falling body breaking Loretta Swit’s hip, there is no possible recourse except laughter; Mulligan’s genuine mental and emotional agony breaks the pain barrier. (That this sequence was inspired by one of Edwards’ own suicide attempts is instructive; even at his most despairing, the filmmaker was able to see the dark humor of the situation.) But the writer-director’s most consistent, and consistently hilarious, employment of the pain barrier concept are the comedies featuring that absolute embodiment of — to mix languages alarmingly — sangfroid in extremis, the supernally confident, utterly oblivious, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, whose collected oeuvre I have just revisited.

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Watching the contents of Shout! Factory’s Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers boxed set of Blu-rays amply confirms both Edwards’ elegance and wit as a writer and filmmaker and his ability to set up, sustain, build and explode elaborate physical gags. It helps, of course, that Clouseau is, in essence, a cartoon character: Wile E. Coyote, perhaps, or Tom of the Tom and Jerry shorts. Unlike Herbert Lom’s more mortal Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Clouseau can be injured slightly, or electrocuted, or fall through ceilings, or be blown through walls like the poor old man in Leo McCarey’s hospital story, but always returns to the scene in one piece, and with no encumbering casts, crutches or plaster bandages. (Although he does occasionally sport fried hair, or carry lingering traces of smoke.) It is his sheer indomitability as much as his perpetual and unnatural dignity in the face of a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to do or say precisely the wrong thing in any given situation, his bizarre mispronunciations, even the way attempts to rid the earth of Clouseau repeatedly result in the violent deaths of others, that ultimately drives poor Dreyfus mad.

Interestingly, the character’s extremes were arrived at pretty much by accident: While preparing to film his and Maurice Richler’s script for The Pink Panther in Rome in 1963, Edwards found himself abandoned by his original Clouseau, Peter Ustinov, in a contretemps over his putative screen wife Ava Gardner’s backing out of the project. Desperate, Edwards contacted Peter Sellers, who agreed immediately, and who began to flesh out what was intended as a supporting character with so much comedic invention that the writer-director re-conceptualized the role as filming went on. David Niven, the star of The Pink Panther, to his eternal and gentlemanly credit, agreed that Clouseau was becoming a more important figure, reckoning that whatever helped the picture succeed would redound to his own good fortune. As the movie stands, Sellers is demonstrably not the star, but shares that status comfortably with the ever-ingratiating Niven, bifurcating the picture’s narrative rather perfectly. When, the following year Edwards was faced with saving the troubled movie adaptation of Harry Kurnitz’s play A Shot in the Dark‡, he hit upon the happy notion of reviving Clouseau and making him its center. Witty and elegant overall, The Pink Panther becomes, with the addition of Sellers, comedically sublime. But The Pink Panther is to its immediate successor as the musical Company is to the later Follies: The necessary step. Splendid in itself, but despite its riches somewhat undernourished in comparison.


The Pink Panther - Peter Sellers and David Niven

Clouseau and The Phantom face off. Interestingly, when the Pink Panther attempts Niven’s maneuver during the main titles, it quite literally blows up in his roseate animated face.

The Pink Panther (1963) was Edwards and Richler’s variation on Raffles, a comparison made manifest, if not unavoidable, by the casting of Niven, who had played Raffles in 1939, as Sir Charles Lytton, aka “The Phantom,” an international playboy and secret jewel thief whose calling-card, left behind at each theft, is a white glove with a glittery “P” embroidered onto it. That The Pink Panther is a comedy and not a mystery, or even — like the later A Shot in the Dark and The Return of the Pink Panther — a comic mystery, is evident from the beginning, when Sir Charles’ compatriot (and, it is eventually revealed, his lover) Simone (Capucine) is shown to be the wife of Inspector Clouseau in disguise. Edwards and Richlin thus put horns on Clouseau early on, and provide an additional irony: The very woman Clouseau is searching for to bring him closer to the Phantom is his own mate. The fun of the picture, aside from the pleasure of watching Edwards’ obvious gift at placing his camera in the only place possible to best prolong his gags and to capture their payoffs, lies in watching the filmmaker juggle his characters, the guilty and the unknowing just missing each other, like the participants of a Feydeau farce slamming the doors of an overstuffed hotel suite.

