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Free Film School #97: The Importance of Bugs Bunny (Part 2)

Witney Seibold concludes his history of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons with a look at Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Mel Blanc and the three best Looney Tunes ever produced.

Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes

Greetings, my dear students, and welcome back to CraveOnline's award-winning Free Film School, which has received the McGillicutty Gherkin Hat award for Best Professor Who Eats Breakfast While Writing His Lectures.

Before I get started on this week's lecture, all about the Warner Bros. cartoon shorts made between 1930 and about 1956, I would encourage you to read last week's installment first, as I will be continuing my historical overview of the famed Termite Terrace. Since there are so many wonderful films in the Warner Bros. canon, and I couldn't possibly narrow this lecture down to a mere review of just a few of them, I have decided instead to give you a general idea of the studio through the producers and directors behind the cartoons being made during the so-called Golden Era. Last week, I talked about the studio's head producer, Leon Schlesinger, as well as Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Michael Maltese, Robert McKimson, and the mad genius Bob Clampett. In addition to a brief biography of each, I also included a list of pertinent cartoons that each of them made, all recommended.

This week, I will be continuing with this approach, this time covering some of the greater directors and talents involved in the Warner canon, also including recommended shorts with each one. I will be talking about Friz Freleng, composer Carl Stalling, sound effects man Treg Brown, voice actor Mel Blanc, and the inimitable Chuck Jones. I will then close out the lecture with a brief word on what I consider to be the three best Warner Bros. cartoon shorts.

I wish I could attach link to the various cartoons I mention, but Warner Bros. is understandably touchy about free distribution of their films on sites such as YouTube. Luckily, all of the shorts I mention (wither the possible exception of the Private Snafu shorts) are available on various home video formats, and can be rented or bought with relative ease. And yes, you can buy these collections blind and not regret it.

Let's pick up this week's lecture with…

Friz Freleng: The Dramatist

Friz Freleng

Isadore “Friz” Freleng (1906-1995) was a bit of a dictator, and it’s been openly rumored that the character of Yosemite Sam was based on him. Freleng was on board the Terrace from the early days, having animated from the 1930s. Friz Freleng took every talent listed in last week's lecture and synthesized them into a single, talented powerhouse. His characters had the relatable movements of McKimson, the wild chaos of Clampett, the jokiness of Avery, and it was all tempered with a well balanced, overbearing calmness. It’s hard to really pin down any of his stylistic flourishes other than to say he directed solid and funny cartoons. He is often credited for inventing Porky Pig in 1935’s I Haven’t Got a Hat. He most certainly invented the characters of Sylvester the Cat and Tweety, and directed the bulk of those cartoons. He, like Maltese, often incorporated his own interests in the cartoons, making for some truly bizarre experiments, including a great film called The Three Little Bops, and anything in which Bugs Bunny meets a gangster named Mugsy, or a monster from Jekyll & Hyde.

“Friz” by the way is pronounced “frizz” and not “Fritz.”

Cartoons to See:

I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935)
Rhapsody in Rivets (1941)
The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942)
The Private Snafu cartoons
Baseball Bugs (1946)
I Taw a Putty Tat (1948)
Canary Row (1950)
Ballot Box Bunny (1951)
Lumber Jerks (1955)
The Three Little Bops (1957)
Bugsy and Mugsy (1957)

Carl Stalling: The Music Man

Carl Stalling

And where would any of these cartoons be without that music? Without the characteristic character cues? Without the subtle quotation of popular hits one second, and Wagner opera the next? Without the uncanny ability to make inanimate objects dance, melodies powerful, and cues bordering on the abstract? Without that famous slide guitar introducing every cartoon?

Carl Stalling (1891-1972) was a genius. Initially asked to simply write music for some throw-off animated shorts (he was hired in 1936), he took to the task with wild aplomb, employing the entire Warner Bros. orchestra for his projects. He soon fell in with the looney sensibility of his subjects, and was able to not just provide a simple score, but managed to invent some of the famous music cues used today. The musical “sting” was perfected by Stalling. When a piano falls, we hear a piano glissando. When a character is drunk, we hear a harp with an echo pedal. When a character sneaks, we hear a bouncing bassoon or plucked cello.

