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Funnyworld Revisited

[Click here to go to a Feedback page devoted to Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, and the Warner Bros. cartoons, which are the subjects of the messages below.]

From Vince Sicola: A few months ago I emailed you about running the Bob Clampett interview (I'm sure many others probably have as well), and I was thrilled to see it on your site. I've been late in getting back to you to thank you for such a meaningful and significant interview. It's too bad that your interviews were conducted before the advent of the camcorder, as it would have been interesting to see Jones and Clampett at an earlier age. I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck Jones on several occasions beginning in 1996, and by then he was a man with a rapier-like wit and a glint in his eye trapped in a failing body. I've always thought how wonderful life could be if we could keep forever all those special people that have touched our lives and brought the world such joy in an adult toy chest and take them out and revisit what it was that made them so valuable.Fortunately, your interviews with the true giants of animation have done just that. Thank you for having the foresight to recognize the accomplishments of these men so long ago, when much of the world had lost track of them.

[Posted January 29, 2004]

From Eddie Fitzgerald, commenting on the letter from Robert Clampett that immediately follows his: I have no trouble believing that Bob had a lot to do with the creation of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck because I knew him in his final years and can testify that in some ways he was the very personification of these characters. Even in his advanced years he was mischievous, energetic, charming, funny, bright, charismatic, and cheerful. My strong impression was that Bob didn't have to resort to formula to figure out what Bugs would do, he had only to ask himself what he would do and then exaggerate it. Bob was also a born performer. He had a melodious voice reminiscent of radio performers of his day like Edgar Bergen or Arch Oboler. It's impossible to imagine him at a Warners story meeting as anything less than an extremely active participant. I miss Bob. He was a great man as well as a great filmmaker.

[Posted January 24, 2004]

From Robert Clampett, responding to the republication of the interview with his father, Bob Clampett, from Funnyworld No. 12: I am happy to see that through the power of the internet the interview with my Dad by Mike Barrier and Milt Gray is once again readily available to the public. After reading Barrier's introductory note, I decided that some readers might be interested in learning more about the lay of the land for Warner cartoon history at the time of the interview—1969-70—and in what I was able to observe of Dad's perspective on his work at the studio.

At the time the Funnyworld article first appeared, I was fourteen years old and somewhat aware that Dad had been a part of cartoon history. The Beany and Cecil cartoons were still being shown in syndication. People would constantly refer to those cartoons whenever they heard my name. But as Barrier pointed out, Dad's work on the Warner Bros. cartoons had dropped off the radar screens of public recognition. He had left the studio over twenty-four years earlier, the Blue Ribbon re-release titles omitted the films' credits (including his name), and network airings included only the post-1948 Warner cartoons, all made after he left the studio. The only reason I was aware of his work at Warners was that a local Los Angeles TV station ran old black-and-white Porky Pig cartoons as well as horribly redrawn and colorized Porkys. Dad's name would occasionally come up in the credits as director, supervisor, or animator.

Occasionally Dad and I would watch these cartoons together, and whenever I saw his credit I would start asking rapid-fire questions, not unlike the little pig in Porky's Naughty Nephew. That is how I first heard about his work with Tex. That is how I heard about Termite Terrace. That is how I first heard bits and pieces regarding the creation of Warner characters. That is how I learned so much about him as a person, by the way he connected events in his personal life to the films he was working on at the time. I also recall accompanying Dad to unusual events for a kid to experience, like Ubbe Iwerks's funeral. I remember being impressed when I met Tubby Millar because I thought, he's the guy who wrote some of those early cartoons and Dad talked about him so much.

Keep in mind that I hadn't yet seen most of Dad's WB color cartoons. The only thing in print on his Warner career I ever saw was a framed interview on his office wall, from the early 1940s, given through Bugs Bunny's voice, about the upcoming impact of television. I knew something significant had happened long before I was even born from the presence of the original Bugs Bunny sculpted model and the original Tweety poster and all of the little ceramic figurines of the characters from the early 1940s that turned his office into a mini-museum. He had these memories of the greatness he had been a part of, but that's all they were—just memories.

To say that Dad's professional career had taken a nosedive would be putting it mildly. It had been over fifteen years since the success of Time for Beany, when he and his team had won three Emmys and were the toast of the town. Mom and Dad produced the original Beany and Cecil cartoons starting in 1959, and they turned out to be a horrible experience for both of them. After they made a deal with ABC to run the show in primetime, the ABC censors rejected so much footage for content that the whole series fell precariously behind schedule and over budget. The series almost didn't get completed. In a lawsuit, Mom and Dad actually lost the rights to the series for sixteen long years. The settlement negotiated on Dad's behalf by the now-famous attorney Bert Fields got him the rights back in 1978, only six years before his death. The final nail in the coffin was when Mattel refused to pay merchandising royalties, and my folks didn't have the resources to fight back. In fact, the only money earned at all prior to 1978 was some ASCAP music royalties. I recall Mom getting on the phone early in the morning every few days to call New York, asking why she hadn't yet received a check. When the check finally arrived, what seemed like an eternity later, I don't think that any of us could have felt a greater sense of relief.

