This oral history is a transcription of the audio recording of Bob Clampett both from audio interviews done by both Mike Barrier and Milton Gray, and recordings of Bob Clampett independently taping his recollections from his life and career. The actual audio recordings can be found on the DVD, Beany and Cecil- The Special Edition, Volume One. Much thanks goes to Milt Gray for his painstaking work both compiling the original audio recordings and the transcriptions of those recordings found here.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Early Years: Part One
MILTON GRAY: Hi, this is Milton Gray. The oral history you are about to hear was actually edited together from several different taped interviews, done mostly in the 1970s. The audio quality varies widely, from one recording to another, since none of these were intended to be heard as recordings.
Bob Clampett was born on May 8, 1913. And here, to tell us the rest, in his own words, is Bob Clampett.
BOB CLAMPETT: My mother said that I actually used to doodle with a pencil before I was walking. I think the most vivid memories I have as a young child are the colored comic strips, the illustrations in the books, like The Wizard of Oz, and Robinson Crusoe, and so forth. And of course the silent movies, a wonderful world all its own.
I, very early, was drawing comic strips — I would be doing the characters of Happy Hooligan, or Boob McNutt, or Jiggs and Maggie, and so forth. I would actually learn to draw those characters. And then I would take whatever the Sunday paper was, where it ended after, say, twelve frames, I would then start making new frames in which I would carry on the characters doing a continuation of the story, and so forth, and I would go on for maybe a great number of frames, and so I was actually writing original material, and putting the characters through new things.
For different years I was emulating different styles of cartoonists — one year it was Pat Sullivan’s Felix, and another year it was Milt Gross, and at other times other people. But I got Milt Gross down to where I could draw Nize Baby and Mr. Feetlebaum and Louie Dot Dope very well. And then the kids started coming to me, and they were paying me what was then a very big amount, I think it was fifty cents to a dollar, to make drawings on their sweatshirts, or on their yellow raincoats. If you see some of those early John Held Jr. drawings of college boys wearing slickers, and they’ve got things drawn or painted — you know, wording all over their car, their Tin Lizzie, or over their raincoat — that’s what I was doing, and they were paying me to do this.
When I was twelve I had some cartoons published in the L.A. Times — colored pages of a pussy cat and so forth — and Hearst saw it. He was real big, he used to look for future comic strip artists. So they offered me a contract, for $75 a week when I got out of school. Then I went down every Saturday to the Examiner and worked in the Art Department. You know Robert Day of the New Yorker? He was there, and Webb Smith who became one of Disney’s original great story men, the one that’s credited for that first Pluto sequence, he was there. And I was there with these wonderful newspaper artists, and they’d show me how to do it, y’know. And then the Examiner paid my way to Otis Art School, and they would every so often publish one of my drawings in the paper, to encourage me.
Cartoonists were not what I expected, in that the average newspaper cartoonist was the kind of a guy who would smoke a cigar or a pipe, sitting at his drawing board with his sleeves rolled up part way, maybe wearing his hat and the vest as he sat at the board, and he wasn’t very verbal, he wasn’t very funny to talk to, y’know? His whole ability was just what he could sketch here, maybe come up with his ideas in sketch form.
I had been really studying animation back to the silent film days — they used to run Felix the Cat. And I would go around to the theater when they had one, and I would go up into the booth and talk to the projectionist, and I’d say, “Could I possibly see that reel, and see how that Felix the Cat is done?” And on several occasions he’d say, “I’ll do better than that for ya,” and he would take, he would clip out a section of Felix and give it to me, and put it back together again — with a silent picture, you know, they could take out part of a cycle walk or something, and give it to me, and for many years I had some of those sections of Felix. The film got very yellow, it was nitrate film, but I was able to study how Felix animated back when I was still in junior high school, y’see.
My aunt, Charlotte Clark, was selling cookies around to the department stores, and in those days where they had the cookie counter, they’d also sell novelties. They’d sell kupie dolls and stuffed toys, and so forth. And she was quite good at sewing, and she said to me, “If you could come up with an idea for a doll, we’ll make it and I’ll sell it to the stores.” So I tried a couple of ideas, and she didn’t think they were quite right, so then I said, “Well, what about this new character that’s making such a hit in the theaters — the mouse, Mickey Mouse?” This was about the time that the Mickey Mouse cartoons first hit in the theaters. And she said, “What does it look like?” She hadn’t seen it, so she said, “Bring me some drawings of it and let’s see what we can do with it.” The interesting thing to me was that I went to the local theater, and they had no stills for the lobby, and I went to the local newspaper, and I went to the department store — no place knew anything, nobody had any idea where you could get a drawing or a likeness of Mickey Mouse. Can you imagine that today? So what I had to do was, I had to go into a theater with my sketch pad, and I sat through two or three shows, and as Mickey moved around, I sketched him, y’see? And by the third time I had enough to work from. I went to my aunt, and I helped her, we made up this first Mickey Mouse doll.
My dad came over, and says “What’cha got there?” and she says, “Oh, it’s a thing that’s in the movie theaters. And I’m going to sell it.” He says, “You can’t sell it without checking with the guy who put the movie out.” So the three of us got in the car, and drove over to Hyperion, to the little Disney studio at the time. We walk in the door, with her holding this first felt Mickey Mouse. We walk in, and Walt and Roy and all of them are just going nuts about it because at that time there was no Mickey Mouse toys or dolls or comic books or anything on the market, y’know? So [Walt] immediately set my aunt Charlotte up in business, in a house near the studio. And she was French, and she had six little French girls doing the sewing, and then all my spare time I went there and worked the Kepok machine — worked the machine with the foot that brushed the stuffings off the Mickey Mouse. And Roy and Walt used to come over in an old car and pick these up, ’cause they would give them out for visitors to the studio and sales meetings. And I’d help them load these first Mickey Mouse dolls into this old car. And one time the car wouldn’t start, it was pretty old, and I pushed, and Walt was in it, and I’m pushing down the street, and finally it caught. In a way it was very lucky for me because I learned there how to make pattern, how to make puppets, how to make dolls, and then later when I got into puppets I knew how to do these things.
Originally, I had a contract to go to be a newspaper cartoonists for King Features when I got out of high school. My dad had that contract for several years. Now when sound came in, and Disney’s came out with the first Mickey Mouse, suddenly all the things that I wanted, hoped to do at some point in my life, seemed to all merge together, y’know? Making comedies for theaters — doing some voices — drawing — writing — directing — all the things that I tried to do in isolated instances as a kid all seemed to come together. So I got so excited about it that I insisted on trying to get out of the Hearst contract — $75 a week was the starting salary — and go to work in a cartoon studio, for $10 a week. Now my uncles were very good business men, and when I told them I’d rather do this, they said, “You’re crazy, because animated cartoons will be just kind of a passing novelty.” But in spite of all the advice, I made the move, I told Walt I wanted to get into animation when I got out of school. He says fine, and he gave me some of the comic strips, the first Mickey Mouse comic strips to work from, and some other sketches. And I worked on Mickey Mouse, and so I was expecting to go to work for Walt. But right at the time I got out of school, and I said, “Okay, I’m ready,” they were at that time building — they had animators working across the street, across Hyperion there in garages, and in apartments, I think. They said, “Gee, we have no room, we’re building on this annex, it’ll take a month or so, and when we do that there’s plenty of room and you’re with us.” And you know how it is when you get out of school, you think, “Wow, two months seems like a lifetime,” y’know? At that very moment I got the idea to go over to Warners. I took my sketches and so forth ….
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Early Years, Part Two: (Cont.)
Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising actually started Warner cartoons. Hugh and Rudy left Disney and they made the Oswalds [Oswald the Rabbit cartoons] for [Charles] Mintz after Walt lost it. Then they went and they made the first sound-sync cartoon, which was called “Bosko, the Talkink Kid”, spelled [with a 'k'] — “Talkink Kid” — it was just actually a short sales film. And in it, Rudy appeared on the screen with Bosko, which was their creation, and on the end of the thing Bosko went back in the inkwell and he said “So long, folks”, which was the origination of the Looney Tunes end title, “That’s all, folks!”
They took that to Leon Schlesinger, who had the Pacific Art and Title [titling studio] down the street from Warners, and he got them the Warner Brothers release. And Hugh tells me that Leon Schlesinger himself came up with the title Looney Tunes, and then later with the title Merrie Melodies. At that time the whole gimmick was music in cartoons. The only reason Warners okayed the deal, they told me, was that they thought it would [promote] the music, the songs they owned from their [movie] musicals. The rule they made in every story was, you’ve got to have a singing chorus.
The first Looney Tunes that Hugh and Rudy made was “Sinkin’ in the Bathtub”, which was a takeoff on “Singing in the Bathtub” from a Warner musical. And then they made the Looney Tunes, thirteen of them in 1930, and they started the Merrie Melodies in the first of 1931. That was when I joined them. They originally were on Western Avenue. They moved over into a building on Hollywood Boulevard — the landlord was Cecil B. DeMille — it was kind of a modern building at the time — above a grocery store. The cartoons from ’31 to the middle of ’33 were made there.
When I joined them, they moved me right into the same room with Rudy Ising and Friz Freleng. It was the three of us. You know, today if you went to a studio, you wouldn’t be put in the same room with the co-owner, y’see (laughs).
The first morning, they just gave me the drawing of Bosko and Honey [and a goat] to practice from. And I sat and just made one drawing after another, just working straight ahead, making the final details of the goat, and there was a fly going around, and [the goat] turned his head and he was swatting at the fly with the tail, like it was partly like a hand, it was just an ad-lib thing I thought of. Rudy Ising sees this, and he flips it — and I had about fifty drawings already — and he says, “Hey, that’s pretty good,” y’know — the first morning — but he says, “You need more burlesque in it.” Rudy said I needed more burlesque, maybe more exaggeration or something than I had — it’s maybe it’s a little tight, y’see.
So the next thing you know, whether it was that day or the next morning, Hugh comes in and gives me a crowd scene from the first Merrie Melodie, y’know, and shows me how to animate it — and it has end cycles, and rhythm cycles, and confetti going, and all sorts of stuff, and streamers, and says “Now, here’s what you do here, and here’s what you do here,” and I started out animating. So as crude as it might have been, I was animating the second day I was at the studio and my animation was used in the picture. It was the first Merrie Melodie ever made, called “Lady Play Your Mandolin.”
MILTON GRAY: Did you continue animating?
BOB CLAMPETT: No, I still had some [animation] as I went along, but basically, guys like Friz and that didn’t like a new guy coming in and start animating, y’know, you gotta go through all the ropes and start as an assistant. So there was a little concentrated effort to put me back to in-betweening.
In the first week, I found that so many of the guys I’m sitting with struck me as being basically the newspaper cartoonist type, which was more sit at the drawing board and you do it all there in drawing, and when you go to talk about it there’s not much feeling for it, or love or excitement or something. I was surprised at that, that so many of the animators, or key guys, were that kind of a guy. Friz was that kind of a guy, and Rudy in a sense was, y’know? Tubby Millar came out after I’d been there a while, and he was the typical newspaper cartoonist type of guy.
And I remember, the first week, they had these story conferences at night — I think they gave out a little slip, little slips saying here’s what we’re — it was the general idea of the story, and here’s what the new gags are.
MILTON GRAY: Did they allow in-betweeners even, to come to the story meetings — anybody –
BOB CLAMPETT: Everybody was obliged to come — I mean, they were supposed to come. No extra pay, just come back after dinner and we had the story meeting. The thing that struck me in the story meetings was, here’s all these old Kansas City guys, for the most part, with the pipes and so forth, and the sketch pads, they’d come with these sketch pads. And finally it’d be “Now what ideas do we got?” And everybody’s just kinda noodling a little drawing, and “Gee, I don’t know, Hugh, and Rudy…” and they might very apologetically say something, y’know, like “Do you think there’s anything we could do with so-and-so?” y’know, kinda like that. It was the most uninspired meeting I ever saw. It wasn’t what I expected, from what you see on the screen, the funny cartoons — and here’s these guys just sweating it out, and just afraid to say it, or either they haven’t got any ideas, or they don’t have much confidence in what they have, y’know?
And I bit my tongue a long time, and then it was either the first or second meeting, I can’t remember which, but it was the first week when I blurted out this idea of the ads on the streetcar coming to life, y’see? And, uh, I could feel that that was about the most unpopular thing I could do — this smart, snotty-nosed kid who just started there Monday, and now he’s coming up with a sequence, with a whole bunch of ideas for it, and telling it out with a little enthusiasm, and the boss is saying, “Hey, that sounds great”, or something of that nature. And the next thing you know, Howard Hanson, the production manager — Howard and I went home on the streetcar, and he told me, he says “I overheard Hugh talking, they think your car ad sequence is great, and they’re going to use it in the picture.” And I had sketched up a lot of different — I had a lot more ideas than they ended up — just cutting it down to a very short thing. But nevertheless, here was my first clash with what was this kind of reluctance to have some real fun put in the cartoons.
Now at that time, all the Warner cartoons looked like a replay of the Disney’s, y’know — the dog going along, sniffing, and Bosko whistling, going fishing, y’know, the girl, and all that. So when I came up with this idea, it made quite a hit. It wasn’t that great, but it was part of the cartoon and the audience really took to it, seeing the Smith Brothers, and the Gold Dust Twins, all of this in animation. And that led to the first Warner formula, as divorced from the Disney formula. After that, we made magazines coming to life, and the grocery store labels…. So, when I hit that, they kept putting me on story meetings, they’d call me in from animation to story meetings, or ask me to turn in stuff.
And then little by little, as we worked hard to get these pictures out, and then they came out in the theaters, and the majority of them didn’t get much response from the audience — they didn’t look that good, they weren’t that funny, no personality emerged — you just cringed when the audience reacted poorly. And when they reacted wonderfully, you just felt wonderful about it. And then many things we tried didn’t go over, y’see. Then, along with that of course, Hugh and Rudy just didn’t have the budget from Leon to really do it right, and they had to resort to a lot of use of stock material, and so forth. But the stories — I was always disappointed in the stories.
I had always, when I was — all the years I was growing up and making my own comic strips, where I’d write my own gags and develop my own characters and sketch it all — when I got into animation, I didn’t have the idea that I’m going to sit and just do a series of drawings that somebody else thought up. And I said, “Wow, this isn’t it — what have I got to do to be able to think up my own stories and put them in the work?” And they said, “Well, you have to be a director.” So right away I figured, “Well, I’ve got to get to that.” And so I would spend a lot of time going into the story room and throwing gags in the story meetings. I would turn in a lot of complete stories, I had drawers full of the stories that I turned in. So I’m all the time saying, “I have ideas, so I want to be a director.”
As it came to the end of that three years, Leon’s contract with Warners was up, and Hugh Harman decided to go to New York to see Warners, to make an offer to them that he and Rudy would take over the release, without Leon — because Leon, I think he felt, took the inbetween money — if they could have had that money to put into the pictures, they maybe could have done better, y’see. Earl Duvall — and I’m telling you these things that I normally wouldn’t put in print — but, Earl Duvall went to Leon and tipped him off that Hugh was getting on the train to go to New York to see Warners, to make a proposition to them. Leon took the plane, and when Hugh walked into the head office back there, there was Leon sitting beside the Warners, when he walked in. That’s the main reason that Duvall was one of Leon’s first directors.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part One: (cont.)
BOB CLAMPETT: So, then when Leon parted, and Leon is now setting up his own studio, Leon had taken over the building in the middle of the Warner lot, and he had to set out about getting a staff, from all over the [industry].
I was the first one that he offered a contract to — I was the first one from Harman-Ising to come over. Y’see, when he lured me from Harman-Ising to his place, he had the word from Katz, who sat in the story meetings at Harman-Ising, that I was a guy with a lot of ideas, for characters and gags and stuff. So Leon says, “You’ve got a great future if you come with me because I understand you have a lot of ideas, and that’s the kind of thing we need in these films, and if you come with me you’ll have an opportunity to use them.”
I went back to Harman-Ising and I talked to the guys, and they said, “Don’t go with Leon, he’ll offer you this much money today, and two weeks later he’ll cut it in half.” So I went in and talked to Hugh, and I said, “I’ve got an opportunity to make more money, and maybe to advance myself, but I owe it to you to tell you about this.” And Hugh said, “Well, I don’t know what we’ll be doing, so Bob I think it would be a good chance for you, and I think you should take it.” Hugh gave me his blessing, so I went with Leon.
