Sunday, July 10, 2011

Remembering Mel Blanc...

July 10, 1989 is the day that the world lost Mel Blanc. I'm one of the millions of people who grew up hearing his voice on many cartoons. I never met him in person and have no connection to him or his family but like millions of others we've been impacted by his voice and have laughed at his visual performances. The death of the animation world's most celebrated voice actor not only made national but international news. One of the programs that I remember seeing at some point in the mid '80s when I was around 7 or 8 years old was a Lifetime show called Mother's Day hosted by Joan Lunden. The reason I remember this particular show is because Mel Blanc, of all people, made a guest appearance. In the show he was decked out in a sweatshirt with a picture of Bugs Bunny on the front.

In addition to voicing cartoon characters he also had an equal amount of time playing bit parts and recurring characters on many radio comedies of the '30s and '40s and then when television came along as the country's main choice of entertainment he often shown up in guest starring roles on TV comedies and talk-shows. The radio program with which Mel Blanc is so closely associated is the Jack Benny Program. Mel not only had recurring characters on the radio show but he also brought the characters to television in the '50s and '60s on Jack's television program (1950-1965). One of the characters, Sy, became part of a legendary comedy routine that highlighted the comedic timing of both Mel Blanc and Jack Benny. My grandfather introduced me to Jack Benny's television happened around the mid '80s time period...the reruns were airing on the local PBS stations on Sunday morning. Ever since the mid '80s I've been aware of Jack Benny and Mel Blanc and have long been a fan of Warner Brothers cartoons of which Mel was the primary vocal star.

As others have said and I also agree, Mel Blanc was an actor first and that used his expressive voice and entire body in most every performance...but it's the acting that brought everything together.

The vocalizations are what he's known for but it's his acting abilities that enabled those vocalizations to become believable. When you watch a cartoon and hear any number of his characterizations...the funny thing is...the character sounds real. It's one of those things that'll forever puzzle a lot of people. When you hear him as one of the radio characters he played...he sounds exactly like you'd expect his character to sound. Professor LeBlanc, the long-suffering violin teacher of Jack Benny, sounds pretty much the way you'd expect a long-suffering teacher to sound: easily irritable, agitated, sarcastic, and prone to fits of crying and misery. In Professor LeBlanc, Mel could go from misery and angst (during a violin lesson) to absolute joy and happiness (once the violin lesson was over!). Mel provided the voices of not only Professor LeBlanc but he was also heard as Sy the Mexican, Polly the Parrot, Carmichael the Polar Bear, Jack's Maxwell car, and the Train Depot announcer. These were just a few of the well-known characterizations...he provided voices for many nameless characters throughout his involvement in Jack's program from would-be burglars, to repairmen, plumbers, store clerks, and other occupational characters.

Speaking of store of Blanc's most hysterical performances every Christmas season for many years was on Jack's program. In many holiday episodes Mel played the part of a nice, courteous store clerk who was driven insane throughout the course of the episode by Jack's annoying habit of changing his mind over what to buy someone for Christmas. Typically a routine would involve Mel having to wrap a gift...then unwrap the gift...wrap the new gift...put it back in the delivery room...then, upon another change of mind from Jack, Mel would have to retrieve the wrapped gift...unwrap it...wrap up the new gift...send it to the delivery room. This gift exchange routine would go on, at various moments, throughout each holiday episode. About mid-way through Mel would lose his temper just a little. By the episode's final exchange Mel would completely lose his mind and turn into a sobbing mess.

Mel turns into a sobbing mess in the clip below...

Mel asks for a Tip in this hilarious clip from one of Jack Benny's television programs. In the clip you'll see Jack, Mel, and Don Wilson (Jack's long-time announcer). I couldn't embed the above video because of the embedding option for it is disabled.

In the video clip below you'll see Jack and Don Wilson discussing the introduction of the show while Mel Blanc comes in about 2 and a half minutes later as a Taxi cab driver. Jokes follow about Mel's character being the owner of a cab service...Blanc then wonders what Jack's profession happens to be. Self-deprecating jokes from Jack as well as jokes from others teasing Jack's "celebrity status" were always prominent on Jack's program. This inquiry from Mel's character prompts Jack to deliver a line that comes off as an ad-lib (based on how Don Wilson and Mel both reacted to it!). You can find quite a few other clips featuring Mel and Jack on You Tube.

Lastly...and I'm not meaning to put a damper on things but a lot of the modern-day depictions of the Looney Tunes characters obviously lack Blanc's vocal touch.

