Monday, August 30, 2004

Bob McKimson

Of the directors of Warner Brothers cartoons, Robert McKimson is the forgotten man. Five of WB's directors are rated highly by most cartoon buffs: Tex Avery (though buffs agree that his best work was done after he moved from WB to MGM), Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. Bob McKimson, who started directing in 1945 after Tashlin left and continued directing WB cartoons until the studio shut down, probably directed more WB cartoons than anyone except Freleng and Jones, but he's often forgotten in discussions of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic, the first comprehensive history of Hollywood cartoons, calls McKimson an "uninspired director." It's certainly true that he made quite a few mediocre cartoons, and that his overall batting average is low compared to the above-mentioned directors. But I think it's also fair to say that the best of his cartoons could be as good as anybody's.

Before he was promoted to director, McKimson was an animator for WB, one of the best and most influential at the studio. He worked mostly for Bob Clampett, and he and Rod Scribner represented sort of the yin and yang of the Clampett unit and of WB animation in general: Scribner was unprecedentedly wild and crazy, distorting characters' bodies in ways never-before-contemplated in animation, both for comedy and characterization. McKimson's animation was graceful, fluid, and -- compared to Scribner, anyway -- subtle; he put so much detail into characters' movements that they almost seemed like real, breathing people. Examples of McKimson's animation in Clampett cartoons: the beginning of Daffy Duck's Danny Kaye routine in "Book Revue," all the new animation in the "clip show" cartoon "What's Cookin' Doc," and most of Bugs' masquerade as an "old-timer" in "Tortoise Wins by a Hare." (The Scribner style can be seen in "Tortoise Wins By a Hare" in Bugs' first scene: lots of flailing arms, broad poses, and daring distortion of his face and body.) McKimson was a big influence on other top WB animators, notably Chuck Jones' head animator, Ken Harris.

When Tashlin left, McKimson stopped animating for Clampett and took over Tashlin's unit; Clampett left the studio soon after, and his unit was taken over by a former Tashlin animator, Art Davis. With Tashlin and Clampett gone, story man Warren Foster, who had been splitting his time between those two directors, became McKimson's full-time writer; this was a big break for McKimson, as Foster was one of the best gag men in the business. But McKimson clearly made a contribution, at least in this way: he displayed a willingness to do offbeat stories and settings, perhaps more than any other director with the possible exception of Jones. Clampett's cartoons were completely insane in their execution, but the stories were often quite run-of-the-mill; when it came to Bugs Bunny, Clampett usually stuck with the formula of having Bugs outwit a hunter in a woodland setting. Freleng was more willing to contemplate putting his characters in unusual settings, but he was very timid about departing from formula in terms of the structure or style of cartoons; as Mike Maltese recalled in explaining why he stopped writing for Freleng and worked for Jones instead, "Freleng would kind of back off when you suggested something new to him." The Bugs Bunny cartoons McKimson did with Foster in the late '40s are very unusual in terms of setting and approach. One cartoon, "The Windblown Hare," is a truly cracked takeoff on fairy tales, where the Three Little Pigs, knowing in advance that the Wolf will blow their houses down (they have the book of fairy tales), try to con Bugs into buying their blow-downable houses, while the Wolf himself goes around reading the book of fairy tales and slavishly following it; "I gotta do like the book says." Finally Bugs blows up the Three Little Pigs' house with dynamite, and lets the wolf think he blew it down. (Many years later, Foster rewrote this as a "Yogi Bear" episode, but without the violence or cynicism.) Another cartoon, "Rebel Rabbit," is probably the weirdest Bugs Bunny cartoon ever: furious that the bounty for rabbits is very small -- rabbits are stereotyped as harmless woodland creatures -- Bugs goes on what I suppose we'd have to describe as a terrorist rampage: he swipes the locks of the Panama Canal, ties railroad tracks in knots, gives Manhattan back to the Indians ("They wouldn't take it unless I threw in a set of dishes"), and generally proves that a rabbit can be "more obnoxious than anybody." He's overjoyed when the bounty on his head is raised to one million dollars, but realizes he's gone too far when the army comes after him -- in live-action stock footage -- and he winds up in prison. The end.

McKimson and Foster also came up with some great Daffy Duck cartoons -- one of their best, "Boobs in the Woods," is on the first Looney Tunes Golden Collection -- and some new series: "Walky Talky Hawky," an Oscar nominee, introduced Foghorn Leghorn, and "Hop, Look and Listen" introduced Hippety Hopper, the baby kangaroo who is perpetually mistaken for a giant mouse. (A couple of years later, the Hippety Hopper series introduced another new character, Sylvester Junior, one of the few successful attempts at creating a pint-sized version of an older cartoon character.) McKimson also liked to do somewhat unusual one-shot and miscellaneous cartoons; he and Foster did two strange cartoons about a dog who punishes a cat with all kinds of sadistic and bizarre "penalties." The second one, "Early To Bet," is on DVD, but I prefer the first, "It's Hummer Time," which has more elaborate and funnier penalties. (Oh, no! Not The Thinker! Not that! NOT THE THINKER!!!") All in all, McKimson's cartoons from 1946 to about 1950 compare favorably with other directors' work. It's not quite on the level of the great WB guys; the one thing lacking in McKimson's cartoons was a distinctive style, something that was uniquely his the way that certain gags and approaches were uniquely Clampett's or Freleng's or Jones's. You often get the impression that McKimson was just content to stage the gags Foster came up with, rather than enhancing them with his own ideas. But he staged the gags well; a good McKimson cartoon gets just as many laughs in front of an audience as a good cartoon by any of the other WB directors.

At this point, in the late '40s, the WB cartoon studio was no longer the freewheeling, ramshackle "Termite Terrace"; producer Leon Schlesinger, who had basically run the studio independently and distributed the cartoons through WB, sold the operation to WB, which installed Edward Selzer, a company man, as producer. Selzer was not the monster that Chuck Jones and others sometimes made him out to be; he was a small, basically humorless guy, mostly focused on keeping the budget down and keeping the theatrical distributors happy, but other stuff I've read about him indicates that he wasn't a bad guy personally, just a company man through and through, sort of a Mel Cooley of the cartoon business. In any case, the cartoon operation went on more or less as before, but there was somewhat reduced demand for cartoons -- and after the Supreme Court ordered the studios to divest themselves of the movie-theatre chains they owned, studios could no longer just tell theatres to take a cartoon -- and it became apparent by the late '40s that WB no longer needed four units. Jones and Freleng were the senior guys, so it came down to McKimson vs. Davis, and Davis got the boot; he wound up becoming an animator for Freleng. Some cartoon buffs, who prize Davis's cartoons for their attempts to retain the wild, broad animation style of Clampett cartoons, consider that the wrong man got demoted; I don't. Davis had been unable to come up with a successful new series character, and as his story man Lloyd Turner recalled in an interview (posted at Mike Barrier's site), Davis didn't have much confidence in his ability to judge what was funny. McKimson may not have had a strong style, but the work he'd done in that period places him (in my opinion) far ahead of Davis in terms of variety and in terms of laughs.

But just as his job became more secure, things started to go wrong for McKimson. Friz Freleng had been using Tedd Pierce as his writer, but Pierce was a difficult guy to work with: he was an alcoholic, kind of pretentious, and better at elaborate parody stories (like "The Dover Boys," which he had written for Chuck Jones) than the kind of violent chase cartoons that were becoming the in thing in the wake of Tom and Jerry. Freleng dropped Pierce and, after briefly trying out Bill Scott (who had formerly written for Davis and would go on to write and voice Bullwinkle the Moose), he got Foster to leave McKimson's unit and join his unit. Pierce went to McKimson, and since McKimson was the junior director, it seemed very much like a demotion. Basically, it was a demotion. Although Turner described him as "the least creative" of the writers, Pierce could do excellent work under the right circumstances. Before joining McKimson full-time, he'd already written a truly great McKimson cartoon, "Hillbilly Hare," with the famous square-dance finale. But McKimson clearly didn't have the strength of creative personality to get Pierce to do what he wanted; what he needed was somebody like Foster who could pitch unusual ideas that McKimson could then use. (Freleng, on the other hand, knew what he wanted and could get a writer to do it; Foster's work for Freleng is funny but very conventional, nowhere near as offbeat as the stories and dialogue he'd done for Clampett, Tashlin and McKimson.) The cartoons McKimson did with Pierce in this era -- 1951 to 1953 or so -- are mostly kind of forgettable, with characters and gags often copied from other directors' cartoons, as though Pierce would scour other guys' storyboards for ideas and then work them into his own. However, McKimson's work took another upturn in the cartoons released in 1954; he started working more with other writers, especially Sid Marcus, a veteran writer who had worked for the Lantz studio and for Art Davis at WB. McKimson and Marcus came up with several offbeat cartoons including "Devil May Hare," which introduced the Tasmanian Devil.

This upswing in McKimson's career was interrupted, however, when the cartoon studio shut down for several months; convinced that 3-D was the wave of the future, and unimpressed by the one 3-D cartoon the studio had made, Jack Warner decided to suspend the studio's cartoon-making activities and laid everyone off. During the layoff, with no animators, McKimson took a story by Marcus -- "The Hole Idea," about a scientist who invents the Portable Hole -- and animated the whole thing himself. The result is a funny cartoon that was reportedly McKimson's own favorite, but the animation is actually, and surprisingly, the weak link in the picture -- kind of stiff and without the sense of character that informed McKimson's best work. (He did, however, do some excellent animation in a Hippety Hopper cartoon released the next year, "Too Hop to Handle.") The studio re-opened, but while most of the WB animators came back, not a single one of McKimson's animators came back, not even his own brother, Charles McKimson. (The McKimson brothers were a hugely talented family; Tom McKimson was a layout man for Bob Clampett and later drew some of the Looney Tunes comics.) Why he couldn't get his animators back, I'm not sure; the most likely explanation is that Jones and Freleng might have been able to offer their animators raises to come back to the studio, and McKimson might not have been allowed to. Also, working for McKimson wasn't always the most fulfilling thing for an animator; unlike Clampett, who allowed a lot of variety in terms of the kind of animation that appeared in his cartoons, McKimson had rather strong and somewhat unyielding ideas about what a scene should look like. Rod Scribner animated for McKimson from 1949 until the studio shut down, but McKimson usually made him tone down his wild, body-contorting style. McKimson never did seem to like animation that was too extreme or "wacky." In the only interview he gave before his death in 1977 -- not that he didn't give interviews; it's just that no one asked for them -- he commented "we tried to learn from Disney... but we would never look up to anything like Terrytoons or what Fleischer was doing. Popeye cartoons are terrible. They look like a child drew them."

Anyway, McKimson re-staffed his unit, in large part, with castoffs from other units; his top animator from 1956 to the early '60s was Ted Bonnicksen, who had started in Freleng's unit. Bonnicksen wasn't a bad animator, but he had been transferred to McKimson's unit because Freleng had three animators who were better; none of McKimson's new animators were first-raters in the way that Scribner or Manny Gould (who animated the arms-flailing opening scene in McKimson's "The Foghorn Leghorn") had been, and they often just followed McKimson's layout drawings without adding much in the way of new ideas. One castoff did work to McKimson's advantage, though: Chuck Jones was using Maurice Noble exclusively as his designer, so Robert Gribbroek, who had been the layout designer for Jones from 1945 to 1952, went to work for McKimson. Gribbroek was a talented designer and painter, and he made the backgrounds of McKimson's cartoons look attractive at a time when most other cartoon directors were struggling with then-fashionable but basically ugly stylized designs.

McKimson continued to work with Tedd Pierce, who started to specialize in TV takeoffs; they did two cartoons based on "The Honeymooners" (this was before "The Flintstones") and a whole cartoon with the cast of the Jack Benny show voicing themselves as mice ("The Mouse that Jack Built"). There were some other good McKimson cartoons in this period, but basically this is the period that's given McKimson his low reputation; it's not just that the cartoons are often a little stiff, but because of the problems with the animation -- not to mention the declining budgets at WB -- they look like less than first-rate examples of the craft. But on the other hand, nobody was doing his very best work at WB in the late '50s; Jones' cartoons became slow and cutesy, and Freleng mostly settled further into formula gag cartoons. There were some great cartoons made in this period, but the best of WB came before that mid-'50s shutdown.

An interesting point about McKimson is that he never seemed fully comfortable with the new '50s approaches to popular series characters. Daffy in particular. After Jones and Freleng re-launched Daffy as a fall guy, McKimson kept on casting Daffy as an obnoxiously crazy or devious little black duck, the way he had done in the '40s; Daffy was doing his hoo-hoo routine in a McKimson cartoon as late as 1958, and in 1957's "Ducking the Devil," while admitting that he's a "greedy little coward," Daffy actually wins against the Tasmanian Devil and gets the money he's after, something Jones would never have allowed. McKimson eventually made evil-Daffy cartoons, but they weren't very good, as if his heart wasn't in the new characterization. Another thing about McKimson is that showed a lot of variety in the choices of stories and antagonists at a time when the other directors were tending more and more toward formulaic stories. The Foghorn Leghorn series was probably the least formulaic of the cartoon series that were exclusive to a particular director; Foghorn rarely had a set kind of story he had to do every time, the way Pepe Le Pew or Tweety did. McKimson made one pure "formula" cartoon a year -- the Hippety Hoppers -- while Jones made at least three, what with the Road Runners, Pepes and Wolf/Sheepdog cartoons.

I don't have a big conclusion for this; McKimson wasn't a great director, but he was a good one, and he made a lot of very fine cartoons. He doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the hacks of other studios -- like Walter Lantz's basically incompetent Paul J. Smith -- but rather to be discussed as the animation equivalent of a "minor master."

Here are a few really terrific McKimson cartoons, in addition to the ones mentioned above; none of these are on the first or second Looney Tunes DVD sets, but I hope some of them will show up on DVD eventually:

- "Daffy Doodles": The first short McKimson directed, with Daffy painting mustaches on everyone and everything in town; a cartoon so crazy that it makes even Tashlin and Clampett's Daffy cartoons look a little subdued. A big favorite with kids, who love the mustache-painting and the punchline ("I'm doin' beards now! Woo-hoo!").

- "Hare We Go": McKimson's last Bugs Bunny cartoon with Foster, where Christopher Columbus gets his financing from Queen Isabella (who looks and sounds like Mae West) and takes Bugs Bunny along as his mascot on the voyage. "Captain's log. Mascot now cook. May have to cook mascot."

- "Of Rice and Hen": One of McKimson's best mid-'50s Foghorn Leghorns (probably because Warren Foster came back to write this one), it's best known for Foghorn's big calypso number: "Now that old hound dog is an awful pest/He barks so much I get no rest/Homely as an old mud fence/That old hound dog just got no sense."

- "Tabasco Road": McKimson came up with Speedy Gonzales in a 1953 cartoon, "Cat-Tails For Two," but it was Freleng who re-designed him and turned him into a popular (and merchandisable) series character. But McKimson made arguably the best Speedy Gonzales short; "Tabasco Road," a 1957 Oscar nominee written by Tedd Pierce, features a better plot than any other Speedy short -- Speedy trying to protect two drunken, belligerent friends who keep challenging cats to "combato" -- and has some great fractured Spanish dialogue as well as the first slow-motion replay in the history of animation.


Pokey said...

Couldn't agree more on the part about McKimson and his approach established series characters, and agreed also regarding the lack of formula. It was impressive that Foghorn L. didn't go through just that grumpy dog in every short and sometimes himself came out on top or other times was a later-model-ish jealous Daffy in 1959's "A Broken Leghorn".
Steve C.

Pokey said...

PS The above reply was posted on December 22,2006.

Anonymous said...

McKimson to me was Better than Freleng. Yeah I know I'm in the minority here-but I'd take his Sylvesters, for example, over Friz's. Seems to me he just gets belittled and that's plain wrong-the man was a very fine director/animator.

JohnK said...

That was a nice summary of McKimson's career.

I personally love his cartoons. They are uniquely his and very funny.

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid and became cognizant of 'directors', a friend and I were discussing WB cartoons, and he observed that Bob McKimson's Bugs Bunny had some specific physical movements animated, while Jones, Freling, etc. didn't.

His observation drew me to pay much more attention to the results of each director in the following years.

My preference (akin to an earlier poster) is Bob McKimson over Friz. That may sound as heresy to some, but WB director pecking orders (Jones, Freling, ...) seem dogmatic to me.

Give me a Bob McKimson Bugs Bunny any day. I still grin.

Bill said...

Glad I found this; you've written a very nice summary of McKimson's career. I agree that the poor guy's been unjustly ignored, although his later WB cartoons were mostly flat. I blame that squarely on Tedd Pierce; for some reason his writing seemed to encourage very literal, boring timing and animation, and the feeling I get in most of the Pierce/McKimson cartoons is like a guy telling you, very poorly, a series of jokes that he doesn't find particularly funny himself. There were some that hit the mark, but not many. Warren Foster, otoh, was a brilliant comedy writer imo, and brought out the best in McKimson.

wbhist said...

And then there was "Rabbit Romeo" (1957) which was written by Michael Maltese, who was better known for his works with both Freleng and Jones. Thus, Maltese and Pierce each worked for all three "major" directors in this group (Jones, Freleng and McKimson). Warren Foster, to my knowledge, never wrote for Jones.

Anonymous said...

You can't beat the one-offs of 'It's Hummer Time' and 'Early To Bet'. They were in my top ten when I was a kid and they still make me laugh.