Now, I’m sitting here at the beginning, and there’s nobody in the building that I can remember — maybe there was a title man in the back room, or something. And it was the funniest feeling, because here was a whole big building, with all these new animation desks made — they haven’t been painted, so they’re just sitting in there, and you walk through and you smell all this fresh wood. And it was a great feeling, because it was like we’d come to an end of an era that, through circumstances, ended up sadly — the first three years of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Now here’s a fresh new opportunity. Here’s a whole bunch of unpainted desks, nobody sitting in them yet. You walk through the building, and here’s this room, and there’s gonna be the backgrounds in here, and that’s gonna be the story room, y’see. It was a thrill, it was a tremendous thrill!
MILTON GRAY: Did you have a little bit of a dread then, that Leon would later pull the rug out from under, or cut the budget, or –
BOB CLAMPETT: No, I felt that he was a kind of an outgoing guy who wanted to succeed, and he was putting his money into this enterprise. I would have actually, if I had the money, I would have paid to work at the studio. I wasn’t there for the money. He imparted a feeling of confidence, and hope for the future, when I first met with him. Of course, he was outlining a rosy future. This was the time when Roosevelt had just come in with the New Deal — the Depression was so bad and he comes in with this confidence — well, Leon sort of echoed that. Y’know, you could have put a Roosevelt mask on him, and F.D.R. mask, and he’d have said, [Roosevelt voice] “We’re gonna make the best cah-toons in the world!” y’know — he even had the long cigarette holder, with the cigarette in it, like, pointing straight up like Roosevelt did, y’know. So he had a little of that flair, he imparted confidence.
The main cartoonist that Leon brought over was Jack King, who was one of the key animators on [Disney's] “The Three Little Pigs.” And I was made his assistant, and the two of us for a while sat there with nobody else in this whole big building. And I’m asking him about Disney’s, and he’s telling me all the latest theories of animation there. And he told me much about the Disney style of distortion in the characters, the looser treatment on the pigs, and so forth, as against the — the Bosko things were quite tight, just moving the layouts around, more or less.
Now, here comes the new guys, coming into the studio. You hear about this one, oh gee, he was a great animator at a certain studio. Frank Tipper is going to come from New York, all the way on a motorcycle, from some studio there — he’s joining us, he’s a swell animator. In other words, every time we’d hear that we had somebody with talent coming in, we were tickled, because all these things would make the films better. And then as Tipper came across country, he let us know, day by day, I think by phone or something — he’s in Kansas City, he’s in Arizona, he’s almost here! We’d keep track of here comes Tipper! All these guys — here comes Cal Dalton, he just worked on a sales film for “Wizard of Oz” — in color — for a Canadian company, I think — a Canadian backer. Frank Tashlin came from Van Beuren’s in New York, and Chuck [Jones], who was still in-betweening, came from Ub Iwerks in Beverly Hills, doing Flip the Frog, and so forth.
It was like a gold-rush town, we were all coming into this little gold-rush town, and we all had our picks and our bags, and we’ve all got a chance — everybody’s got a chance to make it. That’s the feeling you had. At Harman-Ising, things had kind of settled into a pattern where Hugh and Rudy had their close friends, maybe some of the animators’ wives became social with Hugh’s wife, and you’d say, “By God, no matter what I do here, I’m not going to get a chance to get around this guy.” But here [at the Schlesinger studio], you felt Leon’s kind of up above that — here you are, boys, you’re all in here — whoever runs the fastest is gonna get there.
Now, a lot of people don’t give Leon much notice any more, but I want to say for him that in the first years, from 1933 on to about 1938, he was in there with his shirtsleeves [rolled up] — not making the films, but he was in there trying to find the talent. So the biggest problem that Leon had in the beginning was to get the director, which was the guy who made the picture, who thought up the ideas, and so forth. And he tried Earl Duvall — Earl Duvall was a gag man at Harman-Ising with us, who came over. And for the first Looney Tune, Earl Duvall created the character Buddy — I used to call it “Bosko in whiteface,” because it was just another little boy — a white boy — and he has the girlfriend and the dog, the same routines, y’see.
I was at that point working with King, and then getting my first full-time animation, as it were, even though I’d done animation throughout the period of Harman-Ising, to a degree. Here I was now working on some scenes, [King] would give me certain scenes to do — he would rough out some of his stuff, and leave parts of it, and then give it to me to animate parts of, and detail some of the other parts that he did. He was animating, he was like the head animator.
The big problem was the first Looney Tune that was being made, and we were seeing dailies on, and it wasn’t right, it wasn’t good. So it was remade, and remade — a version was given to Warners and they rejected it, and we had to go back and fix it up again. Earl Duvall had to remake the first Looney Tune three times to make it acceptable to Warners. And so whereas we had all these guys from all these different studios, with great enthusiasm, which was a wonderful boon, but nevertheless, they all had different outlooks on how to do a cartoon, they all had different styles of drawing, and so it was a kind of a mishmosh, a big gold-rush thing with everybody stumbling all over everybody.
Now at that time Friz — things hadn’t worked out at Harman-Ising, all those guys had stayed at Harman-Ising but it wasn’t working out — then is when [Friz] came over for a job. He was the one who had told me, “Don’t go with Leon” y’see, and I’m sitting at this window here and he’s walking by, kinda sheepish, and going in, and the next thing you know, Friz has been hired. And he became the director, along with Duvall. And then here comes Ham Hamilton by my window, and here comes all these guys who had told me, “Don’t, under any circumstances, work for Leon.” They’re all coming, one at a time, to these meetings, and now there they are.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Two: (cont.)
Now, I’m back to where I was. In a sense, I always had those guys over there [at Harman-Ising] trying to push me down into the floor. I come here [to Leon's] with this new opportunity, now here comes this same old gang. And whereas all the new guys kind of took me in, and I was in there with them, even on the storyboards — not contributing much, but just talking — now, with Friz in there, that changed. It was almost like we were back to Harman-Ising. And I’m saying to myself, “Wow, we can’t go back to Harman-Ising, to what was being made there!”
And so the Looney Tunes were a series of Buddy pictures, and then the Merrie Melodies were each time a different song with a different subject. And Friz made the majority of those — although the first color Merrie Melodie was made by Earl Duvall and was called “Honeymoon Hotel.” It was about the third or fourth Merrie Melodie that we made.
Leon gave the directors complete freedom — in other words, within a tight budget and within tight money. But now if we were working at Disney’s, the director doesn’t make the pictures, Disney does. But under the Leon system, he wouldn’t even look at the story until we showed it [the animation on film] on a silent running for him, and then we’d do the voices along with the picture. And he’d let us try ideas on it, he’d say “Try it,” y’see.
And he’d try out one director for a while, and it’s not working, and then Leon has to worry about it and bring in somebody else. Earl Duvall didn’t last too long — Bernard Burton, and this one and that one, and so forth, and Ted Palmer — and none of them worked out, except for Friz, who was plugging along.
Jack King became a director at some point — it was like he went into the breach when the other directors failed. He just went in reluctantly, he didn’t really want to direct, but he went in to help out, to direct because he could at least shape it up better than the guys that were doing it.
Now, the first thing that I noticed is, Jeez, the stories are real weird. In the thirties, the Warner cartoons were truly lackluster, in the theaters. We work hard on these films, animating them, and go to Warner’s [theater] with a full house Friday night, like Friz’s “Mr. and Mrs. Is the Name”, or whatever it is, “Rhythm In the Bow” and so forth, and then suddenly there’s this full audience, the cartoon comes on, and they’re glad to see a cartoon, and then there’s only a few little laughs and snickers. It was crushing. Everybody had worked hard on it, and then it’s not there. And the reason it wasn’t there is, the ideas weren’t in there that really appealed.
Leon had what he called a gag department, where he had a whole bunch of guys in a room. And if you had an idea, you’d go in and say, “What do you think of this?” They were asking for ideas from the janitor, from anybody. On anybody’s picture, they’d give us a slip saying, “Saturday morning we’re going to have a gag session and the plot’s generally this. Come in full of ideas.” There was this kind of a new spirit of Leon trying to open things up, so other people could get ideas in.
I kept turning in these stories, and a lot of my stuff was used — the gags I turned in — and I turned them in to Leon, because I wanted the boss to know what I was doing. If you gave it to the gag man, or to Friz, nobody ever heard of it again.
Now about this time, Leon also had a contest, across the whole studio — a money prize for who’d write the best story. And everybody is, y’know, the [animation] footage is down because we’re all writing stories. So to make a long story short, I happened to win that story contest. And then Friz made [the picture], and he stuck in a singing chorus, and pushed out about thirteen gags. But it was called “My Green Fedora.”
The story wasn’t that good, although [Friz] did leave out some better gags that we had, and he injected a Joe Penner — who was a popular comedian then — injected a Joe Penner routine in, which wasn’t that funny in the theater, and in the meantime cut out some of the better personality gags. Like at the end of the picture, when the baby rabbit starts to squeal on the boy rabbit, when the mother comes home with these carrots, the boy rabbit stuffs this carrot in the baby’s mouth, like a big cork in the mouth, with a funny expression on the face of the little [rabbit], with the end of the carrot sticking out. When I showed that story to Leon the first time, he laughed real hard, just at that drawing. But Friz eliminated that idea, and instead had him doing a Joe Penner again, which was just putting a stunt in, saying “They’ll laugh at this because Penner’s popular.” But it didn’t fit the story.
MILTON GRAY: Now why did [Leon] keep bringing back Friz, since Friz made such pedestrian films all the time, if Leon wanted funnier films?
BOB CLAMPETT: Well, Friz was definitely a professional guy. You felt about him, even though say, if the films weren’t funny, you’d say “Well, the gag department didn’t –” When Friz made a picture that wasn’t very funny, at least it was very professionally made. Friz was particularly good on musicals. He was the only one who did his timing on music sheets. He would time the cartoons on music sheets.
Leon says, “Okay, you’re getting a lot of good ideas here, so I’m going to put you with Friz, as his gag man, or one of the gag men, and as his assistant director.” I went with Friz, I was all enthused, I left animation, and then Friz froze me out. Friz was the kind of a guy who was a little wary of any new guys coming up, especially low price new guys that maybe could learn direction, so he kind of froze me out. I’d start and I’d fill the boards with stories, with gags for him. He’d come in, look at them, and he wouldn’t tell me what he liked or didn’t like, and then he’d go to Leon and say “I don’t think he’s going to work out as a gag man.” So I went back to Leon and I said, “Look, instead of me trying to work under Friz, let me just keep animating and let me turn in every idea I get to you, and if you think it’s of merit you can pass it on to the key guys.” So that’s what I did.
Here we are at the end of 1933, the beginning of 1934, Leon Schlesinger said, “We haven’t come up with one single character that anybody knows.” So Leon gets an idea himself — it was at the same time that I was in the story room with Ted Pierce and these guys, and Leon said to us, “Look, Hal Roach has got the Our Gang, and it’s a popular thing, a bunch of little kids doing things together. What about a parody on the Our Gang comedies — the Little Rascals?” And I was excited because now we kinda spread the word through the studio again, just like it was a story contest, although we didn’t get paid a prize on this — hey, anybody in the studio can pick out a character for the little Our Gang, a little animal for the Our Gang, and turn it in because we’re looking for this. A lot of people thought of different names and different characters — there were scads of them.
So in the Our Gang kids there was always the little fat boy, and there was always the little black boy who was named after something to eat — Farina, and Buckwheat. So some of the guys, I don’t know just who it was, thought up “Ham and Ex”, two little white puppies called Ham and Ex for this picture — which is something to eat. So that gave me an idea for a similar kind of a thing, and I thought of “Porky and Beans” — which is like Campbell’s Pork and Beans. So I made this little fat pig drawing, of the “Porky”, and I made this little black cat, to be like the little black boy, and he was “Beans”. When I turned in the sketch for Porky and Beans, and Leon says “I like it, we’ll use it, and it’s in the picture,” and now I’m in the story conference, and I’m sitting there the day we discuss the voices for the characters. I was in on the discussion the day we decided on the stuttering voice.
This little story, it was a bunch of school children in a schoolroom with a teacher, and it was the day the parents come and hear the children perform. So each little kid would come up and do his piece, and that’s where we decided on the voice for Porky to be the stuttering voice. There was this fellow who used to come around the studio who actually stuttered, he couldn’t help it. And at that time, Roscoe Eates was quite a popular stuttering comedian in feature pictures, so it was decided to speed up the voice of this fellow who stuttered, and so this was the first Porky for some time, and he did the voice on this first Porky. And Porky had to recite — it was a thing in school where each little animal had to recite his piece, and so Porky got up and recited, I think it was “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” something like that, and he had an awful time with it. And Beans was kind of the little mischievous guy, y’know, that did things to upset the apple cart.
Friz thought that Beans was the best character in the Our Gang, and Schlesinger did too. Whether he did because Friz thought so, or vise versa, I don’t know. The first Porky was called “I Haven’t Got a Hat” — Friz made the picture, and in “I Haven’t Got a Hat” Leon wanted the characters to all be introduced at the beginning of the picture, because here was his new stars. It was done in the device of the Warner features at that time, where they used to bring on Cagney and Blondell and Allen Jenkins. Now, when Friz put it on the screen, he had Miss Cud first, then he had Beans all by himself, then he had Porky and Oliver, then he had Ham and Ex. And I said to him, “Gee, how come you don’t have Porky and Beans? That’s the gag, the name Porky and Beans.” He says, “I don’t want two of the same gag, and Ham and Ex is the better gag of the type than Porky and Beans, and I think Beans is going to be the key character.”
So, this cartoon comes out, and of course it was basically Leon’s idea to have the Our Gang. He was tickled to death because it went over well. So he says, “Swell, now we’re going to make our animal Our Gang for our Looney Tunes. If you’ll notice from there on out for several, six or so pictures, you’ll see Porky and Beans and Oliver Owl and Kitty in the corners of the main titles, where it says Looney Tunes you’ll see their pictures on it. And then it’ll come on a separate title, “Featuring Beans.”
So I had gone with this picture to a lot of previews — this first Porky and Beans and so forth — and I felt Porky had a lot more sympathy. The audience took to Porky Pig, even though he was slow and fat and gross, he wasn’t very pleasing yet, but he was standing up there and trying so hard — and they were pulling for him, and they liked him, and they were laughing. I felt that he was distinctive, where Beans looked just like another Felix the Cat or whatever.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Three: (cont.)
So, right now into the door comes Tex Avery for the first time. And Tex was working for Lantz, at Universal, and Leon needs another [animation] unit — he only had two units then. He needed another unit, he needed more pictures. So Tex came over, and he’s negotiating with Leon. Now Tex hadn’t actually directed yet. Tex is a wonderful guy. He had ideas and so he came to Leon, and Leon’s gonna hire him, so he’s going to make Looney Tunes. He takes him to the projection room and shows this film, “I Haven’t Got a Hat”, about the school kids in the school room, and so forth, and says “These are the characters I want you to use for the Looney Tunes.” Now, Tex goes back at home, and he writes a big storyboard for the first picture. It was a gold-digging picture, and Tex wrote the whole story himself, using Beans and these other characters.
And I came to Leon and I said, “Leon, I want to try maybe one picture of my own,” and he says, “Here’s what I’ve got in mind,” he says, “I’m hiring a guy from Universal to direct,” and he says “I’m gonna team you two up, and you’re going to be like an assistant director to him. You help on the stories, you help write the gags, and you do the layouts — you know our characters, like Porky and those, and you can help him on the timing, or anything he wants you to do.”
Leon showed me the first rough storyboard Tex made on this picture, which was the main parts of it. Tex had drawn it kind of on big squares like a funny paper, y’know, big sheets of paper. Well, I looked at it, and there was Kitty, and there was Beans, but then here was Porky, who was this big hog! And I looked at it and I says, “Yeah, I think that’s swell — it’s a swell story — but why is Porky a man here? He’s the father of the picture, a big hog!” Well evidently, Tex has just seen the picture once, and then he went back to work, and in his impression, Porky was a big hog.
Leon says, “I’m gonna put the two of you in your own little building.” It was a little wooden dilapidated building in the middle of the lot. So Tex and I went over there, in 1935, and it was the greatest feeling in the world! And Tex at that time, as he admits, hadn’t directed yet, was coming to a strange studio, it was quite a challenge, and he welcomed me because I was somebody who’d been there and knew the ropes. And I was all gung ho to help him, and we got right in and we started working very nicely together.
The very first morning we were there, we sat there all alone, getting acquainted and talking over ideas and stuff for the pictures, and looking at the layouts for the first one, and Tex and I decided that this building — it was so creaky, when you walked on the floor it squeaked, you know this little old beat up wooden building — so right before noon time we named it Termite Terrace. We decided to call it Termite Terrace.
