Friday, August 18, 2006

Friz Freleng: Wizard or Monster?

Today's post is part of a blog-athon on the subject of Looney Tunes director Isadore “Friz” Freleng. Suggested by Brian at Hell on Frisco Bay, a damned fine movie blog, this involves a bunch of bloggers all commenting on the same subject. As soon as Brian's collected all of the links (sometime Monday, 8/21), I'll post my own link to it, so you can check out what other folks have to say about Freleng. As always, please let me know what you think, either by commenting directly, or emailing me at the “You know how to whistle?” link to your right. -- RH

I'd say that it's a safe bet that if you polled those who know the names of the real people who made the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, most would rank them in the following order: #1 or #2: Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, #3: Robert Clampett, #4: Friz Freleng, #5: Robert McKimson, then everyone else, from Frank Tashlin to Abe Levitow to Hawley Pratt, etc.

This ranking is subjective and non-scientific. It represents my experience of which directors most people are aware of. I suspect more people know of Jones and Avery because they have received the best publicity. They've been the subject of more books, articles, films and TV specials than any of the others.

Of course, that might also suggest that Jones and Avery had the most creative success. Their styles are much more distinct than the styles of the others, and are instantly recognizable to even the novice cartoon scholar. (Clampett's style is equally apparent, but his impact on the LT/MM canon is less obvious.)

What does this say about everyone else, including Freleng? While they were all innovative and frequently daring, the sum of their work is less than that of Jones and Avery. As weird as Clampett's Porky in Wackyland (1938) and its colorized doppelganger Dough for the Do-Do (1949)—repainted and enhanced by Freleng's team—are, they're not as surreal as Jones' Duck Amuck (1953) nor as delirious as Avery's Little Red Walking Hood (1937). Porky in Wackyland/Dough for the Do-Do draws attention to its inspiration: the backgrounds are obviously copies of the landscapes of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy, the frenetic gags owe less to dada than to the best of Dave Fleischer's Koko the Klown and Betty Boop cartoons. The absurdity of Duck Amuck appears to be primary. The use of inappropriate sound cues and the insertion of an external animator draws attention to the movie-making process itself, making Duck Amuck truly surreal, not merely an homage. Their ability to repeatedly synthesize components of the work of other artists into a new form, as opposed to replication, is what distinguished Jones and Avery. Clampett and Freleng had their moments of brilliance, just not as often as Jones and Avery.

Freleng always seemed to be to be the workhorse of Termite Terrace. Steady, productive, competent but uninspired. What always comes to my mind is the DePatie-Freleng period. When Warner Brothers closed its animation division in the early 1960s, Freleng joined forces with David DePatie to form DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which hired most of the line staff that Warner's had dismissed. Their big score was the opening sequence of The Pink Panther (United Artists, 1963), which they spun off into a series of cartoon shorts that played in theaters and on television. They also were one of the companies that Warners contracted to produce Looney Tunes until 1968. These cheaply-produced exercises in limited animation and static stories are among the worst of the entire series. Their failure is likely less the fault of DePatie/Freleng than of the budgets set by Warners, but I've never been able to get the sour taste of those late-era Daffy Duck/Speedy Gonzales films out of my mouth.

For this Freleng blog-athon, I thought I'd examine what I believe to be his best and worst work for Warners.

The worst is among the most offensive of the entire series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944). There's a bizarre cult built around this film, as it's one of the cartoons that Warner Brothers all but denies exist. Its scarcity, coupled with typical knee-jerk responses to perceived “political correctness” makes this cartoon a “holy grail” for collectors. Unlike Clampett's Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves (1943), another hidden short that manages to be funny despite its use of racist caricatures, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips is an uninspired mess that would be boring if it weren't so astonishingly revolting.

It opens with what was already a well-worn trope: Bugs Bunny adrift on the ocean, waiting to be stranded on a desert island. Freleng and scenarist Tedd Pierce draw attention to this quotidian device, having Bugs declare that he's “just killing time until the the island that inevitably turns up in these kinds of pictures, turns up.” This reflexive awareness of being in a movie is often one of the best set-up devices in a cartoon, but it falls flat here, thanks to the prosaic animation of the opening. The first shot is of an empty ocean, with a title “Somewhere in the Pacific,” as a scale is rapped out on a xylophone. The camera tracks to the right, then Bugs, off camera, starts to sing “Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat.” The camera moves towards the empty horizon, and the frame dissolves to a new shot of a crate floating on the waves, two long grey ears protruding from the top. Another dissolve brings the camera in closer to the crate, then a cut brings the camera inside the crate to see Bugs. In almost every other cartoon where a character gets stranded on an island, the reveal is handled fluidly through the animation, not through clumsy editing. It's as if Freleng is warning the audience that what's to follow is of low quality.

The animation in this short presages the limited animation style that would define the work of DePatie/Freleng and Hanna-Barbera in the 1960s. There are lots and lots of repeated frames, giving the picture a static and occasionally jerky quality completely unlike most of the LT/MM shorts of the 1940s. Bugs spends an inordinate amount of time talking to himself in this film, providing exposition but mostly continuing to kill time. Of course, better he kill time than what he ends up killing.

In 1944, America was deeply engaged in war with Japan, the “Pacific Theater” of World War II. Racist portrayals of the Japanese weren't simply common, they were all but required. Fearful of what was perceived as an internal security threat, the federal government held some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in “internment camps.” Most of these were American citizens. Nearly all of them lost their homes and businesses. Few, if any, had any connection to, or liking for, Imperial Japan. Given the sentiment expressed in Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, it's just possible that these imprisoned Japanese and Japanese-Americans might have been safer than if they had been free to be abused by yahoos inspired by racist dreck like this cartoon.

Bugs' tropical island is inhabited by Japanese soldiers, all drawn in extremely offensive caricature: bowed legs, sloping foreheads, buck teeth, slanted eyes, round-framed eyeglasses and receding chins. They speak gibberish except when they drop into heavily accented broken English when they have to say something the audience must comprehend (e.g., “Oooh, regrettable incident. Not-a-knowing honorable general. Oooh, excuse-a-prease. Ooooh, not-a-wanting make-a hari-kari.” Typing that made me nauseous.). These soldiers are colossally stupid and suicidal. As they pursue the “wascally wabbit,” they make Elmer Fudd look like Albert Einstein.

Of course, when Bugs does battle with Elmer, the ground rules are those of any good cartoon: No matter how many times the mallet strikes the head, no matter how point-blank the shotgun blast, no character is ever really harmed. When Bugs faces the Japanese soldiers (plus one sumo wrestler), everybody but the rabbit dies, albeit off camera. The worst moment may be when Bugs dons a white uniform while delivering “Good Rumor” ice cream bars to the infantilized soldiers. Each confection contains a live grenade. As he distributes the treats among the throng, Bugs chants “Here's yours, bow-legs. Here, one for you, monkey-face. . . Here ya'are, slant-eyes.”

After the massacre is complete, the cartoon completely falls apart. After Bugs notches palm trees with Japanese flags to mark his “kills,” he throws a fit, declaring that he “can't stand peace and quiet.” A U.S. ship sails by, and he furiously tries to flag it down, until he's distracted by a sarong-wearing female version of himself. He howls like a wolf, and she hops away. Bugs then hops after her, and the cartoon irises out. It's not unexpected for Bugs to pursue a female rabbit, but this occurs here without any prior motivation. Unseen during eight minutes of random slaughter, the drag version of Bugs Bunny shows up at the end, is supposed to be taken seriously as a genuinely female bunny, and Bugs turns into the Hollywood Wolf. I know Bugs is narcissistic, but this is ridiculous.

Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips will not be showing anywhere, anytime soon. I've long been a proponent of the idea that films with racist content should be available for viewing by adults, provided that the proper context is set beforehand. Those who cannot remember the past, etc., etc. This cartoon has historic importance as an example of war-tinged racism from the 1940s, but that's all it has. It may be the worst Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made, and it's likely the worst that Freleng ever did. Under no circumstances should this cartoon fall into the hands of an unsuspecting child (or an ignorant adult, for that matter). I viewed this cartoon on a 1992 laserdisc, from The Golden Age of Looney Tunes, Volume 1. After protests, the set was withdrawn by Turner Entertainment, and the cartoon replaced by Racketeer Rabbit (1946) on future printings. If you really want to subject yourself to it, it can be seen at Pistol Wimp's site. It's also part of Dennis Nyback's roadshow Bad Bugs Bunny, which also includes “gems” like Sioux Me (1939) and All This and Rabbit Stew (1941). According to his website, Warner Brothers sent Nyback a cease-and-desist order following a New York screening in 1997. Instead of backing down, Nyback dared them to take him to court, where he knew the news media would have a field day reporting about Bugs Bunny's racist history. Without saying a word, Warner backed down.

(Nyback has several programs of rare and unusual shorts, and he's available to come to your town. Check this out.)

At the other end of the spectrum is Freleng's Three Little Bops (1957), possibly his best cartoon. The late 1950s were a last hurrah for the Warner Brothers cartoons. What's Opera, Doc? (1957), One Froggy Evening (1955), The Honey-Mousers (1956), Robin Hood Daffy (1958), Stupor Duck (1956) and Rocket-Bye Baby (1956) are just a sample of what Termite Terrace turned out as the century moved past the midpoint. A few years later, Warners would shut down its animation department, and cartoons would be banished to television and limited animation, from the brilliance of UPA's Gerald McBoing Boing to the graceless Clutch Cargo.

