Monday, August 31, 2009

Looney Tunes...crazy...100% nuts...

Posing with a book that I bought several years ago at a book store in a shopping mall, this blog entry is really about my salute to the Looney Tunes characters and those of the Merrie Melodies. Originally, there was a distinct separation between the two series from Warner Brothers. However, as time went on, the characters started to appear interchangeably to the point where there wasn't much of a distinction anymore other than the differing titles for both sets of cartoons. Originally the Merrie Melodies series featured serious, Disney-like cartoons with heavy use of songs from the Warner Brothers music catalog. The Looney Tunes series featured the wild and crazy cartoons that were funny in comparison. It's these cartoons and that style which pushed the more serious cartoons off to the side as time went on.

The series had it's share of top directors, animators, writers, etc etc and one of the most interesting things about the Warner Brothers cartoon directors and writers is that their names are more widely known than the directors and writers at Disney and MGM, the two chief rivals in the theatrical cartoon business to Warner Brothers. I suppose if I looked it up, the cartoon directors at Disney would be easy to find in this internet age but would they be names that I'm familiar with? I admit that this feeling comes from being raised on the Warner Brothers cartoons. I know of the Disney characters...who doesn't know of Mickey Mouse? Donald Duck? Goofy? Winnie the Pooh? I couldn't tell you who the cartoon directors were. A lot of it has to do with, as I mentioned, not being raised on Disney cartoons. When I was younger the Disney cartoons were exclusive to the Disney channel...a premium channel...that my parent's didn't spend extra money for. This was several years before the local FOX stations started airing Disney cartoons in the afternoons in the late '80s.

As I mentioned, when I was growing up, it was the Warner Brothers cartoons I was most familiar with. Popeye was another...and Tom and Jerry, along with MGM's cast of characters. As I got older I discovered the made-for-TV cartoons of Hanna-Barbera and liked those cartoons as well.

The most talked about, or celebrated, directors at Warner Brothers during their golden age were:

1. Friz Freleng
2. Chuck Jones
3. Tex Avery
4. Bob Clampett
5. Robert McKimson

After those five, you then usually hear about...

6. Frank Tashlin
7. Art Davis
8. Norm McCabe

Ironically, #3 and #4 were with the studio a short number of years, instead of decades like Chuck, Friz, and Bob McKimson...but even today, among Warner Brothers cartoon fans, both Bob Clampett and Tex Avery have just as much discussion as the others.

Who you don't hear much about are #6 through #8. This is just my opinion but the big reason for this is because they didn't make any cartoons that have stood the test of time. Art Davis was more of an animator turned director for a few cartoons. Frank Tashlin made just as many cartoons as Bob Clampett and Tex Avery but his cartoons seldom got much attention due to their lack of exposure to various generations. The Bugs Bunny Show helped expose the characters to 4 generations of audiences starting in 1960. The cartoons from Chuck, Friz, and Bob McKimson were heavily favored.

It was on the air on ABC, then CBS, and then back to ABC during it's 40 year run. The show during it's final ABC run was titled The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show and it left the air in 2000 after a 40 year run on the air, in various time slots and under various titles.

The book that you see me holding is a companion book, of sorts. It details the history of Sylvester and Tweety and it gives a year by year break down of the cartoons. It gives writer, director, producer, and animation credits along with voice credits for each cartoon listed and if it was nominated or if it won an Oscar then it was noted.

A cartoon winning an Oscar?? Yes...for those who aren't too well studied about theatrical cartoons...there was once a category called "Best Short Subject". There still may be a category called that?? Anyway...that category was usually reserved for the animated cartoon that would air in movie theaters prior to the showing of the movie. The Academy would then nominate which cartoons, or "short subjects", they felt were Oscar worthy. The cartoons were dubbed short subjects because, obviously, the running time was short compared to a feature length movie. Most cartoons ran no longer than 8 minutes...9 minutes was a rare occasion...6 minutes or 6 and a half was the norm for most cartoons.

When the winner was announced, the Oscar was awarded to the producer...the writers or director or anyone else weren't given any Oscar's for their participation. The producer of the cartoons, originally, was Leon Schlesinger. He was the producer until the mid 1940's...around 1944/1945. He sold his company to Warner Brothers and Eddie Selzer became the new producer. From the things I've read and from the commentary made by those who worked on the cartoons, Selzer wasn't too popular among the directors. Friz Freleng recounts an incident where Selzer insisted that Sylvester team up with a woodpecker for a series of cartoons. Sylvester and the woodpecker had appeared in just one cartoon together, prior to the cat officially being called "Sylvester".

Friz had gotten the idea to team Sylvester up with the Tweety character that Bob Clampett created. Selzer didn't like the idea and Friz threatened to walk away from the studio...and then Selzer contacted Friz and gave in and told Friz to go ahead and team Sylvester up with Tweety. Their first cartoon together as a team won an Oscar, 1947's "Tweetie Pie".

Some things the average cartoon watcher may not know is Robert McKimson created the character, Speedy Gonzales, but it was Friz Freleng who had his unit re-design the character into what people recognize today and Friz directed several Speedy cartoons and Robert McKimson later began directing his own Speedy cartoons based on the Hawley Pratt design. Pratt was Friz's layout artist. McKimson is also responsible for Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester Jr, and the Tazmanian Devil. Henery Hawk was a character created by Chuck Jones but McKimson borrowed the character and used him extensively in the Foghorn Leghorn series of cartoons.

Out of all the directors at the studio, Friz won the most Oscars.

Chuck Jones is often more celebrated and hyped given that his approach to cartoons mirrors the collegiate and intellectual approach to animation. His cartoons, while hilarious, tended to be slightly Avant-garde in comparison to the belly-laugh style of Friz and McKimson. Tex Avery on the other hand went beyond belly-laughs and could have a viewer laughing without anything hilarious going on...a simple facial expression or some other timed gag in one of his cartoons was as funny as dialogue and out of all the directors, Avery could get laughs with sight gags because of how well-timed they were. He would become even more legendary at MGM...the studio he left Warner Brothers for. Bob Clampett, who adopted a Tex Avery style, would also depart the studio. Frank Tashlin left cartoons for live action movies. So, for a bulk of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies throughout the 1940s, 1950's, and into the early 1960's you had three directors: Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Robert McKimson. Mel Blanc was the main voice artist for the studio from the late 1930s through the 1960's. He had co-stars, though. Arthur Q Bryan voiced Elmer Fudd for years. Bea Benaderet voiced Granny and many female characters up through the mid 1950's prior to June Foray coming aboard to voice Bea's characters and others that came along. Daws Butler was often heard doing celebrity impressions. Stan Freberg gave voice to quite a few characters that played off against characters Mel provided the voice to.

For those who want to see hilarious Warner Brothers cartoons seek out the Golden Collection DVD series. Not only will you get the cartoons but you'll also get a boat load of extra's that feature interview clips with the directors and animators involved in the cartoons. All of the major players, speaking about directors and writers and animators, are all gone. A few of the voice actors are still around. Here's a life-line of the heavy hitters at the studio and the lesser-known's...

Leon Schlesinger: May 20, 1884-December 25, 1949 {65; producer}

Eddie Selzer: January 12, 1893-February 22, 1970 {77; producer}

Mel Blanc: May 30, 1908–July 10, 1989 {81; voice artist}

Friz Freleng: August 21, 1906–May 26, 1995 {88; director}

Chuck Jones: September 21, 1912–February 22, 2002 {89; director}

Tex Avery: February 26, 1908-August 26, 1980 {72; animator/director}

Robert McKimson: October 13, 1910-September 29, 1977 {66; animator/director}

Bob Clampett: May 8, 1913-May 4, 1984 {70; animator/director}

Arthur Q Bryan: May 8, 1899–November 18, 1959 {60; voice artist}

**Stan Freberg: August 7, 1926- {currently 83; voice artist}

Bea Benadaret: April 4, 1906–October 13, 1968 {62; voice artist}

**June Foray: September 18, 1917- {curently 91; voice artist}

Daws Butler: November 16, 1916–May 18, 1988 {71; voice artist}

Frank Tashlin: February 19, 1913-May 5, 1972 {59; director}

Art Davis: June 14, 1905-May 9, 2000 {94; animator/director}

Norm McCabe: February 10, 1911-January 17, 2006 {94; animator/director}

Mike Maltese: February 6, 1908—February 22, 1981 {73; writer}

Warren Foster: October 24, 1904-December, 1971 {67; writer}

Tedd Pierce: August 12, 1906—February 19, 1972 {65; writer}

Carl Stalling: November 10, 1891–November 29, 1972 {81; music conductor}

Milt Franklyn: September 16, 1897–April 24, 1962 {64; music conductor}


**- both June Foray and Stan Freberg are the only surviving members of the Golden Age of Warner Brothers cartoons.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Daffy Duck's Quackbusters

This 1988 film, built around classic cartoons from the Warner Brothers library and new footage, is a broad spoof of the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise. The obvious title of "Daffy Duck's Quackbusters" will tell you what this clip-fest film will be about. The film features two contemporary cartoon shorts, 1987's "The Duxorcist" and 1988's "Night of the Living Duck". These two cartoons, combined with specific clips edited from classic cartoons, were blended together to showcase a full-length animated feature poking fun at the GHOSTBUSTERS popularity and the language used in the movie. Daffy inherits a fortune because he was able to make a dying millionaire laugh. In a scenario from an earlier cartoon, "Daffy Dilly", Daffy plays a salesman who gets word that a dying millionaire will leave a fortune to whoever can make him laugh. The millionaire was offering a fortune to anyone who was able to give him one good laugh before he died. After arriving at the mansion and out-witting the butler, Daffy did a broad range of stunts that received no laughs but when he accidentally trips and a series of cakes fall on him, the dying millionaire {a dog named Cubish} starts to chuckle and soon breaks out into a fit of laughter.

Next we see Cubish in a pie throwing frenzy...hurling one pie after the other in Daffy's face. All through this he's laughing uncontrollably and that's when the original cartoon, "Daffy Dilly", ended. In the continuation, we see that Cubish dies laughing...and his estate goes to Daffy. The only catch is he has to use the money for good purposes or it'll cost him. Also, if Daffy even has the idea to use the money for greedy purposes, it'll cost him. Throughout the film each time Daffy gripes and complains about Cubish we hear thunder and see a stack of money in the vault vanish into thin air. Cubish often appears in ghost form throughout the cartoon. As a side business, Daffy goes into ghost hunting as a public service.

Daffy, Porky, and Bugs are billed as "Paranormalists at Large". Throughout the film a spoof commercial pops up promoting their ghost hunting business. Part of the commercial includes a now-popular phrase among Looney Tunes fans where Daffy explains the objectives of their business and tells potential clients something like: "spooks spooked, goblins gobbled, ufo's k.o'd, aliens alienated, and monsters remonstrated.". One of the memorable aspects of the film was how effortlessly the classic clips blended together. This wasn't the first time clip-filled animated films had been released by Warner Brothers but it was the first, to my knowledge, where two relatively new theatrical cartoons had been responsible for the commission of a full-length movie release.

And between the classic clips we see new animation of Bugs, Daffy, and Porky bridging the clips along. We'll see the hilarious "but I did see an elephant in my bird bath" clip and pieces of Porky and Sylvester's adventures when Sylvester was cast as a cowardly feline and Porky was his annoyed owner. The 1987 clip of "The Duxorcist" is hilarious...particularly for those familiar with what it's spoofing, The Exorcist. In it, Daffy investigates a strange case of a female duck who's possessed and it's in this cartoon where the female utters all sorts of rubbish, but plainly enunciating in a sweet voice "Mary had a little lamb..." and then shouting in her possessed voice: "BUT I ATE IT!!!!".

Photobucket Sharp eared listeners will note the differences in Daffy's voice when it segues from contemporary to classic footage. I believe they didn't speed up Daffy's voice enough in the new animation and so it sounds like Sylvester, more than it should. The difference between those two character's voices had always been that Sylvester had Mel Blanc's own voice with a lisp added to it while Daffy was actually the same voice only sped up a few octaves in the playback process to get a little higher tone.

The cartoon as a whole is 5 star material. It's funny, cute in places, satirical in places, and who can resist the Mel Torme contribution of "Monsters Lead Such Interesting Lives" that Daffy sings in a monsters club after spraying his throat with Torme liquid. This scene happens near the start of the movie, within "Night of the Living Duck". The bonus features include the cult favorite "Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24th and 1/2 Century" along with "Superior Duck" and "Little Go Beep".

This is the first time this 1988 Daffy Duck movie has been released on DVD.

Monday, August 10, 2009

June Foray: The Autobiography

This book about the first lady of voice acting, called Did You Grow Up With Me, Too?, chronicles the life and times both on and off the air of June Foray. There are quite a collection of pictures of June and her voice acting that caught my eye right away, given that it was the first picture in the book, is a glorious picture of June surrounded by 5 amazingly talented people in the animation business. They're all standing side by side. There are pictures of June during the 1940's and 1950' of her, Stan Freberg, and Daws Butler and pictures of character's she gave voice to. It's a nice balance between her career and personal life, which of course is what an autobiography is. The epilogue section was written by June and it's dated July, 2009. Leonard Maltin wrote the forward...and do you know the story behind June Foray having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? You'll find out within the pages of this book.

A lot of the book is broken up into chapters that follow a theme. Near the end of the book there's a chapter dedicated to a few people June knew that are no longer living. Bill Scott, Jay Ward, Paul Frees, and a few others. She tells the intricate details of what "looping" means and she explains that it's wise to be punctual because it pays by the hour. Chapter Eight, called "My Rocky Life" is dedicated to her being cast in the Bullwinkle series, once known as Rocky and His Friends. This is where she remembers much of the Jay Ward era and offers pictures that were taken in the studio with her and Bill Scott and there's a picture of her, Bill, and Jay Ward; and a picture of her and Paul Frees. There are cartoon stills of the characters. In Chapter seven, called "Chuck Who?" for comical purposes, is about her association with Warner Brothers director, Chuck Jones. The chapter was called that because June didn't know who Chuck Jones was. In a lot of her interviews she admits to not being much of a cartoon watcher so she didn't really know who made the cartoons. Chuck cast her as Witch Hazel, the name of another witch that the Disney studio cast her as.

Legal acrobatics enabled Warner Brothers to continue using the Witch Hazel name. Bea Benaderet, the prominent female voice on mostly all of the Warner Brothers cartoons before June came along, was the original voice of Witch Hazel and was the original voice of Granny...Bea had did the Granny voice for almost 15 years before June took over the role in the top of my head I believe Bea started voicing Granny somewhere around 1943 or 1944. It was Bea's on-camera work in Burns and Allen plus her other on-camera assignments that led to her cartoon roles being re-cast in the mid 1950's. Her workload had become too hectic to continue and so she concentrated more on the TV sitcom's she appeared in.

June's been the voice of both characters, Witch Hazel and Granny, ever since...her most recent assignment as Granny was the Baby Looney Tunes series a few years back. There is an interesting story that June talks about when it came time to cast the voice actors for the Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries series in 1994/1995. According to June, the producers were wanting her to come in an audition for the role of Granny...whoever was in charge apparently wanted the Granny voice to resemble the one provided by Bea Benaderet. June recalls how outraged she felt but then lets us in on how she came about being cast as Granny on the Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries after all.

This brings me to a small little rant that I have about such things. When a voice actor or actress plays a role for a good number of years, he or she pretty much know the in's and out's of the character{s} they voice and the producers or casting directors should give the voice actors and actresses associated with the role automatic casting because of the proven track record. I feel the only time a character's voice should be re-cast is if the voice actor/actress can no longer do an adequate job...meaning they've lost their voice. I don't think a voice artist loses their natural whether someone is 21, 41, 61, 81, or 91, if he or she is still capable of doing their job they should be given the first shot and THEN if the producer isn't satisfied then a re-cast should happen. This notion that you have to audition voice actors for roles they've played for decades is ludicrous and offensive to the voice artist, as you'll see when you read June's thoughts about it.

In the "Chuck Who?" section she talks about how she was called on to do the voice of an Irish lady from the waist down on Chuck's version of Tom and Jerry plus she talks about the various witch characters she has performed. It is also in this chapter where she relates a story about cigarette smoking and how it was a big advertising sponsor at one time. There's a priceless story about how she gave up smoking but a lot of others didn't and she tells about a recording session in the mid 1980's during the revival of The Jetsons and it involves Mel Blanc. It's a cute little story about Mel's smoking in the studio. There's a picture of June and Mel in the studio, too.

As I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few pictures...and there's one on page 129 of June and some friends at the 1974 Annie Awards. Before any can ask, the Annie Awards is short for the Animation Awards...a gala where animation big-wigs and voice actors and actresses gather. It's much like the typical awards programs you see but cartoons are being honored and celebrated instead of live-action.

One of the things you may or may not notice is that the chapter's are short...well, a lot of them are. "Chuck Who?" is a rather lengthy chapter as is "My Rocky Life". There's a section called "The War Years" where she talks about her career doing radio shows and offers a picture of her as part of a dance group. She makes a lot of jokes about her short stature and reflects that her short stature must have been a good reason she clicked so well with Daws Butler in the recording studio.

It's really a great look at June's life and career.

If you do much You Tube searching, be sure to look up some clips of Ma and Pa Kettle. The clips will feature an actress, Marjorie Main, in the role of Ma Kettle. This is the voice that June based a lot of the older lady types on...the voice is heard prominently in Fractured Fairy Tales, a segment in the Rocky and Bullwinkle series. June usually gave fairy godmothers or witches that voice. In the Disney cartoons, Duck Tales and Gummi Bears, June gave the Ma Beagle and Grammi Gummi characters the Marjorie Main vocal characterization.