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Bob Clampett Remembered

By Milton Gray

Bob Clampett was a delightful person and an astonishingly creative cartoon director. His Warner cartoons, in particular, stand easily among the greatest and most original cartoons made to date. I was very fortunate to have known him, as a personal friend and as my mentor, from about 1971 to 1984.

Sadly, there seems to be an ever-growing legend about Bob Clampett the Terrible Person among younger cartoon fans who never knew him. This legend actually began as a deliberate and vicious smear campaign by one of Bob's rivals in the cartoon business, and it seems to be widely believed today. Echoes of it occasionally appear in cartoon fan magazines, even by people who mean no harm and think they are passing along authentic cartoon history.

I have some important first-hand information on this subject, which I would like to share. I think the best way I can present this is in a chronological context, because the nature of the attack on Bob Clampett's reputation changed and evolved over time. To explain what I observed as I observed it, I pretty much have to start with a little about my own background.

As a teenager in the late 1950s, living near Portland, Oregon, I watched all the old theatrical cartoons that were just beginning to be re-released on television, which included early silent cartoons, plus many of the Golden Age Terrytoons, Disney, Warners, Lantz, Fleischer, Famous, Harman-Ising and Columbia cartoons, in about that order. They were all strangely different, and many of them were wonderful. In time, though, I became aware that the cartoons that thrilled me the most, on every level, were the Warner cartoons directed by "Robert Clampett."

I was so intensely interested in all these theatrical cartoons that I was eager to learn anything I could about how they were made and who made them. In those days, though, there was practically nothing in print about animation, other than three books on Disney and the first Preston Blair how-to book, which I studied avidly. Walt Disney and Walter Lantz appeared periodically on TV and gave us glimpses into what their studios were like, but there was nothing like that about the Warner cartoons.

I graduated high school in 1960 and was finally able to relocate to Los Angeles in July 1962. I wanted desperately to work in the cartoon industry and to meet the people whose work seemed so magical. Unfortunately, the cartoon industry had been in a serious decline since the early 1950s, and by 1962 it was almost nonexistent, with many veteran animation artists out of work, and certainly no room for a newcomer to break in. I spent the next three years working in various factory jobs and continuing to take art classes and practice drawing evenings and weekends, hoping that the animation industry might revive itself someday. During this time I never attempted to seek out any of the people I would have loved to meet; I assumed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that these people, like movie stars, might be hounded by fans and groupies, and I respected them too much to impose myself on them. During this time, though, I did get some occasional freelance comic book work, writing stories and inking pages for Western Publishing Company, mostly on Disney and Warner comics.

In September 1964 I began attending a semester of evening classes in animation at the University of Southern California, taught by J. C. "Bill" Melendez. Bill had begun in animation as an inbetweener at Disneys around the time of Snow White and had worked his way up to assistant animator. He left Disney's on the occasion of the 1941 studio strike and went to Warners, where he worked in Bob Clampett's unit as an assistant animator for Rod Scribner. Shortly after, Bill was promoted to animator in Clampett's unit, beginning with Falling Hare. At my urging, Bill told lots of stories about various people and events at the Disney and Warner studios, and I was especially eager to hear anything about Bob Clampett.

According to Bill Melendez, Bob Clampett was a wild and crazy guy in real life, much like his cartoon characters were on the screen. Bob was also a personable guy, and very sincere about making the best cartoons he could. I wanted to live in that wild cartoon world, and I thought that perhaps working with someone like Bob Clampett would be the closest thing to it, so now I wanted to meet Bob Clampett more than ever.

In December 1964 a notice was posted in the USC animation department that a meeting of animators and animation fans would take place later that month. I attended, and the meeting took place in a large screening room, a full theater-size auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. The crowd filled the auditorium. I was undoubtedly surrounded by animators and animation artists, although at that time I didn't recognize any of the people I saw. This was in fact the first ASIFA meeting to take place in the United States. ASIFA is an organization that originated in France in 1960, by independent animation filmmakers. At this first meeting in Los Angeles, several amateur-looking European animated films were screened (which bored me to death), and there were several people who took turns making brief introductory statements. Most of these people sounded as though they preferred the low budget, poorly animated (and pretentious) kind of films to the Hollywood studio productions, precisely because these low budget films would allow them to compete with each other, as dilettantes among dilettantes.

