Monday, June 09, 2008

McKimson and Davis

I was talking to someone the other day about the two directors who took over Warner Brothers cartoon units in the mid-'40s, Bob McKimson and Art Davis.

They were the first and last directors appointed after Leon Schlesinger sold the cartoon operation to Warner Brothers, which I think probably made for a tough situation: the studio was changing, becoming more beholden to the studio and its corporate needs, and there was no longer a question, as there had been under Schlesinger, of a director learning on the job. McKimson and Davis were in a big cartoon factory, expected to make cartoons for super-popular cartoon stars and come up with popular new continuing characters ASAP. And they were dealing with management that had already made it clear that it wouldn't have the same kind of tolerance for freakiness or quirkiness that Schlesinger did. Neither of them became truly great directors, in my opinion, but they didn't have the benefit, as Clampett, Jones and Freleng did, of being able to strike out a few times while working toward something more interesting. (Yes, Clampett hit some bad patches in his Warners career; most of his 1941 cartoons are pretty slow and stolid, but he was growing out of what he'd done in the late '30s, and we wouldn't have had his better, faster 1942-6 work without that slow patch in between.) By some accounts Davis used to say that his unit was shut down because he was less willing than McKimson to do what Eddie Selzer wanted; that sounds like a self-serving argument, but there's no doubt that playing the corporate game was a new challenge at the studio. Jones and Freleng could get by because they were directors who had the skills of producers, who were, in fact, de facto producers of their own cartoons; under Schlesinger's hands-off regime, they had to learn (as Clampett and Tashlin did too) to be semi-autonomous. McKimson and Davis did not have those skills -- if you read Lloyd Turner's interview with Mike Barrier, linked below, it's clear that Davis had weaknesses as a boss and decision-maker -- and they were more analogous to the directors who worked for Disney or some other studio: their cartoons were skifully made, reflected their personalities to some extent, but they were more like staff directors than full-fledged bosses, and that can be seen in the fact that the people who worked for them often didn't have a whole lot of respect for them.

The question always comes up of whether Warners made the right choice in shutting down Davis's unit when it downsized from four cartoon units to three . I've usually said that if one of them had to go, it should have been Davis, because I strongly prefer the cartoons McKimson was making in the same period. And while I still have that preference, it's obviously not as simple as that. McKimson started with a number of advantages over Davis that contributed to the success of his early cartoons, starting with the obvious one, that he got started a little earlier and therefore had seniority as a director. It seems like anyone who headed up the "fourth unit" was given short shrift at the studio, and it didn't matter if he was a veteran; when Frank Tashlin came back to the studio in the '40s, he said, he had "lost my seniority" and wound up with some of the same problems as Davis's unit. As the junior director, Davis was in the position of not being allowed to make Bugs Bunny cartoons for several years and getting most of the budget-cutting measures (like Cinecolor cartoons). Also, McKimson and Davis came in just as the studio was moving toward assigning story men exclusively to a particular unit, so McKimson got Warren Foster exclusively, while Davis went through several story men before getting Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner, who were good but inexperienced. According to Lloyd Turner's interview, Davis didn't seem to have enough confidence to judge whether their stories were good or not; whether or not McKimson had the same problems with judgment, it didn't matter much because Foster was one of the most respected story people at the studio, and as with Mike Maltese, there was a certain built-in confidence that his material was good.

My biggest problem with Davis's cartoons, and I've said this before in various ways, is that they don't feel quite like Warner Brothers cartoons to me. It's hard to put into words what makes a cartoon feel like it fits the WB "house style," but Davis's cartoons in terms of plotting, gags and animation often feel like they came from some other studio. Lantz, in particular; he had a lot of Lantz people on his staff, and the format of "The Super Snooper," "The Stupor Salesman" with the big funny-animal villain being bothered to death by an annoying bird much smaller than he is, makes it feel like a really good Woody Woodpecker cartoon rather than a Daffy Duck cartoon. The cruelty in a lot of the cartoons, physical and psychological ("Bowery Bugs" especially) reminds me of some of the Lantz or Famous cartoons, too; Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett made cruel cartoons too, of course, but somehow they did a better job of taking the edge off the cruelty (or, as with Jones and "Chow Hound," actually acknowledging that the humor is cruel).

And it's not like Davis is breaking with the WB house style to do something very new and experimental; it's just that they feel a little more like the products of other studios that weren't usually as good as Warners anyway. McKimson made a few cartoons like that, like Corn Plastered, where if you take away Blanc and Stalling and a few of Foster's gags, you'd swear it was a fairly good Columbia or Terry cartoon instead of the fairly bad Warner cartoon that it is. But Davis's cartoons, with their somewhat weightless animation (unlike Clampett, he didn't have a lot of "solid" animation, wild-but-grounded animation like Rod Scribner did, let alone McKimson-style animation; Davis had great animators, but none of them brought a lot of weight to the characters) , post-war suburban settings and interchangeable little-wiseguy characters like the squirrel in Porky Chops or the termite in The Pest That Came to Dinner, feel to me like they wandered in from some other studio and got outfitted with the trappings and production values of a Warners cartoon.

McKimson's cartoons of the same period just feel a little more Warners-y, just in the style of gags, the look of the cartoons -- even the suburban cartoons don't look quite as antiseptic as the same settings do in "Catch as Cats Can" or something like that -- the portrayal of the characters (Davis's Porky is too ineffectual even for Porky; McKimson makes him a little rougher and just a little more competent even when Daffy is beating up on him), the more solid look to the animation. And the far greater number of radio -- and later television -- references and parodies, giving his cartoons a more pop-culture savvy feel than Davis's usually had. Some of that is due to Warren Foster, but I don't think all of it is; I just think McKimson nailed the house style better than Davis did. Maybe he just had a better eye for imitating what the senior directors were doing; borrowing characters and catchphrases from radio was something he learned from Clampett, and throughout the '50s he would try to catch up to whatever Jones or Freleng had been doing a year earlier.

You could maybe argue that Davis lost the battle, in part, because he was trying new stuff (or at least new for Warner Brothers) while McKimson was content to master the house style and then never deviate much from that style. That might actually be a fair argument. But it's not surprising that when you have two "house directors," the more successful one is the guy who sticks closest to the house style. McKimson had weaknesses that would bite him in the ass as his tenure continued, most obviously his pedantic insistence that animators stick to his pose drawings, something that drove a lot of good animators out of his unit. Davis gave his animators maybe too much freedom sometimes, so this is one of those cases where a happy medium between the two approaches would have been best. But as almost anybody will attest who grew up watching these cartoons on Saturday morning, McKimson's cartoons feel very much like Warner Brothers cartoons; they fit the brand almost perfectly. I don't quite get that from Davis; I always feel like he would have done his best directing at some other studio. That's just me, though, and I wouldn't argue strenuously with anyone who feels Davis was better.

(I should note as an aside that while Chuck Jones is sometimes accused of similar pedantry, it's not true; Jones specifically said that Ken Harris ignored many, sometimes all of his drawings but that whatever Harris came up with would be the emotion that Jones had in mind; the directors' drawings were just a way of suggesting what the animator should try to convey.)

17 comments:

Mike said...

That's a good point about Davis' cartoons. I hadn't thought about it before, but you're right, they do kind of feel like they could be another studio's. Particularly Bowery Bugs, which I have never been all that enthralled with and which makes Bugs just too darn mean.

And I don't think Clampett's 1940-41 shorts are terrible. Not his best work, and you're right, a little slower than we're used to from Clampett, but not terrible. Now, excuse me while I stretch myself out, to prepare for some self-fucking. I hope I don't let myself down.

Thad said...

Jaime, this is an excellent post, but what should be noted is that they didn't really think in terms of who was a 'better' director. Davis got cut simply because he was the bottom guy, not because his cartoons were least liked.

As a director, Davis was sort of a hybrid of Clampett and Freleng. The drawing style varies from animator to animator and was exagerrated, but the stories and gags were down to earth (though the Turner-Scott pictures were a little more sharply written than Friz's). In fact, I could see this as the direction Clampett could have went in, had he stayed at the studio.

That said, Davis ranks over McKimson with me. The pedantic layouts and witless writing waters Bob down too much, even in this period. I do agree that he got the house-style down better than Davis, most likely because of Davis' background directing at Columbia. (McKimson had experience co-directing with Jones in the earliest days. They did not get along.)

And yes, the bulk of Clampett's 1940-41 cartoons truly do suck, and anyone who thinks otherwise can insert a large iron pole in their anus.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

"Terrible" is not a word I'd use for Clampett's 40-41 cartoons either. They remind me a bit of some of Avery's weaker cartoons from the late '40s and early '50s; the style he'd been using was no longer in fashion and he had to adjust and find a slightly different way of doing things.

Thad said...

If you don't consider a season where the best cartoon is The Henpecked Duck (note: there is nothing funny about "I WANT A DIVORCE" screamed for half of a seven minute cartoon) terrible, I, I, don't know what to say.

Mr. Semaj said...

There may be some weight as to who was the "better" director. By 1949, McKimson had his fair share of hits with the mainstream characters, and had developed his very own series from Walky Talky Hawky, reusing Jones' Henry Hawk character, and creating Foghorn Leghorn. Davis, however, had a relatively mixed record, had only ONE Bugs outing, and a bunch of miscellaney shorts that failed to gel into a successful series.

Also, the bit about management change could explain why McKimson would later become scapegoated for a lot of the "formula" injected into a given WB cartoon, and why there was no effort, either from his own animation team or from the senior directors, to make McKimson a "stronger" director thru the 1950's.

I'd say Freleng was the weakest (of the three) in terms of utilizing a formula, as he tended to favor a lot of annoying characteristics. Aside from the gratuitous kitty abuse in the Sylvester and Tweety or Speedy series, he also made Daffy an out-and-out villain, once he got around to using the character's loser persona, which would send him to the point of no return when DePatie-Freleng took over the Looney Tunes series a decade later. McKimson tended to experiment with formulas, whether his attempts succeeded or failed.

Despite that, nobody seemed to care that he lost SEVENTEEN animators between 1946 and 1955, or that he had relatively little clout throughout his career, despite having longer tenure at WB than either Jones or Freleng.

Kinda makes we wish he DID become director when he was first offered in 1938.

J Lee said...

Davis' most Warnerseque cartoons tend to be his earliest ones, and it's not quite clear if it was the change in writers and/or Artie's preferences (all those years at Columbia may have taken their toll) that cause the stories to develop a slightly off-kilter feel.

"Mexican Joyride" is probably the most 'normal' WB cartoon - it could have just as easily come from the Freleng unit, as could the second half of "Catch as Cats Can" (take away the retarded voice and Davis and writer Dave Monahan came up with some great Sylvester gags). "Mouse Menace" also feels pretty much like a standard WB short, and was written by George Hill, who had only one other WB writing credit, "The Pest that Came to Dinner", which -- after Davis had been working with Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner -- looks and sounds like a Scott-Turner scripted cartoon and not like anything Friz, Chuck or Bob would have done.

As for Clampett, the 1941 slowdown in pacing allowed Bob and Warren Foster time to figure out how to improve their story structure, which apparently was demanded if Clampett was going to do color as well as B&W cartoons. By the time we get to "Porky's Pooch" Bob's pretty much got things figured out so he can start picking up the pace again with characters that were far more interesting than most of the ones he surrounded Porky with in 1939-40.

Larry Levine said...

McKimson evolved into a truly horrible director as he entered the 1950s, completely void of all vidual & creative inspiration (Bill Melendez told me he used to argue with McKimson over the rigid policy on layout drawings).

The fact not one animator returned to McKimson's unit after the shutdown (while Chuck & Friz's remained mostly intact) says a lot! Clampett himself said years later McKimson was a great animater who should not have become a director.

Art Davis was clearly, IMO, the superior director and I think he had valid cause to be bitter over this issue in his later years.

Anonymous said...

Clampett himself is fairly overrated and only really had one speed (if that isn't true why are everyone's favorite Clampett shorts wild from start to finish).

Edward Hegstrom said...

It's probably true that Davis' cartoons don't quite fit the house style, but I've always thought that was one of their strengths. "Bowery Bugs" especially reminds me more of Harvey Kurtzman-era MAD than anything else going on at contemporary animation studios, and I would have loved to see that continue. Much of that picture's flavor comes from Scott and Turner--and of course, they'd continue in a similar style with Jay Ward--but I love the "weightless" animation in Davis' stuff, and many of his gags are breathtakingly well-timed.

paul etcheverry said...

Great post!

I don't know when the next Bugs Buddies book will be out (or if it's out now), but my interview with Bill Scott, in which he discusses working with Davis, is slated to be in there. Bottom line: Davis wasn't crazy about being a director, did not have fun running a unit.

The absolute best these guys had to offer as directors (pretty darn good) gets compared to the cream of the crop at Warners, the gold standard in comedy. Davis and McKimson shared the unenviable task of being "Shemps", competing with Jones at his peak and directly following the best films of Clampett, Tashlin and Freleng.

I agree with Jaime's points - McKimson nails the Warners brand and the Davis films, especially his one-shots, frequently resemble something from another studio (just swap Stalling's soundtrack with Calker or Kilfeather music and presto, you have some akin to a Culhane Lantz cartoon or a Marcus Screen Gems) - while finding the 1940's films of both directors more enjoyable than the later formula stuff from the 50's.

McKimson had been a mainstay at Warners longer than anybody but Freleng and helped build the brand, while Davis was creating oft-kilter, sometimes wonderful cartoons with Sid Marcus at Columbia.

Davis' spin is different, featuring unexpected, subtle touches in details, camera angles, timing and uninhibited animation, much of which can easily be missed on a first viewing. He is more akin to Tashlin in that regard. I prefer both to McKimson's more conservative approach.

And the story of what happens to ace animators who become directors is a topic in itself.

the spectre said...

Jaime: I take it when you meantion "The Super Snooper" you're referring to "The Stupor Salesman".

Jorge Garrido said...

