Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bob vs. Chuck

I was reading Milt Gray's oral history of the Bob Clampett vs. Chuck Jones wars. Read the article for the story, though keep in mind that it is from the point of view of an admitted Clampett partisan whose experiences with Chuck Jones weren't very pleasant. But the gist of it was that in the '70s, Clampett started telling stories in an interview with Gray and Mike Barrier, and the 1975 documentary "Bugs Bunny Superstar," where he maybe tried a little too hard to portray himself as the guy who invented everything good at Warners. Jones was a man who held grudges easily -- that's not an anti-Jones comment; that's just something everybody, including Jones' greatest admirers, agreed upon; if he had a bad experience with someone, like Leon Schlesinger, he'd bad-mouth that person forever -- and he struck back with an angry letter and, finally, leaving Clampett out of the Warners "hall of fame" as seen in his Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie.

What interests me is not so much the Clampett vs. Jones question in itself (Clampett vs. Jones arguments are usually only of interest to people who love both men's cartoons, and the general public just loves the cartoons without worrying about who made which one) as the fact that in the early '70s, the issue of credit for the Warners cartoons -- and the other theatrical cartoons turned out in the studio era -- became so important to the people who made them.

Remember, Clampett himself wasn't always so enthusiastic about his Warners work. When he was doing the "Beany and Cecil" cartoons, he took credit only for creating Tweety (the one character of which he really was the sole creator) and had a somewhat ambiguous attitude toward his theatrical cartoons, talking about them almost as an artist would talk about his early, immature work. That was entirely normal. Most of the WB people, in their rare interviews in the '60s, did not talk as though they had been working on masterpieces or that their work in TV was a come-down. Many of them seemed quite enthusiastic about limited animation and the more specifically kid-centric nature of TV cartoons. Cartoon directors who had gone on to bigger things, like Frank Tashlin, rarely talked about their cartoon work at all; until the late '60s it was common to read that Tashlin had worked for Disney but no other studio.

This wasn't only because the non-Disney theatrical shorts hadn't really been re-evaluated and given the respect they get today. I think it was also a sign that the collapse of theatrical cartoons and the coming of limited TV animation was a big opportunity for some of these veterans, and in some cases an opportunity that paid off. The very obvious thing about their work on theatrical shorts is that for decades, they had been helping to create popular characters, who would then be merchandised like crazy by the studios (Eddie Selzer, in his only published interview about being the producer of WB cartoons, talked more about new merchandising for Bugs Bunny than his new cartoons), and cartoons that were being issued and re-issued and sold to television... and they weren't getting anything for all of that. They had gotten a screen credit -- sometimes -- and a good but not great salary, but their work had made other people very rich while they themselves were not rich or famous.

TV cartoons, popping up in a time when many shows were owned by their own producers, suggested the possibility that cartoonists might finally be able to create characters that they would actually own. Bob Clampett did it with Beany and Cecil, getting not only better money than he would have made from Warners cartoons but better recognition (which was the point of incorporating his name into the theme song). The threatened death of full animation bothered some people -- it certainly bothered Chuck Jones, who stuck to full animation and, as Gray says, was considered "the last shred of hope for quality that a lot of people had." But I would think that some cartoon directors/producers preferred the promise of real autonomy in limited animation to their past lives as faceless drones working to enrich a big Hollywood corporation.

Then it all collapsed. Networks exerted stricter control over TV cartoons and put most of them on Saturday mornings; production companies like Filmation popped up to do animation too cheap and fast even for those who had made their peace with limted animation; and the possibility of individual cartoonists getting rich and famous in TV became very remote. Everybody in the business seemed to have a sad understanding that their best work was behind them; Hanna and Barbera were pretty blunt about the fact that their new shows were not as good as their early ones. By 1970, Bob Clampett was no longer the famous creator of Beany, and it was increasingly unlikely that he was ever going to create another hit in any format.

At a time like that, with animation looking very much like a dying art form, it may have become more important to cartoon veterans to worry about their reputations, as opposed to taking advantages of opportunities for new cartoons (opportunities that really didn't exist any more). And around that time, critics and fans started becoming more aware of the greatness of the old theatrical cartoons and wanting to know more about the people who made them -- an extension of the increased interest in classic American movie directors, which gave new attention to people like Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and John Ford in their last years. So you get Frank Tashlin admitting, not long before he died, that the new interest in cartoons has made him think that maybe there was more to these short cartoons than he thought at the time, or you get Bill Melendez, once dismissive of his work at Warners, becoming increasingly willing to talk about the fun of working there.

What I see in Bob Clampett's '70s interviews is not so much a credit hog -- though I do think he was, a bit, and I think Gray's account severely understates Clampett's attempts to spin cartoon history his way -- but a man who is coming to appreciate what he didn't fully appreciate before, that his work in the '30s and '40s was really, really great, that he was part of something extraordinary, and that at this point in his life, it's important for him to secure his place in animation history. I see the same thing with Chuck Jones, for different reasons; Jones was the one who didn't "sell out" to limited animation, but his attempt to preserve quality animation never fully worked out (except for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," he spent many years producing cartoons that looked good but weren't really all that good), and he probably was coming to terms with the fact that he, too, would be remembered for the work-for-hire he did in the '40s and '50s.

From our point of view, the story has a happy ending because these guys did in fact find secure places in animation history, along with their contemporaries. For these guys, well, whether they felt their reputations were secure is something only they could know. But the story itself is kind of the story of animation in the '70s: animation hits a brick wall as an art form and suddenly the stuff that got churned out in previous decades starts to look really good, even to the people who created it.

Of course, if they did feel like they should have gotten more recognition and compensation for creating these cartoons... well, they were right.