All of this stress almost killed Dad—he had to be hospitalized for a serious illness, and he was severely weakened for several years. Dad never again created an original project that was seen by the public. He did some commercials, but his heart just wasn't in doing Maybelline eyeliner animation. Those were pretty grim times. In fact the only real joy he had was producing a family puppet show starring the Beany and Cecil puppets manipulated by my sisters Ruth and Cheri and me.

When Mike Barrier and Milt Gray contacted Dad, I could immediately see why this interview was so important to Dad and why he dove into it with such enthusiasm. Here were two fellows, Barrier and Gray, who had viewed the cartoons so many times that they knew them by heart. Their passion for the films was real, and this in turn inspired Dad for the first time in many years to reflect at length on that exciting period of his life . Then, up to the publication of the Funnyworld interview, Dad spent a lot of time reviewing tapes and transcripts and meticulously going through his voluminous files to verify the accuracy of his recollections and to illustrate for the reader as clearly as possible what life was like at the Warner cartoon studio. Dad had something akin to a photographic memory; moreover, because he loved those years he spent at the Warner cartoon studio, he remembered them vividly. And now for the first time he was being asked in-depth questions about his work at the studio.

The published interview was a revelation for me. His detailed descriptions of the arc of his professional career, the creation of some of the characters, his working style, how he directed iconic characters as well as being part of a talented group of artists that would live on in history—all of this made me extremely proud that he was receiving recognition that was long overdue.

By contrast, there had been a lot of press on some of his contemporaries. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Mel Blanc did lots of interviews, mostly in print but sometimes on television. I recall sitting with Dad to watch Mel Blanc's appearance on some local talk show, where he did a half-hour interview. I wanted to hear Dad's name mentioned, just once. I heard Avery, Jones, and Freleng mentioned, but never Dad. Years later this slight was magnified when Blanc in his autobiography rated the directors and put Dad at the very bottom of his list. Perhaps Blanc wasn't too fond of the vocal gymnastics Dad put him through in cartoons like Book Revue. Chuck Jones's autobiography Chuck Amuck barely mentioned Dad, even though they had come up through the ranks together. That was the most notable example of how Jones tried his best to freeze Bob Clampett out of the WB cartoons' history.

And speaking of creation of the characters: Any archaeologists out there might find it interesting to dig up old newspaper interviews with Blanc, Freleng, and Jones, because they frequently took or accepted sole credit for the creation of characters. I'm not talking about the party line in recent years, that Jones deserves credit for refining characters such as Bugs and Daffy. No. According to these old articles, Chuck Jones was the genius behind Warner cartoons. Even today a Chuck Jones "fact sheet" takes a curious approach to Jones's contributions (see http://www.chuckjones.com/bio-fact-sheet.htm). In articles from that time, Friz created Tweety, and Blanc was magically inspired to bring Porky to life by visiting a farm and listening to pig sounds. (Mel conveniently forgot that he was Porky's second voice.) More disconcerting, the collaborative art of animation didn't seem to be all that important to these giants in interviews. They rarely if ever mentioned anybody else's contribution. For years and years, Dad was one of many shining lights of Warner Bros. cartoons who had to endure this slight. Director Bob McKimson and writers such as Mike Maltese, Tedd Pierce, and Warren Foster were also frequently ignored.

Dad was in effect one of the invisible men of Warner cartoons. Even when he got a sliver of recognition he was slighted. A good example was the great gathering of animation giants at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. (This was where Milt Gray first met Dad.) Dad and my mom, Sody, were invited to attend. The festival introduced Dad after the screening of one cartoon that in effect was supposed to represent his career. What cartoon do you think was chosen to represent Dad's body of work? The Daffy Doc. Black-and-white cartoon from the thirties, iron lung gags. Nice choice. Jones, on the other hand, was given an entire program of his best color cartoons. Then came Funnyworld No. 12, and the walls of Jericho started tumbling down. Just a couple of years later Dad got 16mm prints of his color cartoons and started touring around the country, showing them along with a slideshow. He also visited classes and encouraged students of animation. It was the best tonic after years of neglect.