Imagine being Stalling, and receiving instructions from your pool of wacky co-workers. They need music for a bullfight. He would compose Spanish music, and mix it with the looney comedy. They needed music for a space battle, so he would imitate the sci-fi composers. They want to do a cartoon where Bugs Bunny abuses Elmer Fudd to the Barber of Seville. No problems. No other composer in the history of cinema has had such a wide rage of styles over such a huge number of films.

Indeed, thanks to the works of Carl Stalling, generations have been given a subtle education both classical music and the standards of the 1920s. Any kid you ask will be able to hum “Hungarian Rhapsody #5,” Wagner Operas, “The Barber of Seville,” Raymond Scott’s “Power House,” 1940s Fight songs, Al Jolson, “How Dry I Am,” “The Blue Danube,” or the “Figaro” aria, all thanks to the singular contribution of Carl Stalling.

Many people cite the 1940 Disney feature Fantasia as the finest use of music in animation. I agree that it is powerful, but I argue that Carl Stalling, with his cute little comic shorts, was able to reach further, and cover far more ground than Fantasia even attempted.

Stalling, it must be noted, also pioneered a recording device still used in most modern recording: the click track. When performers are recording in a studio, they will often hear a metronome in their headphones in order to stay on beat. Stalling did not invent the metronome, but he did invent this ingenious use of it. Every studio in the modern world uses this technique.

Cartoons to See:

Any one of them, but notably Rhapsody in Rivets, The Rabbit of Seville, and What’s Opera, Doc?

Treg Brown: The Sound Man

Treg Brown

Following close on the heels of Carl Stalling is Treg Brown (1899-1984), the man who invented every single sound effect for the Warner Bros. cartoons. Crashing dishes, clanging anvils, skidding heels, punches, explosions… all Brown.

Brown had an entire garage filled with what looked like junk, but was in fact his collection of noisemaking devices. Not content to use the old known radio tricks, he would try to create every effect himself, growing the Warner Bros. sound archive by leaps and bounds. Every gunshot, explosion, and mutilation was created originally by brown. Most attuned ears can recognize a Brown sound effect.

Brown would often plunder said archive and use old effects in new innovative ways. When a running character would come skidding to a halt, he would use an old car skid from a Cagney movie.

Brown also worked closely with Carl Staling, to make sure that the best comic effect would be achieved with a blend of music and kabooms.

Mel Blanc: The Voice

Mel Blanc

On a personal note: the voice of Mel Blanc (1908-1989) reminds me of my own childhood. Blanc appeared in hundreds upon hundreds of films in his day, and I feel like I had seen a hefty portion of them as a child (according to the Internet Movie Database, he has acted in over 1000 films and shorts). His growls, his giggles, the very timbre and cadence of his every word, all remind me of the glorious Saturday mornings I spend sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating breakfast cereals, and staring up in awe at the television. Even if you haven’t seen many of the Warner Bros. shorts, you know the voices of and speech impediments of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the stuttering Porky, and the listing cat Sylvester. All of those voices were innovated and acted by Mel Blanc.

Why does Porky have a stutter? Because Blanc was trying to imitate the short grunting of a pig. Foghorn Leghorn was an outright imitation of Sen. Claghorn, a character from an old radio program. Yosemite Sam was a combination of a mean-spirited rube and Friz Freling. And, in addition to all the well-known characters, Blanc played just about every supporting character as well.

Imagine the talent and imagination that must have gone into these voices. The range of comic emotions that must have been expressed. He had to scream, bawl, guffaw, and sing, all with equal adeptness. It was the animation directors that gave the characters their look and movement and character. It was Blanc who gave them life and personality. When the Looney Tunes stable is imitated in new cartoons and movies, an entire stable of actors must be hired to do what Blanc could do by himself. Frank Welker, Billy West and Joe Alaskey are amazingly talented people, but they, I think they would admit, are only trying to approach what Blanc so easily attained. That, I think, is the greatest testament to voice acting: when your versatility covers the ground of several of your followers.

