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Coal Black lobby card

Clampett, Jones, and Warner Bros.

[Click here to go to the most recent posting. Click here to go to the Feedback page on Funnyworld Revisited, devoted mostly to messages about the Bob Clampett interview and the Chuck Jones interview.]

William Griffin wrote in response to Milton Gray's essay on Bob Clampett's most famous cartoon: I was expecting a halfway decent review of Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, but instead I was subjected to Milton Gray's bellyaching about "political correctness," which got tiresome really quick. For someone who professes to have the utmost respect for Black performers, his lack of sensitivity about images that some Black people may find offensive is decidedly baffling.

For years, White Americans have used the burnt-cork depictions of Black Americans to basically degrade and humiliate a whole segment of the population, while justifying any and all acts of legal discrimination against Blacks, sometimes to a murderous degree. In some sections of the country this attitude was so ingrained that even today, in 2006, there are still people who believe all these stereotypes are true. So Mr. Gray's casual dismissal of these depictions as examples of 'diversity' come off as somewhat disingenuous, if not downright dishonest.

Yes, Coal Black is a funny cartoon, and yes, Bob Clampett obviously meant no true malice toward Black people, but if you're going to discuss the cartoon with any kind of authority, you have to take into account its sociological impact as well. As with "Amos 'n Andy," there are great numbers of African Americans who throughly love this cartoon—unlike other cartoons made during this same period that featured Black characters, Coal Black actually celebrated the culture—and there are great numbers of African Americans who loathe this cartoon—Prince Chawmin has dice for teeth, but not all Black people have dice (or gold inlays or playing cards) for teeth!

The main reason Clampett's masterpiece is so beloved is that despite the stereotypes depicted, the cartoon has an overall feeling of camaraderie and good cheer, and Mr. Clampett, his animators, and his voice talent (Vivian Dandridge, her mother Ruby Dandridge, and Zoot Watson, as well as the ever present Mel Blanc) were on top of their game. Viewing this cartoon numerous times, one is struck by the (more-or-less) lack of true malicious intent...at least, toward Black people, anyway. Perhaps if Mr. Gray had concentrated on that aspect of the film instead of complaining about "PC," then his review wouldn't have rubbed me the wrong way.

Milton Gray replies: Regarding my article on Coal Black, anyone who takes a clear stand on a politically charged issue has to expect a vehement backlash from some quarters; in my case from Black militants (including professional blame-gamers) and White liberal extremists (bigots-in-reverse). I've had to deal with countless numbers of such people over the last thirty years, so it's not as if I (and everyone else) haven't heard of these concerns before. I'm just telling the other side of the same story.

Perhaps more to the point is the fact that Black people wrote a lot of the material in Coal Black and approved of all the material that got used, so why are some people so eager to accuse only Clampett, his animators, and myself of insensitivity to Blacks? Probably because we are safe targets—they know they would sound foolish by accusing Blacks of being insensitive to Blacks.

Actually, I would expect that any number of fair-minded Blacks would find it reassuring to read that there are people like me—not phony liberals who quote insincere platitudes (such as, "Black people can do no wrong, anything that goes wrong is Whitey's fault"), but people whose feelings of acceptance are genuine, and who actually practice what they preach. There's a reason why I have as many Black friends as I do, which are many indeed: they know I'm for real.

[Posted June 18, 2006]

From Matt Pennington: Just read Milt Gray's article on Bob Clampett that addresses his "bad"  reputation, and I must say that it has certainly opened my eyes. As a big fan of Clampett's work, I've never appreciated this idea of him as a attention-stealing egoist, who would. As far as I'm  concerned none of the WB directors should get any negative  press, they all made great cartoons, their personal lives should to some extent be left alone. And now it seems that a vague  feeling I had about Chuck Jones is made more clear—he's always  seemed just a  little too smug and proud of himself as some kind  of "master" of the  WB cartoon short. So they all at some point or another gave themselves sole credit  for creating this cartoon character or that one, I can live with  that,   just very glad now to have had some positive light shed on  Clampett,  he has always deserved it. Maybe with the upcoming  Clampett disc on the fifth DVD Golden Collection his bad reputation will be diminished somewhat.

[Posted August 8, 2007]

From Wayne Bryan: Just wanted to chime in with a few comments about the never-ending  Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs debate. I'm a 43-year-old, long-time fan of Warner Bros. cartoons, with a particular love for Bob Clampett's work. To put my comments in context, I am also black. I first heard  about Coal Black in Leonard Maltin's book Of Mice and Magic in the early  '80s and finally had chance to see it a few years later at a cartoon  festival in Toronto. For me, Coal Black is a guilty pleasure. It is a great parody of Disney's Snow White. Great animation, great music, with  all the frenetic pacing that was a trademark of Clampett cartoons. I'm not what Milton Gray might call a black militant, but I do have issues with Coal Black.

What prevented Coal Black from being a truly great cartoon for me were the tiresome, all too predictable visual stereotypes of black people. I personally didn't have an issue with the Prince Charming pimp or other fast-talking characters—this was a sub-culture of black culture at the time, the same way today's rap/hip-hop is. None of my circle of family or black friends act or talk that way, but it does exist in some quarters. Years later, when I saw Spike Lee's Malcolm X the scenes of young Malcolm as a hip, zoot-suited street hustler made me think of Coal Black. What does bug me is that  with the exception of the So White character all the other characters  where drawn in a grotesque, unflattering manner. By all accounts, Clampett's unit visited black LA jazz clubs and enlisted musical and voice talents to get the feel for the environment they wanted to  depict. Unfortunately, when it came to drawing black characters, they seemed to get lazy and fell back on the crude, grotesque imagery that  was commonly used to depict us back in the Jim Crow days.