Three Little Bops stands apart from the other LT/MM shorts, in that neither Mel Blanc nor Carl Stalling were involved. Radio genius Stan Freberg provided the voices and Shorty Rogers did the very hot jazz music, which drives the cartoon from start to finish. The Three Little Pigs are now a jazz combo, playing at the House of Straw. The Big Bad Wolf is an over-eager trumpet player who has talent in inverse proportion to his enthusiasm. Rejected by the pigs, the Wolf blows down the nightclub, then follows them to the House of Sticks, and you get the idea.

From the very first, when the characters that form the title literally bop into the frame, Three Little Bops moves in time to Rogers' musical rhythm. This is reminiscent of the early sound cartoons, the period some refer to as the “Sausage Era” (so named because most characters were designed using sausage shapes). Cartoons from the Fleischer Studio, especially the earliest Betty Boop shorts, are great examples of this style of animation. Everything in the frame moves in time to the synchronized music: city skylines, clouds, streetcars, automobiles, queues of characters waiting to get into a moving nightclub, etc. The early Warner Brothers cartoons used this same technique, and Freleng cut his teeth on this style. You Don't Know What You're Doing (1931) is a great example of Freleng's work in this style. The Piggy character gets drunk, and as he and a buddy drive along in their bopping car, the street undulates, while the skyline rocks and rolls. The movement in Three Little Bops is restricted to the characters—the buildings only move when the Wolf blows them down with his horn—but the nearly perpetual motion gives the cartoon a sense of fun from the very first 24 frame second.

Like the best of the earliest sound cartoons, the music drives the action. Freberg provides a running narration in a style not entirely unlike bebop (but not exactly like it either), that serves to enhance what's happening in the frame, not explain it. When the Wolf attempts to blow down the House of Bricks (built in 1776!), Freberg sings “he huffed and puffed and bleat and blewt/and at ten o'clock was completely pooped” as the Wolf does just that. The audience is already aware of the characters and the story (it is The Three Little Pigs, for crying out loud), so there's no need for any narrative development, and all the effort can be expended on jokes that arise by moving the story to the 1950s jazz club scene. The piano-playing pig provides a Liberace joke, the guitar-playing pig dances like Larry Collins of the Collins Kids. The Wolf's attempts to get into the Bops' act get cornier each time. At one point he enters dressed like a 1920s-era collegiate, strumming a ukulele, another time he comes in dressed in a marching band outfit, beating a drum. The Bops dismiss him easily each time, until he finally resorts to one of the great cartoon standbys: the giant keg of dynamite. Once the explosives are brought onscreen, Freleng wastes no time in dispatching the Wolf, who “didn't get to heaven, 'twas the other place,” where he can finally blow a mean horn. The piano-playing pig declares “you've got to get hot to play real cool.”

Three Little Bops is the opposite of Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. Three Little Bops moves and flows, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips is static and poorly constructed. Three Little Bops is all about music and rhythm—a celebration of life. Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips is about death. The two cartoons were made under very different circumstances: one was made at the height of a brutal war, the other was made in a brief lull between skirmishes during the Cold War. Yet it's still amazing to think that two such different philosophies could come from the same director. Freleng, like most people really, must have been a complicated person. It's a shame that diverse nature wasn't better represented throughout the body of his work.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.


Blogger Brian said...

Thanks for participating, Richard, and what a wonderful blog to discover in the process (actually I think I landed here once before but this time I've got you linked so I'll remember to come back).

I don't remember Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips very well but I definitely think that all the fun is taken out of these cartoons when our hero doesn't merely humiliate, beat up or char his opponent, but actually kills him. I really can't think of any exceptions, and I wouldn't disagree with your rating of this cartoon as Freleng's worst.

On the other hand, Three Little Bops isn't a personal favorite of mine. In terms of technique it's a fine cartoon but I can't get over the feeling that it's taking a position musically that goes directly against my own musical values. Daniel Goldmark in Tunes For 'Toons theorizes that Rogers was taking a deliberate swipe at Ornette Coleman, one of my personal jazz heroes, which only puts specifics to the general sense I got before reading his book. You'd think I'd be able to get over all that and just let myself enjoy the cartoon for what it is, but it hasn't happened yet.

4:20 AM, August 21, 2006  
Blogger HildrethR said...

Thank you for the idea in the first place, Brian! And thanks also for your kind comment, and your insightful and useful blog.

I had never before made the connection between the Wolf in Three Little Bops and Ornette Coleman. It's an excellent point. Your bringing this to my attention could well color my view of this cartoon. Jazz is one of my weaker areas of knowledge, but I do have a passing familiarity with Coleman and I'm aware that he was (and remains) quite controversial, especially among white jazzmen. I don't know that it will shake my enjoyment of this cartoon, but it may rattle it a bit. --RH

3:32 PM, August 21, 2006  

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