And indeed at the halfway point, Edwards and Richlin serve up a Feydeau comedy in miniature during the long, breathtakingly inspired sequence in the Clouseaus’ Italian Alps hotel room. The Clouseaus have (presumably at Madame Clouseau’s instigation) the room adjoining Sir Charles’ suite, complete unto a convenient, hidden shared door. Edwards and Richlin have already tantalized us with a previous, five-minute sequence in the Clouseau’s room which Edwards began with his camera focused on the edge of the Clouseaus’ double-bed and which he holds on, even after Clouseau extinguishes the bedroom light. It’s a typically elegant Edwardsian set-up: We need not really see anything clearly to be amused by what is going on, as the inspector is repeatedly made to abandon the bed to do Simone’s bidding, culminating (naturally) in his stepping through the Stradivarius he has been serenading her with in a fashion that would cause even Jack Benny to blanch. Yet, this is merely the beginning of the filmmakers’ ingenuity. The scenarists now give us, in a second Jacques/Simone sequence, fifteen minutes of superbly contrived and exquisitely controlled physical comedy during which Simone Clouseau must contend, not only with her husband’s amorous advances, but with the unexpected appearances of, first, Sir Charles’ randy young nephew George (Robert Wagner) and, later, of Sir Charles himself, to each of whose presence she must keep the other in ignorance, and hide from her husband. It is during this alternately manic and leisurely two-reeler-within-a-film that Sellers’ Clouseau takes over the picture and becomes more than a character in a movie; at one and the same time the actor conjures and cements his status as a comedic icon before our dazzled eyes.

The Pink Panther titles

The title card from Friz Freleng’s superb animated credits, as elegant in their own way as Edwards’ direction of the picture.

While Sellers is the source of the lion’s share of the picture’s physical humor, Niven is the butt of two splendid gags, the best of which involves his falling into (and nonchalantly walking out of) a massive Alpine snowbank; Capucine memorably chokes on her drink and, later, slides exquisitely off the satin sheets of a bed as Clouseau attempts to make love to her; and Wagner gets a funny bathtub sequence and shares with Niven a brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, extended silent-comedy scene involving two identical gorilla costumes and an empty safe that McCarey (who created the marvelous silent mirror sequence between Groucho and Harpo in Duck Soup) might have been proud to have concocted. It is Clouseau, however, who, alone among these figures, incorporates the slapstick into his character. To catch his fingers in a spinning globe, reach up and slap a metal fireplace hood with his unprotected palm or destroy a priceless violin is as much a part of him as his mustache and the white trench-coat he habitually wears and which, to him, symbolizes his position and indeed his very identity.

With Clouseau, to be accident-prone is not enough; he must gloss over his innate physical ineptitude, or pretend it’s the result of a deliberate calculation (“I know that!“). In no other way can he maintain the absurd dignity without which his entire persona would dissolve into a complete and insignificant ruin. Edwards and Sellers enjoy puncturing this utterly unearned sense of authority whenever they can, as when Clouseau leans over in the hotel hallway to peer up at an ascending Sir Charles and forgets he’s holding a glass of milk… which pours suggestively onto the floor and which, like a later bottle of champagne that explodes in the Clouseaus’ bed, is the perfect comic embodiment of the detective’s perennial impotency with his wife. (Or, indeed, throughout the series, with any woman he romances.) It is this aplomb in the face of his own, demonstrable incompetence, much more than his increasingly impenetrable accent, that solidifies Sellers’ Clouseau as one of the great comic institutions of American movies. Yet even at the end, when he has unwittingly “revealed” himself in court as the Phantom, Clouseau triumphs: Faced with his own sudden notoriety and instant irresistibility to women, he answers a policeman’s admiring, “How did you manage it?” with a slight, smug little smile and the contented response, “Well, you know… it wasn’t easy.”

Not quite a patch on “The son of a bitch stole my watch” or “Well, nobody’s perfect” in the classic, switcheroo last-line department, but a respectable third, wholly and hilariously in character.


While A Shot in the Dark (1964) lacks the charm with which Niven, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale infuse The Pink Panther, it is far funnier, in part because Sellers is in nearly every scene but also because Edwards and his co-scenarist, William Peter Blatty (yes, that William Peter Blatty), expand the contours of Clouseau’s persona, and his insular universe. Now single, he lives not alone but with a Chinese manservant, the redoubtable Cato (Bert Kwouk), whose major duty appears to be keeping the inspector in trim by attacking him “wherever and whenever possible.” William Luhr and Peter Lehrman, in the first of their two critical studies of Edwards, find in this situation a homosexual identification, but they are reading far too much into an innocent, if admittedly outré, comic set-up. As with the milieu of Laurel and Hardy, it is specious, even hysterical (if not downright suspect) to assign sexual identity to what is essentially a fantasy world. Stan and Ollie are grown-up children, with the logic and reactions of young boys. And Clouseau, like Bugs Bunny, transcends the strict psycho-sexual readings of both nervous heterosexual academics and overly literal gay fans.

