Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Big Snooze

Animation Nation

By Ed Garea

The Big Snooze (WB, 1946) – Director: Bob Clampett (uncredited). Story: Warren Foster. Animators: Izzy Ellis, Manny Gould, Bill Melendez, & Rod Scribner. Backgrounds: Philip De Guard and Thomas McKimson. Voices: Mel Blanc & Arthur Q. Bryan. Color, 7 minutes.

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you’re going to go out, go out with a bang.

And that’s exactly when Bob Clampett did in 1946, making some of not only his best work that year, but also some of the best cartoons in the history of animation: Book RevueKitty Cornered, The Great Piggy Bank RobberyBacall to Arms, and this, which would be his last cartoon for the studio. A year after Clampett left, the studio took one of his classic Looney Tunes from 1938, Porky in Wackyland, and remade it in color, adding in some footage from Clampett’s 1943 Tin Pan Alley Cats, and renaming it Dough for the Do-Do, with Friz Freleng directing uncredited. Nor was any credit given to Clampett; as far as the studio was concerned he ceased to exist.  


There is some conjecture as to Clampett’s exit from Warner Bros. The generally accepted story is that Clampett quit over matters of artistic freedom and to explore new vistas, but animator/director Arthur Davis, who took over Clampett’s unit after he left, said in an interview that Clampett was fired by the new head of animation, Eddie Selzer, who took over after the studio bought the unit from then-owner, Leon Schlesinger, who worked as a subcontractor. 

Clampett’s style was becoming increasingly divergent from that of established directors Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. Clampett, like Tex Avery (who left the studio in 1941) and Frank Tashlin (who left in 1945), hewed more closely to a plot line while Jones and Freleng used the plot line for witty dialogue and a series of gags. When Schlesinger ran the studio, Clampett was his favorite, and the executive frequently told his other directors to emulate Clampett’s style.

Eddie Selzer was a producer given an assignment he neither wanted or particularly liked. Chuck Jones in his autobiography, Chuck Amuck, described Selzer as someone who not only had no conception of animation, but also had no sense of humor. That Clampett would have problems with him was a given. When Clampett left, his name was taken off the credits for The Big Snooze (Art Davis finished it) and the projects he had in preparation were given to directors Davis, who took over from Clampett and headed his own unit until 1949, and Robert McKimson, Clampett’s master animator, who was promoted to director the year before and given Tashlin’s unit. 

The Big Snooze, whose title is a take-off on the Warner Bros hit of the same year, The Big Sleep, is actually a cartoon within a cartoon. We begin with Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny. Bugs tricks Elmer into following him into a hollow log, which Bugs spins around so that the exit is over a cliff. This occurs the usual three times (the “Rule of Three”) until Elmer finally scrambles to safety. 



Having reached safety, Elmer becomes enraged. He breaks his gun in two and vents his anger: “I quit! I’m through! I get the worst from that wabbit in every one of these cartoons!” He then looks at the camera. “Of course, there’s the little matter of my contract with Mr. Warner.” Elmer then begins to angrily tear the document to shreds. “Well, this for my contract and that for my contract!” (Was Clampett venting his own anger at management?) Bugs is aghast: “Hey Doc, you’re not being serious, are you? You’re kidding, ain’t you?”

Elmer’s isn’t kidding. He grabs a fishing pole and basket. As he walks away he declares, “From now on nothing but fishing for me. And no more wabbits!”

Bugs begins following Elmer, begging him on his knees to stay. “No, Doc, no. Think what we’ve been to each other. Why we’ve been like Rabbit and Costello, like Damon and Runyon, Stan and Laurel. You can’t do this to me, I tell you. You don’t want to break up the act do ya?” Bugs then looks at us, breaking the fourth wall, and says, “Bette Davis is gonna hate me for this.” Some think this is a reference to the fact that Davis also wanted to get out of her Warner’s contract, but I think Clampett is poking fun at Davis’ overly histrionic style. Bugs continues to follow Elmer, telling him, “Think of your career.” And for that matter,” he says as he turns to the camera, “Think of my career!”

