Sunday, March 10, 2013

How Warner Brothers and Leon Schlesinger Changed Animation

By Steve Herte With Ed Garea

With the coming of sound in the late 1920s, the playing field for animation changed but little. In fact, one could say that the biggest change was the inclusion of a cartoon on a theater’s nightly bill. In order to get people in, especially during the Great Depression, theaters led off with a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, the first feature, and then the second feature


During this time, cartoons consisted of animation and little else. There was practically nothing in the way of plot, as characters like Mickey Mouse and Bosko paraded around with a bevy of animated tricks. Max Fleischer, head of Fleischer Studios and a subcontractor to Paramount for cartoons, came upon his first big star –Betty Boop – and give audiences a simplistic plot to go along with her. In Minnie the Moocher (1931), Betty ran away from home rather than follow her parents’ order to eat. In Stopping the Show (1932), she performed a vaudeville act consisting of impressions of popular singers of the day. In Betty Boop, M.D. (1932) she ran a traveling medicine show, selling a tonic that caused her customers to mutate. With the addition of Popeye the Sailor to the Fleischer Studio, more simple plots were added, all around the same theme: Popeye and Bluto are fighting over Olive Oyl. With Betty Boop, the plots weren’t nearly as important as her look. She was a Pre-Code baby, a symbol of the carefree days of Jazz Age flappers, and unique among female cartoon characters because she was a fully realized sexual woman. When the crackdown of the Code came in 1934, Betty was greatly toned down and gradually lost her audience.

RKO bought its cartoon from Van Beuren Studios, most famous for the Mutt and Jeff duo, Tom and Jerry (before the famous cat and mouse). Van Beuren cartoon featured minimal plot, lots of music and antics. The studio folded in 1936 and RKO entered into a distribution deal with Disney.

In 1932, Disney blazed the way with Flowers and Trees, the first Technicolor cartoon. But there was little in the way of a plot. The studio also produced a cartoon adaptation of The Three Little Pigs (1933), a straightforward re-telling of the fairy tale, albeit one that contained, for the first time, actual characterization (through posture and movement). It also contained an original song written especially for it: “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” by Frank Churchill. Yet, in the next few years, cartoons evolved little.

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers subcontracted their cartoon to producer Leon Schlesinger. Schlesinger hired ex-Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, and they brought their new character, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid with them. Although the Bosko cartoons are plotless, he was nevertheless a popular figure with Warners audiences. Bosko would go on to star in 19 cartoons for Warner Brothers, until a budget dispute with Schlesinger caused Harman and Ising to take Bosko and move over to MGM.

Left in the lurch, Schlesinger lured several animators from other studios and pushed his staff to create a new starring character. Tom Palmer, a refugee from Disney, came up with Buddy, a character Bob Clampett later described as “Bosko in whiteface.” (See Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic.) Because the Warners brass rejected the first two Buddy test cartoons, Palmer was fired and replaced with Isadore “Friz” Freling. Freling gave Buddy a flapper girlfriend, Cookie, and a dog, Towser. Buddy went on to star in 27 cartoons over two years. Because his reception by audiences had always been lukewarm, it was decided to retire him in favor of another star: Beans the Cat, created by Freling.

Beans was said to be modeled after the Van Beuren character Waffles. Both are black cats dressed in overalls. Beans made his debut in Freling’s I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935), along with other characters Schlesinger hoped would catch on: brothers Ham and Ex, Oliver Owl, Little Kitty, and Porky Pig. The cartoon is modeled after the Hal Roach Our Gang comedies in that it takes place in a schoolroom and everyone is acting up. Though Beans was to be the focus, all audiences could talk about on their feedback cards was Porky, a character developed by Clampett, who has a short scene where he stuttered his way through “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The studio decided to focus on Porky as its main star. As for Beans, he would appear in 11 cartoons, most directed by Jack King.

