This week, we revisit Bob Clampett now five years ahead in his career, introducing a certain tiny little bird!
From his mid-’38 releases –starting with Porky’s Naughty Nephew – Clampett’s B&W Looney Tunes veered away from their genuine exuberance. Chuck Jones’ departure from the unit isn’t at fault, but the mandate to have Porky Pig be in every Looney Tune obviously exhausted Clampett’s use of the character. The talented animators in his unit -Norm McCabe, Bobe Cannon, Izzy Ellis and John Carey among them- pushed themselves to intensify their earlier spontaneous exaggeration. Evidently, Clampett felt handicapped with lesser animators with what was considered the cheap product for producer Leon Schlesinger.
Ray Katz, Schlesinger’s brother-in-law and studio business head, housed the Clampett unit in a separate building from the main studio. Since Clampett had been writing his own stories, Katz felt that he needed to recruit some new gagmen. After a failed attempt with Howard Baldwin– only credited for the Hardaway-directed Porky’s Hare Hunt- high school friend Ernest “Flash” Gee and animation veteran Warren Foster arrived at the studio. Foster had previously served in the story department for Fleischer’s Popeye series, admired by Bob for their inventive gags. Clampett stated that he and “Flash” would “talk story” while playing games of ping-pong together. The B&W cartoons were hindered by a propensity for tepid gags and heavily referential humor, chiefly reliant on blatant radio catchphrases for a punch line. Aside from Porky’s Tire Trouble and Wise Quacks with Daffy Duck, Clampett was in autopilot until his late ’41 releases.
Farm Frolics and Goofy Groceries, both 1941 “gag-string” entries, were Clampett’s only color Merrie Melodies with the Katz unit. After Avery left the studio, he transferred to the Schlesinger building and inherited his team of brilliant animators, including Rod Scribner, Bob McKimson, Virgil Ross, et al. His first credit with his new unit was for Wabbit Twouble, begun by Avery, whose timing/humor clearly dominates the finished cartoon. The Cagey Canary, Aloha Hooey and Crazy Cruise were other Avery titles finished by Clampett, released around late ’41 and early ’42, yet neither director received credit. Once a staff member left the studio and a cartoon was left in production, their name was absent in the main titles.
Babbitt and Catstello, two catty caricatures of the extremely popular Abbott and Costello, were the nominal stars for A Tale of Two Kitties. The spotlight went to their foil, a little pink bird named “Orson,” according to the model sheets. The little bird first appeared in a brief spot gag in Wacky Blackout, one of Clampett’s last B&W Looney Tunes, with a “froggy” voice provided by Kent Rogers. Bob modeled the little bird after his own baby picture, and his more violent, aggressive personality is based around Red Skelton’s radio character, the Mean Widdle Kid.
His first words in Two Kitties that thrust him into stardom, “I tawt I taw a putty tat!” first appeared in a doodle Clampett sketched on MGM stationary to a musician friend. He scribbled a little bird next to Leo the Lion, with a word balloon which read, “I tink I taw a titty-tat.” The diminutive bird was renamed Tweety for his second cartoon Birdy and the Beast, after Clampett’s original idea of twin baby birds named “Twick n’ Tweet.” Of course, it would be grand for animation history if that original piece of stationary happened to surface. For the record, Phil Monroe stated in an interview (with Mike Barrier) that Clampett credited him with the line when Bob showed Phil his own sketch (which Bob had saved for years) of a canary perched on a limb uttering those now-famous words.
When he took over Avery’s unit, Clampett inherited principal animator Bob McKimson. Being the studio’s most influential artist, he was expert with solid drawing and graceful, subtle movements with his characters. It was Clampett’s great privilege to have McKimson on his crew. His introduction to Babbitt and Catstello deftly establishes their personalities. Catstello’s brief transformation as a gorilla, when he finds the nerve to eat the “defenseless bird,” is brilliant. McKimson also handles some great staging during the battle between the little bird and Catstello, and some technically complex sequences, as in scene 36, with the makeshift wings tied to Catstello’s arms.
Rod Scribner’s distinct animation was more appreciated with Clampett’s cartoons than elsewhere at Warner’s. Around the time of Two Kitties’ production, Scribner and Clampett studied George Lichty’s loose, flowing lines in his Grin and Bear It newspaper comic. Bob often chose certain sequences in his cartoons for Scribner to “Lichty this a little.” This resulted in an unrestrained elasticity, used for a character’s inner emotions rather than a simple gag. His animation was just as essential to Clampett’s eccentric style as McKimson’s gentler work. Catstello’s reaction to the dizzying height from the ladder, Babbitt’s chastising Catstello for “clowning,” and their snarling pounce at the end, are important examples of the Lichty style Clampett and Scribner achieved.
Virgil Ross animated for Clampett for only a year, claiming that he felt uncomfortable because his drawing/animation hadn’t met Bob’s expectations. He moved to Friz Freleng’s unit, where he spent the remainder of his career. Ross’ animation was earnest to the very end, given the small amount of scenes he was assigned for Two Kitties. The little bird’s fourth-wall smirk (a la silent comedian Harry Langdon) after removing Catstello’s “piddies” from the clothesline is marvelous.
Like Ross, Sid Sutherland was a former Lantz animator whom Avery brought over to his original “Termite Terrace” unit. His retreat from Clampett in 1942 marked the end of his animation career. Sutherland’s style is elusive. Looking closely, his drawing/animation is similar to McKimson’s, but lacks the solidity.
Revalee “Rev” Chaney (1915-85) is another unsung Warners animator, credited for brief sequences in this cartoon. His 1940 marriage certificate lists Jones animator Phil Monroe as a witness; indicative that he worked at the studio at that time, although it is uncertain how long his stint lasted. Chaney was a unit manager for industrial cartoons by 1949, and Broadcasting’s September 1956 issue announced his position as UPA’s assistant production manager under Ray Thursby. The low footage amount he is given in Two Kitties might explain why Chaney was never listed in the studio’s main credits.
The color styling in Clampett’s late ’42-’43 Merrie Melodies is gorgeous, and Two Kitties is no exception. Clampett attributed the richness to background artist Richard H. Thomas and layout artist Mike Sasanoff. Bob claimed to have drawn the layouts himself in this cartoon because he was temporarily without a layout artist. Babbitt and Catstello’s attempts to catch Tweety are set in “real time,” with each scene occurring at different times of the day – early morning, afternoon, sunset and night. This clever directorial approach manifested Clampett’s sense of ease with his new team of artists.
Enjoy this latest breakdown video!
Special Thanks this week to Yowp for additional information.