Freleng, Isadore (“Friz”)

Posted in WB Cartoon Companion on March 5, 2004


    One of the giants not just of Warner Brothers animation, but of animation in general. Friz Freleng had connections with the Warner Brothers studio for over 60 years, directing nearly 300 cartoons, four of which won Oscars, more than any other director from the studio. Even other giants of Warner Brothers animation -- perhaps most notably Chuck Jones, have acknowledged his influence and reputation.

    Like Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, Carl Stalling, and J.B. “Bugs” Hardaway, Freleng was a Kansas City native. Freleng originally started out at Kansas City Film Ad in the early 1920s, the studio that also employed Iwerks and Disney. Freleng came out west to California to join Disney in 1927, replacing Ham Hamilton, who left Disney in late 1926. (Hamilton and Freleng would work together at Disney in 1928, when Hamilton returned, and later at Schlesinger’s in the early 30s.) This was actually Freleng’s first experience in a professional animation studio, and he was mentored by Iwerks, who taught him some of the fundamentals of working with characters and objects, including tanks.

    Freleng caught on rapidly, and some of his work on Alice’s Picnic (a 1927 “Alice in Cartoonland” short) recalls the primitive beginnings of personality animation -- a scene showing a little kitten climbing out of a wash tub marks an early effort at distinguishing cartoon characters with similar appearances from each another. (The concept would first bear full fruit in the 1933 Disney short The Three Little Pigs.) Freleng would continue to work on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons through 1927-1928. Alongside Iwerks, he headed one of the two Disney units.

    Freleng was one of the group that left Disney in 1928, recruited away by Disney’s then-distributor Charles Mintz. Freleng worked on a number of cartoons in Mintz’s Krazy Kat series before he was recruited by ex-Disney colleagues Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising to join them in a new studio formed with Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons for distribution by Warner Brothers. (In 1929, Harman and Ising had produced and sold a pilot film, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, on which Freleng had done some work.) Freleng is one of the animators credited on the first Warner Brothers cartoon, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (1930). Freleng would continue to animate until 1933, when Harman and Ising left the studio in a money dispute with Schlesinger. Freleng was subsequently promoted to director, a title that he would never relinquish.

    Most of his cartoons during the 1930s were in the color Merrie Melodies series, and thus were mostly musicals. In I Haven’t Got A Hat (Freleng, 1935) a primitive Porky Pig -- based partly on a Freleng childhood chum and partly on some suggestions of Bob Clampett -- made his first appearance. By the studio’s contemporary standards, Freleng’s cartoons were sophisticated. For some time, he was the studio’s principal director.

    Freleng was lured to MGM in 1937 by the promises of a higher salary and bigger budgets for cartoons. Be that as it may, his tenure there was not successful, largely because he was forced to make cartoons in the “Captain & the Kids” series based on the comic strip “The Katzenjammer Kids”. The series was a complete commercial failure, although the cartoons themselves were modestly funny. The principal legacy Freleng left at MGM was his influence on two up-and-coming directors, Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

    Freleng returned to Schlesinger’s in 1939, and it is clear that his style had improved immeasurably during his absence from the studio. Freleng played a key role in the early development of Bugs Bunny with cartoons such as Fresh Hare and The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (both 1942).

    It was around this time that Freleng directed one of his first real masterpieces, Rhapsody in Rivets (1941). It is a cartoon wholly without dialogue: it relies solely on construction-work gags synchronised to Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody to summon the laughs. The film was one of two Freleng efforts nominated that year for an Oscar, the other being Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt. Rhapsody in Rivets foreshadowed such great musical cartoons as Pigs in a Polka (another Oscar-nominated cartoon of Freleng’s, 1943), and what is, in the my opinion, his ultimate masterpiece: Rhapsody Rabbit (1946). This film was similarly almost devoid of dialogue; and again it relied on the music of Liszt, coupled with some of the most beautiful and colorful animation ever to appear in any Warner Brothers film.

    Freleng, by a fluke of fate, was probably robbed of an Academy Award for this cartoon. The Technicolor processing labs accidentally delivered footage from this cartoon to MGM, where Hanna and Barbera were working on a similar cartoon, The Cat Concerto. Seeing that Freleng was ahead of them, MGM rushed work on the cartoon and got it qualified for contention in 1946, the same year as Rhapsody Rabbit, even though the MGM cartoon would not go into general release until 1947. During the nomination process, The Cat Concerto was shown before Rhapsody Rabbit, leading Freleng to surmise that voters thought he had copied MGM. Cat Concerto went on to win the Oscar.