A Shot in the Dark - Sellers and Kwouk

Not tonight, Cato!: The immortal Bert Kwouk struggles with Sellers in A Shot in the Dark.

It is with A Shot in the Dark too that Edwards and Blatty introduce the character who, more than any other, will complicate and brighten the Clouseau pictures. In the interestingly named Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and the inspired performances of Herbert Lom, the series gains perhaps its most necessary element: A character who sees Jacques Clouseau precisely as the audience does, and is driven insane, not merely by Clouseau’s stunning incompetence, but the way in which that blazingly obvious inanity somehow always manages to triumph, and for which his hopeless underling is consistently rewarded. Worse, of course, is Dreyfus’ own lethal inadequacy; Clouseau, for all his incompetence, never causes the death of an innocent bystander (as opposed, in The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Revenge of the Pink Panther, to unintentionally dispatching a covey of assassins), whereas in his homicidal madness Dreyfus’ path is littered with the bodies of those he inadvertently murders trying to get at his nemesis. These deaths too break the pain barrier; one laughs, not at the killings, but at how they are brought about, and at the increasing dementia they bring on in the murderer. By the end of A Shot in the Dark there is scarcely a supporting character left standing, or in one piece.

Edwards’ enviable control as a director of comedy is made manifest during the astonishing pre-title sequence, in which, to the accompaniment of a marvelously overheated Henry Mancini ballad, he holds on the back side of a suburban mansion for nearly four-and-a-half minutes, the camera craning smoothly up and down as various amatory characters climb and descend staircases, flit in and out of bedroom doorways and evade each other’s notice, a breathtaking feat of comic timing which marks a dizzying evolution in Edwards’ elegant approach to screen humor. (Compare this with the highly-touted dormitory set Jerry Lewis had built for his 1961 The Ladies’ Man and which he uses in an extended sequence that, because it adds little or nothing to the narrative, reeks of an actor-turned-filmmaker showing off: “Look at me! I’m a director!“) A later sequence with Sellers in a nudist colony is only slightly less impressive — although admittedly much funnier — as is the superb running-gag of Clouseau, in the first instance in the series of his penchant for disguises, repeatedly attempting to follow murder suspect Elke Sommer and being picked up by the local gendarmerie for license violations, the physical traces of his latest ruse sticking out of the back of the police van as Edwards cuts to it racing across the city. Like the car chase through a deserted Roman street populated only by the drivers and a single late-night trattoria-crawler attempting to cross the boulevard with which Edwards climaxes the action in The Pink Panther, these recurring gags exhibit proof positive of the writer/director’s peerless gift for transliterating the techniques of silent comedy to the sound picture with no loss of invention and no diminution whatsoever of audience laughter.


Edwards and Sellers - Return of the Pink Panther

Both Edwards and Sellers fell on difficult times in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Sellers through making far too many bad movies§, Edwards via repeated contretemps with studios (Paramount and MGM) and studio chiefs (Charles Bludhorn, Robert Evans, the serpentine Jim Aubrey) that destroyed his pictures and, ultimately, his ability to work. Following a retreat to Gstaad with his wife Julie Andrews, the couple re-emerged in 1974 with the minor but immensely pleasurable The Tamarind Seedwhich restored Edwards’ confidence and provided both him and Andrews a respectable box-office success. With this foundation beneath him, Edwards opted to revive Clouseau, who had latterly been reduced to a Saturday morning cartoon character and diminished through the (non-Edwards) 1968 Alan Arkin vehicle Inspector Clouseau, a picture reputedly so poor as to be virtually unwatchable. Made for $5 million, The Return of the Pink Panther grossed nearly $42 million in the U.S. alone, resurrecting Sellers’ career, putting Edwards back on top and, somewhat perversely, yoking both writer-director and star to the Clouseau franchise… at a time when tensions between the two were so pronounced they could barely communicate with each other. Even well after Sellers’ death, Edwards found he could get funding from MGM/United Artists for anything he wanted to do by promising another Panther, leading ultimately to those deathless classics Curse of the Pink Panther with Ted Wass (who?) and Son of the Pink Panther starring the militantly unfunny Roberto Benigni.

