In this week’s breakdown: a Shakespearian hound and the Goofy Gophers!
The working title for this cartoon is A Hammy Hamlet, as listed on the original studio draft. This straightforward title is more in the Terrytoons vein — maybe a pastiche of stage theatrics featuring Heckle and Jeckle — while the jargon of the finished cartoon packs a bigger punch. You’ll notice on the draft that scene 15 has additional scenes – the Gophers’ first acts of retaliation against the Shakespearian dog — inserted at the bottom of the document. It’s intriguing to picture a transition between the Gophers concocting of their plan to them pouring a tubful of bath water into the dog’s mouth. Without them, the cartoon wouldn’t have a ubiquitous “hot-foot” to execute — an irresistible gag when the opportunity emerges, as it does here.
Art Davis was slated to direct A Ham in a Role, as he used a similar eloquent hound in Two Gophers from Texas, released a year earlier. The decision to disband Davis’ directorial unit took effect during production, by November 1947. Davis and his unit were under the same six-month probationary contract given to Bob Clampett before he departed the studio. The records for ‘40s Warners cartoons after April 1947 are spotty. Luckily, a surviving dialogue record indicates that a voice session took place on November 15, 1947 (listing Stan Freberg) — two years before its December 1949 release. Mel Blanc might’ve recorded his lines that day as well, but no information survives on whether Blanc and Freberg worked together or separately. By the time of this cartoon’s release, Davis served as an animator in Friz Freleng’s unit.
Bob McKimson finished the cartoon, recruiting former Davis animators Bill Melendez and Emery Hawkins to his unit.A Ham in a Role, as it stands, feels more like a Davis-directed cartoon in its structure, as the Goofy Gophers heckle the dog in accordance with the Bard’s quotations he recites (selections from Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and King Lear). While the gags in the body of the cartoon are clever, they’re too isolated, and they lack a rhythmic flow. McKimson’s handling of the cartoon transpired as he began to fully control his animators, forcing them to adhere to his character layouts, which nearly sapped the individuality out of their work. His brother Charles’ animation drew closer to the director’s inclinations, but there are exceptions. The fluid animation of drifting animator Emery Hawkins was too wild to contain, even at other animation studios. Likewise for Pete Burness’ bouncy work and Melendez’s subdued Scribner-esque animation (a natural influence—he was Scribner’s assistant in the early ‘40s).
Sid Marcus’ animation began when he joined Associated Animators, animating on the Mutt and Jeff cartoons (1925-26) with Dick Huemer, Ben Harrison and Manny Gould. Marcus went to Fleischer’s for a brief period, but switched over to the Mintz studio, where he spent more than a decade. During the ‘30s, while Harrison and Gould worked on Krazy Kat, he contributed to Toby the Pup, Scrappy and the Color Rhapsodies, along with Huemer and Art Davis. Marcus became a director at the studio, and remained during the new Screen Gems designation, directing the Phantasies and several one-shot Color Rhapsodies. He also served as a writer, mostly on the Fox and the Crow series.
Marcus briefly worked at Warners in the Davis unit, after writer Lloyd Turner left the studio in 1947. His credit is seen in Davis’ last finished cartoon Bye Bye Bluebeard. Marcus was laid off when the unit dissolved. He joined the staff again in the early ‘50s, contributing eccentric titles during his second stint for Bob McKimson; The Oily American, Lighthouse Mouse, Dime to Retire, The Hole Idea, and Devil May Hare — the debut of the Tasmanian Devil — among them. He directed for Lantz on entries released 1963-66 – among them, the cult classic, Half-Baked Alaska (1965) — with Art Davis, who had left Warners after 20 years, as his main animator. Marcus transitioned to television, working on stories for Joe Oriolo’s Felix the Cat series, directing for the notorious Sam Singer on Sinbad Jr. and superhero fare for Grantray-Lawrence (Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America) and Steve Krantz (Spider-Man). His last work in animation was as a writer and director for De-Patie/Freleng, until his death in 1979.
The opening tirade in A Ham in a Role, as the thespian dog desires to unshackle himself from clownish animated antics to greener pastures of culture, bears a striking similarity to the plights of ex-Disney animators like Bill Melendez. They conformed to their individualistic perspectives in animation design, while eschewing broad violence at the studio that would become United Productions of America (UPA). Melendez worked at Disney’s in the late ‘30s as an assistant animator, but left during the 1941 strike. He became an animator at Warners under Clampett, Davis and McKimson, but producer Eddie Selzer soon fired him over political beliefs. He transferred to UPA, where he collaborated on their groundbreaking efforts such as Gerald McBoing Boing, Madeline and Christopher Crumpet. Melendez worked on commercials for the studio, Playhouse Pictures, and John Sutherland Productions before founding his own production company, which was entrusted to adapt Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters to television.
On a film-related note, A Ham in a Role’s production coincided with the American premieres of two Shakespeare adaptations in the fall of 1948, helmed by two directors better qualified in dramatic acting than the “hammy Hamlet” in this cartoon — Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Orson Welles’ Macbeth. Olivier received an Oscar for Best Actor and his film won Best Picture of the year.
In the manner of the Goofy Gophers: do you think you should enjoy this breakdown video? Surely! Let’s do!
This week you’ll have to watch it via another link. CLICK HERE.
(Thanks to Jerry Beck, Michael Barrier, Frank Young, Keith Scott and Thad Komorowski for their help.)