One of the speakers, though, was Chuck Jones, who spoke instead of the value of good character animation, as performed by highly-skilled and knowledgeable animators. I, as a big fan of Chuck's Warner cartoons, was delighted to see somebody whose work I knew and admired, and I was especially grateful that Chuck spoke out so passionately about the values that mean so much to me.

More ASIFA meetings took place after this initial screening; these subsequent meetings were just informal get-togethers, on a roughly monthly schedule, and were attended by a smaller crowd. Some of the regulars were of the dilettante sort, but the rest were Hollywood animation professionals who had worked at various major studios over many years. I made every effort to get acquainted with the Hollywood professionals and learn all I could, including stories about people whose work I especially admired. Although Chuck Jones had been a speaker at the initial screening, he did not attend the subsequent meetings, nor did any of the other famous Warner animation directors. Perhaps for that reason, the people I met there seemed quite candid in their comments about the Warner cartoon directors.

Mentions of Bob Clampett were all positive, and generally along the same lines as the stories I had heard from Bill Melendez. To my disappointment, though, people who knew Chuck Jones tended to describe Chuck as a sort of cold and calculating person and generally expressed a dislike for him.

In August 1965, through one of my contacts at the ASIFA meetings, I got a job interview at the Disney Studio, and to my surprise I was immediately hired into the animation department as an in-betweener, and put to work on The Jungle Book. Here at last I was working with real professionals every day! Several of them had worked only at Disney's their entire careers, but several others had previously worked for years at the Warner cartoon studio. From these people I gathered many more stories and impressions of the people and events at the Warner studio, and from these the personalities of the different Warner directors emerged rather clearly and consistently. Briefly, Friz Freleng was described as a generally grouchy person, but frank and honest. Bob McKimson's personality was described as being as wooden and mechanical as the cartoons that he directed. Tex Avery, at Warners as well as MGM, was described as gregarious, fun to be around, although a compulsive worrier when he had to make decisions about details in his cartoons. Bob Clampett continued to be described as creative and friendly, albeit rather eccentric, maybe a little crazy. Descriptions of Chuck Jones, sadly, maintained that he was a talented but spiteful and vindictive person. It was regarded as common knowledge that Chuck Jones let it be known that he felt that What's Opera, Doc? was his best film, and that he judged his friends by how they reacted to it—and heaven help anyone who spoke of it in a critical way.

Walt Disney died in December 1966, and by spring of 1967 we had completed the animation on The Jungle Book. Several of us with the least seniority were laid off until animation on the next cartoon feature got under way. Because of my Disney experience I was hired right away by Hanna-Barbera, as an assistant animator on their Saturday morning television shows. By now the animation industry was growing again, in size if not in quality, and Hanna-Barbera was at that time by far the largest employer of animation artists in Los Angeles. Here I met many more people who had worked for years in the various theatrical cartoon studios. Although I hated working on Saturday morning television product, I found myself surrounded by the people who represented the majority of theatrical animation history. For a student of animation history, this was a gold mine.

It was around the early summer of 1967 at Hanna-Barbera that I heard the first rumors, from a couple of different people, about Bob Clampett as "a bad person." I asked these people what they meant, but they were completely uncertain about the details; they said I should talk to Chuck Jones about that. At that time I still didn't know Chuck Jones. I didn't feel that I could just pick up the phone and call him. In the eyes of these other people, Chuck was still a rather powerful figure. Although the Warner cartoon studio had officially shut down in 1962, Chuck had been put in charge of a reopened MGM cartoon studio and was at least talking a lot about trying to re-establish a base for producing a quality product, at a time when quality animation had all but completely disappeared in the cartoon industry. In other words, Chuck Jones was the last shred of hope for quality that a lot of people had, and they were eager to curry favor with him, and do whatever that required. By contrast, Bob Clampett (whom I also still had not met) had practically gone into retirement following the completion of his Beany and Cecil television cartoons in 1962.

