Wednesday, January 14, 2009

he's a chicken...rooster, that is!

1946 was the year Foghorn Leghorn made his mark on Warner Brothers cartoons. The character was created by Robert McKimson and was often featured in a series of formula driven cartoons. The appeal of the series was the mannerisms and expressions of Foghorn and how he attempted to either thwart the aggressive attempts of Henery Hawk or set up elaborate pranks on the dog, known as The Barnyard Dog. In other adventures, Prissy often would feature into a story. She is the thin bonnet wearing hen who often had a crush on Foghorn and would later have a son of her own...as far as I know there was no indication of who the father was as Prissy was often played as the sorrowful hen who couldn't catch a husband...no matter how she tried.

Foghorn's debut was in a cartoon short called Walky Talky Hawky that featured Henery Hawk, the small chicken hawk. The debut cartoon in a lot of ways set up the "formula" I was referring to earlier of life on the farm. Foghorn goes through a lot of pranks and jokes trying to convince Henery that the dog is a chicken. Earlier in the episode Foghorn claims to be a horse and the way he imitates the horse is the exact way Mel Blanc often imitated a horse on TV talk shows...by placing a finger beside the nose and whinnying. Naturally, Foghorn placed his finger up on one of his nostrils on his beak to provide the horse effect. By the end of the film a horse gets into the "i'm not a chicken" argument and the cartoon ends with Henery capturing all three animals and dragging them off.

Foghorn's second appearance, "Crowing Pains", appeared on the DVD collection I previously wrote about. It features Foghorn, the Dog, Henery, and Sylvester the cat. It's in these earlier cartoons that Foghorn's voice is a lot more raucous and up-tempo prior to it being modified toward the more laid-back southern drawl it became. In all, Foghorn appeared in 28 theatrical cartoons released between 1946 through 1963. There was often one or two cartoons a year produced. The last theatrical, "Banty Raids", featured a beatnik rooster at the farm throwing love fits among the hens. Foghorn doesn't quite grasp the rooster's manner...until he learns that the rooster is crazy for females. In one scene, the rooster is kissing each hen who are lined up. Foghorn is in line and the beatnik rooster is too into the moment he doesn't even realize who Foghorn is. "Broken Leghorn" features Foghorn planting an egg underneath Prissy...the egg hatches to reveal a baby rooster. This causes Foghorn to get jealous and say something like: "we already have enough roosters and I'M it". He spends the episode teaching the kid how to be a rooster, always failing to trigger Foghorn's traps...causing the pranks to back-fire on Foghorn instead. By the end of the cartoon he marches into the bosses office and demands that either the kid goes or he goes...the cartoon ends with Foghorn being hauled away in a poultry truck.

In one of the last cartoons, "Dixie Fryer", from 1960, Foghorn does battle with a couple of southern buzzards: Pappy and Elvis. Pappy's name actually being B.O. Buzzard which stood for body odor as one can tell by the flies that swarmed around him. Elvis was the son filled with promise but slow-witted. Daws Butler voiced the two characters. In another entry which featured Daws Butler, "Raw! Raw! Rooster!", we are introduced to one of Foghorn's college friends, Rhode Island Red. Butler voices the rival. Interestingly, Mel Blanc provides the voice of the character at the end of the cartoon.

One of the memorable aspects of the character was his speech pattern and mannerisms. Foghorn was never won to back down when it came to the battle of wits...often sparring with whoever happened to appear on the farm. "That's a joke, son!" and the recurring phrases "I say", "that is!", and "you all" were heavily used by Foghorn. One of the mysteries if one can call it that is the story behind the character. Mel Blanc, the voice of Foghorn, recounts in his 1988 autobiography his story of why he gave Foghorn the sort of voice he did. The character debuted in theaters in 1946 in the "Walky Talky Hawky" cartoon. However, radio comedian Fred Allen during this same era featured a character named Senator Claghorn on his radio show. This character was played by Fred's announcer, Kenny Delmar. The voice characterization Delmar provided was in step with Foghorn Leghorn...and both characters had similar sounding names: Claghorn-Foghorn-Leghorn. Now, the mystery of sorts is who came up with "that voice" first: Delmar or Mel Blanc? The answer most often given is both...since the voice is a stereotypical southerner who likes to bellow and embellish the truth; so, it's quite possible both men simultaneously came up with that voice.

Delmar, I might add, once said that he did that voice years before the Senator Claghorn character was even created and Mel had also said in interviews that he had often used "that voice" prior to the rooster character being created...so it's a strange scenario where the same kind of voice was created by two different people and used on two commercially successful characters. However, due to the Claghorn character hitting the national airwaves on Fred Allen's radio show in 1945...and the first Foghorn cartoon hitting theaters in 1946...critics often say the Foghorn character was a parody of Senator Claghorn and therefore referred to as a "rip-off". I certainly wouldn't call it a rip-off...if anything it's a parody, which goes hand in hand with the kind of cartoons Robert McKimson was noted for at Warner Brothers. Several of the animated parodies of radio and early TV shows were directed by McKimson.

And now we shift focus to Robert McKimson...

It was Robert McKimson who directed "Backwoods Bunny", the cartoon I made reference to earlier which pitted Bugs against the two buzzard characters. "The Honeymousers" and "The Mouse That Jack Built" are two now-famous cartoons that McKimson directed. The first, from 1956, is a spoof of THE HONEYMOONERS and the second, from 1959, is a spoof of THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM. Daws Butler did the voices of Ralph and Norton and June Foray voiced Alice. In the Jack Benny parody, the radio cast donated their voices for their cartoon counterparts...and Mel Blanc just happened to be a member of Jack Benny's radio and TV shows anyway so he was on hand as the voice of Jack's car, The Maxwell.

Foghorn and the Tasmanian Devil are McKimson's biggest characters for the studio. Some other McKimson directed cartoons: "Early To Bet", "Tabasco Road", "Rabbit's Kin", "Pop 'Im Pop", "Hillbilly Hare" {hilarious cartoon featuring a laugh out loud violent square dance call sung by Bugs Bunny}. All of the theatrically released Foghorn Leghorn cartoons and those with the Tasmanian Devil were directed by McKimson. In addition to those, he also created the series of Sylvester cartoons with his son, Sylvester Jr, on the pursuit of the baby kangaroo that Sylvester always mistakes for a giant mouse. McKimson worked at the DePatie-Freleng company for a number of years as well when Warner Brothers closed it's cartoon division. McKimson died in 1977...years before the directors of the cartoons were lauded and applauded by successive generations. Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng both lived long...Chuck passing away in 2002...Friz in 1995...Bob Clampett passed away in 1984...animator/sometimes director, Arthur Davis, passed away in 2000...while Tex Avery passed away in 1980.

Robert McKimson's work is showcased on those DVD collections but yet in popular culture, he's often noted as the forgotten director...whose work is greatly remembered but whose name was never lauded or praised in the same lavish way as his peers. If one mentions Foghorn Leghorn or mentions one of many of the cartoons McKimson directed, the response often greeted is a surprised: "Oh...he did those!?? I didn't know that." So, chances are, McKimson's work is popular if you bring up a particular cartoon or a scene from one...even if his name often goes over-looked among the other directors at the studio.

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