Dr. Toon shines the spotlight on underrated voice actor Arthur Q. Bryan.
It is certain that the Warner Bros. cartoon shorts (now referred to as classic) are as popular today as when they played in movie houses across America. No one can fail to recognize the immortal stars spawned in Termite Terrace. Books, videotapes, laserdiscs and DVDs have exposed Bugs, Daffy, Tweety and even Sniffles to a wider audience than Leon Schlesinger could ever have imagined. Thanks to television special features and the copious archival material now available on DVD, even casual fans are acquainted with the artists and directors behind the films, not to mention the voice artists who helped the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies come alive.
In the latter case, the spotlight belongs mainly to Mel Blanc, renowned as the man who created virtually every voice belonging to the Warners characters. Even the venerable Mr. Blanc, however, must concede a few rays of fame to his Warner Bros. colleague of 20 years Arthur Q. Bryan. This gentleman, as many aficionados may already know, was the voice of Elmer Fudd. Bryan accomplished more than that, however, and few realize how prolific and fascinating his career truly was. Before his endeavors ended, Bryan would work in both animated and live film, radio, television, movies and recording.
Bryan was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 8, 1899. By all accounts, Bryan was a star-struck young man who always saw a future for himself in show business. Such individuals often set out in search of studios and stardom during the early days of the motion picture industry. What Bryan did not possess were the devastatingly handsome features sought by studio executives, and he tended to be on the portly side, but he could act, sing and owned a marvelous speaking voice. Narrators and character actors were in demand, and these roles seemed to be suited for Bryan. The earliest known work by the aspiring actor was, in fact, as the narrator of a little-known film called Killing to Live (1931).
Bryan was never part of the contractual studio arrangement known in Hollywood as the Star System. The young performer was, for his entire career, a freelancer who answered auditions at many studios. It was apparent that Bryan had a natural knack for comedy, a trait that would serve him in good stead in years to come. Bryan eventually worked his way into films, first appearing on the silver screen as Mr. Smith in the 1938 Warner Bros. film The Great Library Misery. Within a year, he would find a role that would endear him to generations of animation fans and define his place in movie history.
The Warner Bros. studio was an exciting place to be during the late 1930s. The company was perfecting the art of the gangster film and producing gritty, realistic dramas that were drawing critical acclaim. The animation house, under Leon Schlesinger, was enjoying an artistic expansion. Gone were the days of primitive cartoons featuring Bosko, Foxy and Buddy.
Young directors such as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin joined veterans like Friz Freleng and in the process would create some of Americas liveliest animated shorts. As characters such as Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and the rambunctious rabbit that morphed into Bugs Bunny developed, it became obvious that a new level of sophistication was needed in all areas of cartoon production. Up until that time, studio employees or Warners bit actors provided the cartoon voices whenever needed at Schlesingers department. Before long, all that would change.
Blanc came to Warner Bros. in 1937 as one voice artist who supplanted the unprofessional efforts hindering the animated shorts. Blanc would eventually define the art of animated voice acting. At the time, director Tex Avery was using a character named Egghead; a man named Cliff Nazarro did little for the characters voice but imitate comedian Joe Penner. Egghead evolved into a character first identified as Elmer Fudd, Peacemaker in the 1938 short, A Feud There Was. This transitional character was named Dangerous Dan McFoo in the 1939 cartoon short of the same name, but for the first time he was voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan, who successfully auditioned for the studio earlier that year. Bryan developed a soppy milquetoasts voice for McFoo, and Avery loved the portrayal. Bryan found himself on the studio list for future work.
Bryan spent the rest of that year doing bit parts in unremarkable live-action films such as I Stole a Million and Dad for a Day before returning to the cartoon studio for Chuck Jones cartoon Elmers Candid Camera (1940). This cartoon was arguably the first true appearance of Elmer Fudd (who yet retained vestiges of Eggheads character design). There was nothing remaining of Eggheads former voice, however. Bryan had perfected his interpretation of the character, with a prominent voice impediment added. Elmer tended to pronounce the consonants L and R as W.
Elmer informed the audience that he would be photographing wildwife, but after an encounter with a prototypical version of Bugs Bunny, he is soon cursing wabbits. As insensitive as this may sound by todays standards, this was typical of Warner Bros. cartoons of the time; Daffy Duck manifested a slurpy lisp and Porky Pig was famous for his fussy stuttering.
Elmer Fudd continued to undergo evolution as a character throughout 1940. Bryan voiced the Fudd character as John Alden in The Hardship of Miles Standish and as Ned Cutler in Confederate Honey, but both creation and voice artist merged forever in A Wild Hare later that same year. In this historic short, definitive versions of both Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny appeared for the first time. Director Tex Avery outlined a relationship between the characters that would last for decades, and in doing so brought Fudd into his own.
Bryan influenced Elmers development in an unexpected manner in 1941. For the short Wabbit Twouble, director Clampett thought that Fudd would be more amusing if he actually resembled Bryan, and so revised the modelsheets originally done by Robert Givens. Elmer gained considerable weight and rather resembled a well-dressed bowling pin, a depiction hardly flattering to either Fudd or Bryan. After several cartoons in this incarnation, Frelengs unit, using Vivie Ristos revised modelsheet, changed Elmer back to his thinner version for the 1942 short, The Hare Brained Hypnotist. This was a far more attractive version of the character, and little about Elmer Fudd would change from that point on.