Discovering Porky Pig was only the start of Schlesinger’s renaissance. The important new hires were to make their mark, and with the promotion of another staff animator, would take Warner Brothers cartoons into the pop cultural stratosphere, leaving the competition behind.


Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery joined the studio in 1935, coming from Walter Lantz’s studio where he worked on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. He convinced Schlesinger to let him head his own production team and create cartoons the way he thought they should be made. Schlesinger, desperate to keep his contract with Warner Brothers, gave Avery what he wanted. Avery took studio animators Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones and set up shop at a five-room bungalow at the Warner Brothers Sunset Boulevard backlot, which they dubbed “Termite Terrace” because of the plethora of termites there.

Avery’s unit was assigned to work on the black and white Looney Tunes instead of the Technicolor Merrie Melodies. The unit’s first short was Gold Diggers of ’49, a parody of Warner’s “Gold Diggers” series of musicals. It was credited as the cartoon that made Porky Pig a star. Avery’s continuing experimentation with his cartoons laid the foundation for a new style of animation that dethroned Disney as the king of short animated films and created a legion of cartoon stars whose names are still well-known today. Avery, a perfectionist, spent long hours with each cartoon, crafting gags, providing voices (including his well-known belly laugh when needed) and editing each cartoon so that scenes were added or deleted from the final negative if he felt the gag and its timing weren’t right.

Looking for new characters, Avery and Clampett created Daffy Duck, originally as a foil for Porky Pig, in the 1937 short, Porky’s Duck Hunt. Daffy was possessed of a lunacy for lunacy’s sake, a style that had not been seen before in cartoons. He was almost completely out of control as he bounced around the film’s frame in double speed, screaming “Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo!” in a sped up high pitched voice supplied by new hire Mel Blanc, who also took over the voice of Porky Pig.

Also in 1937, Avery created a human character he named Egghead. He was initially drawn with a bulbous nose, eccentric clothing, and egg-shaped head. He spoke like popular radio comedian Joe Penner and was voiced by mimic Danny Webb. He was introduced in the 1937 Merrie Melodies short Egghead Rides Again. Eventually Egghead crossed paths with Daffy Duck in the 1938 short Daffy Duck and Egghead, famous for introducing the song “The Merry Go Round Broke Down,” sung by Daffy.  By this time Blanc took over voicing the character. Egghead’s career lasted for 13 shorts, until Jones, promoted to director, took the character and modified him into who we now know as Elmer Fudd. Elmer debuted in Jones’s 1940 short, Elmer’s Candid Camera, where he was driven crazy by a rabbit that Tex Avery modified and fashioned into Warner’s most enduring cartoon star.

The success of Daffy Duck begat imitators, one of which was a crazy rabbit created by Ben “Bugs” Hardaway and Cal Dalton in the 1938 cartoon Porky’s Hare Hunt. It is almost a frame-by-frame copy of Porky’s Duck Hunt, only his tormentor this time is a crazy rabbit. The short also gives the rabbit his famous Groucho Marx line “Of course you know, this means war!” The rabbit caught on with audiences and more cartoons were planned.

The rabbit returns in Jones’s 1939 short Presto–O, Change–O, as the pet of an unseen magician that torments two wayward dogs who enter his master’s house. He then appears in another Dalton and Hardaway cartoon, Hare-Um, Scare-Um, where he torments a hunter. Charlie Thorson, lead animator on the film, gave the rabbit the name “Bug’s Bunny,” after Hardaway, his creator. This was later changed to “Bugs” Bunny. In Jones’s Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940), the rabbit looks like the present day Bugs, taller and with a similar face, but sporting a primitive voice.

It was now up to Avery to see what he could do with the rabbit. Because the recycling of storylines was commonplace in the studio, Avery took his material from Porky’s Duck Hunt and Porky’s Hare Hunt. He also incorporated the gags from Elmer’s Candid Camera and slightly altered the design of Elmer Fudd. The finished cartoon was A Wild Hare. Besides polishing the timing, Avery provided the rabbit with a new character, one of a New York-esque cool character in control of every situation and with even more of a Groucho smart aleck attitude. Blanc, advised of the refining of the character, searched for a new voice, finally coming up with a combination Brooklyn-Bronx accent. It proved so successful that it became the permanent voice for Bugs. Avery also provided Bugs with his famous catchphrase, “What’s up, Doc?” explaining that back in his native Texas, everybody was addressed slangily as “Doc.” And so Bugs was born.