In August 1967 I took a week off work at Hanna-Barbera to fly to Montreal, Canada to attend a weeklong animation festival at the 1967 Montreal World's Fair. This was a special screening of the "best" of the Golden Age Hollywood cartoons, most of it shown in 35mm Technicolor prints, and it was attended by many of the directors and producers (and others) whose works were being shown. Between screenings I tried to find out who was in attendance and, as discreetly as possible, observe and eavesdrop on the people I was the most eager to know more about. As much as possible I kept hanging around near Chuck Jones.

It wasn't until rather late in the week that I was able to find out that Bob Clampett was also there. I could resist no longer; since I still didn't know what Bob looked like, I asked a mutual acquaintance to please introduce me. About a minute later I was meeting Bob and his wife, Sody. Bob and Sody were very cordial to me, and I blurted out a bunch of questions, from a mental list of questions that I would really want to ask if I ever met Bob, about his Warner cartoons, and to my delight Bob was able to answer them in detail. This was in sharp contrast to the responses I often got from other people I met, which was, "Gee, that was a long time ago, I can't remember." Those people evidently regarded their work as "just a job," but Bob obviously cared deeply enough about what he was involved in to remember it in quite a bit of detail.

Back at Hanna-Barbera, in November 1967 I heard that animator Benny Washam was giving weekly animation lessons in his home (for free!), and that his class was open to anyone—preferably people already in the business, or at least serious students. I joined his small roster of students immediately. Benny Washam was a really nice guy, and was one of Chuck Jones's top animators at Warners throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Benny was still animating for Chuck at MGM when such work was available; the rest of his work weeks were usually spent animating TV commercials for Jay Ward. Benny was completely devoted to Chuck Jones, to the extent that he would parrot whatever opinions Chuck currently expressed. Through Benny, I felt that I was getting a rather intimate insight into the person of Chuck Jones. According to Benny, Chuck had a sort of "enemies" list, and if any of us hoped to be looked upon favorably by Chuck, we had better not be friendly with, or speak favorably of, anyone on Chuck's list. The list was fairly lengthy, and I can't clearly remember all the names that were on it other than—in addition to Chuck's perennial favorites, Eddie Selzer and Leon Schlesinger—it definitely included Bob Clampett, Carl Stalling, Rod Scribner, and Walter Lantz—for reasons that Benny was always unable—or maybe unwilling—to articulate. For a while, Michael Maltese seemed to also be on Chuck's list, presumably for leaving Chuck in 1958 to work for Hanna-Barbera, for more money than Warners was willing to pay. On a few occasions, Benny was quite specific that if Chuck could have his way, all the Warner cartoons made before 1948 would be destroyed forever. I realized immediately what that meant: All the great Clampett and Tashlin Warner cartoons would become unknown, as well as all of Chuck's second-rate early works.

Over the next year or so, on a couple of occasions in Benny's weekly class, I inadvertently let slip that I like the Clampett Warner cartoons. Benny gave me some strange looks, and proceeded to tell us that we should all know better, that Bob was an immoral person and his cartoons were in bad taste, and so on in that vein. Myself, the more I heard about how "bad" Bob's cartoons allegedly were, the more I admired them. It seemed to me that what made them "bad" was simply that Bob dared to tell the truth in public, on the big movie screen, in a society that was (not unlike today) largely pretentious and hypocritical. Anyway, whatever there was that was "bad" in Bob's cartoons, I could always find examples of the same things in Chuck's cartoons, although I was careful not to say that in Benny's class.

Time went by. I kept working full time and spent my evenings and weekends doing animation pencil tests to be critiqued in Benny Washam's weekly animation class, and I learned a lot. In 1969 I finally had an excuse to see Bob Clampett again. I had been corresponding with Mike Barrier who was writing and publishing a scholarly magazine on comics and animation, called Funnyworld. Mike was going to fly to Los Angeles for a week to interview some people for the magazine, and he invited me to join him on as many of the interviews as my work schedule would allow. Among the people Mike interviewed on that trip were Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett. I was unable to attend the Chuck Jones interview, but I did attend the Bob Clampett interview.

