Suspended Animation #322
Having known animation legend Bob Clampett and interviewed him several times, I can state that he always held Walt Disney in high esteem and used him as a business model in creating his own brand.
He told me that was why those “Beany and Cecil” animated cartoons had the song “A Bob Clampett CartooooOOOooon!” and a caricature of him so that people would associate those cartoons with Bob just as people associated Walt with Mickey and the gang.
Interestingly, there are several connections between Bob Clampett and Walt Disney.
Clampett was born in San Diego, California on May 8, 1913 and his early life was influenced by newspaper comic strips and movies featuring Harold Lloyd, Lon Chaney, Douglas Fairbanks and similar classic actors.
Officially, Bob began his professional career as an animator on the very first Merrie Melodies animated short made by Harman and Ising in 1931 for Warner Brothers, Lady Play Your Mandolin.
For a time, he was teamed with the even more legendary Tex Avery on the Looney Tunes animated shorts and my good friend and animation historian Jerry Beck once said that Clampett was the one who “put ‘looney’ in Looney Tunes”.
In September 1978 I got to sit with Clampett for hours in his Seward Street studio recording an interview for the fanzine Mindrot of some of his more outrageous stories about working at Warners and his Beany and Cecil shows.
However, for those who knew Bob, it was quite easy during a conversation for him to drift off onto other subjects that interested him or were sparked by the discussion. During that interview, he shared some of his connections with Walt Disney.
In January 1930, Carolyn “Charlotte” Clark had an idea of how to use her sewing talents to make some money during the Great Depression. She had been making a living selling cookies and novelties.
She sent teenage nephew, Bob Clampett, to the Alex Theater in Glendale, California.
The young teen sat through three consecutive full showings that day in order to see a Mickey Mouse short several times so he could sketch Mickey Mouse. There were no illustrations of Mickey Mouse available at that time other than on an occasional movie poster because the flood of Mickey Mouse merchandise had not yet started to provide some reference images.
In the dark with his sketchbook and pencil, he had to sit through the newsreel, featurette, main feature and other material just to see the cartoon again and again.
From those sketches, Clark made the first stuffed Mickey Mouse doll. Clampett’s father advised her to get Walt Disney’s permission before she started making and selling them.
He drove her to the Disney Studio. Both Walt and Roy loved the doll. They rented a house near their Hyperion Studio that was later nicknamed the “Doll House” for Clark to work on making the doll in three different sizes. Clark hired some seamstresses to help and the work began.
Originally, the dolls were purchased by Walt and Roy to give to friends, business acquaintances, and special visitors to the studio and to be used for publicity photos.
“Walt Disney himself sometimes came over in an old car to pick up the dolls,” Clampett recalled. “One time, his car loaded with Mickeys wouldn’t start, and I pushed while Walt steered until it caught and he took off.”
After a photo of Walt with one of the dolls appeared in the Screen Play Secrets magazine in 1930 and several newspapers, the demand for owning one of the figures by the general public became overwhelming. Stores were swamped with calls from customers wanting a doll just like the one they saw in the photos.
By November 1930, Clark was producing three to four hundred dolls a week to be sold at two large Los Angeles area department stores, May Company and Bullock’s for five dollars each. The department stores only paid two dollars and fifty cents per doll so made an amazing profit. Clark had to employ six full time seamstresses to meet this goal.
Clampett moved on after his high school graduation to pursue a career as an animator. His distinctive exaggerated style was loved by audiences. Soon, he was promoted to the role of director where among other things, he designed characters, directed voice recording sessions, wrote songs, helped develop the storyboard, assigned animators (like actors) to particular characters or sections and then supervised their work.
The first one was Corny Concerto (1943) that parodied Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Clampett replaced distinguished musicologist Deems Taylor with an unshaven and ill-attired Elmer Fudd who introduced two segments. Clampett enjoyed puncturing the pomposity of Taylor in the original movie with the dishelved Fudd.
One segment featured Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig in a woodland setting set to the music of Tales of the Vienna Woods. Porky, accompanied by his hunting dog, are hunting Bugs and all three are finally shot by a squirrel. While Porky and the dog mourn a supposedly dead Bugs Bunny, they pull aside Bugs’s hands from his expected wound, and it is revealed that Bugs is wearing a brassiere and is very much alive.
The other segment set to the music of Blue Danube features a young Daffy Duck playing an ugly black duckling joining a flock of white swans. The mother swan does everything she can to get rid of the little black duck but when her babies are taken by a vulture, Daffy goes to the rescue and is eventually accepted as a member of the family.
This segment also referenced a similar sequence in Fantasia that featured a little black pegasus character trying to be accepted by a family flock. Of course, the Disney version did not feature violent confrontations like the Warners version but was much more pastoral.
The other parody was the notorious Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (1943) that was a modern parody retelling of the Disney version of the timeless classic of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but with black caricatures.
Next week I will take a look at that cartoon short and the Beany and Cecil parody of “The Happiest Place on Earth”.