Having said  all this, I still love Coal Black but I understand why many people may find it offensive. I have no idea what Clampett's personal feelings were, but I suspect that he had an admiration for  black music and culture and no ill-intent was meant. I don't believe in banning cartoons, but the only way I see this cartoon being released in the  mainstream is in the context of some documentary type situation. I  would be great if somebody did a Ken Burns/PBS type documentary on Warner Bros. cartoons. I'm sure this and other Censored Eleven cartoons  would be featured prominently. Unfortunately, most of the creative  people are no longer here to offer their side of story.

MB replies: If a cartoon can be said to have an Achilles heel, this is surely Coal Black's: So White is a babe, one more example of how well Rod Scribner could accomplish the difficult feat of caricaturing a pretty girl, but the male characters are, well, outlandish in their appearance. I think, though, that the more those characters are seen in the context of contemporaneous Warner cartoons, Clampett's in particular, the less offensive they seem. Pointed comic exaggeration was, after all, the order of the day in the Warner cartoons of the early '40s. What can make the portrayals of blacks in those cartoons more uncomfortable to watch is not that such portrayals are more aggressive than those of other ethnic groups, but our knowledge that blacks occupied so markedly inferior a position in American society when the cartoons were made. Mr. Meek and "the little man from the draft board" in other Clampett cartoons may be highly unflattering depictions of middle-aged white men, but, of course, middle-aged white men were running the country. Not so with the real-life black equivalents of the characters in Coal Black; and so laughing at them can seem a little like kicking someone when he's down.

That said, I think Coal Black transcends any such objections, precisely because Clampett was so sympathetic to the black culture he used as a source. Here's what I said in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (p. 440): "In contrast to the other wartime cartoons on racial themes, Coal Black bases its appeal not on the stereotypes themselves, but on the energy that Clampett poured into them in response to the energy he found in black dancers and musicians. It is a transforming energy; there is no way to read Coal Black as a commentary on racial stereotypes since it does not condemn them or endorse them, but it does, in the end, render them irrelevant."

[Posted November 30, 2007]

From Eddie Fitzgerald, proprietor of Uncle Eddie's Theory Corner (one of the few Web sites that makes me laugh out loud), who wrote in response to Wayne Bryan's message and my reply above: In my opinion Coal Black is the best of all the Warner cartoons. If only people had picked up on it, it might have been the genesis of a wonderful new type of short cartoon with a black sensibility. I ache to think what might have been "if."

You never hear anybody talk about it, but I get the feeling that modern black cartoonists are still, sixty years later, struggling with how to draw blacks funny without being insulting. Sixty years is plenty. If we haven't come up with something workable and appealing in all that time then I say "enough," let's go back to something approximating the Coal Black way of drawing blacks, sans the racism. Black artists should take the lead.

Really, there is no way to be funny without risking insult. I'm white and I draw pictures ridiculing white people all day. I deliberately make them look as dumb as I possibly can,  the white people I mean, because that's what's funny. Black people should do the same for blacks.

From Paul Dushkind: It's curious that Gene Hazelton's model sheet includes the final  title of the cartoon, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. Once, at a comic-book convention, at a screening of Bob Clampett's films, Clampett said that he considered that name racist. I think he said he tried to stop it from being used. As you know, the girl in the cartoon is actually called So White. Are there any known indications of how early in the production process the final title came to be who insisted on it, and how strenuously Clampett may have resisted?

Wikipedia's entry says that Leon Schlesinger changed the name from So White and de Sebben Dwarfs because he considered that name too close  to Disney's feature. However, Clampett said that he objected to the  misspelled Seven, as well as the name Coal Black, so the Wikipedia  accounting would seem to be either incomplete or at odds with  Clampett's recollection.

Clampett also said that he fought to have black jazz musicians play the soundtrack, rather than Warner's regular orchestra. It sounds like it was a contentious production, behind the scenes. Perhaps he elected to concede on the title, to concentrate on the more important  battle.

On another occasion, at a different screening, an audience member  asked Chuck Jones what he thought of Coal Black and de Sebben  Dwarfs. I was surprised that he said that he always considered that and similar films crude, even at the time they were made. This was the only suggestion I ever saw of the churlish rivalry with  Clampett that Milt Gray and others have attributed to Jones. Either  that, or it really was crude, by the standards of 1942 and 1943.

MB replies: Bob Clampett told me, in a 1977 telephone conversation, that the cartoon's name was changed from So White to Coal Black to minimize any possible confusion with the Disney feature. I'm sure that change took place very early in work on the film, perhaps before there was anything more to it than a title; Hazelton's model sheet was no doubt drawn after the change was made.

I don't recall Bob every saying that he resisted the change because he considered Coal Black a racist title; So White would have been arguably more offensive, I think. (One of the rare clumsy moments, racially, in Coal Black comes when So White says it's her hair that's coal black—not her skin—even though her name is So White.) As for "Sebben"—if the cartoon's title had been So White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney really would have had a legitimate gripe.

