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Book Review - 'Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices'

Fred Patten reviews Ben Ohmart’s fascinating new book about the legendary voice actor.

(From l-r) Chuck Jones, June Foray and Mel at Warner Bros.

Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices, by Ben Ohmart.  Illustrated.

Duncan, OK, BearManor Media, November 2012, trade paperback $44.00 (705 pages).

When I saw that the title information for this book included “Foreword by Bugs Bunny”, my heart sank.  That pretty much promised a book full of cute humor, exaggerated Hollywood legends, and a whitewashed biography.  Thankfully, none of that is true.  As author Ben Ohmart explains in his Introduction, the Bugs Bunny foreword was prepared for Noel Blanc’s unpublished biography of his father.  Ohmart has incorporated Noel Blanc’s manuscript into this book, along with “as much first hand material as I could find” (p. 13). 

Ben Ohmart is the founder/publisher of BearManor Media, which specializes in biographies of Hollywood voice actors such as Walter Tetley, Paul Frees, Daws Butler, and June Foray, as well as motion picture stars who also provided many significant cartoon voices such as Jerry Colonna and Wally Cox.  As he says of this book, “This isn’t an animation book.  There are plenty of books on the history of cartoons, especially Warner Bros. animation, so I’m not going to waste space here replicating cartoon information readily available elsewhere.” (p. 14).  Yet how could a detailed biography of Mel Blanc NOT also be an important book of animation history, considering his sixty-plus years as a leading voice artist of such animated stars as the movies’ Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and almost every other Warner Bros. cartoon character, and many TV cartoon notables from Barney Rubble of Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones to The Frito Bandito of TV commercials.

Actually, the biography of Mel Blanc takes up only pages 17 to 227 of this 705 page tome.  The subsequent pages are devoted to almost twenty pages of Tributes by professional colleagues and the next generation of voice actors, the text of a nine-page humorous speech given by Blanc at an American Association of Advertising convention in 1964, and CREDITS from pages 257 to 685.  There are also a bibliography (including books in which Blanc is mentioned, and lists of the songs and phonograph recordings on which he performed) and an index.

The Credits are extremely detailed.  Some samples:  Radio.  “October 4, 1942 to May 30, 1943.  The Grape Nuts Program.  Weekly regular: Jack Benny.  Situation comedy program with occasional comedy skits.  Series supporting cast included Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Don Wilson and Dennis Day.  Mel Blanc appeared on an almost regular basis in supporting roles.  Sponsored by Grape Nuts.  NBC.”  (p. 261)  Cartoons and Short Subjects.  The Aristo-Cat. (1943)  D: Charles M. [Chuck] Jones.  VOICES: Mel Blanc, Tedd Pierce, Michael Maltese.  Pussy, a spoiled cat in an opulent home, is left to fend for himself but doesn’t know what a mouse looks like.  Hubie and Bert – two mice out to raid the cheese box – set Pussy straight: a mouse looks just like Rover the bulldog.  Blanc is Pussy, Bert, Madame, the dog, and Meadows.  Entry in the MERRY MELODIES series.  SONG: “Singin’ in the Bathtub” (Michael Cleary, Ned Washington, Herb Magidson; sung by Blanc as Pussy).  MUSIC BY Carl W. Stalling.  Released on June 19.  (7 min./Vitaphone Sound/Technicolor/Video/DVD).  Leon Schlesinger Studios/Warner Bros.”  (p. 393)  Feature Films.  “Broadway Melody of 1940.  (1940)  D: Norman Taurog.  Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy, Frank Morgan, Ian Hunter, Florence Rice, Lynne Carver, Ann Morris, Triss Frischke, Douglas McPhail, Herman Bing, Jack Mulhall, Barbara Jo Allen [Vera Vague], Joe Yule, Irving Bacon, Mel Blanc, Charlotte Arren, Gladys Blake, Johnny Broderick, Don Brodie, Paul E. Burns, George Chandler, Joseph Crehan, Hal K. Dawson, Edgar Dearing, James Flavin, The Music Maids, Mel[ville] Ruick, William Tannen, Russell Wade.  After getting his star break, hoofer Murphy’s success goes to his head and causes a strain in his partnership with Astaire.  Blanc plays a panhandler.  CHOREOGRAPHY BY Bobby Connelly.”  And eight more lines of credits which do not mention Blanc further, so I will omit them.  (p. 592)  You get the idea.  There are also detailed credits for Blanc’s Television and Recordings performances.

The biography through the Tributes, pages 17 to 245, are illustrated throughout with dozens of photographs of Blanc; mostly publicity photos from throughout his career, with some candid photos taken by family and friends, and a little ephemera such as advertisements featuring Blanc as a celebrity, the cover of his autobiography, and a letter of condolence from ex-President Ronald Reagan to Blanc’s wife after his death.  Unfortunately, Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices is not published on slick paper, and all of the graphics, while quite sharp, are not as crisp as those in books with separate sections of illustrations on appropriately glossy paper. 

Mel Blanc during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Like many Hollywood celebrities, Blanc was often credited with more than he actually did, and even contributed to his legend himself.  Ohmert repeats all the popular legends, and also corrects the false ones.  “Although in his autobiography Mel took credit for naming Bugs after artist Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, the story wasn’t exactly true.  Animator Charlie Thorson is usually credited for inadvertently naming the rabbit after writing ‘Bugs’ Bunny’ at the top of his model sheet when he was drawing for Hardaway’s short, Hare-um Scare-um (1939).” (p. 30).

So if you want any information about Mel Blanc, especially including all of his cartoon character voice credits for the movies (including the World War II Private Snafu cartoons not shown to the civilian public), television (including the TV commercials that he voiced), and children’s records, you have to get Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the firsttheatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded thefirst Americanfan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and wasawarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  Amajor stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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