Catching up to Elmer, Bugs sees him peacefully asleep under a tree, dreaming gently of a saw cutting a log on a pink cloud. “I gotta look into this!” Bugs exclaims as he takes out a bottle of sleeping pills, marked on the label Sleeping Pills: Take Dese and Doze, a typical Clampett pun. (In recent years, Turner Networks, which acquired the rights to the Warner cartoons, often deleted this sequence for its supposed celebration of drug use.) 

As Bugs falls asleep, we see him ascending towards Elmer’s dream on a sailboat. As he weighs anchor on Elmer’s dream, Bugs looks around. “I reiterate, what a heavenly dream. You know it would be catastrophe if perchance harm were to befall this serene scene.” At that he brings out a can of “Nightmare Paint” and begins repainting the dream in surrealistic style. Elmer pops up, clad only in tights made from leaves as rabbits begin hopping over his head with Bugs singing “da rabbits are coming, hooray, hooray,” to the tune of “The Campbells Are Coming” four times over. “Biwwions and twiwwions of wabbits,” Elmer says. “Where are they all coming from?”


From me, Doc,” replies Bugs, “from me. See, I’m multiplying.” He’s punching an adding machine and producing the rabbits. Bugs takes out a giant volume titled A Thousand and One Arabian Nightmares. “Let’s see,” he muses, “what can I do to this guy next?” He looks up from the book, “Oh no! It’s too gruesome! But I’ll do it.” He carries a bound Elmer to the railroad, where he ties him to the track. “Good gravy!” exclaims Bugs. “Here it comes, the Super Chief!” As Elmer shouts “Oh agony, agony,” a conga line of baby rabbits led by Bugs in an Indian headdress crosses over Elmer’s head. 

Elmer angrily breaks his bonds and chases Bugs, who jumps into a rabbit hole. As Elmer prepares to follow, Bugs pops out of a nearby hole and moves the hole, causing Elmer to fall on his head. As he melts to the ground, he is briefly naked as the leaves fall onto his body. Elmer stands up, angry. “Brrrrrrrr!” he exclaims. “What’s the matter, Doc, you cold?” Bugs asks as he wraps a green dress around Elmer, places a wig on his head and applies lipstick to Elmer’s mouth. Looking over his handiwork, Bugs lifts the backdrop to reveal a pack of wolves dressed in zoot suits at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. One of the wolves howls, “Hooowooooold … is she?” and they begin chase. “Gwacious!” says Elmer as he runs. He then stops to ask the audience “Have any of you girls ever had an experience like this?” 

Bugs tells the perplexed Elmer, “Quick, run this way!” taking Elmer through a surrealistic version of the Cossack dance, which also includes flipping upside down and hopping like a frog. Bugs and Elmer continue the dance as they run to the edge of the cloud, then jump off. Elmer thanks Bugs for his help, then realizes they’re falling. “What’ll we do, Mr. Wabbit? What’ll we do?” Elmer asks as they continue to fall. “I dont know about you, Doc, but as for me ...” Bugs says as he pulls out a bottle with the label Hare Tonic, Stops Falling Hare. Bugs drinks from the bottle as Elmer continues to fall and comes to a screeching halt. “Gosh, ain’t I a stinker?” Bugs asks the audience. 


Elmer falls into his sleeping self, which awakens him from the nightmare. “Oooh, what a howwible nightmare!” he exclaims, and speeds back to the set, where he reassembles his contract as he gets back into the log. Oh Mr. Warner, I’m back. Okay Mr. Wabbit, woll ‘em.” The cartoon closes with a close up of Bugs exclaiming “I love that man!”

Afterwords

The Big Snooze is probably the best of Bob Clampett’s Bugs Bunny cartoons and shows the influence of his friend and mentor, Tex Avery. The sequence with the log in the beginning of the cartoon is directly lifted from Avery’s 1940 cartoon All This and Rabbit Stew, where Bugs is being hunted by a stereotypical African-American hunter. Clampett simply substitutes Elmer for the hunter, copying the scene even down to Elmer turning into a lollipop labeled “sucker” as he realizes he’s been fooled, as in the original.