Money was the only issue where the black musicians were concerned, since Warners already had a full orchestra on its payroll, and if production of the cartoon was at all "contentious," it was surely for the same reason. Coal Black was, like Chuck Jones's much later What's Opera, Doc?, a more ambitious and thus more expensive cartoon than the Schlesinger norm. There's evidence of its specialness in, for example, Clampett's assigning one of his two best animators, Rod Scribner, to draw styling sketches, and in the pre-recording and re-recording of much of the music track.

There's nothing "crude" about Coal Black, which I don't think shows any of the contempt for its black characters that is so painfully evident in Chuck Jones's own contribution to the "censored eleven," Angel Puss (1944).

[Posted December 6, 2007]

From Milton Gray: I read your reply to Paul Dushkind on Coal Black, and I'm writing to remind you of the early recording I have of what I believe  to be the rehearsal session for Coal Black, in which Carl Stalling clearly refers to the production as "So White." I played that  recording when you attended an Apatoons party a few years ago.

My own speculation is that the title change occurred well after the  storyboards were completed and after the "rehearsal session" was  recorded.  Also, it seems unlikely to me that the characters would so  frequently call the lead character "So White" on the sound track if  the title change to "Coal Black" occurred so early that there was not  "anything more to it than a title."

MB replies: I remember hearing that recording, and, in fact, I made extensive notes about it soon after I heard it. Here are those notes:

At an APAtoons gathering at Bob Miller's house in Burbank on 4/15/00, Milt Gray played a tape recording of a 78 rpm record that Rob Clampett had found among Bob's effects. The record, labeled "So White," was one of a number of such records, most containing only the recorded dialogue for the cartoons, so that the animators could listen to it before animating their scenes. The "So White" record was different, though, containing not just the dialogue but also the music—recorded in advance of the animation, no doubt, because the cartoon was so heavily musical, even though Clampett said in 1980 that very little of the music (he excepted the trumpet solo) was recorded in advance. The track as heard on the record differs considerably from the version in the film, not just in readily explainable ways (no sound effects, no reverbation when the Prince says "Rosebud") but in other ways as well. The track clearly was cut down for the finished film—it's longer, with cuts coming at the beginnings of various scenes (and in the main titles, where other exclamations originally followed "Well, hallelujah!"). Milt says that part of the track is consistent with story sketches that Clampett showed him that included a "Negro turtle," a parody of the one in Snow White that struggles to keep up with the animals rushing to alert the Seven Dwarfs. Milt also says that a comparison of the record with the film shows that the film's track is not simply shorter than the record, but that the performances differ (although some parts of the record sounded identical with the film to me). I would guess that cutting the music required rewriting and thus re-recording some sections, and it was perhaps that re-recording that Clampett remembered as following the animation. [Clampett told me in 1980 that some of the music was pre-recorded, but that most of the dialogue was recorded on "clicks" and the orchestra was recorded later.]

Unfortunately, I didn't make a note that Carl Stalling identified the cartoon as "So White," but I do remember hearing his voice. It seems unlikely to me, given the low budgets for the Warner cartoons, that the "So White" recording was of a "rehearsal session." As I've written above, it seems likelier that it was a pre-recording of the soundtrack that later had to be altered because the cartoon was running long.

It does seem likely, though, that the title "So White" survived longer than I thought when I responded to Paul Dushkind. Keith Scott's notes from the records of the Warner cartoon recording sessions (at the University of Southern California) show a March 7, 1942, session listed under the "So White" title, followed by sessions on May 30 and June 13, 1942, under the Coal Black title. Keith believes, I think correctly, that there were one or more recording sessions late in 1941, but the records of such sessions may not have survived. The "So White" recording Milt cites may have originated in such a session.

The 1942 recording dates suggest that the title was changed from "So White" to Coal Black sometime between March and May, and that Gene Hazelton drew the model sheet sometime after the March 7 session. Hazelton, who was a Disney striker but worked again at the studio after the strike, spent only a few weeks at the Schlesinger studio before entering the Navy, but, unfortunately, I haven't been able to pin down the date he entered the service. If we had that date, we'd know that the title Coal Black was in use not long before, since it's the title that Hazelton used on the model sheet.

[Posted December 16, 2007]

From Keith Folk: After breaking my left ankle on December 6, 2007, I finally found the time to surf the internet and catch up on my reading. I was happy to run across Milt Gray's essay on the mysterious attacks on Bob Clampett, which never seem to have a straight answer or source, why? I was surprised that there was even an inkling of a morsel of a possible rivalry with his peers. Especially Chuck Jones.  I know first hand, especially working in the corporate world, how management can mess with you for one reason or another. Just because they can! But usually your equals seem to want to bend over backwards and give you everything you want to aid you and make the project work.

I was blessed to meet Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnston at the old Midwest Film Conferences in Chicago in the early '80's.  My good friend and classmate Stan Hughes and I would meet for the weekend at the O'Hare Marriott. Stan and I were students then, and later Stan became a teacher at Columbia College Chicago's animation department under Professor Barry Young. One of Stan's pupils was Gennedy Tartakovsky, later of Dexter's Laboratory fame.

Stan was the first to tell me of the Clampett  rumor and really had no concrete info on why.  Stan had pointed out to me in class the wackyness of the Clampett cartoons and the elasticity of the Rod Scribner-animated ones in the 1940's. I was hooked! Any traditional animator or student knows the combination of talent from these two men and the beauty of what they created.  Thanks, Stan, for educating me. Another thanks to Milt for being there and helping round up the info on this unnecessary dark side of the golden age of Hollywood cartoons. Bob Clampett is still my favorite, and he shines a little better.