It's one thing to keep the characters in the public eye (which I'm glad that they're doing) but at the same time the characters need to have voice actors who come near-perfect to Blanc's voice. At the present time Bob Bergen and Joe Alaskey are just two that spring to mind that sound similar to how Mel voiced the characters...while Frank Welker does a swell Barney Rubble.

Some of the artists who perform the role of Bugs Bunny put too much emphasis on trying to sound Brooklyn-Bronx and they end up over-doing it or they come off sounding nothing like Bugs Bunny and more like a stereotypical New Yorker.

As you can tell from my comments, I'm guilty of the following as are thousands of other people: Although it's probably unfair to have this kind of opinion but a lot of people judge new Looney Tunes cartoons NOT on the actual storyline but on how close the vocals are to Mel Blanc. Nothing makes a new Looney Tunes cartoon grow on me quicker than if the vocalizations are in the tradition of Mel Blanc. Animators and the musicians can re-create the look and sound of the classic cartoons but, for me, I tend to pay attention to the vocalizations, too. If the vocalizations aren't satisfactory it tends to put a dark cloud over the whole thing.

Mystery resolved: Hopefully this puts an end to the long-held belief that Mel was allergic to carrots. The truth is Mel didn't particularly like carrots unless they were boiled and had a lot of butter or syrup on them. The often told story is Mel had to quickly spit out the carrot that he'd bite into or become sick to his stomach due to some allergic reaction. The reason he'd spit out the carrot is simply to clear his mouth...the last thing you want is to be reading a script and a piece of carrot come up from behind a tooth or wherever and cause a reading to become wasted. People still like to say Mel was allergic to carrots. It's a funny and ironic scenario if it were true but in reality it's just an urban legend and completely, 100 percent false. Mel Blanc was NOT allergic to carrots!

Mel Blanc's son, Noel, often appears on radio programs to discuss animation, old-time radio, and his dad's legacy. He contributed to the various DVD collections that were issued in the middle of last decade (2000-2009) titled The Golden Collection. Each DVD release would feature 4 disc's of Looney Tunes cartoons. Loaded with extra features saw the inclusion of an on-going series titled Behind The Tunes. These installments ran an estimated 5 minutes and they featured clips of a specific cartoon or a profile of a specific character and there would be commentary on-screen by those who participated in the making of the cartoon...or there would be commentary by a relative. Noel Blanc appeared in quite a few of these brief documentaries. In one installment he speaks about Mel's performance and Oscar win for the cartoon "Birds Anonymous" which featured Sylvester trying to give up birds. Technically the producer of a short-subject received the actual award but those who worked on the cartoon rightfully claimed victory, too. Former producer of the Warner Brothers cartoons, Eddie Selzer, willed an Oscar to Mel according to Noel's recollections.

Mel is spoken of with reverence within the various documentary programs in the DVD collections and eventually the collection featured an in-depth look at Mel Blanc's life featuring clips of several of the directors, some of Mel's co-stars, and Noel too. The director's on-screen comments were all taped years before the DVD collections became a reality. Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng are the two who appear on camera with recurring frequency. Robert McKimson is highlighted in a 15 minute documentary; Frank Tashlin gets a documentary; and Bob Clampett has his own documentary, too. Tex Avery is frequently mentioned as is Art Davis.

Speaking of the Oscar...the following cartoons, all featuring Mel as the main voice artist, won an Oscar. I'm listing the actual director of the short-subject because I feel the director had much more creative influence over the cartoon than the producer:

1. Tweetie Pie: 1947 (Friz Freleng)
2. For Scent-imental Reasons: 1949 (Chuck Jones)
3. Speedy Gonzales: 1955 (Friz Freleng)
4. Birds Anonymous: 1957 (Friz Freleng)
5. Knighty-Knight Bugs: 1958 (Friz Freleng)

Mel Blanc's contributions to animation can still be heard. Somewhere in the world the classic Looney Tunes are still airing...if not the Looney Tunes then you're bound to hear his voice on The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Each series airs on the Boomerang channel in America. Mel voiced Barney Rubble and various incidental characters on The Flintstones and Mr. Spacely and other incidental characters on The Jetsons. Boomerang also airs "Wacky Races" and "The Perils of Penelope Pitstop". In the latter, Mel is heard as the Bully Brothers, Yak-Yak, and Chug-a-Boom (recreating the Maxwell vocalizations).

Mel Blanc: May 30, 1908 - July 10, 1989.

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