For the first month or so, before any of the animators joined us, we were just preparing layouts and so forth. And the only thing I contributed to that picture was the title. At that time, there were these Warner Busby Berkeley [musicals], “Gold Diggers of ’33″ and so forth, so I gave him the title, “Gold Diggers of ’49″, which they used.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Four: (cont.)
So this was a wonderful break because this was Tex Avery, and completely a different guy than Friz. Tex was a wonderful story man, a great gag man — and a very nice guy. And the great thing about Tex, unlike some of the other directors I worked for there, was that he was anxious for your ideas. If you had an idea for a sequence, great! And if he liked it, he’d tell you why; if he didn’t like it, he’d tell you why. Some of the other directors would just look at it and they wouldn’t tell you if they liked it or not. It made it difficult. So Tex was a great guy to work with, and I was supposed to help him with the stories. He was to direct the stories, I was to do the layouts, he was the director, and so forth.
Tex and I were just getting acquainted, and we used to talk at great length about things we liked in cartoons and silent comedies and so forth. One of the things we particularly liked, and thought more could be done with, was the things that Otto Messmer did with Felix the Cat, where he would tip the top of his head like a hat and then put it back on again, or where his tail would come off of the body and go above his head and form a question mark, or he might duel with the tail and it would go back on the body.
Now in discussing these kinds of things, we were saying this kind of fun is really what animation is all about. You can do anything in animation, and still now it’s getting down to already Disney was just worrying about keeping Mickey where he breathed like a human, and they were cutting out the stretches and some of the fun of the earlier cartoons.
Tex and I did little off beat things from the beginning. They weren’t that noticeable yet maybe, but they weren’t the normal tired old gags rehashed that you were seeing in the Friz cartoons and the Hardaways, or whoever was making them at that time. And of course, I was turning in real screwy gags, anything I thought of, and of course [the other directors] didn’t like that at all, the directors didn’t want them. With Tex, he wanted that kind of a gag, but he was a little timid about it because he was just starting out, it was his first directing job and he didn’t want to blow it by carelessly trying out a lot of things on the screen that might backfire. So it was a matter of kind of easing them in, sneaking them in, you see, until we were sure of them.
Then I went back to Leon — Chuck [Jones] and Bobo [Cannon] were my good friends, and they’d say to me at lunch time, “Gee, we wish we could be over there with you and Avery.” And so eventually when we were ready for animation, I went to Leon and I said “I know that you’re planning for Tex to bring all the animators from Universal,” I said “I’d like to bring my closest guys from us here. Can I bring Chuck and Bobo over with us instead of all the Universal guys?” and he said okay.
After the big fat hog picture, the Gold Digger picture, in the next picture, I talked to Tex about how Porky’s supposed to be a little boy and so forth. But Schlesinger told Tex to feature Beans. And I knew that I felt that Porky had more appeal. So I said to Tex, “Why don’t you go see Leon, and see if he won’t let us feature Porky instead of Beans from here on out?” And Tex said to me, “You go see Leon.” Because he was new there, and he wasn’t that sure of himself. He figured that I knew him better. So with Tex’s permission, I went to see Leon, on our behalf, and he okayed switching it. He said, “Okay, try it.” That’s the way Leon was. I go back, and I tell Tex — “Swell.” — and then we started the story which was the airplane story, which was “Plane Dippy”.
We tried to make Porky sympathetic. Since the stuttering is kind of an unhappy thing, let’s make a little fun with it, give it a lighter touch. So that’s when we thought of the gag where, when he tries to say something, the Air Force guy says “Here” — gives him a slate and a piece of chalk, and says, “Write it if you can’t say it.” So he starts to write, and “P-p-p-p-p-” he stutters on the slate. And this was the thing that took the curse off of it, and I think you’ll find that even the voice is a little more sympathetic. When we went to the voice recording, we talked to the guy about making it just a little more nice, and that was an important factor of it that actually we were trying for, where you’d be sorry for him, and you’d be pulling for him. And then when he finally wins out at the end, you’re real tickled for him.
So actually, with that picture right there, that Plane picture, was the turning point — it was the start of the Porky personality, even though it doesn’t all show there. A lot of times with a character, you’ll have it in your heads, maybe you’ll know where you’re trying to go with it, but you don’t get there the first picture — but you inch towards it.
Now, you’re talking about experimentation — at one point Tex and I were sitting around talking, and we said that the audience seemed to love that fat boy in the Our Gangs — I’d seen one recently, or he had — and we thought, maybe we really should make Porky fatter again. I think it was my idea — I’ll take the blame for this. It was a drugstore picture, and we made him fatter again. He was a little kid who only had a few pennies, and he wanted something from the drugstore window, and he lost his pennies, or whatever — it was another sympathy thing for him. When we finished it, Leon said, “I don’t want Porky that fat any more!” You know? I’ve got some real funny cartoons, that I have in the files, that Tex and I made of ourselves about being out on a limb with this fat Porky. But it was healthy, because by God, we thought something might work, we tried it, and then we hopped back when we found it didn’t work.
We were truly experimenting — try it this way, try it that way — and of course, in those days, we’d make a film, it’d go to the theater, go through the theaters, and never be seen again. And then there’d be some little thing you do in one of the experiments that maybe would then become part of him, y’see, but others you’d eliminate. So you’ll see great differences in the characters. But they were always an honest effort to see if something we could do was better.
When Porky first came out, it was the first strong character that we had. All the animators had trouble drawing him — if you look scene by scene, you’ll see. There was a difficulty to try to get him cuter, and more appealing.
Some of these people [in the studio] wanted Tex to fail, wanted our unit to go down the drain — because Tex had all these great ideas, and many of the gags I gave him when we collaborated on story — he’d say, “Yeah, let’s try it!” — Tex tried the jokes that Friz wouldn’t let me put through when I’m gagging for him, y’know. So there’s a little spot here and there that we tried something that suddenly electrified the audience. And when that electrified the audience, then we did more and more of that, y’see, and tried to enlarge on those areas and minimize on the areas that had no appeal. And it was those things that started to sparkle, and I think the whole Warner style changed right from Termite Terrace. If Tex hadn’t come, and there hadn’t been that breakthrough, the Warner cartoons might never have happened.
At this time, we still had only one character, Porky Pig. Porky was the only star we had. So we were really looking at every new [cartoon character] that came along, we’re looking to try to get another star. So at this time, Tex came up with the idea of a duck hunt — Porky going on a duck hunt. Tex himself was a hunter, he liked to go duck hunting. So Tex had this idea, and his idea was that the hunter would try to get the ducks, but every duck would turn the tables on him — y’know, outsmart him. So he and I thought of a ream of gags — they just happened to come easy — with all these ducks, all these crazy ducks.
I was really thinking a lot then about the Marx Brothers comedies, and how like a character like Harpo, with his screwy things that he did, and I suggested to Tex, “Well, Tex, what if instead of all these ducks being crazy, you consolidated them into one comic relief?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” and so what we did, we went to the storyboard, and where the ducks were all drawn just in black pencil outline with no color in it — we had two or three times gags more than we needed — so we went through the storyboard and chose which gags to use, and I stepped up to the board and I blacked in the duck on those particular gags. And so all those blacked in ducks became Daffy Duck.
Now the gags were screwy, but we hadn’t yet developed Daffy’s action. So Tex let me animate the first new scene of Daffy, and it was a thing where finally Porky confronts Daffy, and Daffy says something like, “I’m just a darn fool duck,” y’know, explaining what was wrong with him, like “I don’t mean any harm, I’m just a darn fool duck.” And then he goes off. Tex gave me a layout drawing of Daffy, and he was supposed to swim off across the lake. And I said, “How does he go off?” He says, “Well, just make him exit funny.” So I said, “Can I try anything I want?” and he said “Sure.” Now this was the wonderful thing about Tex — he either had these great ideas or he would let you come in with ideas. So I made the character do a Stan Laurel jump with his legs — first I crossed his eyes like a Ben Turpin, which we didn’t have in the storyboard, and then had him do this leap which was actually a Keystone Cop leap, or a Stan Laurel leap, and then he did a ballet pirouette and spin, then bounced on his head and spun around, and all these crazy things while going off.
Now when we ran our pencil test with the animators who were seeing this, well, wow, the animators thought this was hilarious, because this was something that hadn’t been seen before. And when we saw that, we thought that the action’s so wild that it needs a sound to go with it. And he put a voice on him which was kind of a bombastic voice — we used the “woo-woo” from Hugh Herbert. He was a little round-nosed comedian in Warner features, who went “Woo-hoo-woo-hoo-woo-hoo!” And he was part of the Warner stock company, of Cagney, Jimmy McQue, Pat O’Brian. And of course, these guys were all on the lot, and looking in the windows at us, so we patterned a lot of things on them.
If you ever see that first picture, “Porky’s Duck Hunt”, you’ll notice that when I animated Daffy he didn’t have any mouth action, because there wasn’t a sound yet. The screwy wild action inspired the need for a wild sound, which then became the woo-woos you see, which became his initial trademark. Now when we saw the picture further along in the dailies, and in the pencil tests, everybody was raving about this action so much that we said, “Hey, where else can we use it in the picture — is there someplace else in the picture we can use it again, one more time than we’ve done?” And there wasn’t any place in the picture, and it was up to length, so what we decided was to have Daffy come in over the “That’s All, Folks” end title, just come in again and go around between the letters and do the whole screwy acrobatics. So I animated that scene also.
Now at that time, nobody had seen a cartoon character do these kind of things. And so when it hit the [theaters], it was like BAM! — it was like an explosion. In the theaters, people would roar, and they came out talking about this daffy duck. And we didn’t have a name yet at that time. Daffy Duck turned out to be the second hit character that we had. The first Daffy, of course, doesn’t look — as with all characters — the first one doesn’t look hardly anything like the later one, but the spark was there, that certain magic came out.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Five: (cont.)
There was kind of an excitement now at the studio, because we for the first time felt like we were really getting to the audience. We take out “Porky’s Duck Hunt” and the audience goes crazy for it. And Jeez, this hadn’t happened all along. The majority of Tex’s pictures weren’t that funny, like the Merrie Melodies things — they were better than Friz’s, but they weren’t that hilarious. And suddenly, the audience is laughing, and we felt a tremendous breakthrough. “Porky’s Duck Hunt” was the thing that said to us, now you can really try more stuff. You just felt like suddenly here’s a whole new era beginning, the dawn of a new era. And really, this was the breakthrough that became the Warner style. Now, in retrospect, the things that appeared so wild at the time look rather tame — but we just felt a whole new start, just like when we first came to Leon’s. Suddenly there was that feeling — I had it — of excitement!
One of the first names we had for Daffy Duck in the [story] sessions was Dizzy, named after the famous baseball player, Dizzy Dean, and Leon said “No, you can’t have ‘Dizzy’ because it [sounds like] somebody is going to faint.” So that led us to “How about his brother, Daffy Dean?” And that ended up being the title that was used in the second Daffy [picture] — the first Daffy color picture, which was “Daffy Duck and Egghead”, which was Tex’s.
MILTON GRAY: In “Porky’s Duck Hunt”, roughly how much of the ideas were Tex’s and how much of them were yours? Because there seems to be something in that cartoon that I don’t generally see in a Tex Avery cartoon, but which carried over into your cartoons, so I assume a lot of that is yours.
BOB CLAMPETT: Well, I collaborated with Tex. He was the director, and I give him the edge. But I was feeding him a lot of thinking, and a lot of ideas. And in a way, I would say I was more on the screwy side to start with. But I think that maybe I was the first one to nudge him in the screwball direction. Maybe I’m taking false credit there, but that’s my recollection. But Tex and I really rolled good on the gags. And we were both kind of opposites. I’m the kind of guy who, if I hit a hot streak, they come out fast. Tex bites the nails and worries about them, and then comes up with a thing which is fabulous. When you see it, it’s hard to recognize — with all this fast stuff in it, and all that’s coming — and then the way Tex actually arrives at it is such a contrast, it’s funny. It’s very slow, and worried about it. But I think we were a good team, because we were a good balance for each other. I was throwing all this stuff at him, and he had a real fine gag sense. So, when you say which was which, sometimes if the two of you are gagging, something both of you say leads to the gag. And I certainly give him the credit, I don’t want to take credit for his pictures. But I think when we worked together, I was a good thing for him, and he certainly was good for me.
Then they moved us back into the main building. This was when the studio moved down to the other end of the lot and took a bigger building — then we were all under one roof again — sometime in 1936.
The Warner Bros. Era, Part 6 — BOB CLAMPETT (cont.):
Back in 1935, I was experimenting on a couple of things. I got the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories, for animation. I wanted to do something quite imaginative, with comedy relief, like Doug Fairbanks Sr. had, a little tongue-in-cheek humor in it. So I made the first sample film on it. I worked a whole year, nights and weekends when I was working at Warner Cartoons, I worked on this animation. Chuck [Jones] helped me animate it, Bobo Cannon in-betweened it. In fact, I filmed Bobo in live action, shooting him as the warrior hero — he was very heroically built, no hips and all shoulders — and we rotoscoped part of it, y’see. That was way ahead of its time — at that time, it was before Disney had done “Snow White”, and so it was like an exciting thing to experiment and try out the virgin territory of the realistic, imaginative scenics and characters.
After we got some of the animation ready, and inked and painted, there were no cartoon camera cranes for rent in Hollywood. It wasn’t a very good idea to try to do it at Warners, since it was kind of a secret outside project. So I went to F. K. Rokkets industrial filmmakers, up here on the Boulevard, who had a camera for photographing titles. I went in there on Sundays and used their camera. I shot all the frame-by-frame animation myself on their title camera. There was a problem of color [film], and Edgar Burroughs himself located the Dunning color process over in LaBrea, and took me there, because we couldn’t get Technicolor then.
MIKE BARRIER: How much footage did you actually make?
BOB CLAMPETT: It was only maybe four or five minutes, something like that. We picked out scenes that demonstrated the characters, but those scenes actually fit in the story that I had outlined, it would actually have been in there.
Burroughs himself took the sample film to MGM. They were at that time at the height of their popularity with the Johnny Weismuller Tarzans, and they were very interested in what Burroughs proposed. They liked what they saw, and so they were very interested in the [Mars] series. Then I gave notice to Warners, because MGM said we’re going ahead with it.
I had a contract with Leon, when I first went there in 1933 — he signed me to a contract for three years. That contract ended on August 1st of 1936. So my effort to start my own studio with the Mars thing, with the MGM release, coincided with the end of the contract.
So we went ahead on starting to build a final storyboard –
MIKE BARRIER: How long was the finished cartoon going to be?
BOB CLAMPETT: They were going to be seven to nine minutes, something like that — one reel pictures. Each one was somewhat of an incident. This one story I had was [about a] volcano, and these strange creatures came out in rocket ships — later you’d call them flying saucers, little round things — they’d come out and attack, and disappear [back] in there before anybody knew where they came from, where to track them down.
And then I used visual things in there, like John Carter trying to get into this walled city, and there are two guards there, each one holding a big lance, and they put the lances out to stop him, and as he runs toward them he grabs [the lances] and pole-vaults over the wall — a little Doug Fairbanks thing. It was stuff that wasn’t in the books, but Burroughs was smart — he knew that to make it visual, you couldn’t just literally do his books.
MIKE BARRIER: How would you compare what you had in mind with the Superman shorts that Fleischer made a few years later?
BOB CLAMPETT: Well, I thought those were quite well done. But instead of being in a modern city, we were dealing with this fantasy of a strange land, where everything would be different colors, with strange creatures and shapes. So I really dreamt of it as being like a super Wackyland, a real imaginative thing.
And then MGM says we were ready to go ahead on it, but when their sales people in the mid-west saw it, they were concerned that the audience wouldn’t relate to it. And so boom, then [MGM] came back and said, “Hey, what we want you to do instead of this [Mars] thing is sort of Tarzan and his funny animal friends, where you’ll see Tarzan’s feet, and then the animals do some funny stuff, and then they get in trouble, and then Tarzan does the yell and saves them.” And I was losing enthusiasm pretty fast at that time, ’cause the Mars thing I had a kind of a Wackyland kind of advanced feeling for it.
And about that time, Schlesinger called me up to come back and have a meeting with him, and that’s when he said, “What does it take to bring you back?” And I said, “Well, of course more money, but above all I want to direct my own pictures. That’s what I can do going off on my own.” So, my terms to go into a new contract was more money, but above all was the chance to direct. He says, “I have no room for direction now, but I’ll guarantee that you’ll have the next opportunity to be a director, and have your own unit.” And I then agreed to those terms and I stayed.