Blanc played every voice with a few notable exceptions. Arthur Q. Bryan (1899-1959) was the William-Frawley-type actor who played the wonderfully clueless Elmer Fudd, and could match wits with Blanc with surprising ease. In What’s Opera, Doc?, Bryan managed to sing with a great deal of skill as well. People like to imitate Elmer Fudd, but none of the imitators can really match the wit and timing and sound of Bryan’s voice.

June Foray played most of the female roles, most notably Witch Hazel and Granny. She’s probably best known as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” Foray is still working sporadically to this day, even at age 95, and sometimes even makes appearances at conventions. 

Chuck Jones: The Master

Chuck Jones

And we come to the Master himself. Chuck Jones (1912-2002) started at the Terrace in 1933, and was always seen as one of the leaders of the bunch. Some resented him; some even claimed that he plagiarized. It cannot be denied that he is responsible for the best of the entire Warner Bros. canon. What he did was elevate the silly comic shorts into something cinematic. Using the filmic styles of the day, he turned what is often considered a trifle into a high comic art.

 

Jones started out like most of his contemporaries imitating the film shorts of Disney. He worked with cutesy characters, and a Normal Rockwell palate, and produced some perfectly bland cartoons. He made several funny and compelling stable-character cartoons for the Terrace throughout the ‘30s. In 1942, he directed a film for the Terrace call The Dover Boys, involving a trio of college-age heroes trying to protect their doll-like dame from the clutches of an aqua-skinned alcoholic. Fast-paced, funny, and a sharp satire of other film serials of the day, The Dover Boys can serve as a clarion call for a fresh new talent.  He then proceeded, throughout the ‘40s, and through most of the ‘50s, to dominate the studio with a long series of great shorts. They are listed below.

What set Jones apart from his contemporaries was his use of style. Most of the other directors were focused on details like character or jokes. Jones had a firm grasp of the characters and the jokes, and managed to add a strongly cinematic mise-en-scène. Working with background designer Maurice Noble, he created a beautifully expressionistic background palate for his cartoons, making them come across as strangely otherworldly, color-friendly, and comfortably lived-in. Look at any of his Coyote and Road Runner cartoons and note the desert backgrounds. They are starkly minimalist in many cases, but strangely familiar. We know that desert.

Watch Drip-Along Daffy and note the angle with which the cartoon is shot. We see Daffy walking through a dusty western town, but from the inside of an upstairs window. From down on the ground, from a porch. He would meticulously edit these shots together to form a calm and hilarious whole. If comedy is all about timing, then it was Jones who was the funniest man of all.

Look at the eyes of Jones’ characters. A comic askance. A sarcastic consideration. A knowing glance at the audience. Other animators have been praised for their use of bodily cartoon “acting,” but it was Jones who was able to tell a joke and set a scene with a very twitch of the eyes.

Cartoons to See:

You can’t really go wrong, but if I were to pick a few highlights…

The Dover Boys (1942)
Mouse Wreckers (1948)
Fast and Furry-ous (1949)
For Scent-imental Reasons (1949)
The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950)
The Rabbit of Seville (1950)
Rabbit Fire (1951)
Drip-Along Daffy (1951)
Feed the Kitty (1952)
Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953)
Bully for Bugs (1953)
Robin Hood Daffy (1958)

The three best of the Warner Bros. shorts were all directed by Jones. I will describe each of them below.

Duck Amuck (1953)

Duck Amuck

Daffy Duck is a Musketeer. He leaps into frame wielding his fencing foil, entreating his unseen enemies to stand back. He lunges forward a few paces. The background of the cartoon passes by him, and he leaps into an empty white space. He looks behind him. He realizes that he has no scenery, and, in a fit of professional pique, entreats the animator to draw some. The animator’s paintbrush and pencil dart in and out of the frame, creating the scene before our very eyes. It’s a farm.

Daffy leaps into frame again, still wearing his Musketeer outfit. He realizes he’s on a farm, and gives the animator an angry glance. A consummate actor, and forever game, Daffy dons a farmer’s outfit. He wanders a few more paces, and realizes that he has passed into the arctic.