Avery directed only four Bugs Bunny cartoons: A Wild Hare (1940), Tortoise Beats Hare, All This and Rabbit Stew, and The Heckling Hare (all 1941). He also directed a number of travelogue parodies, Hollywood caricature shorts (Hollywood Steps Out, 1941), and a number of fairy tale parodies and one-shot character shorts often featuring Bugs Bunny clones (The Crack-Pot Quail, 1941).

Carl W. Stalling arrived at the Schlesinger studio in 1936. While in his early 20s he conducted an orchestra that accompanied silent films at the Isis Movie house in Kansas City. While there he befriended a young Walt Disney and began composing musical scores for several of Disney’s early cartoons. Eventually he went with Disney to California and scored the Silly Symphonies series. When animator Ub Iwerks left Disney, Stalling went with him and scored Iwerks’s cartoons. In 1936, he left to sign with Schlesinger, which gave him access to the vast Warner Brothers music library.

Although his composing technique was rooted in the musical conventions of the Silent Era, Stalling was also an innovator. Until his arrival at Warner Brothers, music was used strictly as background in cartoons. Working with Avery, Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Freleng, and Jones, Stalling was encouraged to broaden his horizons, so to speak. He became adept at what is known as the “musical pun,” using references to popular songs or classical pieces to add to the humor on screen. He also, in coordination with the above directors, developed the style of very rapid and tightly coordinated musical cues. These would be punctuated with either instrumental or recorded sound effects, contributed by the equally brilliant soundman Treg Brown. And occasionally, Stalling would develop a full-blown musical piece for such cartoons as A Corny Concerto or What’s Opera, Doc?

Stalling used all kinds of music for his compositions: folk, classical, jazz, even nursery rhymes. When Warner Brothers licensed the music of jazz genius Raymond Scott in the early ‘40s, Stalling was given a gold mine of music and wasted no time putting it to use. His rendition of Scott’s “Powerhouse” is so familiar that anyone who hears it will associate it with Warner Brothers cartoons.

Stalling knocked the lid completely off American animation and it would stay off for quite a while.

Tashlin came originally to Schlesinger in 1933 as an animator after a short but acrimonious stay at Amadee J. Van Beuren’s studio. He made an impression as a fast but accurate animator. In his free time he drew a comic strip that ran in the Los Angeles Times from 1934 to 1936 called Van Boring and was based on his former boss Van Beuren. Signing the strip “Tish Tash,” it became obvious that he was drawing the strip on Schlesinger’s time. Schlesinger asked for a cut from the money he received and Tashlin basically told him to go to hell and quit.

When he returned to Schlesinger in 1936 as a director, he did so with a view to incorporating film technique into animation. He was assigned the task of making Porky Pig into the studio’s major star. He did so by making Porky into an innocent chump, which perhaps reveals his dislike of the character. His first cartoon as director, Porky’s Poultry Plant (1936) contains high and low angled shots, rapid editing, and montages of bugles being blown and rifles raised. In Porky’s Romance (1937), Porky, armed with a ring, flowers and candy, rings Petunia’s doorbell with an eye to a marriage proposal. When she rudely turns him down, he walks away dejectedly. Petunia is alerted by her pet dog that something is going on and looks out the window as the dejected Porky walks away. She spots the candy, done with a fast iris close-up of the box and rushes out at breakneck speed to retrieve her would-be beau and, more importantly, his candy. Tashlin uses a goodly number of frames to achieve a scene that takes about five seconds.

The peripatetic Tashlin left in 1938 and returned once more in 1943, making several Bugs Bunny features and three Private Snafu films.

