Friday, May 04, 2007

Midpoint McKimson

That last cartoon ("Daffy Doodles") was the first theatrical cartoon directed by Bob McKimson. It has one thing in common with most of McKimson's cartoons as a director: he was always a few years behind the other directors in terms of the way he used the characters.

I don't mean that as an insult; if anything, it's a compliment. By 1946, Daffy Duck had moved beyond the hoo-hooing lunatic he was when he started; he was still kind of wacky, but he was not totally insane. Even Bob Clampett featured a much more sane and normal Daffy in his last Daffy Duck cartoon ("The Great Piggy Bank Robbery"). "Daffy Doodles," as a Daffy story, could have been done in 1938: he's a wild, uncontrollable, and likes to wreak havoc for no reason at all.

McKimson was always like that with the studio's "shared" characters (the ones who weren't exclusive to one director). He never seemed to take to the greedy loser Daffy that Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng developed in the '50s; he eventually came around to the characterization, but he was still doing '40s-style Daffy stories as late as 1958 ("Don't Axe Me," where Daffy loses in the end, but is still somewhat wacky and even says "Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!" at one point). His take on Bugs Bunny in the late '40s, was as an obnoxious roughneck, at a time when other directors were making Bugs more charming and heroic. He also never got as much into UPA-style backgrounds as other directors; instead he picked up Jones' former layout man, Robert Gribbroek, and did simplified but semi-realistic backgrounds well into the early '60s.

McKimson would, in the end, do what Jones and Freleng were doing, because they were the directors with more power and influence and from 1950 on, they clearly set the house style. But he always seemed to be inclined to leave the characters the way they had been a few years earlier. The cartoon posted below, "Design For Leaving," is from 1954, by which time Jones had clearly established the "new" Daffy in cartoons like "Duck Amuck" and "Duck Dodgers." But Daffy in this McKimson cartoon is a disreputable salesman trying to cheat Elmer Fudd -- the kind of characterization that could easily have fit into a cartoon from the '40s (though the '40s Daffy would obviously have been wacky, which he isn't in this cartoon).

One problem with McKimson's cartoons from this period is that his control-freak tendencies had gotten out of hand. Jones is often criticized for toning down the animators and making them copy his pose drawings, but it's really not true, at least until the late '50s; he tolerated quite a bit of variation in the way his animators drew, like Ben Washam's pointy-toothed Bugs Bunny. The complaint is much more fairly leveled at McKimson. In his 1954 cartoons, no matter who's animating, the characters will have poses and facial expressions that look very much like McKimson drew them (one of the favorite expressions is a wry look with the eyes half-closed, which all his animators were expected to copy). In the late '40s and early '50s, McKimson had some animators who would do drawings and poses that didn't look McKimsonesque -- Manny Gould, Emery Hawkins, Bill Melendez. But they didn't stay with him long (Melendez disliked McKimson's rigid ideas about what constituted good or bad animation).

By 1954, only Rod Scribner maintained a bit of individuality, and that was in part because McKimson usually gave him the scenes where a bit of wild Scribner animation wasn't out of place. The other three animators in the unit -- Phil DeLara, Chuck McKimson, and Herman Cohen -- were all fine animators, but they didn't have much to work with at this point. And this was exacerbated by the fact that McKimson's writer, Tedd Pierce, had become obsessed with writing cartoon stories that aped live-action comedy shows and sketches (this cartoon feels like a TV sitcom, and there's another McKimson/Pierce cartoon that's a rewrite of the old "Pay the Two Dollars" sketch). It's a funny cartoon with one gag -- the elevator room -- that never fails to get a gigantic laugh in theatres. But it does provide some hints as to a possible reason why McKimson lost his animators after the mid-'50s layoff: artists like DeLara might simply have decided that there was something more fulfilling than copying McKimson's drawings and lip-synching to the dialogue.


Anonymous said...

Good point again about the more, uh conservatively directed McKimsons, since Daffy was doing those salesman pitches as late as 1954 with the one you posted ("Design for Leaving") and also from that time, one of the first LT's with the 1954-1964 theme music arrangement, "Dime to Retire", in 1955 the way..wasn't that like Nancy and Eric Gurney's "The King's Cheese" storybook?:)

Yeldarb86 said...

Sounds like McKimson would've fared better if he just followed Clampett's lead and let the animators do their own thing, which was what he was doing when he began as a director. That probably would've balanced out some of the story choices from this period.

Visaman666 said...

Actually this is my favorite Daffy--Fudd cartoon. I used to watch Frisky Frolics on KVOS 12 in Bellingham, in the 70's and I would be happy if this one came on!

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Excellent analysis of McKimson's directorial style.

I've often wondered why so many of McKimson's best animators left for greener pastures -- such as Manny Gould, Bill Melendez, Emery Hawkins, etc. Or why none of his crew came back after the 1953 shutdown. Your post explains the reasons why.

Anonymous said...

BTW The below was posted by me.