I wrote to Michael Barrier, John Canemaker, and Bob Clampett's daughter on why there isn't a thick coffee-table book on Bob Clampett today.  Will somebody write one?

Beany DVDMB replies: Milt Gray says that the problem with a Clampett book has not been getting
the family or experts like himself interested in writing one; the problem is getting a publisher interested. I can believe that, since I recently helped a well-known and well-loved Hollywood actor draft a proposal for an autobiography. The proposal was well received, as making a strong case for the book, but no one wanted the book itself. As difficult as it may be to believe, given how many rotten books are published every year, persuading a publisher to accept even a book with a large built-in audience can be incredibly difficult. The decisions about which books get published are fully as irrational as the decisions about which films get made.

For the time being, at least, the closest thing to a full-scale illustrated Clampett biography is the Beany and Cecil DVD that Milt and Clampett's son Rob lovingly assembled a few years ago. It's packed with rare and fascinating material about Clampett and his creations. It has also become a high-priced, out-of-print collector's item, unfortunately.

[Posted January 3, 2008]

From Thad Komorowski: There seems to be two different responses to Coal Black and they are: "Yeah, it's offensive, but look at the animation!" and "Yeah, it's technically amazing, but it's racist as hell."  I see far too much of the former and far too little of the latter to make me think society has improved.

I will say up front that I very do much enjoy this cartoon.  I screened my beautiful 16mm print of it at the first screening I ever did at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Aberdeen, Maryland.  It didn't go over very well,  probably due to people being afraid of being perceived as racist by laughing too much.  Nobody complained.  My father, who was also present at the convention, heard from someone afterwards: "When Walt Disney saw that, he probably laughed his ass off!"  He probably did.

Quite frankly, the defenses of Coal Black are more racist than the cartoon itself.  "A celebration of differences"?  I don't remember any white people in that cartoon, so what exactly does that mean?  The caricatures are handled light-heartedly, sure, but there's still nothing unique about them.  Nothing that doesn't make them gross anyway.  The huge lips are still there, and so are dice, razor blades, and pork chops.

I agree with William Griffin's assessment on the feedback page.  If you don't want your precious cartoons to be branded as verboten for all-time, don't make stupid excuses for them!

In my opinion, Coal Black's use of the traditional "negro" caricatures is its single failing.  Had they been drawn with a little more taste, it may have received a little more sympathy from me.  I don't see how blacks being involved made it any more "right" or "acceptable" either.  Does anyone honestly think a black artist could freely speak out against degrading caricatures on a film being made by mostly white men in 1942?

And, sixty-five years later, one of Clampett's most rabid admirers feels it appropriate to caricature presidential candidate Barack Obama in the same manner.  How fitting.

[Posted April 14, 2008]

Thad Komorowski added this comment to those just above: It should be noted that the NAACP actually protested Coal Black when it was originally released.  The opposition to the film isn't a new touchy-feely political correctness.  People objected in 1943 that the images were grotesque, and they felt that the film gave ammunition to the Nazi Party to promote how racist America was itself.

The hubub is caused by its notoriety as "Bob Clampett's masterpiece" just as Song of the South's is caused by its reputation as (more recently) "that racist Disney movie." The other Warner directors did racially charged cartoons, but those films weren't anywhere near their best, and only notable for the racial caricatures.

From Vincent Alexander: If there’s any cartoon that desperately needs to be taken into the proper context, it’s Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs. Now, that can mean a variety of things. On the one hand, I might be saying that one must remember how black people were mistreated and mocked at this time, and Coal Black is a sad representation of that fact. On the other hand, I might be insinuating that such stereotypes were so common at that time, that Clampett and his team cannot be accused of being racist, but instead "racially insensitive." So which one do I mean?

Neither.

After Coal Black has been called an example of wartime views, racism and bigotry at its worst, a celebration of racial differences, a respectful tribute to classic jazz and a historical artifact, I think it’s time we see it for what it is: a Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Bob Clampett.

That being said, I don’t think the characters in Coal Black are racist or deferential in any way. Clearly, the only intent was to make the characters look and act as funny as possible, and they succeeded in that very well. The cast of the film was given the same respect that any other Clampett character receives—in other words, none. It’s hard to argue that the white characters in The Wacky Wabbit, The Wise-Quacking Duck and Buckaroo Bugs are treated with more dignity than Clampett’s black characters. Caricatures are meant to take people’s features and exaggerate and distort them to outlandish proportions, not to insult but to simply make people look funny. If you have a problem with that, then you have a problem with cartoons in general.

I’m reminded of the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, in which Eliza Doolittle criticizes Henry Higgins for always being demeaning and rude to her, whereas Colonel Pickering always treated her with the utmost respect. However, Higgins insists that he and Pickering treated her in the same way, because Pickering is polite to everyone and Higgins is rude to everyone. Apparently, Pickering was not necessarily praising Eliza, nor was Higgins singling her out for insult. Whether Higgins was right or wrong in the context of Shaw’s play, it certainly relates here.

But, in all fairness, let’s say that since Clampett was white, he could make fun of whites as much as he wanted, but handling black characters should’ve been done more tactfully. Maybe so, but, frankly, I can’t imagine a good alternative. If the characters were all intelligent, kind, and drawn sensitively, then it wouldn’t be funny. And if the characters were caricatured, but in the same way white Looney Tunes were caricatured except with a different color skin, then what would be the point of making them black in the first place? And if they just decided to avoid the matter and not use African Americans, then the WB team would be accused of being racist for excluding blacks in their films altogether. I don’t think they can win.