Now, to show that he meant what he said, at that moment a job came into the studio for some cartoon lead-ins and lead-outs on a Joe E. Brown feature picture, called “When’s Your Birthday?”, and he called me in and said, “Let me give you your first direction shot here now.” And I directed that and laid it out, Chuck animated it and Bobo Cannon in-betweened it. It wasn’t that good a picture, so don’t look it up, but at least it was the first time that I had officially directed.
Now I’m feeling real good because it’s happening the way he promised, and then people say, “Hey, Ub Iwerks is coming in here, we saw Ub Iwerks in the office.” At that time, Ub Iwerks, who was the original top animator at Disney’s — Ub Iwerks had a studio out in Beverly Hills, and they had come to the end of their contracts. And so Leon needed more pictures, so he said, “Look, Ub, come on over, and make some of these pictures for me in your own plant.” I’m finally told, hey, Ub Iwerks is now going to make and direct some cartoons for Warners. And I went to Leon and I said “You promised –” He said, “Here’s what I have in mind. Ub has got a staff up there at his studio, he hasn’t any more pictures to make on his own, he’s got the staff, the camera, the desks and so forth, and I’m making a deal with him to make some Looney Tunes. I’m sending you out as his assistant director –” — again, I’m the assistant director — but he says, “He won’t be with me forever, and the minute he isn’t with me, then you will be the director of the unit, just as I promised you. I’m sending you out and I’m sending Ray Katz, my brother-in-law, as the business manager.” And I felt better, I said okay.
So, out I go to Iwerks in Beverly Hills. Now, again I went to Leon, and I said, “Leon, can I again take Chuck and Bobo with me to Iwerks?” They had a full staff of animators, they didn’t really need it, but he says “Well, okay. You’ll have to get the pictures out a little faster that way.” So again I took them out there.
Now we get out to Iwerks, and Ub’s got all of his guys — a lot of them seemed more like New Yorker type guys than West Coast, in their style. So Ub made a couple of pictures. I don’t remember any Iwerks gag men. In fact, I think the first storyboard or two were started at the Leon studio.
Then one Monday morning I walk in and they say, “Ub’s gone back to Disney — you’re the director now.” And so I had to go in and sit down at Ub’s desk, in his chair, with all his old staff, and his stopwatch, and make this first cartoon.
MILTON GRAY: And also with a crew that you’ve got to completely re-train, and re-indoctrinate.
BOB CLAMPETT: Right. And who were resentful because they were so loyal to Ub. They were resentful of him being out, whether he went of his own volition or Leon pushed him out. They were looking at me like, “What the hell are you doing sitting in Ub’s chair?” I felt the same way, because we all revered him.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Six: (cont.)
So the first cartoon I [directed] was called “Porky’s Bad Time Story”, with Gabby. Gabby was something that Cal Howard originated — I didn’t originate that. He wrote that story for Ub, and a couple earlier, and Cal did the voice on it — a little cantankerous guy, all talk like that, y’know. And I never liked it too well, but they wanted him in the picture with Porky.
So I made this “Bad Time Story”, and I originally called it “It Happened All Night”, after the Frank Capra, [Clark] Gable picture “It Happened One Night”. They came back and they said, “It Happened All Night — that sounds kinda dirty. Think up another title.” So I changed it to “Porky’s Bad Time Story”.
The storyboard was started, but the whole thing wasn’t finished, and I did part of it, adding or changing it, and so forth. I made just headline notes, and then did them on rough layouts. On “Porky’s Bad Time Story”, I found that after I filmed it, after I had seen the dailies, I saw little refinements that were needed there — a little more footage on a scene, or this or that — a longer cross-dissolve, or whatever. And I talked to Katz about it, and being the first picture, he okayed me to reshoot those things. That was just a very rare occasion.
On the first story, “Porky’s Bad Time Story”, we still had the use of a couple of the Warner gag men. But then after that, I didn’t want to use the other guys — I wanted to [write them] myself.
MILTON GRAY: The next one was “Get Rich Quick Porky”?
BOB CLAMPETT: Yes. I learned that, for example, in doing “What Price Porky” — I wrote most of that as I was driving home, and I put the animation paper beside me on the seat of my car, and I’d be thinking of gags, and as I came to a stop light I would jot down what I thought of. Then I took that and I did draw up a complete storyboard myself.
I [wrote] them all from the period of “Get Rich Quick Porky” up through another six cartoons, something like that — about the first seven cartoons. And I was making the story sketches, and Chuck [Jones] was making the layouts. Many times, he would take my story sketch, and make an enlargement, show it to me, I would make some suggestions on that, or a little sketch over it, and then he would make a final layout sketch with a better complete drawing of it.
I would go through the [story]board mentally with a stopwatch, and get the total picture timing, and you go through it scene by scene, and you go through eventually and break it down into every little movement.
I know when I was first directing, the big problem was that you couldn’t really write a cartoon that maybe you would like to write — in other words, you couldn’t go as much for personality, or character, because you didn’t have the guys who could [animate] it. In these early Porkys, we really had mainly beginner animators — mainly guys who just came from in-betweening, assistant work, and some maybe had minor [animation] experience. But basically, those fellows all worked so hard, and were learning, and trying. So actually, you could only write what the animator could conceivably do, and that’s why it was so important to assist the animators in growing, and learning personality, and getting better anatomy, and all of that. Once we got the animators where they could do these things, then we were able to do the better stories.
Since we couldn’t depend on animation, we were depending upon surefire gags — like the sign gag, at that time, was tremendous laughs. It was a cheap way to get laughs, but they just roared at all the sign gags.
So when I look at some of my first pictures, I find that I then did what Tex was doing. When Tex was first directing, I was saying “Hey, let’s do this screwy thing and that screwy thing,” and he was reluctant. Now that I’m directing — I’m not sure of my crew, and all this — I feel conservative also, in those first pictures, y’see?
Schlesinger, his whole theory was find the man for the job, find the cartoonist who can make the picture. When he finally got his men, then he was like leave them alone — give them what they need — he had a tight schedule and no money — but let us make the pictures.
When I started at Iwerks, and then I took over, I had no gag men for five, six, seven pictures. And the fun, to me was, hey I’m gonna write my own stories. Then Ray Katz said to me, “You’ve got so much else to do, you ought to have somebody help you out on the story.” So that was the time that I said, “Well, I’ve got a friend that I knew in school, and we used to always think up a lot of funny stuff together” — which was Ernie Gee, “Flash” Gee. So, he’s working in a grocery store — the fruit counter, or whatever — making very little money, so [Katz] says “Well, maybe we’ll give him $25 a week, or something like that.” So, suddenly here comes Ernie, who couldn’t draw, and he’s sitting in a room by himself, y’know.
Ernie wasn’t really a writer, he wasn’t a guy who could consciously sit down and think up a story, or even hardly gags, but when you’d talk to him — and we at school, anything we were doing, we’d think up funny things, and when we talked it came fast. A lot of times, I’d be so busy in the daytime, with the animators, that I’d say, “Hey, Flash, could we do it tonight?” Y’know, work on a story tonight. So we’d go off at night, maybe go someplace where they had night ping pong, and play a few games of ping pong and keep talking story. See, things like that. Sit in the drive-ins. And his dad, who I knew for years, his dad says, “What do you do all day, son? What are you doing at the studio?” “I’m thinking up ideas, I’m thinking up gags.” And his dad, who was a plasterer, a very practical guy, thought, “This is a way to make a living?” He never could stand it, and he finally got him to go back into being an inspector for the city, and that’s the way he retired.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Seven: (cont.)
Chuck [Jones] left me to go into direction just as I was starting to lay out “Porky in Wackyland”, so I made all the layouts on that. If Chuck had stayed with me on that picture, he would have been doing the layouts, but the story sketches in that case were something that didn’t really reflect the designs of the characters that I had in mind. Nobody quite knew how to draw that kind of silly characters, so at the time I just took over the layouts on it, and the scenics, and I drew the characters, and I laid out all of the drawings from scratch.
As a youngster on my school books and so forth, I had sketched little off-beat characters, and I’m sure I got inspiration for that from various sources, I’m not sure just what, but — I wanted to do a story in which Porky would go to a strange world where anything was possible, and have the full fun of animation. So I decided on the title Wackyland and I just started thinking of gags of him going there and all the things he ran into. It was a lot of fun to make, it was sort of an animator’s holiday.
I’ll tell you what Leon called it all the time I was making it — he called it “Bobby’s wet dream.” He didn’t know how to figure it out. He’d walk into the projection room when we were running the dailies — you know, just a few scenes — and he’d say, “Oh my God, Bobby’s wet dream!” But he let us do it, y’see.
The critics, like in the Los Angeles papers and elsewhere, would rave about it. They’d say this is really something — brilliant, or different, and all of that, and they said “Don’t miss it” and so forth. The previews I took it to, the audiences were kind of stunned, kind of shocked, and then hysterical in places in there.
Carl Stalling was with Iwerks in Beverly Hills, in his studio, as his musician, when I was sent out there. So when I took over from Ub as director, then we brought the unit back to the Warner lot, and Carl came with us. He did the scores on the first films I made there, and then all the films when we got back.
Now, at this time, now we’re up to 1939, and so forth. Just to toot my own horn, in ’39 I won the [Exhibitors'] Best Cartoon of the Year Award for “The Lone Stranger and Porky”. From nowhere, you know, Warner cartoons were nowhere — Popeye was up here, way up — but in 1938, hey, look at this, Schlesinger and his boys are comin’ up, the black-and-whites are knockin’ out these others, y’see. Then in ’39, Jeez we come out of nowhere and we win the Best Cartoon [Award], and also Popeye won second, and we won another one for third, for “Injun Trouble”. So we took first and third place that year, y’see. So we were really feeling our oats, and the Merrie Melodies were coming along right behind it. And by now, at this time — ’38, ’39 and so forth — now finally Leon had his final group of directors — Tex, myself, Friz and Chuck, to put it alphabetically.
MILTON GRAY: You were telling me about “The Daffy Doc”, and how it turned out differently that you had originally envisioned it.
BOB CLAMPETT: Well, what I always said about “The Daffy Doc” was, some people would say, “We like that cartoon, why don’t you like it?” And I said, “Two reasons, primarily. One was that it was something that I did quickly with my left hand, to get it out at a time when I was concentrating on “The Lone Stranger and Porky”. I spent an undue amount of time researching that — running the Republic serial, the live action serial, trying to catch the flavor of the voice, and so forth. So when I made “The Daffy Doc”, it was a left-handed attempt, and a quick one, but by the same token the one thing that I thought would balance, for the audience, would balance the gruesomeness of the operating room and the iron lung and all that, was that I wrote into the final little [story] board, “Spike Jones-type sound effects”. And when I say “Spike Jones sound effects”, I’m speaking of something we would call Spike Jones sound effects now — he wasn’t really in the picture at that time. When the iron lung was pulsating, when the bag was blowing up and letting out air, in the operating room — all of that, which was always even distasteful to me — it was lightened by this idea of having Spike Jones-type sound effects. Now, when I came to the dubbing session and they ran the thing, I said to Treg Brown, “Where’s the funny sound effects?” He said, “I was so rushed, I didn’t have a chance to make them, to record them.” So what he just put in was realistic [sound effects]. And I was really ill, because I felt it was so unpleasant. And the thing was dubbed, and now it comes back to haunt me. The comedy was dependent upon the exaggeration and primarily the funny, off-beat sound effects.
I remember the fun of now being a director, where now you can go over, all the time, to the main Warner lot [in Burbank]. Before, I’d go over with Tex, and we’d go to a recording session, and come back [to the Sunset lot in Hollywood]. But now, I was able to go over there, just on my own, alone, instead of driving over with Tex, so that when I’d finish a recording session, on one of those early Porkys, I would take some time to wander around the lot. As I remember, I saw them shooting pictures, like the Errol Flynn pictures, and stuff like that. I’d go onto sound stages, and nose all over the lot again. Of course, I was able to do that on the Sunset lot, but now this was the big studio, with lots going on. It was exciting.
Say it was shooting a Bette Davis picture — and Bette Davis, Claude Rains — it might have been another director, I’m maybe mixing them, but — they would be having conferences on how to do the scene, walking down the stairs, and she’d say, “I think it would be better if I walked like this,” and then they would get their heads close together, and Claude Rains would say something about it. And I’d just go right up close, as they’re talking about direction and action and timing and presentation, the whole thing, y’see. So I would go from stage to stage and listen in on discussions with the director. And I would go to the special effects department and chat with the guys who were making miniature airplanes fly across the screen, and whatever it was. And so much valuable knowledge, y’see. Drop in on the dubbing sessions, just walk in and sit down and watch a little of them dubbing on a feature. Learning more and more how to do it, y’see, so it was very informative — I picked up a lot of information, a lot of ideas.
An interesting thing is, I’ve heard six stories of where Bugs Bunny came from — ’cause these come in little pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle. And I’m sure that I can only remember what I did, but there were other guys who got things in there too.
The first year I was there at the Harman-Ising studio, Bill Hanna used to drive Rudy Ising out to Lancaster to go rabbit hunting. And Rudy had never rabbit hunted, even though he came from Kansas City where a lot of the boys were hunters. It was all new to him, so he buys the new outfit, and he’d hunt rabbits. A lot of funny things happened — Rudy would tell these jokes on himself, how when he went hunting he’d follow the rabbit tracks, and the thing would pop up behind him. It was hilarious to hear him tell it on himself, because this rabbit was outsmarting him. Now the whole thing seemed so funny to me that I started sketching Rudy as a rabbit hunter. In the drawing he had a pop gun, he didn’t even have a real gun, he had a pop gun. So I thought, make it more derisive, I called the character Wudy Wabbit. I showed all these little gags to Harman-Ising, and they didn’t seem to grab at it for a cartoon.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Eight: (cont.)
In about mid-1936, Leon needed more pictures, so he tried out a unit of “Bugs” [Ben] Hardaway and Cal Dalton. Bugs was a writer, but he couldn’t draw or animate or time, so Cal Dalton was the guy who did the layouts and timed the pictures and supervised the animation. So they had started another story, and they had it on about six or eight [story]boards, in this story room, and it wasn’t working out. And so at that time, Leon called me into the office, because all during this time I was still sending in stories. Others did it too. He called me in and he said, “Do you have any story that would be simple — not so many characters — that could go into work pretty quickly?” In another week it had to go to the animators. So I went back and I looked in my desk, and I had a couple, but they were mainly stories of the whole Our Gang, y’know, Porky, Beans, the whole bunch.
But I did have in my desk a big pile of drawings — the “outs” — the [gags] that Tex and I didn’t use in ["Porky's] Duck Hunt” — the duck hunt gags. So I went to Leon and I said, “I’ve got all these great hunting gags, the duck hunt gags, left out of that picture, that we didn’t use, and I could organize them and put in a little new material and have you a story in just a few days.” So he said, “I don’t want to give Warner’s another duck hunt picture so soon,” because he didn’t try to repeat formats at that time. This was on a Friday afternoon. So I said, “What is it you object to, a hunting picture?” He said, “No, I just don’t want another Porky hunting the duck.” So I said, “Well, maybe I’ll get an idea.”
So I took these sketches, I took them home with me, and Friday night going home I was thinking what else could I do with this? Could I make a hunting picture hunting a quail — maybe switch the gags to another character — and back comes Wudy the Wabbit. Here was Wudy the Wabbit, and the little things that happen there, and it just sort of meshed nicely with some of the screwy gags of the duck outsmarting the hunter. So over a weekend I sketched out a story. What I intended to do was just take the sketches, put them on a light board, trace them over, and trace the duck doing the same actions, into a rabbit.
Now at that time there was a new trend in screen comedy, in feature pictures. They called it “screwball comedy.” Basically, what it was — and we were kind of studying it at the time — was that they would take people who looked normal, like William Powell, with his wry sense of humor, in a dress suit, and he would do slapstick gags that were just as wild as Mack Sennett would do. But instead of bringing out guys in baggy pants with crossed eyes — which is essentially what Daffy Duck was — we were thinking of characters that would be more that sophisticated type of comedy. Not that it wouldn’t be screwy, but that when you looked at it, they would be fairly normal-looking characters, and then you would have the breakout.
So when I started tracing the duck into a rabbit, I found that the rabbit wouldn’t do what the duck was doing, like tying the gun in a knot, and so forth. It just didn’t feel right. And so as I did it, it seemed to lead to new gags and a little new treatment. Now, this was crude and it was rough — I did it on a Friday night, I did it Saturday, Sunday I showed it to my folks for a reaction, I delivered it Monday morning. It wasn’t a complete story, it needed a little more.