The cartoon also shows Clampett’s fascination with surrealism, as exemplified in the dream sequence. Clampett was heavily influenced by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The most obvious example of Dali’s influence comes in Clampett’s 1938 cartoon, Porky in Wackyland, where the entire short takes place in a Dali-esque landscape complete with melting objects and abstract forms. (I think it would be fair to say that Clampett’s work can be considered part of the surrealist movement.) The animation in the dream sequence is simply amazing as Clampett continues to push the boundaries, something he began doing when he started back in the mid-‘30s working in Avery’s unit. 


The highlight of that sequence is the Cossack dance (said to have been animated by Manny Gould), a play on the old “walk this way” gag. A man enters a pharmacy. “I’m looking for talcum powder,” he says to the clerk. The clerk answers, “Walk this way,” to which the man replies, “If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need talcum powder.” As Bugs and Elmer make their way doing the dance, they stop to shout “Hey” into the camera as Clampett uses an extreme close up of their faces to highlight it. 

Clampett was also famous for incorporating catchphrases and tunes from popular culture into his cartoons. For instance, as Bugs sails towards Elmer’s dream he sings “Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat,” by Leon Rene, Otis Rene, and Emerson Scott.  When Bugs and Elmer do the Cossack dance, the traditional Russian tune, “Vo sadu li, v ogorode” (“In My Garden”) is mixed with the traditional tune, “Chicken Reel.” When Elmer panics after they jump off the cliff, Bugs stands serenely, with one hand out, as if leaning against an invisible wall singing “September in the Rain” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The losing line, where Bugs exclaims: “I love that man!” is taken from the popular radio show Fibber McGee and Molly and was one of the trademark catchphrases of Beulah, their maid. 

The wolves in the zoot suits seem to be copied from Avery’s 1943 MGM cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood (the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit, by the way). As the wolves chase Bugs and Elmer they go right through a fence as if the fence wasn’t there, or if they melted through, another instance of surrealism. 

In the ‘40s, Clampett’s cartoon style became wilder and more violent, with his trademark animation of a character stretching out to double his body length whenever frightened, excited, or hurt. After he left, his style was kept to an extent by his master animator Robert McKimson, but after a few years McKimson toned down his style to the often mediocre style we are familiar with today. 


To fully appreciate Clampett’s style, compare The Big Snooze to other cartoon releases that year by Jones and Freleng. Shorts like Jones’ Hare-Raising Hare and Freleng’s Baseball Bugs display the evolution of Jones’ and Freleng’s style as the humor is somewhat milder, the background designs are much more sophisticated (especially Jones). Facial expression (more muted than Clampett), gags and dialogue dominate and are pushed almost non-stop through the shorts while Clampett seems trapped in a time warp of sorts. (Jones in particular became famous for introducing the concept of subtlety into his cartoons.) The Big Snooze and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery play out almost like mini-movies, with characterization first and the gags unique to and used to emphasize the characters. They’re full-frame, with plenty of flexible animation.

But for all his genius Clampett was despised by many of his colleagues. Chuck Jones doesn’t mention him once in his autobiography, and he ignores the contributions of Clampett to the character of Bugs Bunny, as he has Bugs review his “several fathers” in The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979). The only “father” missing is Clampett, proving the survivors write history. 

Those who despised Clampett saw him as someone who tried to claim the contributions of the other Termite Terrace animators for himself. In a 1946 interview, Clampett claimed he conceived the character of Bugs Bunny after watching Clark Gable munch on a carrot in It Happened One Night. (Daffy Duck was created by Tex Avery, but it was Clampett who first animated him. Daffy would go on to become the quintessential Clampett character.) However, there is no doubt that Clampett, along with Avery, provided the influence that would prompt the Warners directors to shed the Disney influence and take the direction for which they are famous today. 


After leaving Warner Bros., Clampett briefly worked for Columbia and Republic Pictures before turning to television, where he won acclaim and Emmy awards for the puppet show Time for Beany, which later morphed into the animated Beany and Cecil Show in the ‘60s. He leaves behind a body of work second to none.

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