Bob was wonderful. He told us a lot about the history of the Warner cartoon studio, and his involvement in it, and a little bit about the other people's involvement there. Bob also made available to Mike some photos and artwork to use for illustrations. Mike was planning to publish the Chuck Jones interview first, which was also rather extensive, but Chuck was slow in making visual material available, so Mike published some of the Clampett interview first. That was in Funnyworld issue #12.

Chuck Jones' reaction was vehement. He declared that anyone who would publish an interview with Bob Clampett could never publish an interview with Chuck Jones, and he withdrew his permission to publish his interview. Mike Barrier countered that he had already announced in Funnyworld 12 that the Chuck Jones interview would be in Funnyworld 13, and so if Chuck denied permission to publish the interview, Mike would have to explain to his readers why—and that Mike would not hesitate to tell the truth—which could only make Chuck look like a spoil sport. Chuck grudgingly backed down, and his interview was published in Funnyworld 13.

This incident gave Mike, and subsequently myself, as I became associate editor of Funnyworld, an excuse to continue contacting Chuck and ask him why he was so agitated about Bob. At first, all that Chuck could say was that Bob gave himself too much credit in the interview as published in Funnyworld 12. At that time, so little was known by anyone about the history of the Warner cartoons that, for a while, Mike and I could only grope in the dark, continue talking to both Chuck and Bob, and over the following years interview as many people as possible who also worked at Warners in those days, and compare everyone's stories to each other's, and to the films themselves. Today, with the advantage of this accumulated information, I would have to say that the vast majority of the information in the 1969 Clampett interview, as published in Funnyworld 12, is correct, although in a few places Bob did make some sweeping generalizations which suggested that he had done more than he had. Bob himself, in later interviews (which have not been published yet), readdressed those issues in more accurate detail. But a much larger fact relating to this needs to be addressed:

For many years surrounding 1969, it was practically impossible for anyone in animation outside of the Disney Studio to get any publicity or promotion for their careers, and almost the only way to get any at all was to claim to have been the creator of several famous cartoon characters. And so it was common in those days for the various Warner directors—including Chuck Jones, plus voice artist Mel Blanc—to claim the creation of virtually all of the Warner characters that they were ever associated with, in whatever little newspaper or magazine articles they could get. This practice led increasingly to injured feelings among the various Warner directors. Tex Avery once publicly criticized Chuck Jones for taking too much credit for the creation of Bugs Bunny, and I have a publicity release, which was being sent to the media from the DePatie-Freleng Studio as late as 1973, that flatly states that Friz Freleng was the sole creator of Bugs Bunny (who actually came into being while Friz was away at MGM for one-and-a-half years), Daffy Duck, Tweety, Porky and others. In 1969, Bob Clampett didn't really know Mike Barrier or myself, and the uncommonly intense integrity that we brought to our research and reporting, and so I would have to say that any exaggerations of emphasis that Bob allowed himself in the 1969 interview were well within the bounds of acceptability that had already been established by his peers.