I turned it in Monday morning to Leon, and he said, “Hey, that’s not bad.” He gave it to Hardaway — Bugs Hardaway and Cal Dalton — and Bugs and Cal had to rush it out because they were just this close to the animators. And they made the first Bugs Bunny cartoon — titled “Porky’s Hare Hunt.”
So I talked to them about it, and I said, “Here is what I have in mind” — I tried to describe the subtle, the new style of comedy. Well, I don’t blame them, they had to rush it right into animation, and they had nothing to go by on that. In other words, there wasn’t some other cartoon — they weren’t guys that you would say could originate new styles like a Tex would. And they added some gags. They added a gag of Bugs spinning his ears, flying through the air — which was off [from] what I had in mind. And they had him jumping all over, like a Daffy Duck. That was not in the original storyboard or in the original concept.
They turned the picture out, and it was crudely drawn — what Hardaway did, he made it look like the type of rabbit they had at Disney’s when he was working there in the silent days. It was a pre-Oswald rabbit with the black nose that sticks up, and so forth. He almost duplicated that and didn’t follow the particular style that I had in my story sketches. The original drawings that I made were rough sketches, but the head on the rabbit were as I had always drawn a rabbit — I drew a rabbit the way that I perceived it from the storybooks and so forth — I drew the rabbit’s profile with the little short nose and the teeth and so forth, very much — even though it might be crudely drawn — was very much the same style of rabbit that we later used in the Bugs Bunnys. I could show you drawings from some of the stories that I turned in, that Friz directed, of rabbits and they were always this kind of a head.
Now, “Porky’s Hare Hunt” was made, and we saw it at the studio, everybody thought it was real funny and so forth, but they didn’t think much more about it. It was sent East, and about six months or so later Norm Moray comes out — Norm Moray was the sales head of Warner’s — and he said, “I’m hearing all sorts of things about this rabbit.” So, he said, “I want another rabbit picture.” He ordered a series of them. So Bugs Hardaway was assigned to do the second one.
Now on the second one, he got over-ambitious — he brought in a model-sheet maker, Charlie Thorson. And Charlie made this model sheet in which they put big muttonchops on it. It was a different rabbit from the first one, but it was still crazy, it was still a baggy pants comedian. And the action went back to Daffy Duck — he sang a song, “Why I’m Looney Tuney” and so forth, and he’s bouncing around. And that film, in spite of all its errors — still, Moray goes back, “It’s a sensation — more rabbits!”
By that time, Hardaway had been cancelled as a director — mainly, I think, because he and Cal were double salaries. In other words, it took two men to do what one of us did, y’see. Leon assigned the other Merrie Melodie units — I had the Porky unit at the time — he assigned Chuck the next one, and he assigned Tex the next one. Chuck made the next one using essentially the same rabbit that Charlie Thorson designed, and that was a hit. They were all well liked in the theater.
Now Tex is starting his, you see, and I went to Tex because I had always worked closely with him on stories, and I said, “Geez, they’re missing the mark on this,” and so he said, “How do you see it?” and I discussed it with him. Tex was scared of it, ’cause he wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. So I worked with Tex on it — others did too — and he made “A Wild Hare”. And even though it wasn’t the final refinement of the character, it was the first one that had more of the sophisticated treatment that I was hoping to see in it, more underplayed treatment. It was the situation you laughed at, more than the individual gags.
“A Wild Hare” came out, and now it was more sensational than ever. So all of them, from the first black-and-white to the second one to this one, were big sensations.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Nine: (cont.)
I talked to Tex, and I went to Schlesinger, and I said, “I’d like to see a model sheet” — because there was no real model sheet by that time — “of Bugs that would really give everybody something to work from.” I felt a personal interest in it because I had started it. And so Schlesinger okayed for me to use a model-sheet man. And I consulted with Tex on it, and I talked to the other guys and got their ideas, and so forth, but that model sheet, which was greatly done by Bob Givens, was the first definitive model sheet of Bugs.
And Bob Givens made lots of sketches, made lots of independent sketches. After we chose sketches, he would cut those up, paste them on a piece of card to be photographed. Now some things he would show me, and then I would make a little rough over it, saying, “Shorten this a little bit here, he’s a little too long in the legs,” or a little different look in the face, then he would go back and he’d make an improved thing of that. Then he made a paste-up of the model sheet — it was called “Bugs Bunny number one” on it.
Immediately after that model sheet was made up, and we examined it, we noticed that the rabbit looked too mean — there were too many poses in there where he looked mean. So then we immediately made a revision, and the revision carried out the same expressions, and some of the same heads, as you see on the first one — on this first “Bugs Bunny number one.” That second one is the one that says “Rabbit Model.” At the same time, we then made a second sheet of body poses — so there was [a model sheet of] body poses, and one of just the head poses.
Tex Avery remembers — when I was going over this with him [recently] — he remembers that he and I were sitting in the story room, and the office is still saying, “We’ve got to have a name for the rabbit, because he’s out and he’s very popular now, but he has no name.” When we were thinking of the name [for] Bugs Bunny — we had a big sheet on the bulletin board for everybody to put up names — I put down “Wudy Wabbit” — Tex remembered one idea to call him “Jack Rabbit” — some guys had “Batty Bunny” — and there was a whole list — I’ve got it somewhere — of the names that were suggested.
The key name that we were kind of pushing for, was “Bugsy” — “Bugsy Bunny” — and the Bugsy was taken from a guy who was in the headlines at the time, Bugsy Siegel, who was a gangster who ran with the Hollywood crowd. Now, a lot of people think that the character was named because Bugs Hardaway made the first one, and his name “Bugs”, but that isn’t so. Not that it couldn’t have been. But Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese, myself, and several other guys were pushing for “Bugsy” because we thought it was alliterative — “Bug-sy Bun-ny” y’know, with the “y” and the whole thing. Leon came along and says, “No, I don’t want that, named after a gangster. I’d like it better without the ‘y’ — just call him Bugs.” And that’s the way it happened.
In writing the dialogue for the “Wild Hare”, we had the Bugs Bunny actions on the [story]board, a lot of it more in pantomime except for certain obvious lines. Then we went back through and we started writing, filling in the dialogue. Now the first line that we had on the board for Bugs, when he sees Elmer, was “What’s cookin’?” Now just before we’re getting ready for recording, and we’re going back over to polish it, to refine it to see if we can improve anything, we said gee, that “What’s cookin’?” — it was a common phrase then, and maybe we can get something better. Now at that time we talked of a bunch of different smart aleck ways of saying the first line, and I said “How about that line from ‘My Man Godfry’, ‘What’s up, Duke?’” and Tex says “‘Duke’ sounds too high class, that’s too snooty,” or something, and he says, “What about ‘Doc’? What’s up, Doc?” Tex says, “Back in Texas when I was a kid, we used to say ‘Hey, Doc, what’s up?’” Swell, and that’s what we put on the board, that’s where “What’s up, Doc?” came from.
Tex left for MGM, in early or mid 1941, and so they moved me into his seat. I had my own unit, but they gave me Tex’s unit.
MIKE BARRIER: Who got your unit then, when you took over Avery’s?
BOB CLAMPETT: Norm McCabe, who was one of my layout men. He directed for a short time.
When I had first taken over Tex’s [unit], and the animators were kinda shook up, because they thought, “Gee, are we going to go down the drain now?” — they needed a boost in their morale, which was sinking.
MILTON GRAY: At that time, when Avery was still working at Warner’s, before he left, was there such an extremely high regard for him?
BOB CLAMPETT: Oh, I think we all felt that his pictures were the best. And secondly, [Avery's] animators felt that “We’re the number one animators, because we’re making maybe the number one pictures.” At least, they felt that way. And suddenly, there was a change in the status quo. They suddenly felt, “Well gee, Tex is gone — what’s going to happen, is the whole thing going to crumble?”
And just at that time, I had acquired the rights to the book, “Horton Hatches the Egg”. And I was so versed in it, that I knew it by heart — I knew the lyrics, I mean the words, from start to finish. So I called the animators into the projection room, and I said, “I’ve got good news for you, we’ve got the rights to this wonderful Dr. Seuss thing –” Then I said, “If you like, I’ll give you an idea of it.” I started at the beginning, standing in front of them, acting it out, saying every one of the lyrics — they weren’t expecting it, see. And by the time — they liked it, of course it’s a great story — and by the time I finished, they applauded, and they were so enthused, because now by God they had something they could really make a good picture of. It was just suddenly like, where they were worried about the future, and suddenly here’s in this one thing — acting out an entire story at one time for all the animators — and they loved it, they were so enthused, and of course we had to start right on it. And it was kind of a turning point — afterwards, they came to me privately — Rod [Scribner] and [Bob] McKimson — and expressed their confidence — and it hadn’t been said before that.
I made all of the Tweety cartoons as long as I was at Warner’s, and I left in mid-1946. This high school friend of mine, he travelled with a band — he was a musician. He and I would correspond a lot. And on these letters, we would put little cartoons on the envelope, and inside the letter, with people peeking around the corner — that kind of stuff. At the time that I was doing the Mars thing, in 1936, I was planning to go to MGM, I sent him a letter with the MGM lion on the top, you know, coming through the ribbon, and on that, to the right side of that, I [drew] this little scrawny bird, pointing to the lion, and saying, “I tink I taw a titty tat.” Now the boys in the orchestra loved this, because for some reason they thought the word “titty” was particularly funny, I don’t know why (laughing). And so, that was a big joke. Now, the little bird was just a little, nondescript scrawny bird.
But, I did the first Tweety in about 1941 or 1942 — “A Tale of Two Kitties.” Actually, I didn’t start out to make the bird a star, I started out to make a thing about Abbott and Costello, because they were so popular then. And I thought if we captured them in — by making them two cats, y’see, and then I called them “Babbitt and Catstello.” And the little bird was the foil.
And as I recall, I made the layouts, of background and character, on “The Tale of Two Kitties.” I was sketching this and I was thinking of this little bird, and when I came to the point of the cat looking in on him over the nest, this line came back to me, “I tink I taw a titty tat.” And I thought, well maybe they’ll stop me on using the word “titty”. So I switched it around to “I tot I taw a putty tat”, and that was exactly the way I used it in the first picture.
Then when the picture came out, wow, some of the boys who had worked with me, who had gone off to the army, and they write back saying they saw it at the army camp, and it was sensational, y’know. And Warner’s said, “Hey, you got a star there. So start thinking of another cartoon.” And I did, and then Leon says, “You gotta have a name for him now.” So I start — I kidded around with names, and of course naturally my mind went to some of these things like Tweet Tweet, Twick and Tweety, Twick and Tweet, and I hit on the name Tweety. And then I introduced that in the next Tweety cartoon, which was “Birdy and the Beast” and it came out a year later.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Ten: (cont.)
You know you’d see these nature shots of little baby birds in the nest, and they’d be these little bare birds. I actually was making the sketch of the little bird in the nest, completely naked — the big eyes, and the little naked body, and so forth. Now after about the third picture, the censors came along and said, “Look, that bird is too naked.” In one of the Tweety cartoons I made a mistake — I had a Durante-type cat in the picture, and he sees Tweety coming — and there was a book out, a popular book at that time called “The Naked Genius”. And just to be timely, I threw a line in of Durante saying something like, “Look, here comes the naked genius.” Now whether that had any connection or not, I don’t know, but after that picture was seen by the censors, they came back and said to me, “Hey, that bird looks kind of naked.” And we had to change him to a canary, with yellow feathers.
Now in 1945, Carl Stalling, the musician, he came to me one day and said, “Hey, I’ve got a cute name for you, and that’s Tweety Pie, like sweetie pie.” And I said, “That is cute, geez, I never thought of that.” And I was making a cartoon at that time, writing a cartoon with the Sylvester figure and Granny and Tweety, and so I said, “Gee, I’d like to use that as the title.” Now I started that cartoon, then I left [quit the studio]. Friz’s unit completed the picture, and the picture, “Tweety Pie”, won the Oscar.
I made the all-Negro cartoon, “Coal Black”. I had Negro musician friends who I met out at the show, “Jump For Joy”. When they heard that I was a director at Warner cartoons, they were saying to me, “Gee, why don’t you ever use us?” And pretty soon, the leading man of the show, Herb Jeffries, came to visit us — the various people from the show came to see us — and it was somewhere in that context that we worked up a story. And they were very enthused about it, the black people who came in and saw the storyboard. And I asked them, “Is there anything you see objectionable here?” Y’know, ’cause I wouldn’t know, and they all thought it was wonderful. They told me a couple of things [were bad], and I took them out.
It was recognized at the studio that this was kind of a special attempt to do something different, and we put more into it, in all departments, than a normal cartoon. I asked if Rod Scribner could take my story sketches and detail them, to set the style of the whole picture. Then Mike Sasanoff did something for me, and that was where we thought it would be a swell idea to make the color match the mood of the music and the story. And so he made a large sheet of paper with little postage-stamp reproductions of the whole story on it. And then we talked, and then he added color to that, so that you’d move from a blue sequence, to an orange, to this, to a yellow — you’re orchestrating color — even in the middle of one scene, it would change color.
What I was trying to do in “Coal Black” was to capture the whole flavor of the music of that time, so you had not only that clapping in the opening of “Coal Black”, just in the same way that they did it in the record, called “Yes Indeed.” So [the beat] was to that clapping. And also, people keep saying to me, “Hey, I heard a record in which the character says, ‘Do you mean the buck-buck-bucket?’” And I say, “Sure, that was in ‘Old Man Mose’, y’see, ‘Old man Mose kicked the bucket’, ‘Does you mean the buck-buck-bucket?’” So, so many of those lines — oh, for example, the record, “Why, I’ve got it bad and that ain’t good!” Where it was that the dwarfs said, “[She's] got it bad and that ain’t good!” So in other words, the trick was to sort of capture all of those images of the time and combine them where it fit the story.
“Art Babbitt on Coal Black” — maybe you could kinda tell me what you had in mind when you asked the question.
MILTON GRAY: Well, basically it was, what did he do on “Coal Black” — what scenes did he animate?
BOB CLAMPETT: All right, the first ones that come to my mind — Coal Black swallowing the apple — the Dwarfs, “Does you mean the buck-buck-bucket?”, and the dwarfs all running out of the tent — we gave him the easier stuff, y’know (laughter) — he was new to Warner’s. Yeah, that’s how the beginner animators are, definitely (laughter).
He didn’t have too many scenes on “Coal Black”. When it came to “Tin Pan Alley Cats”, he had a lot more footage. Such as the fellow with the trumpet, that boogied around with Fats Waller, and then blew the trumpet and blew [Waller] on up into the sky, and so forth. And also the silhouette scene of the night club, where you see the silhouettes in the window and the little guy walking out drunk and going back in again, and the religious group singing — in the long shot, that was in parts.
I made “Tin Pan Alley Cats” with the same voice people, and same musicians [as "Coal Black"]. So when we finished this, and we showed it, Rudy Vallee was on the lot, and he had to have that run for all his musicians. They came in, and the word got all around on it, and the next thing I know I’m told that the Library of Congress has chosen this film as the best example of our times, and it’s being buried in a time capsule in Washington.
One thing at Warner’s that you’ve got to thank Leon for, is that the directors had the complete say throughout the studio, and throughout even Warner’s when Warner’s would be doing things for us in the dubbing, or recording. There was never a feeling of division, or somebody pulling the rug from under you. I think that the great success of Warner cartoons greatly was from the fact that they operated that way.
MIKE BARRIER: When you first started work on story, how exactly did you work with your story man?
BOB CLAMPETT: The story men were really gag men, under the Warner system — spot gag men. First, you have to take, how was the subject matter decided upon? Actually, the early cartoons at Warner’s were very la-de-da, very childish. Little by little, we made a transition there — Bugs Bunny was one of the keys to the transition — and gradually worked up to what was much more adult in concept.
I would welcome suggestions from everybody, of any ideas for subject matter. The animators would come many times, saying, “Hey, did you ever think of doing this, or doing that?” I found that the majority of things that I did that I liked, were things that maybe I had myself hit on the idea, since I had control. I won’t say that my ideas were better than anybody else’s, but I happened to choose the ones that were mine (laughing). But the point is that when I’d get with a story man and say, “Here’s what I think would be fun to do,” and I would give him the general slant, or “It’s a takeoff on this”, or “Here’s an idea.” Then we would start gagging, and we would discuss, just a jam session of “What if we did this, what if we did that?” between ourselves. Say it was Tubby [Millar] and Warren [Foster] and myself, or it was Ernie Gee — whoever. And we would talk of all possibilities, and things would come from it. Then, at a certain point, I would say, “Okay, sketch up this, this, and that,” for the storyboard. I’d maybe have to go back with the animators, or recording on another picture. Then I would come back in, the moment I could, and by that time they would have little thumbnail story sketches of those particular ideas that we set on. Now we talk further.