I well recall the delight with which I saw Return on its 1975 release; only once before (at What’s Up, Doc? in 1972) had I laughed that much, that consistently, and that hard, in a movie theatre. By the time Edwards unreeled his achingly funny penultimate gag, I (and presumably everyone else in the packed audience) was limp and sore from continuous and at times gut-busting laughter. While, in retrospect, Edwards over-relies on sadism in Christopher Plummer’s treatment of Graham Stark’s duplicitous Pepi, and even as it isn’t the funniest entry in the series, almost everything about it works. It arguably represents the apogee of the Clouseau/Cato dynamic and of the Dreyfus character; has in Catherine Schell’s Lady Lytton the most satisfying feminine character of the series; is perhaps the best-plotted Clouseau picture after A Shot in the Dark; and, in an era in which American movie comedy was so moribund that, were it not for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and apart from mostly regrettable live-action Disney outings, peripheral caper titles (The Sting), comic dramas (Harry and Tonto and Paper Moon), or pitch-black satires (The Hospital and Phantom of the Paradise) there would have been virtually no comedies of note. For all the richness of 1970s cinema — to my mind the last great flowering of American movie-making and the final such Renaissance we are ever likely to get — few of the important filmmakers of the time either knew anything about effective comedy direction, or cared. All of which made Edwards’ assurance and technical sophistication so refreshing then, and, at a time of sour, sarcastic and mean-spirited post-Seinfeld comedy, so very welcome now.

While the otherwise estimable Plummer makes a far colder, and almost infinitely less charming, Sir Charles than did David Niven, the action Edwards and his co-author Frank Waldman devised for the character required a younger and more agile man, especially as regards the elaborate opening sequence, wonderfully scored by Mancini, limning the daring theft of the Pink Panther; since we only find out who the Ninja-like culprit was at the climax, it’s vital we believe Sir Charles capable of it. Likewise, Plummer’s imperturbable sangfroid is sorely needed when faced with Peter Arne’s serpentine Colonel Sharki. Schell was hired to portray Lady Lytton as much for her easy laughter as for her generous good looks or innate comic ability; whether or not the actress is actually breaking up on screen at Sellers’ antics, that the character is so obviously amused by Clouseau’s ineptitude, and so adept at hiding her reactions from him, makes her recurrent parrying with him even more delicious. It’s the only time in the series that one of the Inspector’s foils betrays a winking appreciation of his utter imbecility. Everyone else is either outraged, or takes him seriously.

Return of the Pink Panther - Sellers, Plummer and Schell

“Good Sharki, Colonel God! We were just talking about you!”: Sellers, Peter Arne, Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell in The Return of the Pink Panther.

Sellers is pudgier here than in his previous Clouseau movies, and a bit jowly, but his inspiration is just as clearly in evidence. And it is in The Return of the Pink Panther that the character’s curious mispronunciations make their first appearance. His accent is so exaggerated even the French can’t understand him: Bomb becomes “beumb,” bump “beump,” room “ruem,” monkey “muenky,” and the law “the leu.” It can come as a bit of a shock to those who were introduced to the character with the 1970s Clouseaus, and who then go back to his origins, that in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark Sellers speaks so clearly, his accent comprised of two parts soft French to one part hard Etonian. Clouseau’s later speech is an absurd joke, of course, since everyone on screen is, while he or she is supposed to be speaking French, actually talking in English anyway. But it’s a funny one; Sellers’ encounter with a French shopkeeper determined to sound more Gallic than De Gaulle bequeathed to the Panthers, in verbal terms, what the Pythons’ run-in with an obnoxious Torquay hotelier later gave to Fawlty Towers.

Return-of-the-Pink-Panther-Richard Williams

Following Richard Williams’ and Ken Harris’ glorious, exquisitely designed and animated main title — Harris’ touch is strongly evident in the Panther’s dance moves and, especially, his 180-degree turn perched on the head of a cartoon Sellers —  Edwards introduces this updated Clouseau via a series of gags emphasizing his absent-minded gallantry (saluting a pretty girl on the street, he smacks himself in the eye with his baton), his verbal quirks (“Then the muenky’s brahking the leu!“) and his single-minded — if “mind” is the correct word — pursuit of justice: Haranguing a blind street musician and his chimp, he never notices the bank robbery taking place just behind a plate-glass window and even holds open a door for the thieves. Thus in a single, cunningly devised sequence, Edwards fully establishes the (slightly revised) character for a new audience. This is followed hard on by a Clouseau/Dreyfus confrontation, and an extended Clouseau/Cato encounter emphasizing the filmmaker’s mastery of the full widescreen shot and his willingness to graft riotous new effects onto an established format, as when he not only shoots Clouseau’s flying lunge at Cato and through the top of a Dutch-door in slow-motion but slows down the soundtrack as well, making the detective’s karate cry first hilarious, then excruciatingly funny, as it mutates into a 16-rpm bellow of surprise, terror and pain. And when he repeats this explosive gag at the picture’s climax, topping the topper and making us wait ninety minutes for it, we roar both at the business itself (and how well it’s been staged), and at Edwards’ audacity in pulling off the trick again and making the repetition even funnier the second time.