Throughout the film, Daffy will be an airplane pilot, a hula dancer, will have an argument with himself, will lose his voice, he will be erased and redrawn and re-colored. By the end, we finally pull back to see that the animator is none other than Bugs Bunny, joyously playing pranks on Daffy.

In addition to being one of the funniest films of all time, Duck Amuck is also brilliant in the way in plays with animation conventions. It doesn’t merely break the fourth wall by referring to itself as a cartoon, but exploits the fact that anything can happen in a cartoon, all at the creators’ behest. Is that not what all cinema is? The images of the creators’ imaginations put unadulterated onto the screen? And how do the characters feel about that? In a way, Duck Amuck is a slapstick comedy version of Pirandello.                 

What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)

 

Jones, like most of the directors at the Terrace, was fond of classical music, and Wagner operas in particular. Why not, thought he, make an opera featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd? The result is What’s Opera, Doc? One of the more beautiful and ambitious of the Warner Bros. shorts.

It’s a comedy to be sure, but in form and design, it follows the rules of grand opera to a T. The dance movements, the musical quotations, and the scenarios all come from various Wagner operas. Jones may be cutely parodying the tenets of grand opera, but through his accuracy of design and form, he clearly has a deep affection for it. He is not merely riffing on popular images of Wagner, he is making an animated comic homage to it.

I have a theory that one cannot take something truly seriously (including themselves) unless they’ve learned to look at it objectively and even snicker at it. This is what Jones is doing with What’s Opera, Doc?

 

One Froggy Evening (1955)

One Froggy Evening

Called the Citizen Kane of the Warner canon, Jones’ One Froggy Evening can easily be called the pinnacle of the cartoon form.

The cartoon is silent, except for the singing of Bill Roberts. A construction worker opens a 100-year-old time capsule he finds at his local demolition site. Inside a cigar box is a frog. The frog picks up a top hat and cane, and begins to sing and dance. The man stares blankly for a moment, and then quickly forms a plan to market this frog to the public. He sees an agent, but the frog will not sing or dance for the agent. Indeed, the frog looks confused and bored by the proceedings; like an ordinary frog. As soon as the unnamed man is out in the hall alone, the frog begins to sing again. In the time it takes the man to get the agent, the frog has stopped.

The same thing happens with a rented theater. Backstage, the frog sings, dances, walks a high-wire. As soon as the curtain goes up, it shuts up. The man is booed by the audiences, and thrown out into the cold. Without money, the man takes to sleeping in a park. Eventually, thanks to this frog that only the man can see and hear sing, he is thrown into a mental asylum. Eventually, the man ditches the frog in a new building foundation.

We fast-forward hundreds of years, and the frog is found again by yet another construction worker. It still sings and dances. The cycle continues.

I will not go on about the brilliance of the facial acing or the comic timing; you get all that from a simple viewing. I will say that the cartoon has an important moral in addition to the humor: mankind is often too greedy to appreciate the beauty and unique glorious absurdity of something like a dancing frog. Man is undone by his need for money and, later, his need to be right.

What a beautiful film.

Which comedies are your favorite? Lubitsch? The Marx Bros.? They fed into the Warner Bros. The romantic comedies of Preston Sturges? The comedies of Billy Wilder? The Three Stooges? The Ealing comedies? Mel Brooks? The ZAZ films? TV sitcoms? Raunchy late-night TV animation?

Every one of those has, in their way, been influenced by the Warner Bros. shorts. The cartoons managed to redefine the language of comedy, bring slapstick to a new artistic height, and influence everyone who was lucky enough to see them. In a way, no now comic paradigm has been invented since the shorts were breaking new ground in their heyday. To watch the Warner Bros. cartoons is to do more than while away the hours, laughing hysterically at funny cartoons; it is to acquire a sneakily complete education in the rules of comedy.               

Now go watch some.

Homework for the Week:

Watch cartoons. Just watch 'em. You'll find your favorites. 


Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.