    Freleng would successfully battle the feckless Eddie Selzer (successor to Leon Schlesinger) to produce cartoons starring Tweety (originally created by Bob Clampett) the way Freleng wanted. As usual, the artist was right, and Tweetie Pie (Freleng, 1947) proved to be a big hit, winning Freleng his first Oscar (although as producer, Selzer accepted and kept the Oscar as his own). This would be the start of a long string of cartoons co-starring the cat Sylvester, and a series that would win another Oscar (for Birds Anonymous in 1957), as well as other nominations.

    Freleng also introduced an explosive little character around this time who shared his red hair, small size and explosive temper: Yosemite Sam. Freleng, who was bored with Fudd, created Sam to provide a real challenge to Bugs. In a long series of cartoons, Sam proved indeed to be a challenge to Bugs, if ultimately an unsuccessful one. His work with these characters brought in yet another Oscar for Freleng, for the classic Knighty Knight Bugs (1958). Freleng would also adapt Speedy Gonzales (created by Bob McKimson), refine the character into his final form in Speedy Gonzales (1955), for which he would win yet another Oscar for his work at the studio.

    More than anything else -- including his exceptionally long tenure at the studio -- it is Freleng’s mastery of razor-sharp timing that cements his reputation as a great director. A cartoon like High Diving Hare (1949) has only one joke: Sam gets Bugs to go up a ladder to perform a high dive, and Bugs tricks Sam into taking the dive instead. It is his ability to time the repetition of these gags, particularly in a sequence where we see only Sam going up a ladder, a pause, and then Sam going down to a dive to splash off-screen, that really makes the cartoon work. Canned Feud (1951) is yet another example of Freleng using timing and pantomime acting to brilliantly put a cartoon across. Still another example is the Private Snafu short Pay Day (1944), which is almost completely without dialogue, but puts across the message -- the folly of not saving money -- with remarkable clarity and punch.

    With the closure of the Warner Brothers cartoon studio in the early 1960s, Freleng would form an alliance with Dave Depatie to create the Pink Panther series, for which Freleng won yet another Oscar, for The Pink Phink (1964). Freleng would produce, if not direct, cartoons for Warner Brothers in the mid-1960s, as well as other cartoons for television. Freleng would return to Warners in 1980 to direct television specials and various compilation features.

    To summarize, I quote Chuck Jones, speaking of Freleng soon after his death:

“He was a giant in my best estimation, and it is hard to recognize a giant in your midst when he is only 5-foot-4. He was quite conceivably the best short-subject animation editor who ever lived.”

    Freleng received story credit for the following cartoons which he actually directed:

  • From Hare to Heir (1960)
  • Lighter Than Hare (1960)
  • Rebel Without Claws (1961)
  • The Jet Cage (1962)
  • Devils Feud Cake (with Warren Foster, 1963)

    The nickname “Friz” is said, by some accounts, to have derived from a fictional congressman “Frizby” used in a column of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper.

    An exceptional Freleng caricature is seen in Hasty Hare (Jones, 1952), in which he is caricatured as I. Frisby, the head of the Shalomar Observatory. (It would be interesting to know if a threat to quit to take up turkey farming was a longstanding Freleng joke.) Freleng can also be seen as one of the Gremlins in Russian Rhapsody (Clampett, 1944). Freleng is also mentioned in the rant by Hitler at the start of the same cartoon.

    In the years before nicknames were allowed in the credits of Warner Brothers cartoons, often one could detect the use of the word “Friz” in the background paintings in various Freleng cartoons. There is, for example, the billboard for “Hotel Friz” passed by the speeding cars at the start of Racketeer Rabbit (Freleng, 1946). Friz is one of the names carved on the door jamb Bugs is leaning against in Bugs Bunny Rides Again (Freleng, 1948), and on a soda can seen in I Taw a Putty Tat (Freleng, 1948). “Friz - Americas Favorite Gelatin Dessert” is seen on a crate in Putty Tat Twouble (Freleng, 1951), along with a portrait. Frizby is one of the dogs listed in Bosko’s Big Race (Harman/Ising, 1932).

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• The Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion is © (copyright) 1996 E. O. Costello. All rights reserved.

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