Similarly, a long sequence in Gstaad involving Clouseau in disguise as a hotel porter making a shambles of Lady Lytton’s suite and doing battle with a “swine” parrot as well as a perverse light-bulb, a high-powered vacuum cleaner, an in-room sauna and a massive masseuse, is a virtual master-class on topping the topper and breaking the pain barrier; it could almost be its own silent two-reeler. And the jokes really build, paying off as the sequence un-spools, or merely repeating for a quick laugh several minutes after their initial introduction. Less elaborate but no less instructive is the way Edwards frames a disastrous attack on Clouseau by Cato in his hotel room, holding on the doorway as Sellers enters the bath, in which we know there is a tub full of water, and is swiftly followed by Kwouk; we hear their screams just before a small tsunami of bathwater cascades into the hallway, and what we imagine is far funnier than what we would have seen had Edwards shot the gag straight-on. Does any comedy director today understand this approach, or why it’s so damn funny? Do any of them care to?


The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) is the silliest of the Clouseaus, and one of the funniest. His brain having, finally, completely cracked due to his foil’s well-meaning interference, Dreyfus becomes a kind of giddy James Bond super-villain, first assembling an army of assassins and, when that fails, threatening the world with a disintegration ray if Clouseau is not killed. (I said it was silly.)  The plot is ludicrous, the special-effects crude and unconvincing, the presence of a butler/drag-queen performer (Michael Robbins) verges on the offensive ‖, the Gerald Ford/Henry Kissinger stand-ins are obvious and flat (Kissinger is too hideous a figure to have fun with and, next to a world-champion bumbler like Clouseau, the somewhat accident-prone Ford was a piker), both Leonard Rossiter and Cloin Blakely are wasted as Scotland Yard officials, and the love story involving Sellers and Leslie Anne Down as a Soviet killer is patently ridiculous; after being made love to by Omar Sharif, whom she mistakes for Clouseau, she defects. Yet the picture is almost profligate with uproarious gags, from the darkly funny psychiatric asylum opening and the Richard Williams titles with their movie hilarious parody/hommages¶, through Dreyfus spying on Clouseau’s apartment from below and preparing a bomb which, thanks to an over-pumped Quasimodo disguise and the detective’s typical dumb luck, fails spectacularly; the parade of frustrated assassins; Clouseau’s hysterically funny encounter with a set of parallel bars and his subsequent wrecking of a priceless antique piano; Graham Stark’s memorable cameo as an ancient hotelier (“That is not my dog”); Clouseau’s achingly funny attempts to scale the drawbridge of Dreyfus’ castle lair; detective and quarry becoming affected by nitrous oxide and screaming with laughter as Clouseau pulls one of his ersatz boss’s teeth (the wrong one, naturally); right up to the explosive finale, an extension of the Quasimodo sequence, in which Sellers, Downe and Kwouk are, in a vague echo of Leo McCarey’s narrative about the tragic hospital patient, thrown through the wall of Clouseau’s apartment and dumped, hilariously, into the Seine. And even that topper has a topper, with Williams’ final movie parody during the end titles.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again - Sellers

The Pink Panther Strikes Again: Clouseau demonstrates his facility, such as it is, with the nunchaku. Note the pleasing salmon in the background. The filmmaker clearly appreciated pastels, and how they photographed in color and widescreen; where almost everyone else’s comedies of the time were either garish-looking, or dull, Edwards’ interiors are full of soft, well-matched colors that contrast perfectly with the often absurd action taking place within them.