While all Schlesinger’s animators used clean lines, bold colors, topical references, and caricatures, Tashlin’s cartoons, especially his black and white Looney Tunes, were some of the most elegant on the lot, beautifully drawn and shaded. Tashlin’s animation career often gets lost when reviewing his career as a director, but he remains an important cog in the Warner’s revolution.

Last, but certainly not least, is Robert Emerson “Bob” Clampett. Clampett began with the studio in 1931 and was promoted to director in 1937. Serving under Avery for two years had a great influence on him and, along with Tashlin, Clampett re-designed Porky Pig and gave him the character that would last throughout later years. He also took over Avery’s Daffy Duck and made him the star of many a cartoon, including The Daffy Doc (1938), The Wise Quacking Duck (1943), Draftee Daffy (1944), and his classic The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946). Clampett also created 
Tweety for his 1942 A Tale of Two Kitties, although it was left to Freling to pair him with Sylvester. Other memorable cartoons helmed by Clampett include Porky in Wackyland (1938), Horton Hatches the Egg (1942), Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves (1943), and Book Revue (1946). Film historian Jerry Beck had said that Clampett put the “looney” in Looney Tunes.


Nothing lasts forever. While Tashlin was in and out with the studio, Avery left for good in 1942 after an artistic dispute with Schlesinger. He landed at MGM, where he created some of the most memorable cartoons ever made. Tashlin returned in 1943 and left in 1944 to pursue a career in film proper. Carl Stalling remained with the studio until his retirement in 1958, and Clampett left, against the advice of almost everyone, at his creative height in 1946 to pursue television.

But not a beat was missed as Jones, Freling, and Robert McKimson stepped in to keep the product rolling and of quality. But that is a subject for another article.


Porky’s Party (1938): Bob Clampett invites us to Porky’s house party which becomes hilarious when he receives a gift of a silkworm that knits embarrassing clothing on the command “Sew!” (or “So?” – it doesn’t matter.)

Porky in Wackyland (1938): Bob Clampett takes us through Dark, Darker, and Darkest Africa with Porky in search of the last of the Dodo birds and we witness his looney discoveries.

Corny Concerto (1943): Bob Clampett dresses Elmer Fudd in an out-of-control tuxedo and has him conducting an orchestra which backs the most memorable version of “Tales from the Vienna Woods” and “The Blue Danube” I’ve ever seen.

Racketeer Rabbit (1946): Friz Freleng stages a stormy night for Bugs to find a dry place to sleep, but he soon finds out it’s the hideaway for gangsters Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre.

Easter Yeggs (1947): Robert McKimson depicts Bugs as being tricked by a fat, lazy Easter Bunny to do his job and he finds out it’s not all fun and games when he meets a mobster family.

Broomstick Bunny (1956): Chuck Jones introduces us to Witch Hazel who thinks she’s the “Ugliest of Them All” (or so her magic mirror says) until Bugs arrives in a witch costume for Trick or Treat.

Ali Baba Bunny (1957): Chuck Jones directs Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck into a “wrong turn at Albuquerque” that leads them into Ali Baba’s treasure cave.

Duck Amuck (1953): Chuck Jones breaks down the fourth wall completely in this short about Daffy and his problems with his animator.

Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a Half Century (1953): Daffy and Porky battle it out with Marvin the Martian in this hysterical short directed by Jones.

The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946): Bob Clampett at the height of his powers, as Daffy stars in a clever parody of Dick Tracy.

One Froggy Evening (1955): A Chuck Jones masterpiece as a construction worker finds what he thinks will bring a fortune, but brings nothing but trouble.

Book Revue (1946): Bob Clampett directed this best of the “books come to life” cartoons.

Hair-Raising Hare (1946): Bugs meets mad scientist Peter Lorre and his orange monster in this wonderful Chuck Jones cartoon.

Buccaneer Bunny (1948); Friz Freling has a field day as Bugs outwits pirate Yosemite Sam.

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