Stepping out of the shadows, Dad was able to renew his association with many of the people who were so important to him years earlier. After Funnyworld, I can remember Dad having long conversations with Mike Maltese, sharing memories. After Maltese's death, Dad organized a tribute to him at a theater in Los Angeles. Some of the other people he spoke with at length included Frank Tashlin, Mike Sasanoff, Carl Stalling, Tom McKimson, Treg Brown, Bernard Brown, Rudy Ising, Lu Guarnier, Hugh Harman, Nelson Demorest, and Tex Avery. Yes. Tex Avery as well. I recall that when Dad did his college shows he frequently invited some of these fellows and others of his co-workers to attend and would then invite them onstage to meet the audience and field questions. He really cared about being part of that fraternity.

A few years later Dad hosted the film Bugs Bunny Superstar, and a whole new brouhaha erupted. Perhaps I could describe the events connected with the release of that film at a later date. To do the BBSS experience justice would require much more than a few sentences.

I agree with Barrier's assessment that all questions at the time revolved around who created what. I also agree that more attention has been focused in recent years on the greatness of individual cartoons. Films like Porky in Wackyland (National Film Registry, Library of Congress) or The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (AFI top ten cartoons ever made) have received greater acclaim than ever before. But I would also say that the mainstream media still emphasizes creation of characters. And Warner Bros. now has evolved from its official line on creation of a few years back to emphasizing what I call "seamless creation." Creation now just exists, without a line of demarcation represented by names or dates. Perhaps studio executives have concluded that the brand name and logo are more important than the creative people who did this great work.

Having said this, I guess I would like to ask, what constitutes creation of a character, and did Dad exaggerate his contribution? Barrier says so in his new introduction to the interview, yet is just unspecific enough that a reader's perception is colored in a vague but negative way before a word of the interview has been read. The danger here is that people will say that Bob Clampett didn't do what he claimed to have done—but without really understanding the claims that he made. I feel for Dad and what he had to go through as initially the invisible man of Warner cartoons and then, after Chuck Jones's full-scale attack on his character, as an industry pariah. Perhaps Barrier could give us his take on Blanc's, Freleng's, and Jones's claims to the characters over those same years?

At no point that I can recall did Dad state anything more than that he was one of the fathers of Bugs Bunny. Dad's storyboard for Porky's Hare Hunt constituted the germ seed for the character of Bugs Bunny. The rabbit's mimicking of the Groucho Marx line in Duck Soup, "Of course you know this means war," certainly was an important inspiration for the character's personality. Bob McKimson's seminal redesign of Bugs was completed in the Clampett unit. Bob Clampett was a hands-on director; does anybody seriously think that he had no input into that design? Regardless whether or not Dad had anything to do with Avery's A Wild Hare, he still made significant contributions to the character. His Bugs Bunny cartoons did stretch the boundaries of the character's personality by experimenting with concepts like Bugs not always winning (Tortoise Wins By a Hare, Falling Hare), dancing to Strauss (Corny Concerto), campaigning for the Academy Award (What's Cookin' Doc?), and appearing as a baby and as an old guy (The Old Grey Hare). These experiments added several facets to Bugs' personality that the other directors have continued to use (to varying degrees) ever since.

As for Porky Pig, when Leon Schlesinger suggested that the staff create a cartoon "Our Gang," Dad's suggestion of Porky and Beans could also be considered the germ cell of another central character. Dad was widely credited with the slimming-down redesign of Porky. In addition, he made so many Porky cartoons that it could be argued that he got to know Porky as well or better than any other director. He certainly put Porky into more situations than any other director.

It is pretty obvious that new generations appreciate as much as ever the incredible work of the Warner Bros. studio. And yet the petty jealousies that existed while the fellows made these great films have resulted in historical inaccuracies that persist even after their deaths. Why can't we agree that several people, including Bob Clampett, had a hand in the creation of these characters?

[Posted January 17, 2004]

From Matthew Hunter, responding to the Chuck Jones interview republished from Funnyworld No. 13: I have for many years read excerpts from interviews you conducted, in books and articles, but the launch of your Web site is the first time I have ever seen the Chuck Jones interview in its entirety. I had heard the now-legendary stories of Schlesinger, Selzer, and the Road Runner disciplines a million times before, but they are especially interesting in their original context. It must have been amazing to have had the chance to sit down with Jones, as well as Clampett and others, back when everything was fresh on their minds. Your interviews always seem to be the source of information for many of the books I’ve read on the subject of classic Warner animation. Reading this Jones piece confirms why. I look forward to reading more like it.

If I thought Cartoon Network was starting to show crap before, now I can say that my favorite animation director agreed before I was even born. It is all the hero and action and limited-animation stuff he spoke of back then, with some good exceptions. Now, it’s hard to avoid this junk animation. I think the executives at Kids WB, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon could learn a valuable lesson from this interview.

[Posted 2003]

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