Long before mistaken-identity cartoons like Chuck Jones’ Forward March Hare (1952) and Jules Feffeir/Gene Deitch’s Munro (1960), was Frank Tashlin’s 1946 book The Bear That Wasn’t. Tashlin has inferred that the book was written as a reaction to his experience at Disney in the late 30s. I suppose if you think of Tashlin as the bear, with “bear” being a metaphor for an “artist”; the factory as the Disney studio; the Zoo as an art museum; the company president as Walt… it begins to make even more sense.
The book was a critical and financial success, but despite his background in animation (or maybe because of it) Tashlin resisted letting the book be adapted to film. However he did oversee his own adaptation of the material, a 1947 MGM recording of the book, read by Keenan Wynn (son of Ed Wynn, and an acclaimed actor himself – and villain “Alonzo Hawk” in numerous Disney live action movies). Robert Welch adapted and directed – Welsh was a close associate of Tashlin’s at this time, having co-wrote the feature Variety Girl and later Son of Paleface with him, acting as producer of that classic and several other Tashlin features in the 1950s.
Walter Schumann (Dragnet, Night of the Hunter) wrote the music for the record – and it’s an interesting coincidence that the record and Chuck Jones’ film (20 years later) were both made for MGM. Mike Kazaleh has uploaded his copy of the recording (and the humorous – probably written by Tashlin – liner notes here) and I’ve embed it below.
Twenty years later, MGM released a 10-minute animated version. Tashlin was credited as co-producer with Chuck Jones – but Tash really had nothing to do with the film and was horrified by the end results. In his interview with Michael Barrier Tashlin said:
“…with the exception maybe of your best girl friend running you over in your own car, that was just about the worst experience I ever had, the making of that cartoon. I did that book a long time ago, in 1948, and everyone wanted to make an animated cartoon. I heard from studios in Europe – all over. And it was kind of precious and special to me, and I said no. Gilbert Seldes, who was at Disney’s at that time, called me, he says, “I want to get Walt to get this,” and I said, “No, they’d chew it up, it’d be no good.” Anyhow, the thing was translated into many languages, and it was always a thing that I liked. Then about four years ago – five years ago, maybe – Chuck called me, and said he would like to do it, as an MGM cartoon. And I said, without reservation, “Fine,” ’cause I had seen the thing Chuck had made called The Dot and the Line, where they had taken a book and faithfully put the book on the screen. And that’s all I wanted. So I said, “Fine,” we made a deal. He said, “I’m gonna give you producer credit on it,” I said, “What for, I’m not producing it.” He said, “In case we win an Academy Award, you’ll get one.” You know, that was marvelous, and he had received many Academy Awards. So I went away to make a picture, I never went near it, ’cause I figured that was in the best hands. Why worry about it, the guy was gonna take the book and put it on the screen, and he was a very capable man. I went to see it in a theater, and the thing started, and I guess it wasn’t into a minute and a half where they had done a thing that destroyed the whole picture, and that’s why it never got anywhere.”
“…they destroyed the cartoon with one little thing. I saw that, I almost cried. I never talked to Chuck about it, I’ve never talked to him since. It was a terrible thing. This bear, he goes to sleep under a factory, when he wakes up they try to convince him he’s a [man], as you well know, and he keeps insisting he’s a bear, and that’s the point of it. Up front in the beginning of this thing, when they are telling him he is a man and he is insisting he’s a bear, they put a cigarette in his mouth. Now, the picture was destroyed there, because by the acceptance of a cigarette – you never saw where he got it – by putting a cigarette in his mouth, he was already a man. You know what I mean? Psychologically, the picture was ruined. It stopped working from that point on. So that was a terrible experience.”
Paul Spector posted some of his father’s “additional story” boards on his Irv Spector blog. It’s generally agreed that Jones’ missed the mark with this one. Mike Kazaleh sent me his insights about the film:
“Visually, the dominating presence is all Maurice Noble. Not just in the design, but in the actual staging and cutting. He made very liberal use of translucent pantone sheets in this film. The animation is so limited as to be almost incidental. Most of the motion was accomplished by way of camera moves. A lot of the actual animation is an arm or a mouth moving, an eye blinking or a walk cycle.”
Here it is – the cartoon adaptaion that wasn’t: