Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Charlie Dog Problem

Glenn Kenny has a post over at Some Came Running on "A Hound For Trouble," the last Charlie Dog cartoon, and Charlie's weird combination of eagerness to please and self-destructiveness (he will do what he can to get a master, but he can't seem to resist making himself even more obnoxious than he already is).

1951 was a great year for Chuck Jones, in terms of the quality of his output; it's also a little poignant in retrospect because it marked the end of so much. The last Hubie and Bertie. The last Charlie Dog. The last solo Porky cartoon, "Wearing of the Grin" (that and McKimson's "Dog Collared," from the same year, were the last cartoons that starred Porky without some other established character to give him cover). The last Three Bears cartoon, "A Bear For Punishment." Even "Rabbit Fire" in a way is as much the end of something as it is the beginning. (Up to that point, though he'd been getting to be more and more of a loser, Daffy was still a star character. "Rabbit Fire" re-established Daffy as a foil for Bugs, the way Porky had become a foil for Daffy. It's like the cartoon is admitting that Daffy is no longer all that popular.) He still had more great cartoons to come, and even one more abortive series, Mark Anthony and Pussyfoot. But 1951 is the end of something.

Actually, a few things seemed to change in WB cartoons after 1951; for instance, that appears to be the last year when Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese did incidental voices, as they had frequently done in the past. (Pierce is one of the chefs in "French Rarebit," and Maltese is the poor customer in "A Hound For Trouble.") At some point in the early '50s there must have been some kind of move toward purely professional voice actors to supplement Blanc, because you just don't hear the writers' voices in the cartoons after that. Also, for some reason there was a huge drop in the number of topical references in cartoons around 1952 -- there were already fewer, but for the next few years, topical jokes like the Petrillo joke (in 1951's "Hurdy Gurdy Hare") were almost gone. However, unlike writers doing voices, topical gags would make a comeback after the 3D shutdown, with Liberace and Honeymooners references becoming the norm. Anyway, the point is not that everything changed irrevocably, but that there appear to have been some subtle changes -- along with the not-so-subtle cut in timing/budgets that occurred in the middle of the 1952 cartoon lineup.

But back to the characters Jones abandoned: I guess the question remains whether any of them really could have been sustained for much longer. The Three Bears definitely could not have been; Jones specifically said that theatre exhibitors asked them not to send over any more Three Bears cartoons. All the dumped characters -- the Bears, Hubie/Bertie, and Charlie -- have certain things in common, apart from (as Michael Barrier points out) having a as much Mike Maltese in them as Jones. They're all aggressively obnoxious and, unlike Tweety, they don't try to pretend they aren't.

But more than that, all three of these series have character motivations or quirks that are unusually complicated for a cartoon series. Charlie wants someone to make him a pet. Hubie and Bertie are closer to the usual predator/prey situation, except that their motivation has less to do with survival or even heckling, and more to do with a love of playing complicated mind games. And the Bears don't really have any goals except to survive the horror of being a family. Jones and Maltese seemed to be doing this deliberately, trying to come up with character motivations that were more unusual than just "eat or be eaten." But except for Pepe Le Pew, which is really just a chase series (except he doesn't want to eat her, he wants to...), these didn't really work out. It might be that it's just hard to establish a series of short cartoons without simple, easily-processed character motivations.

Even Daffy Duck may have suffered in the early '50s precisely because his motivations -- and his characterization -- could be so different from film to film. Like Donald Duck in the comic books (as opposed to the cartoons), he was recognizable up until the early '50s as being the same guy, in broad outline, in every story, but within that framework, what he acted like and what he wanted could vary wildly. That didn't seem to get a good reception in the '50s. A character like Charlie, on the other hand, has very consistent motivations, but they're a bit convoluted by the standards of series cartoons. It's not a coincidence that he has his origin in a cartoon ("Porky's Pooch") that never produced a sequel.

(Foghorn Leghorn, I think, is the closest the studio came to a durable, successful series that doesn't have much to do with the chase format; once Henery Hawk was mostly dropped, the characters' motivations could be very different from one film to another.)


BrianC said...

Very interesting, and you're right about the topical references- in the '50s references to TV shows are what happened a lot (Wideo Wabbit, Person to Bunny, etc.)

Also, I really wish that the Hubie and Bertie series would've went on for a least a few more years, it was always one of my favorites. I think that it would have been easy to sustain it as a series, as all they need is a predator to play their mind games on (Also, it wouldn't always have to be Claude Cat, they could've mixed it up by using other characters). And unlike something like Pepe Le Pew, there's more room for new locations and situations.

Anonymous said...

It might have been interesting had Hubie and Bertie continued, playing their mind games on an escalating series of stronger adversaries. This would have made H&B into a pair of Gaslighting comic heroes rather than a merely irritating duo.

J Lee said...

Part of the reason for the lack of topical references to pop culture in the early 1950s was that J.L. and the other moguls were still trying to pretend that television didn't exist -- or that if nobody talked about what was on TV, it would just go away.

As far as Charlie, Jones was already seeing by his last two cartoons that a little bit of him could go a long way. He and Maltese tried altering the endings of the shorts in their Charlie-Porky trilogy (Charlie gets booted in the first, a psychotic Porky forces him to stay in the second and a psychotic Porky gets hauled off by the dog catcher in the third), but the body of the three cartoons were as formalistic as the Pepe series.

They tried changing that up with "Dog Gone South" and "A Hound for Trouble", but you still had the basic problem of how far you could go with making Charlie both obnoxious within his established personality and at the same time likable to the audience (Charlie being almost like a reverse Casper in traveling around making enemies instead of friends).

Rather than get caught up in a situation that would have required some really inventive writing by Maltese to keep it fresh, Jones seems to have decided to retire the character (though he does get a cameo in McKimson's "Dog Tales" and reappears in a linking segment for "The Bugs Bunny Show", where they could go with his strongest bit without having to come up with a new plotline for the character).

mackdaddyg said...

Personally, I think the Bears cartoons are hilarious in a "Married With Children" sitcom kind of way. They're a bit over the top, but they never fail to crack me up. I believe Stan Freberg was the voice of Junior, and he did a great job. The Bugs Bunny cartoon where he fights them off is quite good as well ("Tell me more about my eyes!!!!").

To me, this marks the end of Daffy's golden era. I really don't like Daffy being established as the bad guy, so I always prefer the older cartoons where at the very least you see him acting out as a result of self-preservation. Granted, he does that somewhat when he's up against Bugs, but in the earlier cartoons Daffy appears (to me at least) to be a more sympathetic character even if he is a bit overbearing.

Steve said...

I think one reason for the lack of topical humor in the early 50's was that producer Eddie Selzer demanded none of it when he took charge of WB animation. A paragraph in "Chuck Amuck" mentions this, and Jones points out characteristically that Bugs was never really a threat to Ike.

Consider also what was happening to Jones' colleagues at UPA at the time. (A subject far too deep to cover here.) Red baiting was in full swing, and contemporary, "hip" cartoons could get you in trouble. Better stick to the chase format and keep McCarthy busy elsewhere.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

The 50's pretty much marked the absolute insistence of formula at Warners and the directors mostly imposing this were Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng. Bugs always wins, Daffy is an ass, Sylester chases Tweety, etc. This is when both directors started to slide. They were content with the chase toons though a few their deviations were pretty good.

The only one who didn't stick to the rigid formula was Robert Mckimson, the person who sadly seems to receive all the hate during for his directorial career. Foghorn Leghorn and his strange relationship with the dog was already mentioned. Daffy was nutty in Mckimson's films until the late 1950's and once again teamed him up with and Porky, except that they were clearly only established with the authority figure and heckler relationship.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

As for Three Bears, that doesn't surprise me theaters stopped asking for them because it was a dark cartoon series. Papa Bear is not a grumpy moron with heart of gold, he is extremely violent and hates his family. It was decades ahead of it's time, long before The Simpsons and it's long list of imitators.

Anonymous said...

It's "All in the Family" that the Three Bears series is precursor to, rather than "Simpsons", particularly evident in "A Bear for Punishment", a brilliant cartoon very much ahead of its time. When was the last time animation was ahead of live action? This could have been it.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Anon- I would say both.

Anonymous said...

I really wish they had continued the Charlie Dog cartoons because I think the character had real potential.

One thing that stopped Charlie from developing is that he was too much like Bugs in that he was a streetwise guy who had an easy time getting the better of his foils.

Yeldarb86 said...

Cultural and economic changes might've indirectly influenced the creatives changes at WB. People were settling down after WWII, then there was the block book ban of 1950, so both of those together might've left less room for experimentation.

The only one of Jones' latter creative changes that had a real negative consequence was making Daffy a foil for Bugs. Bugs already had five villains during the decade, including Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian, and Tazmanian Devil, but Daffy would soon become THE perennial loser in the Looney Tunes lineup.

Thad said...

(Foghorn Leghorn, I think, is the closest the studio came to a durable, successful series that doesn't have much to do with the chase format; once Henery Hawk was mostly dropped, the characters' motivations could be very different from one film to another.)

Not really - it always seemed to be about "THIS is a chicken!" It was pretty formulaic in its own way.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Not really - it always seemed to be about "THIS is a chicken!" It was pretty formulaic in its own way.

That's only the first few cartoons, though, when they thought it was going to be a Henery Hawk series. Once he was demoted, the stories could range from Foghorn vs. Dog to Foghorn babysits terrifying genius kid to Foghorn's romance troubles, with the occasional return appearance by Henery. None of the plots were particularly original, but they alternated a lot.