It must be remembered that Bryan was primarily a performer. By the time that the final version of Elmer Fudd appeared in 1942, Bryan had appeared in some 20 films. A full-fledged character actor, Bryan was also working in radio. Beginning in 1941, he joined the cast of one of Americas most popular programs, The Great Gildersleeve. In 1942, he took the lead role of Major Hoople in Our Boarding House. Bryans radio career lasted until the mid-1950s, and by that time, he would be a TV star.
Beginning with a spot on The Beulah Show in 1950, Bryan made appearances on several television series, including I Love Lucy and Zane Grey Theater. Never one to pass up opportunities, Bryan also recorded Tickety-Tock, the Clock that Couldnt Tell Time for Capitol Records. Bryan, though less well known than Blanc, worked in every medium of entertainment that Blanc did.
As the Warners artists continued to work with Bryan and Elmer Fudd, it became evident that the character could be adapted to many settings and roles. This was partly because Warner Bros. had some of Hollywoods finest cartoon directors, but the job turned in by Bryan truly made a star of Elmer. Bryan was able to summon up a unique voice that would have been funny if it had come from a squirrel, a caterpillar, or even a blank screen. Fudds weakling voice was perfect for a low-key doormat, but Bryan was able to summon up marvelous rants of joy, frustration, anger, terror and, on several occasions, unexpected sophistication as Elmer became a true ensemble player in the Warner Bros. cartoons. In each film, Bryan was able to maintain Elmers distinctive speech impediment and trademark staccato laugh no matter what role he portrayed.
True, Bryan was famous for voicing only one cartoon character, but when one considers the talent needed in order for Elmer to become an accomplished screen actor, Bryans achievement seems awesome indeed. Arthur Bryan led Elmer into battle against many times against Bugs Bunny, but Daffy Duck, Sylvester, the Goofy Gophers and picnic-wrecking ants also faced off against the mild-mannered star. Along the way Elmer portrayed a hunter, a photographer, a mad scientist, a giant, an elf-king, a TV show host, a farmer, a news narrator and a Canadian mounted policeman, to name a few.
Consider some of Bryans finest work: Elmer as a waiter terrorized by Humphrey Bogarts wrath in Slick Hare (1947), as a menacing giant in Beanstalk Bunny (1955) or as a silly Cupid (The Stupid Cupid, 1944). Bryan gave a wonderfully panicked performance in Hare Tonic (1945), in which Fudd believes he has been stricken with rabbititus. Bryan portrayed a more cosmopolitan Fudd (as a vaudeville star and a millionaire, respectively) in Whats Up, Doc? (1950) and Hare Brush (1955). The talented actor proved he could vary Fudds voice to make him aged or infantile (The Old Grey Hare, 1944).
In one neat performance (A Pest in the House, 1947), Bryan used his own speaking voice to portray a weary businessman seeking rest in a hotel. The place is managed by Elmer Fudd, and, due to Daffy Ducks machinations, Bryans businessman winds up pummeling his famous alter ego!
Then there are the roles most beloved by animation aficionados Elmer as a disheveled parody of Deems Taylor in the Fantasia parody A Corny Concerto (1942). Elmer blasting Daffy Duck into oblivion in Chuck Jones famous hunting trilogy, Rabbit Fire/Rabbit Seasoning/Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1951-53). Elmer as a mortified, reluctant opera star in The Rabbit of Seville (1950). Then, the piece de resistance. In 1957, Bryan performed what many believe to be Elmer Fudds finest role.
From the first moment of Whats Opera, Doc? It is clear that director Jones intended Elmer to be as much the star as Bugs Bunny. This elaborate Wagnerian spoof cast Elmer Fudd as Siegfried. Clad in an oversized magic helmet, gesturing dramatically and twirling with the grace of a ballerina born, Fudd (and Bryan) display a depth of character unsurpassed in any of his other cartoons. Still, thats not all, folks; the cartoon features a stunning musical duet between Blanc and Bryan that reveals Elmer Fudd to be a very fine singer indeed.
Unfortunately, Bryan would make only four more cartoons. In the fall of 1959, Bryan recorded Elmers voice for director Frelengs Person to Bunny. It was an undistinguished short featuring re-used gags and animation, and it would be Bryans unknowing farewell. On Nov. 18, Bryan suffered a fatal heart attack at his Hollywood home. Bryan was gone, but Elmer Fudd, having become immortal, had to go on. The studio requested Blanc to assume the task, but he initially rebelled, stating that he did not do imitations. Blanc finally dropped his qualms and attempted the job. Blanc was the first of many; Daws Butler, Greg Burson, Billy West and Jeff Bergman were among others who attempted to carry on the legacy of Bryan. Some were better than others were, but none could top the original. Bryan simply was Elmer Fudd.
Bryan, in retrospect, appeared in 59 live-action films and at least seven television series. His radio career spanned more than20 years. He starred in 38 Merrie Melodies, 20 Looney Tunes and one wartime special, Leon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunny, in 1942. Bryan worked with every major cartoon director at Warner Bros. at least once; Freleng led the parade with 21 collaborations. Although Bryans name appears in various animation histories, he tends to receive only cursory mention; perhaps this is because he specialized in only one character. Still, this ignores his depth as a performer, his talent and his staying power in one of the worlds most difficult businesses.
As Elmer Fudd might have eulogized, Arthur Q. Bwyan, he was a vewy gweat man.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.