Clampett, Robert (“Bob”)

Posted in WB Cartoon Companion on March 5, 2004


    Compared to his contemporaries (especially Freleng, McKimson, and Jones), Bob Clampett had a relatively short career directing for the studio -- starting in 1937 and ending in 1945. Be that as it may, there is no question that Clampett was -- and continues to be -- perhaps the most influential director ever associated with the Schlesinger or Warner Brothers Studios.

    Far more than Avery, it was Clampett who changed the studio’s “house style” from sober and sedate animation to an unabashedly cartoony style in which nothing is too outrageous if it gets the audience to laugh. This transformation really begins in some of Clampett’s early Looney Tunes. The late Clampett cartoon The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (released 1946) is, in my view, his masterpiece, with many precision-timed cuts, outrageous puns, and animation perfect enough to merit repeated frame-by-frame viewing. (It was not until Avery’s move to MGM in 1941 that his own style came to maturity. While it can be witnessed in a germinal stage in many of the Merrie Melodies he directed for Schlesinger in the mid-to-late 1930s, as a whole his work for that studio was relatively tame.)

    Clampett joined the studio in 1931 as an animator. Legend has it that around this time, he helped design the first Mickey Mouse dolls with his aunt, who worked for Disney. Clampett worked on many of the early Merrie Melodies, earning his first screen credit for Shake Your Powder Puff (Freleng, 1934).

    His big break came with the hiring of Tex Avery in late 1935. Along with Jones, Cannon, and other radicals, Clampett was put in the original Termite Terrace building on Warner Brothers’ Sunset Lot. Clampett played a vital role in a process that developed a new style of cartoons which departed drastically from the Disney style then predominant. As an animator, he had a significant role in the development of Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, characters he would make his own in the late 1930s. (See also Creation and Development.)

    Clampett and Jones were sent to the Iwerks cartoon studio in 1937 when Iwerks received some subcontract work from Leon Schlesinger, including animation of Porky’s Super Service (1937). There is apparently some dispute over whether Clampett and Jones (who had worked under Iwerks previously) were supposed to co-direct. At any rate, when the two returned to the main studio after the deal with Iwerks was over, it was Clampett who got the nod as director. (Along with the dispute over who created Bugs Bunny, this is said by some to have caused friction between Clampett and Jones. Some have found significance in the fact that Clampett is mentioned only in passing by Jones in his first autobiography. Others dismiss the alleged feud as a non-issue.)

    Curiously enough, Clampett’s earliest work as a director was not for a short, but a brief Technicolor opening for the Joe E. Brown film When’s Your Birthday? (1937) in which Brown played an astrology-mad boxer. The scene involved the stars and planets, and their effects on the Earth.

    This was Clampett’s only work in color until Goofy Groceries (1941). Clampett worked exclusively in Looney Tunes, which were, until The Hep Cat (Clampett, 1942), produced only in black and white. While this had the disadvantage of limiting his budget, Clampett and his unit had considerable creative control over development of the studio’s continuing characters. Clampett may not have been responsible for creating either Porky Pig or Daffy Duck, but it was Clampett who gave these characters their spark of craziness -- especially Daffy -- that first put the Warner Brothers cartoons on the map. (Again, please see the entry for Creation and Development for a discussion of these concepts as they are used in The Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion.) And, of course, Clampett did create Tweety, who, legend has it, was based on a nude photo of Clampett taken as a baby, about which he had mixed feelings.

    It was when Clampett inherited the Avery unit in 1941 that he really blossomed as a director, due partly to larger budgets and a higher æschelon of animators. (It is worth noting in passing that Norm McCabe, who inherited the old Clampett unit, was not nearly as successful with it as Clampett was.) Clampett played a vital role in the development of Bugs Bunny, particularly with such classics as Falling Hare (1943) in which Bugs battles a Gremlin for control of a runaway plane. Gremlins would appear again in a wild cartoon called Russian Rhapsody (1944, originally titled Gremlins from the Kremlin), in which Adolf Hitler comes out a decided second-best against the little Russian saboteurs. The Clampett cartoon Tortoise Wins By a Hare (1943) is probably the best of the three cartoons that pitted Cecil Turtle against Bugs in a nod to Æsop. The last Clampett cartoons for Warner Brothers did not show any decline in quality, as exemplified by Book Revue (1946): the capstone of the long-running “things-come-to-life” series of cartoons.

    Clampett left the studio in 1945, and was replaced as director by Arthur Davis. There are a number of theories as to why Clampett left the studio. Probably the most credible is that he was simply ambitious. Another theory, unflattering to Clampett but also a bit far-fetched, is that Clampett had enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Leon Schlesinger, especially compared to Chuck Jones, who was often denigrated by Schlesinger; and that when Schlesinger sold the studio to Warner Brothers in the spring of 1944, Clampett saw this relationship over, and decided to leave. I have even heard the supporting theory that the Chuck Jones cartoon Fresh Airedale (1945) is an allegory of this relationship, with the tricky and ultimately triumphant dog representing Clampett, the master as Schlesinger, and the unlucky cat who ends the cartoon wailing and pounding a statue of Justice as Jones. An interesting reading of the cartoon to be sure; but a second-hand interpretation of a cartoon can not be considered solid evidence in support of such a theory. I include it here because, rightly or wrongly, it is a topic of intense discussion among Warner Brothers cartoon fans.

    Soon after leaving Warner Brothers, Clampett was made the producer for the Columbia Screen Gems cartoon unit. Although Clampett had the help of some former and moonlighting Warner employees, including Henry Binder and Mike Maltese, Screen Gems was too far gone for Clampett to have any real effect or influence. That studio closed its doors in 1949.

    After the Screen Gems fiasco, Clampett enjoyed great success as a puppeteer with Beany and Cecil, a television program syndicated out of Los Angeles. The show eventually became a cartoon series over which Clampett had oversight. Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein was a big fan of Beany and Cecil (a fact noted in a recent Pinky and the Brain episode produced by Warner Brothers Television Animation).

    Clampett is unique among the major directors of the Warner Brothers studio in that he never received an Academy Award nomination. He had far better luck in television, with Beany and Cecil winning numerous awards. I have seen reports to the effect that Falling Hare had been the studio’s contender for a nomination in 1943, but at any rate, it failed to win one.

    There are two interesting contributions Clampett made to the studio which tend to be overlooked. First, he provided the unique “beeyuwooooop” sound effect that pops up in numerous 1940s cartoons, as in Super Rabbit (Jones, 1943) when Cottontail Smith realizes he is being snookered by Bugs. Secondly, Clampett was the first director to use anvils as a weapon, in A Tale of Two Kitties (1942).

    Clampett is caricatured in a handful of cartoons. He can be seen along with Chuck Jones and Tex Avery in the crowd greeting Miss Glory in Page Miss Glory (Avery, 1936), as a member of the picket fence comprised of petrified members of his unit in Porky’s Hero Agency (Clampett, 1937), in A Cartoonist’s Nightmare (King, 1935), and as “Captain Clampett, the Human Cannonball” in Circus Today (Avery, 1940).

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