The picture also contains Mancini’s best Clouseau score, and one of the finest of his long career. One of the most difficult jobs for a movie composer to pull off is to score comedy without resorting either to “mickeymousing” or attempting to sound funny. Vic Mizzy did it wonderfully, as have John Morris, David Shire and Dave Grusin, but its masters are few. Mancini approached scoring humor much as Edwards did filming it: Seriously. While his Clouseau compositions are timed to the physical action, very rarely are they demonstrably amusing in themselves. More often they are suspenseful (Mancini’s facility with scoring tension is wildly underappreciated#) or charming, as in this picture’s delicate “Inspector Clouseau Theme,” actually first heard over Dreyfus’ spying on him from the flat beneath his, and his subsequent “Evil Theme” for Dreyfus which achieves its apotheosis in the climactic sequence, in which the last image of a disintegrating Lom is his twitching eye. Mancini’s gift for melody was so seemingly effortless, his success as a purveyor of “bachelor pad” LPs so ubiquitous, that he seldom got the praise he assuredly deserved. The Strikes Again score ranks with his Charade, The Great Race, Two for the Road, The Hawaiians and Lifeforce as true Mancini masterworks.

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Where The Pink Panther Strikes Again was thin, Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) is sheerest gossamer — a scandal in anemia. My friends and I knew this even then, and while we enjoyed its best moments, we felt decidedly let down by it, and a little depressed. The picture had the strong feel of creative people delivering product but having no enthusiasm for it; it’s both the shortest of the Sellers Clouseaus, and the dullest. (Even the animated titles, set to a disco version of “The Pink Panther Theme,” are a let-down.) Much of the ennui was due, apparently, to Sellers’ heart condition, and his inability — presumably because of medication — to remember lines. And although its running-time is a brief 98 minutes, the picture somehow feels longer than any of its predecessors: When you make a comedy in which Dyan Cannon and Bert Kwouk aren’t funny, something is terribly, terribly wrong. Using the word “boring” in the context of discussing the Pink Panthers was something I, up to the age of 17 anyway, never thought I’d have cause to do. And if we were that bored by it, think how Edwards must have felt.

Revenge of the Pink Panther

“I’m a little short”: Clouseau sports an Auguste Balls costuming masterpiece in Revenge of the Pink Panther. Note the hilariously incongruous sneakers and the anachronistic, spherical lit-fuse bomb, a silent-movie trope and an Edwards staple.

Revenge is so halfhearted it reprises Sellers’ indelible final line from Dr. Strangelove during a scene in which he dons a Toulouse Lautrec outfit (“I can walk!”) and doesn’t even bother to explain Dreyfus’ physical presence in the story. Wasn’t he a world-famous terrorist last time? Wasn’t he disintegrated? Yet there he is, back in the asylum, preparing once more to re-emerge from madness (and waiting, of course, for Clouseau to drive him insane again.) Lom’s presence is necessary to the comedy, if only, once Clouseau has been declared dead, for his peerless delivery of the eulogy; he’s presumed by the memorial audience to be weeping in uncontrollable grief when he is, of course, paralyzed with hysterical laughter. The business of Clouseau using his own supposed murder as a means of investigating his would-be killers undercover can feel, in retrospect, a bit ghoulish, given Sellers’ own death two years later, but as he was very much alive in 1978, one need not take that too seriously. It’s of greater import that, aside from a few good gags at the beginning (notably Clouseau’s appearance as a Swedish sailor with a peg-leg and an inflatable parrot) and again during the Hong Kong climax, it’s a dispirited — and dispiriting — exercise that left us wondering in ’78 how the series could hope to surmount the damned thing; it seemed very much a dead-end.**

At the time of its release, the most interesting aspect of The Revenge of the Pink Panther for me lay in trying to figure out whether that really was Cary Grant doing a middle-distance cameo as a businessman knocked over by Cato on the far side of the widescreen frame in the Hong Kong hotel lobby, or merely some older gentleman costumed and coiffed to look, and dubbed to sound, like him.††

Alas, it’s still the most interesting thing in the picture.


Utterly unnecessary, except that it permitted Edwards to set up the narrative for the subsequent Curse of the Pink Panther (why?), the 1982 The Trail of the Pink Panther, which he shot simultaneously with Curse, can at least be said to be funnier than its predecessor. To say that’s damning the picture with faint praise is a bit like observing that Herr Hitler was not a terribly nice fellow. But there are enough amusing outtakes from the three ’70s Clouseaus, and fill-in footage from the first two (for which — all too typically of the cavalier attitudes and disorganized practices of United Artists — no additional footage appears to exist) to satisfy our craving for Sellers, although some of the spoken introductions to these clips are ham-fisted in the extreme, and a couple of the sequences show all too plainly why they were excised to begin with, such as Harvey Korman’s extended scene as Auguste Balls, cut from The Pink Panther Strikes Again and redeemed only by Clouseau’s hilariously wrong-headed “compliments” on the hideous nose of Liz Smith’s Mme. Balls. It’s hardly Korman’s fault; he does what he can, but the sequence is simply not funny, and certainly not funny enough to have started either Strikes Again or this picture’s narrative. Similarly, a lengthy new gag involving a border collie herding Clouseau’s ancient childhood governess, while well staged and shot, just lies there, refusing to be funny.