As time went on, Chuck became increasingly incensed that Mike and I were not turning our backs on Bob, or publicly condemning Bob, on Chuck's say-so. And so Chuck began making additional accusations against Bob, now claiming that when Bob was promoted to Animation Director in 1937, that Bob and Chuck were supposed to have been co-directors, but that Bob lied to Chuck about an impending fatal illness as a way to persuade Chuck to allow Bob to have sole Direction credit on the first few cartoons. When Mike and I asked Bob about this, Bob seemed astonished by the accusation, and claimed that that never happened. Of course, with producer Leon Schlesinger and production manager Ray Katz long gone, and no existing studio documentation either way, it was pretty much Chuck's word against Bob's as to what the studio management's intentions had been. Mike and I interviewed several animators who had worked in the Clampett unit while Chuck was involved, and asking them if it had seemed like Bob was the sole director, or if Bob and Chuck were working as co-directors. Unfortunately, the animators didn't really know for sure what Bob's and Chuck's arrangement was, during that one-year period. The animators themselves then were either beginners, or recently recruited from the Ub Iwerks Studio. It seems clear, though, from the way responsibilities were divided up between Bob and Chuck—with Bob timing the cartoons and handing out the scenes to the animators, and Chuck drawing the character layouts—that Chuck was essentially working as Bob's assistant director, just as Bob had previously worked as Tex Avery's assistant director (which did not make Bob a co-director). Furthermore, none of the animators mentioned that they heard any comment from either Chuck or Bob about Chuck allegedly forfeiting or being denied his screen credits as a co-director during that time. Furthermore, I find Chuck's accusation hard to believe because in those days the screen credits reflected the producer's wishes so completely that the Warner directors actually had no control over their own credits. For one thing, they were listed as "Supervision," because producer Leon Schlesinger wanted the public to assume that he was also directing the cartoons, much like Walt Disney basically directed the Disney films, and so the title "Supervision" was intended to imply that the directors were little more than production managers. Also, in cases where Leon did assign two people as co-directors, such as Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton, they were both listed under "Supervision," and unlike Bob Clampett, the people who were co-directing had little or no experience as animators.

Another Jones accusation was that Bob would go around the studio at night, looking at other directors' storyboards for ideas he could steal for his own cartoons. When we asked Bob about that, he answered that he was usually working so hard on his own cartoons, always trying to make them better, that he would often work nights and weekends at the studio, and at the time he made it no secret that sometimes, to take a break, he would go look at the other directors' storyboards, but this was only because he was a cartoon fan as well as a director. Bob said, "It was no different than you, Milt, going around the Disney or Bakshi studio at night, looking at the storyboards, to see what else was going on." As for stealing ideas, Bob said, "Even if I had wanted to, how could I? None of the gags in an Inki or a Sniffles cartoon would fit my characters, and even if Chuck and I were both making a Bugs Bunny cartoon at the same time, Chuck's treatment of Bugs' personality was so different from mine that the gags still wouldn't fit."

(And incidentally, on that subject, Chuck's Charlie Dog series was based unmistakably on Bob's earlier black-and-white cartoon, Porky's Pooch.)

Another of Chuck's accusations was that the Warner studio bosses wanted to get rid of Bob Clampett because allegedly Bob's cartoons were so bad. And yet another of Chuck's accusations was that Bob faked a heart attack to get out of his Warner contract because Bob wanted to quit to go into television. When we asked Bob about this, Bob just laughed. "How could both be true? If Warners hated me so much, why would I have to fake a heart attack to get them to cancel my contract?" A week or so later after this conversation, I saw Bob again and he showed me a letter that he had received from Warner management a few months after the Warner buyout of the cartoon studio from Leon Schlesinger, praising Bob for the quality of his work. Admittedly, a few other people at Warners received similar letters, but if Bob's films were so disliked by Warners as Chuck would want us to believe, it seems highly unlikely that Bob would have received such a letter at all.

By around 1975, Chuck had become so incensed that Bob Clampett was starting to get some of the recognition he deserved for his Warner cartoons, that Chuck wrote his collection of accusations in a "letter," of which he distributed copies to every cartoon fan he met, at least for a while. This "letter" seems to be the genesis of the currently growing "legend" of Bob Clampett the Terrible Person. Indeed I occasionally hear young cartoon fans these days, the ones who seem to revel in malicious gossip, passing on this legend and even elaborating on it. Until now, none of these issues have been publicly addressed—but then how could they have been, since they were never announced publicly, but instead were snuck around surreptitiously, like a thief in the night.

