December 18, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: Hollywood Animation, 1944–59
Bugs Bunny Rabbit of Seville 1950 Charles M. (Chuck) Jones film

Rabbit of Seville. 1950. USA. Directed by Charles M. (Chuck) Jones

These notes accompany a program of animated films from Hollywood screening on December 19, 20, and 21 in Theater 3.

The Disney and Fleischer studios had been the predominant forces in American animation in the 1920s and into the 1930s (when Warner Brothers entered the market). Although the Fleischers were located in Miami, their link to Paramount Pictures made them effectively part of Hollywood. With the financial failure of the feature-length Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1941, the Fleischer operation collapsed, leaving much of the field to Disney, which was now producing features (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Reluctant Dragon, Dumbo, etc.) on a regular basis in addition to occasional shorts. However, several of Hollywood’s major studios had now joined the fray. A strike at Disney that same year (1941) led to defections and the creation of a number of independent producers (which we will survey in next week’s program).

Probably the most notable contribution was that of Warner Brothers, whose Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd had the star power to rival Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Fleischer’s Betty Boop, Popeye, and (later) Superman. However, delineating the contributions and nuances of the individual Warner artists who shared in the development of the various cartoon figures is mostly beyond the scope of this program. Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips displays a racism that’s all too common among World War II filmmakers. Its director, Friz Freleng (1905?–1995) (who had once been a neighbor of Disney’s in Kansas City), spent 30 years at Warner Brothers before launching his successful Pink Panther series in the 1960s.

Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips 1944 Friz Freleng MoMA film

Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. 1944. USA. Directed by Friz Freleng

The director most closely associated with Bugs was Charles M “Chuck” Jones (1912–2002). As with Freleng, proximity to the famous wabbit and his cohorts seemed to promote longevity. Jones also was at Warner for three decades, working with all the “stars.” (He had a brief sojourn at M-G-M in the mid-1960s working on Tom and Jerry.) Jones was adept at developing the strong “personalities” of his performers. He was personally responsible for the Roadrunner series and Wile E. Coyote.

Robert Clampett (1910?–1984?) actually preceded Jones and established himself as the Porky Pig guy in the 1930s. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery was one of his last films at Warner before he moved into television, where he produced the Beany and Cecil series. Robert McKimson (1910–1977) had started out working as a teenager for Disney on his Oswald the Rabbit series. He also spent three decades at Warner Brothers, working mostly on Bugs and Daffy. Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery (1907?–1980) had left Warners for M-G-M in 1942, and he also had stints for Universal-Walter Lantz, Paramount, and Hanna-Barbera. Little Rural Red Riding Hood was a partial remake of his 1945 Swing Shift Cinderella, but he, like the others, had undergone a Porky/Daffy/Bugs period. Historian Win Sharples considered Avery to be an inferior draftsman compared with his studiomates (he was blind in one eye), but valued him as a superior artist, saying that missing Red Riding Hood will be regretted “to your dying day.”

William Hanna (1910–2001) and Joseph Barbera (1911–2006) began their collaboration in 1940 at M-G-M, where they produced animated sequences for Gene Kelly and Esther Williams films and did the Tom and Jerry series. Much later they predominated in the fields of television and feature-length theatrical animation (the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, the Jetsons, Johnny Quest, Scooby-Doo, etc.). Their later stuff seemed to suffer from a less sophisticated style.

Charles Nichols and Jack Hannah (not the zoo guy) were Disney house directors, but Ward Kimball (1914–2002)—again, note the longevity—was someone special. He was one of scholar John Canemaker’s designated “nine old men” at Disney. He was most closely associated with Jiminy Cricket, the heart, soul, and conscience of Pinocchio, but he went on to work on Fantasia, Dumbo, and many of the features of the 1940s and 1950s. Eyes on Outer Space was in a series of space films developed by Walt Disney as part of his expansion into television, leading eventually to futuristic amusement parks like Epcot in Orlando. Kimball called the series “the creative high point of my career.”