Trail of the Pink Panther

The Trail of the Pink Panther: Harvey Korman, trying his best to be amusing as Professor Auguste Balls, fits Clouseau with new prosthetics in a sequence cut from the beginning of The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

What is best about Trail are Lom’s new scenes as Dreyfus, particularly one with his pop-song obsessed psychiatrist (Ronald Fraser) and two involving his swimming pool (you just heard Sellers saying, “swaim-ang-a peul?,” didn’t you?) which have wonderful pay-offs; and Joanna Lumley as a Parisian television reporter determined to get to the bottom of Clouseau’s disappearance. Lumley’s sharp way with a line, and her unerring instincts, make you long for her to have had the opportunity to enjoy a tête-à-tête with Sellers along Catherine Schell lines. The ever-dry Graham Stark provides a charming turn as Hercule from A Shot in the Dark and Richard Mulligan brings his unique comic inspiration and physical ingenuity to the role of Clouseau’s aged vintner father. Capucine also shows up, incongruously, as Simone Lytton née Clouseau, causing the mind to wander on intangibles — did they divorce before Sir Charles married Schell’s Claudine, then re-marry? — rather than concentrate on the admittedly less-than-compelling dialogue. David Niven looks fine, but was already suffering from motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gehrig’s in the States) and had to be dubbed. The otherwise overrated Rich Little did a surprisingly good job of it, although once you know it’s him you can’t help detecting the timbre of his voice at certain moments.

There are several good (though mostly not great) cut gags resurrected here, like the automobile cigarette lighter sequence between Sellers and André Maranne’s reliably phlegmatic François, and Clouseau’s battle with an elevator gate and a leaking bag of groceries, trimmed from what would have been a longer scene in Strikes Again following the Korman/Balls sequence. The comic highlight of the picture, however, is a truly splendid and absolutely satisfying sequence, also cut from Strikes Again, involving Clouseau, a wall telephone, two hotel windows and an utterly oblivious Mack truck of a maid (Claire Davenport, the memorable masseuse of The Return of the Pink Panther) that by itself almost justifies the entire picture and reminds us anew just how treasurable Blake Edwards was as a comic technician, and how beautifully he achieved the breaking of the pain barrier.

There is absolutely no excuse, however, for the terrible job of dubbing someone (possibly Robert Rietty?) did for Clouseau; the stresses and emphases are correct but the tone, the timbre — the very essence — of Sellers’ voice is utterly and completely missing.

There was a lesson in that. I only wish MGM/UA had heeded it.


* Bogdanovich re-created McCarey’s nightclub moment in At Long Last Love (1975) but without the necessary set-up the sequence was less amusing than vaguely obnoxious.

† Edwards dedicated his delightful 1965 The Great Race to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Likewise, his epic, scientifically imagined, pie fight in that memorable comedy was likely a tribute to Stan and Babe’s silent Battle of the Century of 1928.

‡ Itself based on a French farce by Marcel Achard, the 1961 A Shot in the Dark on Broadway starred Julie Harris in the Elke Sommer part, Walter Matthau in George Sanders’ role, and, of all people, William Shatner in the lead. Achard’s original French title was, in view of its subsequent movie adaptation, remarkably prescient: L’Idiote.

§ Only two of Sellers’ pictures from that time are worth seeing — both of which appeared in 1968 and neither of which was as successful as it deserved to be: The sly Paul Mazursksy and Larry Tucker-written social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and the often hilarious The Party, which Edwards directed and co-wrote with Tom and Frank Waldman but which was largely improvised. Birdie Num-Nums, anyone?

‖ I had long thought that the voice doubling Robbins’ nightclub singing, filled as it is with Julie Andrews-like swoops and vocalizations, was a teasing joke by Edwards at his wife’s expense. Turns out she did the dubbing herself. “A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?” Yes.

¶ To Alfred Hitchcock, BatmanKing KongDracula, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the RainSweet Charity‘s “Hey, Big Spender” and, most hilariously, Julie Andrews twirling on the mountain in The Sound of Music, the whole, brilliantly executed sequence anchored to the background of a gorgeous old silver movie palace.

# His cues “The Return of the Pink Panther” Parts 1 and 2 on the soundtrack album for that picture give a fair idea of how effective Mancini’s action scoring can be, even in a serio-comic context.