Then we’d go further in the process — more ideas, and this and that, or I would maybe at home think up some ideas and I’d tell ‘em, and then they’d sketch those up. Then we would gradually add it all to the board, and subtract and take stuff out, and add, and so forth, until we had what would be a final board. Once we had the final board, then we would put the dialogue in. Mostly it would be on the board, in parts. Then we would actually sit down and actually get the dialogue ready for recording.
I don’t know how other directors worked, but I used to live, eat and breathe the films, as I was developing them. I would go at night, after work — I lived at the beach at that time — I’d take long walks by the ocean, and I would just purely be thinking the story. And if there were actions in it, I would be acting it out — if somebody came by, I would stop — I would act out the stories, I would get the timing, and then I would become aware of where there was some action that wasn’t developed. You can have a storyboard that looks like the whole thing is there, but when you start acting the characters, you say, “Here’s a gap, the board doesn’t show the action in this part.” So I would mentally develop the actions of the characters in every little detail, and the tempo, and the whole feeling of it, piece by piece — the little raise of the eyebrows, the little turn of the head, how do the characters work together — all those details.
You’d have change of pace. You’d want slower, quieter moments so that it accents the action, the fast stuff. I used to study the early Doug Fairbanks films, the Chaplins, and the Harold Lloyds, and so forth, and I noticed in Fairbanks — your impression of Doug Fairbanks, when you came out of the theater, you thought you’d seen the most action in the world. Now, I went back and I saw these later, to see just how he got that impression, and I found that there’s tremendous moments of slowness, and then suddenly boom, the crack of the whip and it happens — and then there’s more slowness, and then it happens. Now, if he had gone at that rapid pace through the picture, you would never have that feeling. And I think that would apply to a cartoon.
So I could run through the picture in my mind, and almost just see it, as if it was being run on a little screen, in color, in my head. Again, I would find out mentally where the holes were. Then I would go back the next day, work with the gag men, and we would keep building it. And then finally, when I get the story, when that was finished, then I would do the same thing again with the final dialogue, and just keep doing it over and over again.
Then go to the recording session, and usually give Mel or the other voice people almost essentially, right to the button, what was visualized, even the little pauses. Now like Tweety, I figured out the voice in the story room — it was based on Red Skelton’s “bad widdle kid” on radio, with a twist to it. When Mel walks in, and he hasn’t seen it before, and couldn’t possibly know what all the little timing in the action was, so you would say it for him, and he would say it after you. He would do it much better than you would do it, but you would try to give him everything to go by.
The layout man couldn’t design the [camera] angles. I would take and make the roughs from the story boards, of the characters. The layout man could take them and make nice detailed pencil drawings of them. And then that would be traced onto background paper, and a fellow like Dick Thomas would do the paintings.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Eleven: (cont.)
There were only a few animators who were really real adept, at that time. One of the difficulties was, every time you finish a story and then you’d say, “Okay, now what scenes can I possibly trust to the worst animators? And you’d more or less earmark, well, there’s a little run-through here…. The ideal thing would have been to do the whole picture with your best animators. That was the casting thing, casting from various standpoints. A certain guy could do good tight animation; somebody could do good loose animation; somebody could do good run-throughs or falls, or crowd scenes, but not for personality in the character.
When an animator would come in for a scene, I would first kind of jolly with him, to get him a little relaxed. Because they had a lot of pressures, and tightness and problems. So first I’d talk to them a little bit, relax a little bit, and then get down to “Now here’s your next scene.” And then I would get up to the storyboard, and take them to the board — and if they hadn’t seen the board yet at all, I would go through the whole board for them. Even if he’s just going to do this one scene, I’d go through it, act it out, pose it, try to do little touches of the voices, what it’s going to be like here, and give them the whole feeling of the story. Now, we come back to his scene.
Then I’d take and say the relative story point it’s making, or whether it should be exaggerated or underplayed, because it leads into this and it’s all building to this point — on and on. I would go over what the character was feeling at that time, or thinking, and so forth. I’d go to the desk and take the layouts of it, and the time [exposure] sheet. The layout poses were basically just sort of standard things, almost like story sketches — layout drawings weren’t very wild, and they weren’t particularly complete, as far as all the action. I would take the layouts, and as I discussed it, I put extra sheets of paper on it, and made little quick roughs, just little suggestions with a big soft pencil — the scribbles. I would sketch in the extremes, sketch in the actions — the draw-back, the shoot-out, these suggestions of elongation of the fingers, the distortions, and the ways of getting from here to here.
I think the most important thing I gave the animator was the scribble sketches — what we’re now calling “energy sketches” — which were more like the wave of the pencil, on the other drawings, right in place, which would give him the feel of the motion. It might be little quick paths, little bits of energy, as I’m talking it — the dynamics of it, and the “unnh!”, you know? Sometimes when you make these quick little sketches, the paths of action, you suddenly find that things come off the pencil [that you wouldn't consciously think of] that are an extension of the energy of the character, the urge of the character, what he’s really feeling inside.
Then I’d show him on the exposure sheet, right exactly where that takes place, the rhythm of it. I found many times that you go to animate something frame by frame, and you don’t get the rhythm that you get if you throw it back in [by hand, on the exposure sheet]. So if it was a bounce, I’d take the pencil and go bup-bup-bup-bup-bup right on the paper [the exposure sheet].
The animators, the best ones and the worst ones, were always so enthused. This was great, they would be just so anxious to do the best thing they could with that scene. And it shows up, so therefore I would try to have him walk out the door to where he just couldn’t wait to get back to his desk to do it.
Every director works differently. Friz would sit down and make beautiful layouts — I always admired his layout sketches — he was one of the very best. But when he’d give you the layouts, he’d kind of hand it to you and mumble — “You do this, and you do that, and here it is on the exposure sheet.” I felt the lack of communication, and so when I became a director, I tried to give the animator everything I didn’t receive from some of the directors I worked for.
I would try to enthuse them with these things from the art class. When we’d go to art class, we wouldn’t just have art class, we would actually [draw] some of the poses that are going to be in the picture — we’d have the model strike [the poses]. Even if it was a nude female, it still was helpful if Bugs Bunny was going to do a swing like this, or something, in the picture. And she strikes that pose, and you’ve drawn it there, you get it that much better in the scene. We made great study of the live-action [film], how not only does a tennis ball blur and stretch, but also if somebody moves, and that fist comes in front of the camera, it assumes this kind of a size. And all of that. So we’d study films, bring in whatever films we could. Cartoons from other studios.
When you study live-action film on a movieola, or on a rotoscope, as I did particularly in 1935 when I started on the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stories — I shot a lot of footage of live-action, and studied a lot of it, and of course traced a little bit of it. This was the first time, I think, that I had time to really study live-action, and I was astounded on the fact that a person doesn’t move in a smooth forward progression — all parts of the body, like in animation, the way we were animating it then — there’s not one [evenly spaced] in-between, as it were, from one to the other. The distortions, the sizes of the arm coming out at you, the blurs, and the elongations, and the way the shadow size and the drapery change — you can’t possibly pre-visualize that type of disjointed or ad lib action that you find on the live-action.
The [animation] of Rod [Scribner]‘s encompasses quite a bit of that type of thinking. Rod would tell me he had the urge to do something better than he’s doing. And he told me he liked Lichty, the “Grin and Bear It” artist. Instead of just always drawing it this smooth way, [make] certain little ruffles in the drawing — and we took the strips out, and we studied it, and what could be animated there and what couldn’t. Once you get into Lichty — which is more of the distorted or uneven outlines — then I would get into, with him, in motion, about drapery and so forth, and the way drapery moves. We would study that on film, and discuss it in great detail, even just doing it ourselves, with a loose coat, or shirt.
He would be so enthused, and then the things you see like the great scene he did of the Prince when he’s kissing the girl [in "Coal Black"] — well, we did it in that manner, y’know. You like to say, well, things were purely inspirational, but I think that so much of what we did good was by study, and talking it over, and trying new ideas.
With [Bob] McKimson, I felt he had tremendous value, because he had this tightness, and this little detail, and I wanted to try and get little fine acting, little things with the fingers, and things like that, just little actions on characters. So here was Bob who had this great value if you cast him right. You bring Bob in and you give him the scenes that need these little fine touches, the little slow acting, and so forth, and he would do that beautifully. With him, you wouldn’t have to sketch it as much as you’d just give him key sketches, little ideas, and then act it out for him. He’d get a lot out of it if you’d stand up — and I would actually make the movements, and the little things, you see. Boy, he’d come back like he’d photographed it mentally.
Then Virgil [Ross] was primarily of value in that he was a piano player, and a dancer, and so if you had a dance scene that most guys would be stumped with, he could dope that out, he could give you the dance scene, the latest dance, or something. Each guy, you’d try to bring out the best in him, and enlarge on his own talents, and then make it fit the whole picture.
Carl Stalling would plan out the music with you at the beginning, then you would maybe go to him on certain things during the time you were making the picture, or laying it out. Then, after the whole thing had been filmed, we’d go in the projection room and see the rough cut silent. And Treg [Brown] would sit in on that, Carl would sit in on that. First Leon would maybe see it with you, and once he okayed it, then they’d come in, and you’d run it with them.
When I’d run the cartoon silent for Leon, I would try to enthuse him about the cartoon, and I would [vocally mimic] the voices in as best I could, and the sound effects “Boinnnng”, and whatever — brakes squeal, y’know. Vocally, I was doing [the sound effects] every day in the story room, so I could do them pretty good then. But it so happened that when the iris would close, when I showed it to Leon silent, I started doing the “boowoop” on the end, on the iris. Treg heard me do that in a silent showing, and he said, “Hey, that would be a funny thing to hear in the cartoon,” and it was his idea to record me and lay it in.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — The Warner Era, Part Twelve: (cont.)
I used to take every cartoon that I made — and even some of the other boys’ [cartoons], because they didn’t have time for it — and I would go night after night and preview the cartoons at theater after
theater. I’d go down to Redondo Beach, the Fox Theater there, go up on the Boulevard…. Our cartoons would open here at Warner Brothers Hollywood, up on the Boulevard, on a Friday or Saturday night, and
usually all the college kids and their dates would go to that. Saturday night, you’d have a cartoon open — for example, “Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid” opened with “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”, with Jimmy
Cagney. You had a tremendous crowd, two or three shows and a full house. When the “WB” would come “boinnnnng” up, you know, the house would just tear down. Now they’d clap for any cartoon, but there was a tremendous enthusiasm for Warner cartoons.
Next morning, purposely, I would go down to Santa Monica beach — I’d pick a spot down there — and I’d sit amongst all these college kids. Before the day was over, all around you on the beach, they would bring it up, “Hey, did you see this Warner cartoon?” And they would analyze it, talk about the thing they liked and what they didn’t like, and it was wonderful.
Showing you how well the cartoons were liked, I got letters through the mail that had “Bob ‘I tawt I taw a titty’ Clampett” on it, or “Bugs Bunny, c/o Bob Clampett” with no address, just “Hollywood, California”, and this mail would come through. Now, you send a letter today to the Fearsome Four, or whatever the hell they’re making at Hanna-Barbera, and try and get it to the studio without an address
I’ll tell you what Schlesinger did, when he was going to sell out to Warner’s, he called us in and wanted us to extend our contracts — he wanted to deliver all the key in his deal. So he had me sign an extension on my contract, then he sold out. I didn’t know he was going to sell out, and I felt a little betrayed on that, when it came clear that he signs us with these big promises, and then boom, he’s
gone — he’s got his money and he’s gone. He stayed on in the studio, handling the merchandise, for like five years.
So I definitely wanted out of the contract, I wanted away from the studio because I had my own studio running all this time, and you know who came and did the work at my own studio, Bob Clampett Productions, at the same time while I was still at Warner’s? Manny Gould, Rod Scribner, Tom McKimson, all these boys were moonlighting with me on some television commercials I’d started. Then, at the same time, Leon Schlesinger sold out to Warner’s — in ’44, I think — and Ray Katz, his brother-in-law, with his backing, went over and took over Screen Gems [Cartoons, at Columbia]. They came to me and said, “On your spare time, we want you to be the creative head of Screen Gems.” So at the same time I was making Warner cartoons, I was running my own [studio], and I was going over and I was shaping up all the stories for them at Screen Gems, up the street. But I wasn’t planning to stay there, ’cause I had this intention to do my own stuff.
At some point, I arranged with the [Warner] office where we would discontinue my contract, and it was agreed upon, I guess with Selzer, but then I was there finishing up things for a while after that. Art
Davis was an animator in my unit, and when I left he then finished up a couple of pictures for me, [and] Friz finished a couple.
In 1947, I went to Republic Pictures with an idea for some cartoon sequences in a feature. And they said, “That’s a good idea, but I’ll tell ya, we just started Consolidated Lab”, which was owned by
Republic. And they said, “We’ve got a new process, True Color. We’d like you to make us a cartoon short in True Color, just as a demonstration piece. If it goes over, good, and if we can find a buyer we’ll maybe make a series.” But they just wanted to make this one short. So I thought up a character called Charlie Horse, because [Republic] was making horse operas at the time, and I made this short
for them. Mike Maltese helped me on the story, Hawley Pratt, Friz’s layout man, helped me on the layouts, and Ted Pierce was over making suggestions. And it was a very popular cartoon. I lost the rights to the character in the contract, and right now Shari Lewis is still using the character as a puppet, Charlie Horse. In fact, I made up — the first year, I made up a puppet of it also.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part One: (Cont.)
BOB CLAMPETT: And then I finally got Time For Beany on television, with the hand puppets. And it was like, nothing was done like it before, y’see? And this was a tremendous sensation — I won three national Emmys with it, and this was the talk of the industry.
MIKE BARRIER: Initially, when did the Cecil puppet come in?
BOB CLAMPETT: 1925. I saw a movie, The Lost World, in which there was a large animated prehistoric monster, like a dinosaur, that was taken to London, and it got away and ran around town, and in the final [sequence] it fell off the London Bridge and was swimming out to sea with just the neck showing, heading back for home, which was like South America or some such place. And the man who had captured him and brought him over was a guy with a beard and a pith helmet, and he was looking forlornly after him. Well, this was a pretty exciting thing for a teenager, and so I started making cartoon sketches — at that time I was always making comic strips — so I made a comic strip showing the further adventures of this guy, with this neck sticking out of the water, and going past boats with people doing double-takes. In the very beginning I didn’t call it a sea serpent, I developed that later. But it was a tall-necked prehistoric thing that was in the ocean and going past boats, and so forth. Then I made the little guy with the beard and the pith helmet get on a boat and try to capture him. There was also in this picture a missing link — a guy in a gorilla suit, half man and half ape. I happened to have a little hand puppet called Jocko, a little monkey [hand puppet] — you put your hand in it and played with it. So I started thinking, well gee, I could make maybe a puppet, and my mother helped me make a sock into a puppet, and sewed on the buttons on it, and I colored it with Crayolas and so forth. And I started putting on little puppet shows at that time for all my neighborhood friends, with the actual original Cecil.
I had gotten my most pleasing audience reactions in my life when I started doing puppet shows. I was getting laughter from the spontaneous things that would happen and the sort of interplay with the audience that I didn’t get even out of my printed drawings or the cartoons I would make.
My mother’s friend, Mrs. Wolf, was a former actress of Shakespearian drama. She was very close with us. And Mrs. Wolf’s father was a playwright, and I picked up a lot of theater talk, sitting around listening when she told these wonderful stories of the theater and her father the playwright, and so forth. And then there was the Berrier family — Mr. Berrier would come home and say, “Tonight they are running some wonderful movie” that he was following at a certain theater in Glendale or wherever it was. And we would dash over, all of us, after dinner and we would see the movies and he would tell us some of the backstage secrets of, you know, how they made the glass shots or whatever.
And I remember we all went together to the Chinese Theater in which they had a big stage show. I’d see this stage lighting where they would come in with different colored spot lights, a red gel and a blue gel and the dimensional effects and so forth. I kept getting the feeling that an animated cartoon as it were could be done, but done with much richer effects, maybe doing it in dimension, doing it with puppets, with the scenics and the lighting and the wind blowing, you know, whatever effect. I wanted the screen to come alive and be more real and come out to you, and so forth — kind of a desire to do this dimensional animation.
And of course I still felt that the most important thing was developing these unique personalities and humorous incidents and stories and so forth, mixed in with broader adventure, broader happenings, not just little four squares of Mutt and Jeff and someone gets hit in the back of the head.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part Two: (Cont.)
