Thursday, May 3, 2012

Animator/Director Robert McKimson: 1910-1977

As I scour the internet and blogosphere I'm pleased to see quite a few blogs dealing with Robert McKimson's impact on the Warner Brothers cartoons as an animator and a director. I came across this particular article, written by an author named Michael Mallory, titled The Case for Robert McKimson from a web-site entitled Animation Magazine. That article, and several others at other sites, can give you in-depth and statistical data about Robert McKimson as well as a listing of the cartoons he directed for Warner Brothers. My blog entry is not as in-depth but rather enthusiastic. As I've often pointed out I'm a professional enthusiast...vastly different from a critic. 

As many of you may know, I am nowhere near an expert on all things Looney Tunes...other than being a big fan of the cartoons...but through the joys of watching the cartoons, you, as a viewer, become aware of who the directors were and who some of the writers and animators were and of course who Mel Blanc was, etc. etc. It's all there on the opening credits. Those who are much more in detail about the behind-the-scenes goings on at Warner Brothers during their Golden Period are certainly aware of the various units that were employed at the studio. The unit consisted of writers, animators, layout artists, background painters, and of course the director. Several directors came and went...of those that came and went were Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Norm McCabe, Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton, and Bob Clampett. The core line-up of directors from the mid '40s onward were: Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Robert McKimson. Along the way, for a short period of time, Art Davis directed a series of cartoons for the studio but ultimately went back into animation when the studio started cutting back the number of units. There was considerable unit hopping, as I call it, that took place in the '30s and especially the '40s. When a director would leave, their unit would either be dismantled altogether or be absorbed by another director still with the studio...sometimes a director would hand pick animators or layout artists from a former director's unit and incorporate them into their own unit. Robert McKimson, after years of being content as an animator, found himself being a director after the departure of Frank Tashlin in 1944.

As a fan of the classic Looney Tunes shorts I have an equal appreciation for the directors that came and went and those that stayed for the long haul. McKimson was there from the beginning to the end. For years now there have been many, many attempts by admirers and fans of individual directors at the studio to marginalize the work of other directors. Fan wars, or whatever one chooses to call it, does a disservice, I think, to the overall legacy of the Looney Tunes. For a fan, to single out a director and say that particular director's cartoons are better than anyone else at the studio is the same time it creates division and really serves no purpose beyond chest-pounding and brow-beating.

I'm a tad bit different when it comes to such things. There is something amusing, whimsical, funny, humorous, and outright hysterical about many of the cartoons from the various Warner Brothers directors. A person's individual taste is subjective, obviously, but it shouldn't be so subjective that it becomes blinding to anyone else's work. Friz Freleng created his share of masterpieces as did Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Norm McCabe, Chuck Jones, and Robert McKimson. Now, of course, some of the lesser-known directors didn't have the luxury of longevity with the studio and so they hadn't obtained the sort of celebrity status that the more tenured directors achieved...that's just a isn't a case of their work not being important or any good.

Robert McKimson's work as a director was covered in the Six Volume DVD series, Looney Tunes: Golden Collection. However, if you look up the volumes and do a cartoon by cartoon check list by their director, you'll notice that McKimson's work is seriously under represented in comparison to Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. Sprinkled throughout the DVD's are cartoons from Norm McCabe, Harman-Ising, Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton, Art Davis, and of course Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. It would take until Volume Five before Bob Clampett got a disc of his own...but McKimson, nor Tex Avery, got a disc of their own during the entire Six Volume series. The Golden Collection series is wonderful, don't get me wrong, but for a certain animator turned director (McKimson) who was at the directorial helm from 1944 through the close of the studio in 1969...for his work to not have a more significant role in the Golden Collection series is a bit of a let down. Fear not, though...on Volume Five of the series there's an extra found on Disc 2 called Drawn To Life: The Art of Robert McKimson. Although a full disc of his cartoons would've been even better, it nonetheless is a wonderful treat to see McKimson's son and peers reflect on the animator turned director who passed away decades before cartoons became celebrated and praised. Robert McKimson passed away on September 29, 1977...ironically, McKimson died while dining with Friz Freleng and David DePatie.

McKimson had become a director of several cartoon shorts for the DePatie-Freleng studio including The Inspector and Pink Panther. McKimson passing away in 1977 coupled with his peers' material getting the lion's share of reruns on Saturday morning television throughout the '70s, '80s, '90s, and into the 2000's didn't help matters.

McKimson's biggest characters/creations for Warner Brothers were Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales, Sylvester Jr., and Hippety Hopper (the kangaroo that Sylvester always mistakes for a giant mouse). He also created the Tasmanian Devil. Henery Hawk, the confused pint-sized chicken hawk who rarely knows what a chicken actually looks like in each of his appearances, was created by Chuck Jones...but McKimson borrowed the character and Henery became synonymous with the Foghorn series thereafter. Speedy, on the other hand, was used for one cartoon in the classic era by McKimson. The character was re-designed by Friz Freleng's unit and became one of Freleng's often-used characters. Much in the same way Chuck's Henery Hawk became closely associated with McKimson's cartoons, McKimson's Speedy Gonzales creation became closely associated with Friz Freleng. Later, McKimson resumed directing Speedy cartoons...using Daffy Duck as the villain...and retaining the re-design of Speedy.

Somebody should write a book about Robert McKimson and his two brothers-in-art, Tom and Charles...

Well...wait, I say, wait a minute there, son...someone has...

Robert McKimson, Jr. has authored a book that is said to be released this coming July!

The title is "I Say...I Say...Son!", lifted from the catch-phrase of one of McKimson's creations, the southern rooster Foghorn Leghorn. It'll tell the story of Robert, Tom, and Charles McKimson. Those interested, and I certainly hope you are, can read about it in this link... 


The Amazon Pre-Order link can be found Here.

It states that July 1, 2012 is when the book will be released. During the pre-order it's being sold for a little more than $30.00. The regular price will be $45.00. I'll definitely be keeping my eye on this book in the days/weeks to come as I ultimately put in a pre-order for it, too. It's going to be, in my opinion, one of those books that ultimately will go out of print quickly and later become available for an outrageous asking price on eBay, for example.

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