So, please, can’t we just accept that Clampett made fun of everyone in this way, and stop referring to Coal Black as grotesque and insulting? Suggesting that blacks should be exempt from this kind of caricaturing is, to my way of thinking, more racist than any Looney Tune ever was. I only wish that Clampett had made a cartoon featuring Italians. Since my heritage is Italian, a cartoon of this kind would be awesome. Luckily, my all-time favorite director, Chuck Jones, made the classic A Hound for Trouble. And I think that’ll do.

From Michael L. Jones: Not to drag this out any longer than it probably should be, but it seems apparent that we have not yet reached a point where memories of the American treatment of the African American community are remote enough. Much like in many places in Germany where it is still uncomfortable to talk about Hitler, despite the fact that Mein Kampf is  widely available in other countries (I can drive to the local Barnes and Noble and buy a copy, but you can't do that in many places in Europe).

I say this against a backdrop of history where, for instance, few, if any, dispute that Thomas Jefferson was one of the greatest presidents. Yet it's widely believed that he had illegitimate relationships with some of his slaves, just as many of his contemporaries did. The only difference seems to be, oh, about 125-150 years.

The sad part is that these polarized discussions do not really add anything and often impede greater progress. Companies like Disney are very much in tune with these facts, and we know that they will continue to not release Song of the South for that reason. This despite the fact that they sell it in other parts of the world where the effects of black repression and slavery are less keenly felt in the collective political psyche.

From Ricardo Cantoral: Coal Black is indeed one that stirs up controversy, which is to me is simply unfounded. What makes a cartoon racist is the viciousness of the charicatures in question, how they act instead of just how they look. Let me cite an example of the many racist cartoons directed at the Japanese during World War II. Those were racist not just because of they way they are drawn, but because it was an assault on the culture of the Japanese in general. They were depicted as a backwards and inferior race who were only hungry for power. You simply don't see any of that racism in Coal Black. The black caricatures were a compliment, a tribute to various black jazz artists of that time. They sang, danced, and played instruments. I don't see any hatred in that cartoon, and so there is no racism in it. The way the characters look was simply for humor, and the last time I checked, people are suppose to look funny in cartoons. Also I don't find anything wrong with that Obama one either.

[Posted April 22, 2008]

[The following messages were written in response to my Essay titled "The Jones-Avery Letter"]

From Thad Komorowski: I want to thank you for posting your essay on the Jones-Avery letter, and for not making out my posting of the letter as villainy. I felt that as an important and highly gossiped piece, it needed to be seen in actuality.

Your essay is just about everything I would want to see in an interpretation by an honest historian of the letter. You do not mar Jones completely, although you accurately take into account that his ego played a huge factor in his actions. You also do not whitewash any wrongdoing on Clampett's part.  I think it is worth noting though, that Bill Melendez has stated the same thing recently that Bob McKimson did to you all those years ago: that under Clampett, they would frequently have to direct/time their own animation.

I do think you underplay the damage Bugs Bunny Superstar could have done to the general public.  No, nobody took the fluff piece seriously (at least any serious scholar), because after all, it was a "cartoonie" film.  But I can say with certainty that more than a few casual fans walked away with the impression that Clampett was the shining light of all things good at Warners.  Yes, Jones and Freleng did features highlighting only their own cartoons, but in both cases (especially  with Freleng's), they weren't meant to be documentaries of any kind, and only in Jones's was there the low blow of removing Clampett from the Warner hall of fame.

I also think Jones's claim of Rod Scribner being the only animator you wrote about in Hollywood Cartoons is absolutely an exaggeration, but it's not hard to see why he may have thought that way. The animation of Scribner (and Bob McKimson) is given far more coverage in terms of its artistic merit in your Warners chapters than any others (in comparison to the Disney chapters, where all of the important artists were covered). Ken Harris and Virgil Ross were just as important to the Warner animation style as anyone who worked for Bob Clampett. 

Then again, for a director like Jones (and Friz Freleng or Tex Avery, for that matter), it mattered very little about the animator's individuality (though it is present) like for Clampett. Clampett did direct some fantastic cartoons, but if he had a unit without Scribner, Gould, or the McKimsons, his cartoons wouldn't be near as good as everyone makes them out to be. Hey wait, doesn't that describe his period without them pretty well?

MB replies: On Bugs Bunny Superstar: Thad is quite possibly right about its having a wider impact than I said. But not much wider. Chuck has always had much greater (and more respectful) media attention than Clampett. And of course Thad is right about Clampett's needing the great animators he had. He needed them more than Jones, certainly; but I think he also exploited his animators' individuality more than Chuck did.

From Reg Hartt: Just read your piece from APAtoons. It's the best piece of writing I have read on this overwrought subject that ain't never gonna go away.

When I invited Jones to Toronto in 1980 he listed a slew of things that were happening to him or with which he was involved. At the end he said, "Does that impress you?"

It did, but not in the way he expected.

I realized that this was a man with no real sense of self worth as well as no real sense of his considerable accomplishments.

This is not unusual. The motion picture industry has a long history of treating its best people shabbily. What it does to its less than best is even more shameful.

"Something happens to people who work in motion pictures and it is not good," Heck Allen wrote me when we corresponded. We developed a totally different relationship because I read his work as Will Henry, Clay Fisher, etc., admired him for it and found life lessons in it.