With Cecil, I actually created him just about the time my voice was changing, and I’d just gone up from a little fat kid up to a tall, skinny guy, and I felt all clumsy. So Cecil was that same kind of tall guy, with, suddenly, a deep voice, and kind of ill at ease. And I felt that way, I felt emotionally like an underdog. And a lot of the sympathy that I got in the character later was actually remembrances of feeling ill at ease. A sea serpent is not one of us. I felt that way, and I imagine that all of us do at a certain stage of growing up, y’see? So some of these things that you put into your cartoons are emotion, emotion that you convey to other people. When you look at the gag, you say, “Oh, that’s just funny,” but there’s a tear to it, too.
Now, in 1935, I was down at the San Diego World’s Fair, and they had a science exhibit there, and I walked in, and here in the science exhibit was a thing called television — the first time I’d ever seen it. And here was this little booth where you could see something on a television, and then go around to the other end of the booth and see what it [actually] looked like. So I wanted to see how cartoons looked, so I made some sketches and I held it up [in front of the camera], and had my friend hold it up and I go look at the other end [at the
television screen]. Then I went and got my Cecil puppet that I had in the car, in the glove compartment. And I came back and I had [my friend] hold it for me, and I went to see how that looked. And then I did it for him, and a crowd gathered, and they were quite amused. That was the first time Cecil was on television. So I got excited about television, I thought, gee, this’ll be something!
In 1937, I rented a garage, with the [Schlesinger] studio’s permission, because I was under contract. I had the right to go out and start my own studio, at the same time, to make my own things, but they had first refusal on anything I did, y’see? So I went across the street and rented a garage across from the Warner’s studio and I started my own studio. That’s where I further developed my Cecil puppet. I hit on the idea of giving the Cecil figure the facial expressions that are now famous on Cecil — and doing it with fingertip control, see, with putting the fingers in there and make the inside moves of the mouth to make a smile and a frown, and do these various human facial expressions. And I just loved it!
I further developed the hand puppet actions, I made a test film of my friend Clifford McBride’s comic strip, “Napoleon and Uncle Elby.” I developed a system of stop-motion for puppets, which I patented. I made a test film with [Edgar] Bergen of Charlie McCarthy, as a possible series with animated puppets.
When I finally got the puppets to a point, I came back to Leon [Schlesinger] and I said, “Here it is, I’m ready to go, give me a unit and we’ll make the puppets here.” And he looked at it, and he said, “That’s awfully good, that’s clever, but a shoemaker sticks to his last.” Which is an old way of saying, he was set up for cartoons and what is he gonna do starting over with puppets? So, I kept developing that.
Anyway, when I left Warners [in 1945] to get off on my own, I wanted to do puppets, I wanted to do combinations like the puppet and the cartoons, I wanted to do TV commercials. I just had all sorts of ideas that I wanted to try out. And my only other function was to go out and make presentations to sell them, and talk to the buyers. So I started actually working very hard to make the contacts for the sale of the puppets. I went to these different buyers and of course this is way early in the thing, we didn’t yet have a network from this end and so they could only afford very little money. And usually when I’d meet a buyer, they’d say, “You’re known for cartoons, you know everybody loves cartoons, let’s not talk about puppets.” So I would say, “Well, yes, but you can’t afford full animation,” and he says, “There must be some simpler way to do it,” and so forth.
Now, beginning in 1948 I got this offer to go to Channel 9 when it opened at the experimental CBS studio. I did a weekly show in which I appeared live and I would make drawings, and I’d have people like Jack King on, drawing Donald Duck, and all sorts of stunts like that. And then on some occasions I did some of my puppets, including my Cecil figure. So I was finding out how television works, I was figuring how to do it, I was talking to buyers, and so forth.
I did this show for a year on Channel 9, and then I sold “Time For Beany to Paramount television, Channel 5. It went on the air February 28, 1949.
To make a long story short, over a number of meetings with various buyers, they would say to me, “Well, we would want a children’s show,” and I’m talking about something much more adult in its concept, like the Warner cartoons, or better. And so they’re saying to me, you know, “We want like a children’s show for people age this to this, something in a smaller age. And I’d say, “Well, I don’t want to do that kind of a show, you know, the stuff I do best is this other.” And they’d say, “Well look, give it a title and give it a framework that looks like it’s right for the kids, and then as you get on the air with it, then you can start bringing in what you do best and you’re off and running. Don’t ask me to okay something that I don’t think will go.” So I started trying to compromise like that. I had titles like “Pee Wee Pow Wow,” you know, things like that, and I was trying my damnedest to take his advice to frame what would work and get in.
Like for example, on bringing out the Cecil character the idea came up about the boy going to the lost land, and I took the exact Lost World, King Kong story, and he says, “Now, that’s more like it, that’s what you do!”
I had presented the idea for the show to a CBS fellow and he told me, “Your identification character, the little boy, is a little too young.” He liked everything about it but that, so he said, “I think you should make the boy older.” I had more of a little babyish guy, maybe a little bit more of a Tweety. So I went to lunch at this delicatessen, and this cute little boy came in with his mother and he had on the little skull cap, the Jewish cap, the yalmulke, and he had this little cute smiling face, he was a very winning guy, and he had the little striped shirt, the little striped turtleneck, and he had little dark blue jumpers with the straps over the shoulders. And as I’m looking at him I started sketching him, and he’d look at me and I’d catch his expression, and I’d put the little skull cap on. Now when I finished the drawing, for some reason I put the little propeller on top. I can’t remember if there was such a thing as a Beany cap before that, I’m not sure, but he didn’t wear one, but I put it on there. I took the sketches home that night, and I made up a list of names, and one of the names I had on there was Beany, because of the cap, so the cap led to Beany. And so right there, in one afternoon and one evening, the final name and the final general appearance and all that was invented. Sometimes characters come piece by piece over several years, but this just came like that, overnight.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part Three: (Cont.)
It was very difficult interesting people in puppets. And I also had the same kind of a problem with the Beany cap. That was considered too radical. Just to give you a little background, when I saw the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers picture, Flying Down To Rio, and they had a dance number there where they had all these girls riding on the wings of early World War One type of airplanes, and the girls were dressed up to look somewhat like planes. Each one had that kind of a gear on coming up over their head, they had the propeller spinning on their head. That stuck in my mind as being something unique and different.
I had the basic character of the captain with the beard from the time I made my first Cecil, which was in 1925, and it was based on the Professor Challenger that Wallace Beery played, with the beard and the explorer’s outfit in this first movie, Lost World. When I got closer to making use of him professionally, I was trying to think of a name, and within the television series I envisioned him as being something like a Baron Munchausen, a teller of tall tales, you see. And thinking in those terms, I was thinking in the terms of being a blow hard like Captain Hornblower or, you know, some twist on that, and in playing around in that area I thought, blowing, blowhard, huff n’ puff — you know, the old original Three Little Pig childish words, and I hit on the name Captain Huffenpuff. And I tried it out on my lawyers and my friends and they all liked it so that’s when he became Captain Huffenpuff.
Let me tell you a little about Bill, for he was the first guy who really helped me on the Beany show. We worked very good together. I’d get the idea and sketch it out, and he would do the construction of the sets, which was his main forte. Bill could do some funny voices, he also can manipulate puppets and he can also, when he has time, help me gag the stuff. So if it was a simpler show, we could have done the thing just the two of us, but I was thinking of something much more involved.
Now I knew that I was going to be using my, what I call my Cecil figure, although I didn’t name him until later. As you know, I had actually conceived the character as a dinosaur, but then a dinosaur who immediately started swimming around in the water, y’see? Now I was getting ready for the last period of the sales preparation when I had decided now to physically get the show ready to have an audition for CBS, so now I started rehearsals and I had the script ready, and what I had was a thing with three sets.
It was going to be first Beany with Uncle Captain and the explorers’ club, where we first set the adventure to the Lost Land. Then the next one was going to be a boat scene where they get on Huffenpuff’s little boat on an ocean set, and they are going to this Lost Land. Then the third set was going to be a jungle thing. And then the climax of the jungle scene was going to be a giant gorilla. And I had a professional guy with a gorilla suit from the movies that was going to do the gorilla.
We decided that we wouldn’t cart our stuff to another place, we would only show it in my garage theater. The network executives would have to come there. We would have it permanently set up, with the lights all set where we press little levers and change the lighting, and so forth and so on. And I decided that rather than trying to do too much poorly, I’d rather do one short bit really well, and I also told Bill that I thought our best puppet set was the boat on the water, because unlike the static quality of the little explorers’ club room, and even the one little area of jungle, the boat has got movement to it.
The boat is going somewhere, even if it sits in one little spot you get the illusion that the boat is sailing across the water, and the puppets come up from below deck, and they have a natural cut-off — the boat itself comes up to the middle of the puppets so that you’re not aware of the lack of legs on the hand puppets. And there could be a breeze blowing from an electric fan, blowing the flags and sails, and there could be actually little puffs of smoke coming out of the smoke stacks — TOOT TOOT — that kind of a cartoon effect. So it’s just the perfect puppet stage.
And so I decided to do the whole scene on the boat and use some of my best gag lines and so forth, best routines, write some new things, and then climax with a storm at sea — the lightning flashing and the thunder roaring, and the lights flashing on and off, and the water pitching, and make just a real dramatic effect of the storm, with some good comedy coming off of that. So Bill said okay, he would rig it up, so he went to work. I left him in the garage theater, I went in the house to do some things, and Bill started rigging up the storm scene, and he was very ingenious on that type of thing.
When I was in the house, I was thinking to myself, I was thinking you know the other thing that is wrong here is I don’t have my strongest character, Cecil, my strongest puppet in the first episode. You know, I still haven’t planned that he is going to be the thing that you find at the end of the trip to the Lost Land, and actually now is when I need him. Well it’s just about that time that Bill called me out and showed me some of what he had done. And I was very pleased, it was going to work real good. So I said, “Bill, the storm you fixed looks like it’s going to be just great the way you are doing it, but the only thing wrong yet is that it is too impersonal, and lacks comedy.” And he says, “Well, what do you mean?” and I explained it — well, I gave him as an example the fact that in an early Charlie Chaplin picture — it was The Pilgrim — and it opened up, as I remembered, with a title saying something to the effect that Charlie was traveling by rail, which you would expect to be a train, but when you see him he’s actually with his back to you and he is leaning over the rail of a ship, which is lurching and he is heaving, like he’s sea sick. And so then that was a laugh, and then a minute later he turns and pulls up and he was fishing on a little line and he had a fish, and so then you had another laugh. So that made a sea sick and a storm at sea kind of a thing, but there was a laugh to it, and it was not so impersonal.
So I was talking about for example the fish being sea sick, which I based on an old joke that my Dad used to tell when we would be going over to Catalina or out fishing or something, he’d like to say that the sea was so rough that even the fish were sea sick. So I’m saying to Bill, y’know, and Bill says, “Yeah, well what if we did make some little puppets, some little fish — “Gosh, I’m sea sick,” y’know, “hick-up, hick-up!” and so forth, and we were laughing, but then we realized, well we could make these little hand puppet fish, but they’re too small. In other words, you put them on your hands and you can’t really get anything because fish in proportion to the boat and Beany and Huffenpuff had to be smaller.
Then we said well maybe it could be a bigger fish, you know, a shark or a dolphin or whatever, and then it hit me — POW! I could make it a sea serpent, and I could bring my character up, plunk him down in the water, and he would be a sea serpent — a sea sick sea serpent! And Bill and I started laughing, and I said, “But we’ve got to have a name for him,” and I said, “It has to rhyme with sea sick sea serpent. Sea — Sea — Cecil, the Sea Sick Sea Serpent!” And boom, that fast it all came together!
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part Four: (Cont.)
Then I decided that I had to add some things to my dinosaur concept to make him look like a sea serpent, ’cause of course the dinosaur puppet has got a short snoot like a brontosaurus, and of course the common concept through ancient mythology and the paintings in the past of the sea serpent was always something more with a head, more like a horse with a long snoot and upraised nostrils and little pins and things off of it, and so forth. So I didn’t want to change the basic appeal of the lovable quality of the puppet as I had it, but what I wanted to do is just add just enough to make him legitimately a sea serpent.
So first thing I thought, of course, was a dorsal fin on his back, down his back, and then I thought he should have little upraised cup-like nostrils, instead of dinosaur type nostrils that he had at present, and then I wanted to add eye brows, or eye lashes to his eyes, and do them as we do in cartoons where you slant them in such a way that gives the eyes a sea sick look, you know, like a sleepy look that you see in cartoons. So that was all that I felt was needed to add to the present character.
So I got word to Charlotte, Charlotte Clark, that I would have some little additions for the puppets and I was going to bring them over to her in sketch form, and so forth. And then I called all the boys up — Daws and Stan and a couple other people — and I said I am going ahead with this thing. And so they came over and we had a meeting, and I told them all my plans.
Then it came to the matter of rehearsal, and so forth, and so I decided since Charlotte would take a little while to get the puppet finished for me, I thought it might be nice to have a rehearsal puppet, just a simple sock thing that we could actually go ahead and finalize the thing and rehearse it. So Daws said, “Well my wife has always made doll clothes, so you tell me exactly what you want and everything, and see if she can’t maybe do this that you want.” So I made these drawings on how he looked, and I made the pattern. I put my hand down on the paper and made the exact size, and the side view size, and all of that, and described the color. I wanted it just to be in a plain white because I wasn’t sure yet exactly what color to make it so it would read best on television. I wanted to experiment that out. But I called for the purple dorsal fin — I of course was planning to make him a shade of green, but I didn’t know exactly what. On my original puppet I had this sock which was like a white sock, and then I ended up coloring it with Crayolas. So Daws said sure, so I gave him the directions exactly about the nostrils and the eye lashes and the whole bit, and he took it home, and his wife didn’t make just a sloppy one, but she did a real good job of being right to my drawing, and brought it back and I said “Wow!” and here we go into rehearsal and it actually looked fine. It was good enough to use on the air.
I then shaped the audition show up and got it all working down. We rehearsed just that one five minute thing, and the little oleo at the end, and I got the buyers in — some wouldn’t come, some did — and finally my uncle, Fred Clampett, through his ad agency, got Klaus Landsberg, of Paramount Studios over, and Klaus saw the little five minute plus bit, and said he wanted to take me to lunch. We went to a drive-in, I think it was, and he said, “When do you want to go on the air?” And I almost jumped right through the roof of the place, and I said, “Well, I need a certain amount of time to get the scripts ahead prepared, and so forth, and rehearse it,” and to make a long story short, he wanted me to go on the following Monday, as I remember, and there was no saying no to Klaus Landsberg.
So we did a funny stunt — Klaus and I worked out a funny stunt to get attention to the show. We worked out this idea of having his newscaster, this serious Walter Cronkite type guy, during the news broadcast announce there was a strange object sited on the ocean, coming in toward Santa Monica, and they can’t quite make out what it is, but they are going to have a remote control truck down there and film this thing whenever it comes in close enough to see it. And there weren’t that many people with television sets, but I know my mother received a call from Van Dyke Berrier, our old friend, who said, “Hey, don’t fail to be at a television set somewhere on Monday because there’s this strange object coming in and they are going to televise it and you’ve got to be there to see it!” So my mother says “Really?” and she told me about it, and I says, “Yes, that’s the Leakin’ Lena with Beany and Cecil and Captain Huffenpuff, and so forth.” So it was a wonderful thing — we went on the air….
I originally of course was going to have the finding of the Cecil character at the end of the first adventure, with little sub-plots running into other little things on the way. But now with Cecil being right in the show from the very beginning, then I decided to have another kind of a strange creature be in, which I thought of as the Terrible Two-Headed Freep. Then we announced the first big adventure, which was the trip down the Los Angeles River, which was notoriously known for having no water in it. And we were going to this island which was actually the La Brea Tar Pits, which I called the Special Island, which was the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Freep. And I never showed the Freep for all — it was like months and months and months that we were going there, and we passed barriers and dangers and met different creatures and so forth. But all the time I am building this up, I’m building up what does he look like, and I say, “Well, we hear that he’s got, well let’s see now, he’s got knuckles of brass and something of steel, and two horns on his head that go da da dada [imitating old-time car horn], and so forth.