Is it just me, or does it looks like Art Davis' inbetweeners were on vacation, giving the animation in his cartoons a weird "jerky" style?

Anonymous said...

The opinion that McKimson was a better animator than director was actually held by both Clampett AND Jones.

Anonymous said...

Edward H. and Paul E. probaly made the best point here about the animation. I've thought of it as liquid-like, paticularly in shorts like "Foxy Duckling" & "What Makes Daffy Duck". :-
S.Carras

Anonymous said...

J.Eee, on George Hill:
He seemed to love working with Davis or else Warner Bros. or Edward Selzer just teamed them as a two-ti9me occaison, and George Hoill alkso seemed to love extermination stories and Porky, given the blending of said elements.'

Also on "The Pest That Came To Dinner": I've seen the Scott/Turner-written "Doggone Cats' from '47 on YouTube with titles, and it is Prod #1054, after the first known post-1948" library (before the Turner buyout, of course, of 1996 of most of the earlier shorts) project made with Bugs Bunny, McKimson's "Hot Cross Bunny" (also the older released Bugs in the former post-1948 catalogue), preceded by Jones's splendid Marvin the Martian debut, #1052, "Haredevil hare", the last released pre-1948(Jones's "You Were Never Duckier", and now thanks to Dave Mackey and WHV we can say it is prod #1046, is the oldest released WB short in the old post-1948/post-"a.a.p. library") Warner cartoon. (McKimson's "Upstanding Sitter", Prod #1087, is the last produced one.)

Anyhoo, "The Pest that came to Dinner" is in the post-1948 category, being released fall 1948 (same date as a modern day attack in NYC.. more to worry about than termites). I've gone over the Dave Mackey 1947 and 1948 modules for his excellent, though synopsys-less, "The Warner Bros. Cartoon Filmography", bearing in mind Cinecolor shorts (like "Doggone Cats",a pre-48 bearing the earliest use of Scott and Turner that I know of in a Warner Bros.cartoon), and Technicolor shorts (like "The Pest that Came to Dinner", post-1948, bearing George Hill and animator John Carey--not to be confused with that Democratic senator/Presidential hopeful!!)--NOT Emery Hawkins--is listed, but in the Prod.#1054 "Doggone Cats", Emery hawkins Is listed, showing this was made afterwards, and showing a clue as to whcih of those was made first, and may be one of the oldest produced cartoons in that former post-48 package with the Jones Daffy one ("You were never duckier', which as I have said, released on 8/7/48, almost 60 years AND Stan Freberg's birthday to boot, was Warner's first release of a cartoon they would always own, never to sell to a.a.p. Incidentally, this was obviously the first also reissued of the post-48'[s, too, creditless Blue Ribbons, brown 1954-55 rings, with four other earlhy blue Ribbon reissues of post-1948 entries, but that is taking me off topic. Incidentally, I noticed a few other things about these first two early cartoons that eluded "a.a.p." owndership due to Technicolor's much later finishing of processing (they printed both of those)---Tedd Pierce..NOT Michael Maltese wrote Jones's Daffy/Henry Hawk epic, though they'd worked simulatenously and together for both Jones and Freleng, and Maltese had worked once for Clampett (On the ten minute masterwork "Horton", predating Jones and Fox's versions), and again for Freleng & Jones, individually. A few more for Freleng for Maltese and Pierce, through Friz's first known cartoon made winding up in the post-1948 catalogue, but released after a few of his opthe,r later made ones, the one in fact made right after Davis's 1947 Cinecololor earlier release (thus getting the pre-1948 "Blue Ribbon Print by Technicolor" treatment in 1955(?)), "Doggone Cats"(which was as stated by me WB Cartoon Studio Prod. #1054--"Kit for Kat" by Freleng's Prod.#1055, and was his last with Maltese, now solo writer only for Jones as mentioned above.)

Finally, "The Pest.." had the LOONEY TUNES legend at toon's end with no "Reg US PAT OFF" on, typical of some of these then current brown ring Looney Tunes, maybe to save ink and paint, but no "Reg U.S." patent notice under the LT phrase and above the "That's All Folks" one (note some 1947 and early 1948 releases with the brown rings..the earlier 1946-47 Technicolor blue/red rings, reprised in 1951-1952, retain the mandatory patent office notice under the Looney Tunes. Finally, Doggone Cats and The Pest.. have the same lettering for the writing..but that is just the geek in me (sheepish grin).

-S.Carras

Anonymous said...

PS I meant in the first paragraph to type in J.Lee, obviously, but mispelt it.
Sorry...S.C.

Steve Carras said...

Mr.Semaj, not only was there kitty abuse as you righetously put it in Tweety and Speedy shorts involving Sylvester...there also was "A Kiddie's Kitty". Good point.