What I do know about Bob Clampett is that he was the most generous man I ever met. He (and his dear wife, Sody) went out of their way to be of help. This was not an act. It was genuine and came from a lifetime lived that way.

The great Sioux Shaman, Black Elk, asked where the center of the universe is, replied, "I found it on Haney's Peak but in truth it is in each person."

It is only natural that Bob saw himself as a center. We all do (at least, the best of us do and are).

There is a vicious streak in fans that can be traced historically as far back as the Bacchantes (Jean Cocteau makes use of them in his wonderful film, Orphée).

When I invited Jones and Freleng to Toronto, Jones did not come because he thought it might hurt his working again with Warners.

I had a nonprofit company with a board of directors. The fans were adamant they did not want to meet Freleng (whom they described as "old hat").

My board told me to call him and cancel.

I went out, picked up the phone and heard Friz's voice before I could dial or the phone could ring.

He explained Depatie-Freleng had closed. He was back at Warners. They did not want him going anywhere they did not approve of and they did not approve of me.

My first thought was, "Gee, I am off the hook. I won't lose face. I do not have to ask him to cancel."

Instead I said, "That's too bad. How do you feel about it?"

Friz said, "I gave you my word. My wife is looking forward to the trip."

I said, "I guess you are coming."

My board went crazy. That decision cost me every one of them. I paid a high price.

But it was worth it.

I learned a lot from Friz Freleng while he was in Toronto. We stayed in touch right up to his passing. The turnout was huge. Not many animators or animation fans but lots of folks who just loved cartoons.

I was impressed that Jones, who made a point of saying publicly he did not fear the bosses, did fear them.

I guess being out of work for so long broke his spirit.

The science-fiction writer Charles Beaumont described working for the movies as akin to climbing a mountain of feces to smell a rose.

The thing I am grateful for is that you and I, Jerry Beck, and a small handful of others were around at the time. Through our efforts (and our efforts alone) the ideas and work of these artists was given not only a public forum but much valuable information that would otherwise have been lost has been preserved.

Each of us did so surrounded by a sea of apathy.

The low state of discourse on web sites would be distressing if I had not read the work of men like John Taylor Gatto and others on how our education systems are designed to dumb us down.

This letter is just a pat on the back to say, "Thank you" and "Well done."

As a side note.

I wrote Jones a letter when the Jim Carey Grinch came out. I told him how Harry Cohn looked at every picture Columbia produced. As soon as his ass itched Harry said, "Cut the picture."

Folks cracked jokes about Harry having the monitor ass of the universe but he built a former bordello on Gower Gulch up into the studio that produced Lawrence of Arabia.

I added that the Jim Carey Grinch had me in pain in the first five minutes, that I had to go out and walk around the lobby for a bit and that the only way I could see the picture through to the end was to stand up all the way through it.

I ended by saying, "The only reason that sucker is making any money is the foundation your television special has laid all these years."

A few days later I got the following in the mail:

Jones Christmas card

When Jones got back at Warners I sent him a letter volunteering my services as a writer. I did not expect him to make use of them. Nor did he (to his misfortune, not mine).

We are lucky that Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and a handful of others existed in a moment in time, however brief (and it always is) where they could create the wonderful works they did.

It ain't never gonna come again.

It's the damn "Bacchantes" with their back-biting gossip that refuse to let these sleeping dogs lie.

I got a copy of the Jones-Avery letter back in the day. I also received a wonderful scolding letter from Jones. I deserved every word of it. I am intensely grateful to him for taking the time to write it. I had quoted inaccurate statements from fans which I could easily have discovered were inaccurate if I had just done a little homework.

Well, I do a lot of homework now. I have Chuck Jones to thank for it.

When someone steps on our foot we react. The problem is folks only see the reaction not the cause.

One day walking down a Toronto street I saw a couple of guys across the street grab an older man, shake him and move on.

No one but myself saw it.

People around the man freaked out. A passing police car stopped. The police roughly put him in the back seat.

"Mind your own business," they shouted when I asked if I could speak with them.

"I am minding my own business. I saw what happened," I said calmly.

"You saw what happened?" they said.

After I spoke with them they said, "Thank you." Then they got the old man out of the back of the police car, took him into a coffee shop, sat him down and got his story.

Somebody hurt Chuck Jones real bad. That wound never healed. In the end he was even ashamed of it (he had no reason to be). His sense of self worth was damaged beyond repair (which accounts for his "Hollywood ego").

And, yes, those last films are awful.

He was surrounded by scyophants. Nothing good ever comes of that.

But he has left us Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit Fire, Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, Duck Amuck, the Rabbit of Seville, and so many wonderful works that I am in awe that he was able, even for a moment, to pull them out of a hat.

No good is served by continuing to dredge up this old war wound stuff. It just makes folks who have done nothing and will never do anything somehow think they have accomplished something more than being the town gossips gnawing on a particularly old bone they can not let go of.

I just saw The Thief Recobbled. Times have not changed. The monsters are still in charge. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the incredible damage the motion picture industry inflicts on artists and tries to work in it deserves what they get. It is the illusion that by compromise we can achieve. All we achieve is more compromises until we at last find ourself on the side of our enemy who we then discover compromised nothing and got everything which is the fate that befell Richard Williams.

