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.