Sunday, August 09, 2009

Bob Clampett In 1975: "I Don't Intend To Be Left Out of It"

Google News Archive has added a bunch of stuff, and while it's still basically impossible to find anything with it, I've occasionally come across an article I hadn't seen before. Like this article on Bob Clampett from the Dec. 20, 1975 issue of the Eugene Register-Guard.

Clampett, shown at the top of the article in his trademark glasses, Moe Howard haircut and cartoon-character patches, was promoting Bugs Bunny Superstar at the time, but what he was mostly promoting was himself and his place in cartoon history. The article is sort of a greatest-hits collection of Clampett anecdotes where he claims to have created every cartoon character you ever heard of, and was constantly called in to save the work of his inept colleagues. Here's the key passage, with that very Clampettian combination of modesty and credit-hogging:

He uses Porky Pig as an example of how popular cartoon characters came to be created.

Briefly, the cartoonists were to create a family of animals for a cartoon series based on the popular "Our Gang" movies.

Clampett's contribution was a pig and cat named Porky and Beans. Audience response to the pig turned out to be terrific, and cartoons were ordered up based just on the pig.

Bugs' creation was somewhat more complex, and stretched over a period of several years.

It began when a studio executive took up rabbit hunting, and told funny stories of rabbits outsmarting him. Clampett drew a few caricatures of the scenes and, he says, "to make them a little more derisive, I changed the word from 'rabbit' to 'wabbit.'"

Then, as they say, years passed. In 1936, Clampett and another man named Tex Avery came up with Daffy Duck which, Clampett says modestly, "made quite a hit." A couple of years later, another couple of men were doing a similar cartoon which wasn't jelling, and which was to be based on hunting sequences.

Clampett was put on it, and although it was supposed to be a duck hunt, that didn't work for him. He tried other kinds of hunts "and then I remembered the old rabbit hunt pictures I'd drawn."

He dug them out, and spent a weekend working out gags involving them. That became "Porky's Hare Hunt," released in February, 1938. It still essentially belonged to the first two men who had worked on it, though.

They also put out a second one, but Clampett says, "They really only understood Daffy Duck -- not this rabbit."

Eventually, Clampett and Avery were put back on the project, where, together, they came up with the "wabbit" voice used by Elmer Fudd, and the phrase that was to enter the language as a unit unto itself -- "What's Up, Doc?"

The result of that collaboration was the actual birth of Bugs Bunny in a 1940 film called "A Wild Hare."

What it comes down to, Clampett says, is that "I certainly can't take sole credit, but on the other hand, I don't intend to be left out of it, either."

As I've said in the past, I think Clampett's inflated claims, as well as the angry response of Chuck Jones and others, needs to be understood in the context of the time, and the context was that these men, beginning to realize that their best work was behind them, felt a need to establish and solidify their reputations. You'll notice that in the article Clampett has "little but scorn" for limited TV animation, which is a 180 from where he was at the time of the Beany and Cecil cartoon, when he was openly enthusiastic about television and talked of his WB days as more of a learning experience, a training ground. By 1975, Clampett and many other old-timers knew they weren't going to get rich in TV the way Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had, and that their TV work didn't measure up artistically to what they had done in the old theatrical shorts. (You'll notice that in the '75 article he, or the interviewer, or both, elide the fact that Beany was a TV cartoon as well as a puppet show.)

Clampett's words are those of a man who now knows what he's going to be remembered for, if anything, and wants to make sure that he is, in his own words, not "left out of it." Just as Jones, Avery and others weren't happy at the possibility that their artistic legacies might wind up being as That Guy Who Helped the Great Bob Clampett.


Ricardo Cantoral said...

I agree 100% about the credit hogging that occured at the time. Back then it was Walt Disney and everybody else. Mel Blanc stole credit for the creation of Bugs' trademark "What's Up Doc ?". Friz Freleng once claimed sole credit for Bugs Bunny's creation.

Thad said...

If that's the DePatie-Freleng trade ad or whatever Milt Gray refers to in his yellow journalistic article, I want to see the actual thing so I can put it in proper context. When it comes to getting people to come to public appearances or get people to watch something, of course there's some exaggerated press (the general public does not understand the concept of "animation directors", only "creator"). Clampett and Mel Blanc were the only ones who tried to legitimize fallacy in print and documentaries.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Chuck Jones can be accused of whitewashing the influence of Clampett's cartoons for years, you and I both know he harbored a grudge against him. Removing credit is just as bad as stealing it. Also Jones made absolutely clear he wanted to make his portrayal of all the Looney Tunes the definitive ones.

Thad said...

Well, those are called "memoirs," where it's a given that you're not getting the whole story. I could see that Clampett's many contributions to the Warner studio were of little to no importance to Jones and his ideas of cartoon filmmaking. His omission of Tashlin in his memoirs, however, is where the real crimes are, given that Jones clearly based his own style on Tashlin's.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"I could see that Clampett's many contributions to the Warner studio were of little to no importance to Jones and his ideas of cartoon filmmaking."

Well that is clear and he wanted the public to feel that same way.

In general, I think both Chuck and Bob were men with tremendous egos and both can be accused of shameless self promotion.

Anonymous said...

Unlike Jones, Clampett never had to resort to making inferior sequels to his old Warner short cartoons in his dotage. Clampett couldn't sell anything new to television after "Beany and Cecil" and it may have turned out to be a good thing. If you've seen the Judy Canova starring, live action/limited animation color pose reel on the first "Beany and Cecil" DVD, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Thad said...

In general, I think both Chuck and Bob were men with tremendous egos and both can be accused of shameless self promotion.

Pretty much. They were both guilty of really petty shit.

Mark said...

Who are you people ?

Who am I? I am you!

Stephen Rowley said...

Is that a "What's Up Doc" (Bogdanovich, not McKimson) reference Thad?

J Lee said...

"Bugs Bunny Superstar" was out at the time of this interview, and was Bob's effort to Keep It From Slipping Away -- remember, he had been in the limelight through Beany & Cecil, first in Los Angeles and then nationally from the late 1940s through the end of the 1960s, when the animated show left ABC. None of the other Warners' artists other than Mel had anywhere near the same sort of name recognition, though Jones had started to garner some via the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" special.

So Bob by the end of the 60s was trying to keep his reputation up, and was playing under the old 1930s-60s Hollywood coda about animation history, which was basically "It's only a cartoon. Nobody cares. Say whatever you want as long as the story sounds good." It's why Mel told the stories he did, and why Walter Lantz made up his story about creating Woody Woodpecker.

Barrier was one of the first people who actually cared about seriously researching the history of Hollywood animation, but ran into a Bob Clampett still playing under the 1940s rules. And by the mid-70s, with a lot more people taking interest in finding out exactly who created what and honoring them, Bob was still acting as if whoever claimed credit first owned it, which naturally was going to run into conflict with how the other directors remembered things (and if Bob wanted to annoy Chuck, he should have just stuck to claiming credit for Charlie Dog, which would have been true, but would have rankled just as much, given the feud by then).

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I think item posted on Cartoon Brew strongly pertains to this topic.

The Bugs Bunny Story

Andy said...

God bless Martha Sigall. It's always refreshing to hear cartoon history from someone with an incredible memory and no agenda.