[Posted May 10, 2008]

From Ricardo Cantoral, who wrote in response to Thad Komorowski's comments above and my reply: I don't really see the problem with depending heavily on animators. Clampett depended on them for the technical skills he lacked but gave them the vital direction they needed. He was also involved with the writing more then any other director. As much as I like Chuck, the animation in his cartoons never seemed as natural as Clampett's work. Jones just never unleashed his animators like Clampett did, to tell them to go farther and faster. As for Clampett not doing as good outside the studio, that dosen't show he wasn't as talented as he has been hailed but he did need great animators he had. He was fortunate enough to work with the greatest animators of all time but he pushed to do them to do their best. That is why none of those animators ever did as good as the work they did under Clampett.

[Posted May 14, 2008]

From Vincent Alexander: Among cartoon fans, Bugs Bunny is, without doubt, the most controversial cartoon character of all time. Everyone seems to be in agreement that he is the greatest of them all, but it is how the wascally wabbit should be portrayed that is often debated… specifically, Bob Clampett’s rabbit vs. Chuck Jones’ rabbit.

The disciples of Bob Clampett cling to the belief that Jones’s Bugs is insufferably smug and hateful of his enemies, whereas the Jones fans say that Clampett’s Bugs is at best a sadistic bully who will often fight without being provoked. This is a very fierce debate, and cartoon buffs just can’t seem to agree on the definitive rabbit.

However, I have a different take on the whole debate and I feel like I may be alone in the universe when I say this: Bugs Bunny is the same character in both directors’ hands!

Hero worshippers of each director are quick to point out differences between the two, but I think that both directors truly understand the essence of Bugs Bunny. Bugs is a playful heckler who has a good heart, but a love of mischief. He will wait until he is justifiably provoked before striking, but, in all honesty, there’s nothing he enjoys more than outwitting his enemies. He is neither a superhero out to battle for truth and justice or a mindless bully who likes to jeer at anyone who passes by. He never hates his foes, but instead enjoys outfoxing them. He is unwaveringly cool and undeniably cocky—but never smug. And cocky and smug are two very different things, and one should never confuse the two (for examples, Peter Pan is cocky, Lady Bracknell is smug). He is good-natured and likeable, but is a rebel and a force to be reckoned with. He makes it up as he goes along, but he knows what he’s doing and is perfectly aware that that gunshot is always going to shoot in Daffy’s face and not his.

However, this essence has been muddled up in the hands of cartoon fans that are desperate to pick a fight. Many say that Jones’s Bugs lost all of his lightheartedness and he severely hated his enemies. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Long-Haired Hare, for instance, you can see clearly see that Bugs is having a good old time extinguishing the helium from Giovanni Jones’ enormous ego. He does not view his target with contempt in the slightest. In fact, he brushes him off uncaringly the first two times Giovanni provokes him. He is simply heckling his opponent and enjoying it. Another ridiculous denigration directed at Jones’s hare is that he is just some lucky rabbit (no relation to Oswald) who won not because of any outstanding wit but because Jones dumbed everything down to make sure Bugs came out on top. The "hunting trilogy" is often cited in such arguments. But to say this is to totally miss what’s so great about those films, and that is the fact that Bugs does not have to run an Olympic marathon to win, but instead nonchalantly confuses his enemies into defeat. In It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is trying to tell everyone why Potter is capable of taking over Bedford Falls, he says it’s because "we’re panicking and he’s not." Though Potter is the villain in that movie, it relates in this case because Daffy is so caught up in trying to stay one step ahead that he gets excited and sets himself up for failure. Clampett purists who say Daffy would never get so panicked that he would fall for that have clearly never paid much attention to Clampett films like Draftee Daffy, where he loses all logic and control of the situation because he’s so intent on being the winner. I don't think the Chuck Jones Daffy is any dumber than the Daffy that calls up Duck Twacy on the phone because his piggy bank is stolen.

And many complaints against Clampett aren’t a whole lot better. His Bugs Bunny is made out to be a hateful annoyance that messes with people for no reason. But Clampett’s Bugs isn’t a mindless heckler in the Woody Woodpecker vein (not that there’s anything wrong with mindless heckler characters, but Bugs certainly isn’t one of them). Like Jones’ hare, he’s just fooling around with his enemies and relishing it, which is perfectly within the rabbit’s character. Also, many have said that his Bugs fights without being provoked, usually using Wabbit Twouble and The Wacky Wabbit as examples. And though those two do break the Bugs Bunny “golden rule” that says Bugs must be provoked at the beginning of the film, I think they can be easily forgiven. Elmer Fudd is known all around the world as a hunter, and so when Bugs starts to outsmart him, the audience can easily accept it. If it was a new villain, Bugs might appear to be something of a tormenter, but Elmer is very well established as the guy who “hunts wabbits”. A scene at the beginning with Elmer trying to shoot Bugs would probably have been superfluous … the viewers fill in the blanks. And those are the only two cartoons Bob Clampett ever directed where the villain doesn’t start off with the clear intent to kill. Most of his adversaries in those films are not much of a threat to Bugs, but, after all, who is?

Of course Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones had very different styles. And as a result, their interpretations of a certain character will doubtlessly be different in many superficial ways. Still, it’s a bit like seeing two great caricatures of a famous celebrity. The two artists may have different styles, but if they are good caricatures then they both reveal the character’s personality and are quintessentially the same. Clampett and Jones may have been very different, but in the hands of both, Bugs Bunny is still Bugs Bunny.

Are there exceptions? Well, yes. By the 1960s and 1970s, Jones’ rabbit had admittedly fallen into the “smug” category, diminishing what was so charming about him in the '40s and '50s. Clampett also fell short occasionally, putting in gags and situations that would sometimes conflict with his personality. Still, one can hardly blame Chuck Jones as a director for work he did after his golden age and Bob Clampett was clearly just experimenting with Bugs, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. What’s so wrong with that?