** In fact, Edwards planned it as the last in the series. Sellers later got MGM/UA interested in a Clouseau script he had written, and in which movie he insisted Edwards was to have no part, but died before the project could begin.

†† I still don’t know, but given Grant’s contentious relationship with Edwards on Operation Petticoat in 1959, it seems unlikely he’d had done the filmmaker the favor of a cameo… although he just might have for Cannon, his former wife.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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

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 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 road runner and coyote “in cat and a mouse 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 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 Jones’ 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

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

À la recherche du animé perdu: The Proust of American cartoons

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By Scott Ross

Recently, some fourteen years after purchasing it, I finally pulled Michael Barrier’s massive animation history Hollywood Cartoons from the shelf. As a life-long cartoon nut, I’ve amassed (and yes, actually read) a pleasant and — until now, I had thought, pretty thorough — little library of books on the subject. The best of these offer either an encyclopedic overview (Charles Solomon’s Enchanted Drawings, Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic) or detailed celebrations of a studio, animator, feature or cartoon character (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life; Leslie Carbaga’s The Fleischer Story; Joe Adamson’s Tex Avery: King of Cartoons and Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hair; Steve Schneider’s That’s All, Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation, Neal Gabler’s magnificent Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and Pierre Lambert’s stunning Pinocchio, the ne plus ultra of coffee-table books on a single animated feature.) But no individual title I’ve encountered has offered more detailed history, staggeringly annotated, along with a great critic and scholar’s understanding of, and ability to articulate, not merely the history of its subject but the essential mechanics of its most dispiriting failures, its middling baby-steps and its greatest successes.

Barrier, the founder and publisher of Funnyworld, which his Wikipedia entry describes as “the first magazine exclusively devoted to comics and animation,” draws on decades of research and his own interviews with the great exponents of American animation — pick a name at random and, if he was alive in the 1970s, chances are the author interviewed him — to shape the narrative, which, despite one’s own knowledge of cartoon history, attains a kind of breathless anxiety as one reads. (Will Walt and his staff finally pull off Snow White?) Barrier’s attention to technical detail, admirable in itself, is secondary to his innate comprehension not only of what makes for a successful cartoon, but of the tensions between what was aimed for and what was achieved, as well as the irony attendant upon the creators’ intentions and how they go awry — not always to the detriment of the total effect; at times, the “failure” leads to even greater artistic achievement.

Walt Disney with key animator Ward Kimball in 1939. One of Kimball’s early triumphs was his re-design of Jiminy Cricket. Note caricature of Walt.

I am continually astonished at the breadth of Barrier’s scope, particularly regarding Disney. His finely-detailed, critically astute (if occasionally a bit unforgiving) rendering of the oft-told tale of the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proves that nearly everything I thought I knew about it was either entirely simplistic, woefully ignorant, or sheer myth-making. Disney himself emerges as not merely one thing or another — the result of years of, on the one hand, hagiography and, on the other, willful disparagement — but, as with most human beings (and as Richard II notes in Shakespeare’s version) “in one person many people.” Uncouth, unlettered and vulgar yet deeply sensitive, intuitive and, contradictorily, not always able to articulate the exact nature of what he wanted, nor of how to get it. Yet I see in Barrier’s portrait of Walt a confirmation of my sense of Disney as the ultimate editor. While in later life, distracted by huge projects (Disneyland, EPCOT, animatronics) he became increasingly aloof from the movies his studio produced — seemingly even a bit bored by them — his animators have often cited his ability to look at a sequence of animation and immediately grasp its problems, even unto knowing instinctively the exact foot of film in which the quirk resided. Barrier finds the historical precedents for Walt’s shifting enthusiasms, particularly when his interest in Pinocchio waned even as it was being designed and written, in favor of his pet project, the ill-advised Fantasia.

I have a few quarrels with the author’s opinions: rumblings of political conservatism are echoed at his website, where few things seem to fill him with more horror than liberalism, unless it is the dread “Eastern Liberalism.” Nor can I fathom either his nit-picking attitude to Pinocchio or his refusal to see the obvious genius of Friz Freleng. Yet I can scarcely imagine a finer, more fulsome account of the American cartoon than Barrier’s.

Indeed, he seems to me the veritable Proust of animation.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross



Post-Script
That last line bothered me a little; after writing it, I was sure I had read something similar.

I had.

Larry McMurtry’s comment on Pauline Kael: “She is, indeed, the Edmund Wilson of film reviewers.”

Apologies to the shade of one, and the living hide of the other.