When Chuck wrote this "letter," he buddied up to Tex Avery, a great name in animation history, but a man who, at that point in time, was so emotionally distressed over some tragic events in his family life that he became an easy subject for Chuck to manipulate. Chuck got Tex to co-sign this "letter," and to write various marginal notes on it. By now Mike Barrier had signed a contract with Oxford University Press to utilize the interviews initially conducted for Funnyworld Magazine, for a more definitive history of the Hollywood cartoons. Of course Mike and I wanted to interview Tex Avery for this book—indeed, Tex's voice would be conspicuously absent if we didn't interview him. But Tex was unusual in that he steadfastly refused our requests for an interview, even though he had, a few years earlier, allowed Joe Adamson to interview him for one of the very first non-Disney animation books, Tex Avery, King of Cartoons. Finally, in early 1977 Joe Adamson interceded on our behalf, and convinced Tex that he should talk to us. I recorded the first interviews with Tex for Mike— Mike was living on the east coast then—and although Tex seemed quite guarded during the first interview, by the end of it he seemed more relaxed, as though he realized now, from my questions, that Mike and I were sincerely interested in his work; and so, although I had been too polite to mention it, Tex voluntarily brought up the issue of the Jones-Avery "letter." He apologized to me for his participation in it, and told me that Chuck had urged him to sign it and that Chuck had told Tex not to talk to Mike or me because we were allegedly out to do "a hatchet job" on Tex.

About this time Chuck must have gone completely nuts. A letter appeared in the animators' union newsletter about the creation of the Paramount Studio's cartoon character, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and the following month, in the next union newsletter, was a snotty letter from Chuck Jones, claiming that he deserved credit for Casper, since he had made a cartoon earlier at Warners about a little boy ghost (Ghost Wanted). The month after that, in the next union newsletter, came a letter from Dave Tendlar, who had been an animator and a director at Paramount, criticizing Chuck for being too egotistical for claiming the creation of a character that Chuck had nothing to do with, developed at a studio that Chuck had never worked at.

Today in the age of home video it is much easier to see most of the Warner cartoons— and to see them in chronological order, if anyone cares to make the effort—and I would have to say that on the evidence of the cartoons themselves, it is clear that Bob Clampett was absolutely one of the most creative talents to emerge at Warners, and one of the first to raise the quality of the Warner cartoons to the level of excellence that they are still known for a half-century later. I feel that Bob Clampett deserves tremendous respect, and gratitude for the wonderful work that he left us. From about 1971 until Bob passed away in 1984, Bob and I became close friends, and I know that Bob was deeply hurt and saddened by the accusations made against him—most of them from Chuck Jones—and surprisingly, during all the years that Bob had to cope with that, he never once said a bad thing about Chuck. During the years that I knew Bob, he was very kind and generous toward me, and toward several others who called on him. He patiently taught me a lot about animation and direction. I was (and continue to be) very much inclined to believe Bob's claims of his involvement in the development of the Warner cartoon style and of the various characters because, just being around him personally as much as I was in the 1970s, I observed first-hand how much wit and originality flowed from him like a constant stream, just in casual conversation, as well as in discussing what new projects we might try to create to pitch to a studio or network. I think Chuck's ego was such that he couldn't stand to share the spotlight with anyone else, and he just resented Bob's success. Until Bob left Warners, Bob was consistently making better cartoons than Chuck, and then, in the absence of Bob's influence, when Chuck really came into his own, television blossomed and distracted the public's attention from theatrical movies, and there was Bob again, riding a new wave of popularity with his TV shows—in Chuck's eyes, beating Chuck once again.

It's a shame that Chuck should feel so threatened, as Chuck was certainly one of the greatest and one of the most popular cartoon directors of all time. But I hope this article will set the record straight about the "legend" of Bob Clampett, and I hope that both Chuck and Bob will continue to receive the adulation they deserve for their wonderful artistic works.

An addendum: Bob Clampett's side of the story can be heard, not only in Clampett's own words but in his own voice, in a two-and-a-half-hour oral history on a DVD titled Beany and Cecil, The Special Edition. I edited this oral history together from nearly 60 hours of taped interviews with Bob Clampett, done mostly by Michael Barrier and myself in the 1970s.

© Milton Gray