In other words, there was always serious descriptions of what the Freep looked like, and people would start writing in, and kids would send in drawings of what they thought just by the description, by saying “Oh, he has an ear on his tail so he can keep an ear to the ground,” and things like that. And they would draw these visions that they had with these things on it, and it was really funny, and it built up to such an extreme that I didn’t want to bring it to a climax, that it was building such an audience that I just kept teasing them on. And we came to summertime and I got a call from a lady saying, “My husband has to go on vacation, but he won’t leave town until he sees what the Freep looks like,” and so finally we revealed him — one night on a Friday, just as we were closing out here, and actually the Freep, one head had a Beany cap on and his ears were like two hands sticking out like antlers, you know, on a moose, and he was a funny looking character, but the other head had a paper sack over his head, had a bag on his head with just two eyes, and they say, “Well why does he have a sack over his head?” and I have him say, “Well, he’s the ugly one!” and of course the first one was ugly enough, ugly as sin as it was. So just at the conclusion, just as we were fading to black, we pulled off the sack off the second one, and it’s just this bug-eyed guy with very little details to him, but he has like a harelip and he says, “Good night, everybody!” [in distorted pronunciation] and we faded the thing, and it was the most sensational show that we ever did from an audience reaction.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part Five: (Cont.)
Now when I went on the air with the Beany show, the head of the station, of Paramount Television, said, “Now, what are your menaces?” and I said, “Well, I’m having all sorts of natural menaces,” and I told him what they were, y’know? — storms at sea, and this and that, earthquakes, all that stuff. So he said, “I think maybe you should have a human menace also,” and I said, “All right, if you think that’s a good idea, I’ll try that.” So I went in to figure out what thing, and when I started sketching I came right back to those sketches of Larry Martin from Harman-Ising, as the villain at Harman-Ising in 1931, ’32, ’33 — we used to make caricatures of Larry Martin. He was a nice guy, but he was my boss and he’d give me my orders the first year I was there. So I’d make these drawings of him with a dirty laugh, like he was a villain. He had the hook nose, the teeth, the mustache….
And then in looking for a name for him. I was gagging around with one of my artists on the show and we were talking about these car dealers called Honest John, and there was an Honest John in an Al Capp cartoon strip — it was an old term for a crook, y’know? So instead of Honest John, we got the idea to call it Dishonest John — let’s be real honest about it and tell what he really is, and it was Dishonest John. And so if you saw Dishonest John next to the sketches of Larry Martin, you’re going to see it’s almost a duplicate, y’see? And that sketch and that name came that same afternoon from the time that the head of Paramount Television said to me, “Hey, why don’t you think up a villain?”
Now the way that I worked in those early days, I had the all over adventures and a lot of the ideas in mind, but when we finished one day’s show, a show at KTLA Paramount, when the show was over, being a local show, the switch board would light up — and the show went on at 6:30, went off at 6:45 when the news started — and they would call me to the phone, and every night I would then for about a half hour talk to the audience, and it was wonderful, because they would tell me, they would say, “Gee, we loved that,” or “That little line you used tonight, are you going to use it again?” And I would say, “Well I hadn’t thought of it, but you’re right, it could become a catch line,” and I would get all of this good input from the audience.
I had a case where parents would say, “Our kids are crying. The first night they were crying the first time that Cecil appeared out of the water, by the second night they loved him, but now they were crying again.” And I would say, “Why? I thought we had done one of our funniest shows.” We had done a routine in which Cecil first meets Cecilia, and he’s lonely and out at sea with the boat, and he has never had a girlfriend, and suddenly this vision of loveliness comes up out of the water, very much like the hippo in Fantasia, water dripping off and the bubbles coming up before him, some seaweed, and then he goes into this thing when he sees her he’s so smitten, and he starts to sing the song, Cecilia. “Does your mother know you’re out, Cecilia?” And as he would do that, he would be so bashful that he would start taking bites out of the boat. And you know, we had the boat rigged up, which Bill worked out for me, where it was cut apart and then put back together again with tape, and so every time he wanted to take a piece out of it he could take a piece right out of the boat. It was a real breakaway. So it was one of the funniest shows because, the cameramen were all laughing, they were in hysterics, and now here’s the audience telling me that the kids were very upset, and I say, “Why?” and they say, “Why, Cecil wrecked Beany’s home.” In other words, they felt that his home was the boat. And now in the theater, if Laurel and Hardy dismembered a house it would be high comedy. But I started to realize that the television in the living room had a different feel to it entirely. And if you went to a prize fight ring, people are beating each other, you’re shouting, but the same thing happens in your living room, it’s different. And I started to get the feel for the audience, and I worked it all into the scripts. Then that night I went home and I threw out the idea I had for the next day entirely, and then wrote a new opening in which I had Cecil put the ship all back together in a cute routine we did, which was like the Yankee Doodle — “Ra pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa pah” [to the tune of Yankee Doodle] — and he’s putting the ship, and suddenly the whole thing that was broken up is all back together again, and then we go on with the story.
But I used to do that every night, listen to the audience and then go home and think out the next day’s show, the main gags and so forth. Then the next morning I would get with Bill and plan out the new scenics we needed, any new props, anything that Bill had to build, and then I would work on the script.
At various times in the thing I would have a gag man there, and he would do the typing and I would give him the story, and we would gag it together, write the gag lines, he would type it, and then I’d say, “Now let’s make it sound a little more ad lib, a little more spontaneous,” and so we would go through the script and think crazy, think of little asides, and little things that would make it seem more natural, and write those in.
Now the actors came in, in the mid afternoon, and I would then sit down and have a read through with them, and I would give them a feel of the dialog and the pacing and everything as we were doing it. Then we’d get up and go to the set and plot out all the camera movements. You move from here to here, and the camera does this and that. And then we have a walk through — we’d walk through and read the dialog, and then we’d have a run through — and so maybe we’d have five rehearsals, starting with a very sloppy thing, and then we would sharpen it up and sharpen it up, and finally have a camera rehearsal, and then a final camera rehearsal, and by that time we got it pretty well tightened down.
And then I’d take the boys next door to Olblass, and I’d sit down and I’d say, “Now the way this came over was, there’s too much of a block speech here, it slows the show down,” or “Our entrances and exits are still not crisp enough,” and I was able to just like a small stage production, just at that last minute before the show sharpen the whole thing up, and they were very bright, they’d “Yeah, right, we knew that.” Then if I saw a headline on the newspapers — I went to the front of the restaurant, I might see a timely headline and I would think of a gag, and give it to Bill, and he’d go and write it into the script, in the right place in the back of the set. So we had that final hash over, exactly how to handle the show, go back in, 6:30, it’s Time For Beany, and walk the music, it’s time to go, and I’m crying to think about it, I’m sorry — I loved it!
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part Six: (Cont.)
Actually I’ve had five voice artists do the voice [of Cecil]. They imitated my original treatment of it, and how to manipulate it. And we would have, on one show, we’d have three guys doing Cecil. We were doing live television, and Cecil would be running on a pan here — so one guy’d be “I’m comin’ Beany!” here — then he’d skid out of a scene, and we’d cut to another guy with a Cecil on, skidding into the scene, and he’d say the next dialog — and so forth — and it’d be cartoon timing, y’see?
All the guys who worked with me had never done puppets before. I’d been doing it for years, so I had a training school where I actually took and trained each guy in puppetry as I knew it. It was like the early days at Disney, when you’d have to teach good artists animation. This was difficult, because in a cartoon you bring a guy in for one day, and he says his thing and he goes out. But these boys had tremendous enthusiasm and very great ability. And they came in, and they were all out of work, none of them could get jobs at that time. And so we had a tremendous enthusiasm, and a tremendous go at it. We would have new stunts, new ideas every day, and it was electric — the audience was just electrified.
Eventually, after so many years, we got it more organized, but in the years when it was the best was when we did it that way, and it was exciting, live, and spontaneous.
Later, some guys would tell me, “I talked to some of the cast and they said, “Yeah, we ad libbed the whole show.” Well, that sounds good for an actor to say, “We ad libbed it,” y’know — that’s very clever, to get up there and do fifteen minutes of dialog ad lib, but you couldn’t do it that way because you had camera cuts, truck-ins, and commercials, and you can’t do it, y’see? So we ad libbed, yes, but before we went on the air. We had an occasional thing where something went wrong — we would sit down and we’d figure out everything that might happen — the set falls over, a prop isn’t there, some character comes in late, something catches on fire from one of the lit candles, y’know — so we would write up pages of ad lib gags, of what-do-you-say IF. So that we had, for occasionally when something went wrong, then one of those gags would be said.
So Cecil caught on fire once, on one of these things, ’cause he’s made out of cloth, y’see? So he was on fire, y’know, like this, and it was pretty funny. Another time, a nostril came off, and the line we had for that was something about going to the nostril bank and taking out a few. In real life, it’s striking, y’know? So we’d say that and people would say, “What great ad libs,” and they were, but there was a little planning. Bob Hope once told me, “All my ad libs are stored in my little file in my head, so if something happens I can pull out that ad lib — something I did in vaudeville twenty years ago, and I say it.”
MIKE BARRIER: There were a lot of puppet shows and marionette shows on the air at the same time as Beany; what did you think of shows like “Howdy Doody?”
BOB CLAMPETT: [They were] very big, yeah. Well, see, their concept was different from mine, if you’ll notice. “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” said to the audience, “I am a puppet show, I am puppets this big coming out of a puppet stage with a lady talking to me.” And they did it beautifully. “Howdy Doody” was a string puppet in with other string puppets and real kids and so forth, and that was a very popular show. Their concept was different from mine, if you’ll notice.
What I tried to do was use all my Warner cartoon knowledge of scenics and cuts and movement — and believability. I tried to create a little believable world where everything was in scale. And people would come to the studio to see the show, and the kids would say, “Where is the Leakin’ Lena, the boat?” They would figure it was as long as this room, and this big, and they couldn’t believe [it was so small]. So we get on the air, because of our scale, and our believable little world of its own, they believe in these characters and that Cecil is taller than this room. That was the essential difference.
I would put with Ping Pong — a man in an ape suit — I put a little chimpanzee in the same scene, a trained chimpanzee. So I had the puppets, a man in an ape suit, and a real chimpanzee, all on live T.V. And you know what happened at the end? The little chimpanzee, he rode a bicycle in the act because he knew the story, y’see, and he had on diapers — and just at the last minute he actually, on the air, started to pee-pee. And the cameraman cut off of it fast — he actually started to pee-pee on the air. Luckily it was the last scene in that particular show.
The Bob Clampett Oral History — Beany and Cecil Era, Part Seven: (Cont.)
To me a lot of the fun of working with the puppets was experimenting, not only in ideas and stories, and little different ways in making the characters look like they’re doing expressions. For example, with Cecil I have worked out a way where, when he was a baseball pitcher, where he could have this baseball cap on sideways and he got like a wad of tobacco in his mouth, and therefore by certain manipulations that I worked out, it would look like he was chewing a cud of tobacco, like a lot of these old time pitchers did. Or getting scare expressions, like pulling the lower lip in a funny way, and then with a quick shot having a fright wig on a little stick, and then you cut away and then cut back to Cecil and now this fright wig is held up behind him, hair standing on end, and he’s “HUH?” — he’s pulling in his lower lip. And then sometimes when he was deflated we’d cut to a shot of Cecil without a hand in it and suddenly it’s just going down like all the air’s gone out of him, and all that sort of thing.
And then I also liked experimenting with different kinds of eyes, because an eye on an actor, the eyes are so much of the character that you look at the eyes. Now you’re dealing with puppets, but…. That was one reason why I originally thought to give Beany the squinty eye look, because I always disliked the Charlie McCarthy impression of just eyes staring at all times, wide open and staring. So I was thinking of, like, Maurice Chevalier with his squinting eyes, with the sparkle from the lights in it. And actually, the little boy that I originally sketched for Beany had just those kind of eyes.
Now on Cecil I experimented over the years with all sorts of eyes, from the original little buttons, I experimented in the ‘30s, like ‘38 with ping pong balls, seeing if that would make a more realistic cartoony-like eye, but then later went back to the buttons, the combination of buttons.
I’ve experimented with giving puppets the freedom of animation. I developed a process whereby the puppet, with its personality, can actually fly through the air, walk, and so forth. Someday I’ll make a use of that. I’ve used it only on sample films, but of course a lot of things I did ten years earlier in a sample film I ended up doing on the screen, so maybe I’ll do that.
I had a separate show when I was doing Beany. Beany was so popular that they wanted me to do a second show, a third show and a fourth show. At one time I had “Thunderbolt the Wonder Colt,” with William Shakespeare Wolf; a show for littler kids in the middle of the day called “Buffalo Billy”; and later a [“Willy the Wolf”] adult show. It was a little too much, ‘cause then I was really going day and night. But Willy was very popular. That was the first puppet that used a human hand — a hand puppet with a human hand. And so we were able to get great expression — throwing the cloak, and this and that — and people didn’t know how it was done. Since then, there have been several of them. And then at times, we’d have another guy with an extra hand coming through, and we’d do a typewriter routine, playing a tune on the typewriter. And [people would] say, “Hey, how is that done?” They couldn’t figure it out. We had fun there because we were innovating again, just as with the Warner cartoons in the golden years. Now again, innovation — every night a new stunt. Try it — if it doesn’t work, you do the next thing.
The children’s shows were daily and had a continuing story; the Willy the Wolf show was more of a vaudeville show, with guest stars.
MIKE BARRIER: Did you just drop the puppet show then, when the cartoon deal came up?
BOB CLAMPETT: Well, what it was, George Shubert, who was a good friend of ours, and who was the one who sold Beany nationally for Paramount, he went with ABC, and they took on “Disneyland,” and he says to me, “Bob, the cartoons are going to be coming in, and they’re going to supersede the puppets. You’d better start thinking of phasing them out.”
The original contract for the cartoons was with the heads of Seven Arts, who were at that time with United Artists. They bought the Beany cartoons for theaters. Now when United Artists were drawing up the contract for the [television] cartoon series, they called up and they said, “Now in order to finalize this contract, we must have a complete synopsis, and the titles, and naming the characters of the whole –” it was supposed to be then like 104 cartoons, and they say, “Please send us that, and have that in New York in time for this meeting –” on Monday or Tuesday. Well, I wasn’t about to blow the whole contract out of the water, so I says, “You will have it.” And as Sody can tell you, with her helping me on the typing and so forth, I went to work on this — on Friday, I guess it was — and wrote out the majority of the titles, and thought of new characters, and named them for the first time, and wrote the stories. And so the majority of the stories that you see in Beany and Cecil — plus many others, since we only made 78, we didn’t get up to 104 — over one weekend I created all those characters, the concepts, the names of them, and so forth, what they did, the general outline of what each cartoon would be about.
We had gotten UA’s okay on all the stories, and then had actually made some of the first pictures for UA, and it was at that point that we got Mattel as a sponsor, and the ABC network wanting it as a network TV show. So then it so happened in the business end that UA transferred the deal over to this television thing. Now we already had a number of the cartoons in work, already stories written, some of them being filmed and so forth, and some smart ass at ABC says, “Well now, has continuity passed this stuff?” And I said, “Well of course UA okayed — their censors okayed every one of the stories, and so that’s what we are filming.” They said, “Well maybe UA okayed it, but that’s not the network, we maybe won’t like them,” and they wanted to see a running of all the films.
And they ran them, they sat there and then they said, “Who’s responsible for this?” and I said, “Well, I’m responsible.” They said, “Well, we can’t pass most of this stuff. This Beanyland thing here, which is a takeoff on Disneyland, and you got Walt Disney in there, the character of Walt Disney razzing you.” I said, “Walt Disney in there?” And they says, “Yeah, the fellow with the hooked nose and the black mustache.” I said, “Well that’s our old time villain, Dishonest John.” And they said, “Well it is too much like Disney.”
So it was all that kind of stuff where they were wanting to tear apart — for example, I had The Phantom of the Horse Opera, and I had a Groucho voice on the character — he was an invisible man, but he made these little asides in the Groucho voice — and they [say], “Oh, you can’t use that, we won’t let you use a Groucho voice.” So we had to go back and put something else on it. And the Illegal Eagle Egg — I had a real good bird caricature, a little bit of the caricature to it of Phil Silvers, and a perfect Phil Silvers voice, and it just made the character, and “That voice has got to go,” and so what we had to do was put a Jackie Leonard voice on the Illegal Eagle. And on and on, through the whole series, they did things to us that really, really hurt the feel of the cartoons. When you look at it, you say, “Well it’s not quite what it should be.” Well, you’re right, it was hurt with the network pushing, rushing, wanting this and that. But the Beany cartoons had tremendous ratings. Most series lasted about two years on the air, but they were able to run this series for six or seven years, with top ratings from start to finish.
MILTON GRAY: I was with Bob Clampett on an occasion when a young fan asked him, “How would you like to be remembered, after you’re gone?” And Bob said, “I’d just like to be remembered, period.” Bob Clampett passed away on May 2, 1984.
Bob Clampett Oral History copyright Bob Clampett Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved