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.

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