13 comments:

J Lee said...

The other part of the problem in the late 50s through the mid-70s was the types of people who had attitudes that would eventually evolve into the term "Politically Correct" saw no redeeming social value in the vast majority of Hollywood theatrical cartoons. Anything this side of Bob Canon's tamest works at UPA were derided as mindless chase-and-violence stories and the characters were considered an impediment to the proper education of the nation's youth (when Jones' "Grinch" came out Chuck did receive a lot of favorable press around its debut on CBS, but the tone was odd, in that his career was treated as if he had done a lot of things that were interesting, but not really that important, until teaming up with Dr. Seuss for this Christmas special).

With attitudes like that pervasive among those who were the arbiters of what was and wasn't acceptable popular culture of the day, it's no wonder those in the business didn't put a big stake in the works they created. Animation was on the fringes, and only a few people were high profile enough to warrant any attention, like Mel Blanc (due in large part to his Jack Benny Show appearances) or Walter Lantz (who could claim by the 1960s he created Woody Woodpecker in 1941 while on honeymoon with Grace Stafford because Ben Hardaway had been dead since 1957). They felt free to invent fanciful stories about how some of the characters came into being without fear of being challenged, because nobody cared who created the characters.

Clampett was just following in their footsteps, but had the misfortune to do so at a time when a new generation of film historians who grew up with those cartoons on TV actually wanted to know the true history of their creations, and -- unlike Lantz -- took credit in the 1970s for characters created by people who were still alive, and could vocally question those claims. Had Bob said in 1959 what he did to Michael Barrier a decade later, it might have caused a momentary stir within the industry, but had little effect in the general public fan base, because there were no film historians who cared about anything other than Walt Disney and his studio's history, so everything else was up for grabs.

Thad said...

Excellent post, Jaime.

The thing that bothers me most, as I've written to others, is that when Gray, Kricfalusi, and others write about Clampett, they're not writing about him as students or critics of film. They're writing about him as his friends, and as a hero who could do no wrong. THAT'S the key difference that is overlooked between Clampett partisans and Jones partisans.

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Thad said...
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Griff said...

Back in 1975, I dragged a reluctant pal to see BUGS BUNNY SUPERSTAR, and he loved it; it was clear he'd never really looked at the pre-'48 Warner cartoons before. Afterwards, he was raving about the shorts and I vividly recall him saying, "That Clampett guy was amazing -- creating all those characters, making all those cartoons... a genius."

I'm not sure that it was the intent of the SUPERSTAR compilers to make it seem that Clampett was the big auteur of Termite Terrace, but to some degree the film did just that. [It didn't help that most of the versions of the shorts included in the compilation were Blue Ribbon reissues, and lacked specific creative credits.] Though the movie included a bit of interview footage with Freleng and Avery, Clampett was the star of the show. A friend later joked, "I kept waiting for him to tell how he came up with the idea of using cels."

I wouldn't minimize Clampett's importance, or his genius, and I love his Porky cartoons almost beyond reason. But I found his re-framing of the history of the Warner cartoon annoying back in 1975, and I still do.

Larry Levine said...

I am stating for the record I love the work of both Chuck Jones & Bob Clampett and I have no sides to take on the feud issue or who took credit for what.

But, I do wish to point out that Milt Gray has a long habit of not being able to point out how 'rilly rilly' great Clampett is without knocking Chuck Jones, which I think is getting pretty old & tired.

Recently on John K's blog Milt couldn't even praise a Clampett/Bugs screen cap without stating how artistically superior it was to a Jones screen cap from "Rabbit of Seville", which is odd considering most consider this among Chuck's finest work.

Chuck & Bob were actually good friends in their very early Termite Terrace days and there is
no point in rehashing what caused the rift. They are both gone but their body of work is still with us to enjoy, there is no need for Milt to continually fan the flames on a feud that is long passed.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Excellent and well balanced post, Jaime.

Thad said...

Welcome to the front page of Barrier's site again, Jaime. Boy, it's losing its flattery, huh? ;-)

He brought up an interesting point... Many Clampett partisans will see a steaming pile of shit as a priceless gem if his name is on it.

Anonymous said...

My perspective: I received a copy of Chuck's infamous letter while studying animation with Howard Beckerman in the late '70's. Not having seen the Funnyworld interview, Chuck sure made it sound as if Bob was embellishing mightily. I beleived for years that Clampett was an outrageous braggart. Cut to a couple of years ago: I finally get to read the Clampett interview online, and see that in context, Bob's claims could hardly be considered over-the-top. Chuck only could see the statements or parts of statements that would rub him the wrong way. Two amazing talents, a sad, sad chapter in animation history.
Chrisbo

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

An interesting analysis but there's much more to the story. I'll write about this on my own blog in a few days.

Jenny said...

Perfectly stated thoughts. I wish I'd written this myself and I can't think of a thing to gainsay any of your take.

Where's that "much more" of the story? While there's always a gazillion additional details of the interpersonal dealings of onetime friends and colleagues, seems to me that this posting covers all the main points of the basic setup.

mackdaddyg said...

Thanks for posting these links. The Bob Clampett interview is downright amazing to read. I've still got a third of it left to go.

What gets me about it is that he comes across as a very sweet guy. He talks very fondly about the old days with Chuck Jones. I don't know if that changed over the last few years of his life, but just reading this, you wouldn't think there was any kind of problem involving the two gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

Good point, J.Lee, in your first commentary about the timing ("the other part...Politically correct (who) saw no redeeming"..and the comments on Clampett and Jones in the 1960s.

----Steve Carras
gcarras@aol.com
(posting as anonymous due to trouble signing in)