All that said, Bugs Bunny is the coolest rabbit to ever chomp a carrot in the hands of both Clampett and Jones. It’s silly to claim that either director didn’t really understand Bugs Bunny. In fact, it’s actually many die-hard Jones enthusiasts or Clampett fanatics that don’t understand him. So please don’t argue mindlessly over which Bugs is the "real" one. Confidentially, doc, they’re the same wabbit.

[Posted July 23, 2008]

From Gene Schiller: Excuse this belated response to your article on the Chuck Jones-Tex Avery letter, which I found incredibly interesting.  While I agree with everything you say, I can also understand Jones’s sensitivity. The C’s (Clampett) and SC’s (Scribner) marked on your manuscript were merely there to "keep score"—like most artists, he was insecure. I’m sure he was as much aware of their talent as anyone. And while your book pays ample homage to Jones and his achievements, I think it’s obvious your sympathies lie with Clampett/Scribner.  Whether or not it’s true, I sense it…and, like a jealous sibling, I believe he did too. 

I once saw Chuck Jones on Tom Snyder’s late-nite show and he seemed pretty self-effacing.  There was a moment when he stood up from his chair to illustrate a point. Snyder said, "I’ll stand up with you," to which Jones replied, "If you stand up for me, you’ll stand up for anyone!"

There are some delightful (and lengthy) interviews with Bob Clampett on the Beany and Cecil DVD (yours?) in which Bob is not always accurate with simple facts.  For instance, he claims Hugh Harman’s Peace on Earth won the Academy Award!

MB replies: Actually, he didn't. What Bob said is in the Clampett interview posted in the Funnyworld Revisited section of this site: "And Hugh made the antiwar Peace on Earth, which was nominated for an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize." I don't know who nominated Peace on Earth for the Nobel Peace Prize (and I don't think being so nominated means much in itself), but that cartoon was certainly nominated for an Oscar. It was one of the four nominees for best cartoon of 1939, losing out (along with Tex Avery's Detouring America and Disney's The Pointer) to Disney's Ugly Duckling.

[Posted April 9, 2009]

From Gary Escobedo: I just had a chance to read [Milt Gray's essay on Bob Clampett] on your website and am taking the time to say thank you for publishing it online. It seems Mr. Clampett gets an unfair shake these days by animation enthusiasts...which is really very sad. I had the opportunity to spend some some time with Robert Clampett and found him to be exactly as Mr. Gray described him; warm and genial...a passionate speaker about the history and craft of animation who spoke in only the kindest of sentiments about his peers. In contrast to this was Mr. Jones who, I am very sorry to say, presented himself not so favorably when I had a chance to meet him after the publication of Chuck Amuck; enough said on that count. Some years ago when I first heard Mr. Jones expounding that the Bugs Bunny character only truly "works" in situations where Bugs is an innocent victim who only retaliates to unjust adversity...well, I just thought that sounded odd and false. It seems that Jones' opinion of what works for Bugs is a glimpse into the internal pressures that drove Jones to act in such an uncharitable way towards others.

[Posted April 6, 2010]

From John Hammond: Just a quick note to thank you for putting the Milton Gray essay on
Bob Clampett up online. As a young guy just beginning study of classic cartoons I've come
across negative views of Clampett, for example in the book Chuck Jones - Conversations, which I just read, and then on Clampett's Wikipedia page. I couldn't understand why Jones dismissed him, as Bob's cartoons were self-evidently brilliant. Chuck Jones is revered, well at least in popular culture, and it's a shock to hear he was vindictive and plain wrong about Clampett. The more I look into it the more Clampett fans I come across, which now includes me!

[Posted July 2, 2010]

From Kevin Hogan, who wrote in response to Milt Gray's essay on Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs: Another instance of an older piece that I am finding ridiculously late… Oh well.

I enjoyed Milt’s comments on Coal Black, mostly because I can see his enthusiasm for the short coming through. It is rare to read someone being enthusiastic and thoughtful at the same time.

I believe that there are two major reasons that many people find Coal Black to be racist today- one reason legit, and the other… not so much:

  1. Many people simply see exaggerated Black characters and instantly jump to judgment without any consideration. As indicated above, I don’t think there is much anyone can do or say about that.
  2. I think that cartoons from this era (including Coal Black) suffer from the lack of range in black characterization over the entire medium, and thus most, if not all, films with black characters are deemed racist. White people are portrayed in classic era cartoons in a wide range of characterizations: greedy, generous, dim-witted, smart, etc. Black people, however, tend to be portrayed solely in a comic fashion. Thus, a great many cartoons with blatantly racist stereotypes (any number of Uncle Tom films can be cited here) feel too close to the comic portrayals of black caricatures in films like Coal Black and Dumbo. Neither Coal Black or Dumbo are meant as insults to Black Americans—in fact, the films honor the “black” characters. However, there is no black hero, no black everyman, no black Bugs Bunny in golden era films for people to use as a comparison (Bosko is hardly the example people are waiting for). Thus, all cartoons with black characters from the golden age generally get heaped into the same pile.

While I become frustrated with people who reject Coal Black (and more personal for me, Dumbo) as racist, I can understand why such gut reactions come into play. I can imagine that Elmer Fudd would seem racist to white people if there were no Snow White, Cinderella, etc.

[Posted September 22, 2012]

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