Monday, August 21, 2006

Happy 100th Birthday, Friz Freleng

On August 21, 1906, Isadore Freleng was born. In an era when the greats of animation are slowly slipping into obscurity, the name and works of Friz Freleng endure. As one of the very few men whose tenure with Warner Bros. Animation spanned from the beginning to the end of the studio (except for a brief respite at M-G-M), Freleng adapted to the style of the day, whether it was dancing and singing rubber-hose characters designed to be as much like Mickey Mouse as the law allowed, or the sophisticated character comedy of later years. Of course, after WB closed down, Freleng formed his own studio and his own stable of characters, and even kept ties to the WB characters, producing a brace of "gee-we-should-never-have-closed-the-studio" theatricals in the mid-1960's, and then producing works for a revival of the characters in the 1980's. Freleng remained the studio's elder statesman well into the 1990's, when ill health eventually curtailed his activities, until his death attributed to natural causes on May 26, 1995.

We join the blogoverse in celebrating the man in his works, and our contribution is an in-depth look at what Freleng termed one of the most "dangerous" cartoons he ever made.

Released in the Looney Tunes series on April 30, 1949, it is important to first put this cartoon in proper historical perspective. Across the hall, Chuck Jones had been plotting the first Road Runner cartoon, "Fast and Furry-ous" concurrent with the production of this picture. The reason Freleng termed this picture "dangerous" (in an interview with Greg Ford) was that the cartoon essentially had one gag: Yosemite Sam wants to see a high diving act, so instead of the advertised talent, he shoves his sixguns at Bugs Bunny and tries to make him go off the deep end. However there is some turnabout and Sam winds up taking the dive. This is much like the structure of the Road Runner pictures: you know the Road Runner's never going to get caught and the Coyote is going to be somehow impaled, immolated, or destroyed in some fashion. However, in Freleng's picture, Bugs is a much more active participant in Sam's dives; things just happen to the Coyote because they do.

It does take Freleng some footage to get to the meat of the situation: a traveling carnival, with Bugs as carny barker, advertising Fearless Freep, the high diving sensation. Yosemite Sam takes more tickets than he needs (paying in cash, unbelievably) and takes a seat inside. The background painting of Paul Julian deserves mention for always appropriately setting the scene.

Through some quirk, Fearless Freep is delayed getting into town and so Bugs must reluctantly announce the cancellation, which ires Sam. He aims to see some high diving, so it's up to the platform for Bugs.

Bugs craftily pivots the diving board and feigns a dive, having changed into turn-of-the-century swimwear. But it's Sam who's off the deep end has he makes his first descent, with Bugs taking a seat in the audience to watch the action.

Bugs' trickery is now aided by liberal application of our old friend, Cartoon Physics, in the two gags that follow. First, Bugs manages to catapult Sam off the platform end of the diving board, but Bugs can't let poor old Sam dive into an empty tank. He throws down a bucket of water, which manages to pass Sam on the way down and settle into the tub. In spite of Bugs' best efforts to provide a safe landing, Sam misses the mark...

Then Bugs, hanging upside down on the underside of the diving board, manages to successfully convince Sam that he's actually upside down, and he takes the plunge once more...

From this point in the picture, now that Freleng has established the basic premise - that Bugs is never going to take the dive - he can be a little faster and wilder with the gags. There's the "I dare you to step over this line" bit, which I believe was taken from Bob Clampett's "Buckaroo Bugs", an "Open The Door, Richard" bit, and a fake "they went thataway" bit with Bugs in Indian dress.

Eventually, all Freleng needs to do from this point on is show that whatever Bugs does, Sam will dive and ascend the ladder once more for more medicine. This gag shows Freleng's sense of timing, his major asset as an animation director, as Freleng repeats the gag faster each time (with the same musical cues) until there's a delay in Sam's fall...

...because Bugs is now tied to the diving board, with Sam sawing it off. But with Cartoon Physics dictating the order of the universe here, Sam's entire platform falls. Bugs ends the cartoon with the classic line, "I know dat dis defies the law of gravity...but, I never studied law!" That's All, Folks!

All of Freleng's animators (including swing animator Pete Burness, a recent addition to the crew) rise to the occasion here and submit great action scenes. This is rightly one of Freleng's greatest moments in the Sam-Bugs battles, with Sam being a relatively recent discovery (having first appeared in 1944's "Hare Trigger"). More were to come (cartoons like "Mutiny On The Bunny", "Big House Bunny", "Sahara Hare" and "Bunker Hill Bunny"), but this boiled everything down to essentials.

Go to the "Hell On Frisco Bay" blog for more links to Friz fans on this, his 100th birthday.

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