ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.6 - SEPTEMBER 1999
Bob Clampett, Boy Wonder Of Stage C
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Bob Clampett, mid-1950s.
Robert Clampett was born in San Diego, California in 1913. From the beginning, Bob was intrigued with and influenced by Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and began making film short-subjects in his garage beginning when he was about 12. Word got out about Bob's artistic ability and interests. It is said that among early assignments, Bob designed Walt Disney's first Mickey Mouse doll. In 1930, when Clampett was just seventeen years old, Leon Schlesinger viewed one of Bob's 16mm films and was so impressed with the young man's work, he offered him an assistant position at Harman-Ising Studio.
The team of Harman and Ising were creating Bosco theatrical cartoons directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising with Friz Freleng and others animating, and Schlesinger producing from the art and title company on Melrose Avenue where he held forth. The Bosco cartoons, short on plot, substance and artistic finesse, were distributed with Warner features and exhibited across the U.S. At Harman-Ising, Bob performed his assistantship with energy and enthusiasm.
Bob was transformed by his experience; he was no longer the boy with a camera in a dusty garage, making do with what was at hand; instead, he was one among a group of Hollywood artists and animation professionals who had the talent and tools necessary to create animated films -- artfully made motion pictures that bent reality and entertained while so doing. It was here where he learned the craft that was to take him far in Hollywood. While working-hours were long at Harman-Ising, Bob watched and listened, asked questions and hung over the shoulders of animators and animation directors. He was filling in the gaps of that which he did not know with what he observed and was told, adding to his already extensive bank of know-how with information gleaned from the pros.
Bob's enthusiasm and capacity for hard work did not go unnoticed by Leon Schlesinger. Bob had learned fast and Schlesinger soon promoted Clampett to animator, where he found himself working on day-to-day Bosco assignments at his own desk. After work, however, Bob continued experimenting with hand-puppets in his garage, an activity for which he received plenty of teasing by the pros who so encouraged him on the job.
Welcome to Termite Terrace
At the far corner of Sunset Boulevard on the old Warner Bros. Vitaphone lot next to the Bronson Avenue gate, stood a ramshackle building used by gardeners and WB custodial staff for storage of cleaning supplies, solvents, brooms, lawnmowers and other implements. When the Harman-Ising directing team broke with Schlesinger in the mid-1930's and made their move to MGM, Leon Schlesinger cut a deal with Jack Warner to put together and run an animation unit at Warner Bros. It was in the barely renovated outbuilding that Merrie Melodies was installed. The humble custodian's cottage was immediately named by Bob and Tex, Termite Terrace in honor of its dilapidated, spidery condition. However unpretentious the accommodations, animation history would be made in that building.
The Warner Bros. Days
Set up and rarin' to go in his own office at Fernwood and Van Ness, with Merrie Melodies' writers in the main Warner's building on Sunset Boulevard and his animation staff across the lot at Termite Terrace, Schlesinger began looking for a star. In 1935, he proposed an animated version of Our Gang Comedies, a highly popular series of black and white live-action short subjects produced by Hal Roach out in Culver City. Bob and the other animation people remaining after the Schlesinger-Harman-Ising breakup began fooling around with various character ideas and situations for the cartoons that were to become Merrie Melody's first products. Schlesinger's suggestion led to the first Warner Bros. animated star, Porky Pig. Porky, together with a black cat named Beans, began their zany antics in Warner's first hit series of theatrical cartoons, Porky & Beans. It was Beans who starred, but Bob Clampett's stuttering, innocent and gullible Porky captured the imagination and hearts of American audiences.
When Hollywood's animation community became aware of Porky & Beans, and the quality of the animation coming out of Termite Terrace, Merrie Melodies started drawing to it the zany, pivotal and remarkably creative brains of people like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin (Tee Hee), Dave Monahan, Cal Howard, Mike Maltese, Warren Foster, Tedd Pierce, the voices of Mel Blanc, sound effects by Treg Brow, and a man named Carl Stallings, who revolutionized cartoon music forevermore. These men would one day be called the greatest talents in the history of cartoon comedy.
Tex Avery and Clampett teamed in 1935-1936 at the beginning of the Termite Terrace years. Avery directed and Clampett acted as gagman and animator. Together they moved animation into unexplored territory with wild and irreverent humor and an eagerness to squash and stretch animation farther than it had ever been squashed and stretched before, a technique that came to be called "The Warner Style." Tex and Bob came up with a character that produced some of animation's wildest moments: Daffy Duck -- a hard-driven, hyperkinetic, impudent, bewildering, lisping, salivating, one-track-minded character who hysterically zipped around the screen while muddling each and every animated supporting actor, especially his co-star, Porky Pig. Daffy first appeared in 1937 in "Porky's Duck Hunt" and subsequently, as part of an established Daffy-Porky team, who, at this writing has appeared in more than 120 cartoons in addition to feature-length movies, Saturday morning TV series and prime time TV specials. Now that is stardom!
In 1937, Schlesinger promoted Clampett to full director and it was during the following nine years that Bob Clampett -- and Porky Pig -- became responsible, with the aid of the Termite Terrace regulars, for some of the most memorable moments in animated cartoon history: "Porky in Wackyland" (1938), "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" (1943, a title and theme that in subsequent years would not see the light of day), and "The Piggy Bank Robbery" (1946), were among these.
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