The Great Cartoon Directors: Bob Clampett

I have selected some passages from Jeff Lenberg’s book The Great Cartoon Directors to share here.  I chose them for their practical examples of creating funny cartoons, or if they support the idea of being inspired by live comedians.

Bob Clampett was born a hundred miles south of the movie capital in San Diego California, but moved to Hollywood while still a toddler and lived next door  to Charlie Chaplin (and his brother Syd).  Clampett recalls seeing the filming of movies on the street and in the studios over the years – from Valentino, Mack Sennett and Hal Roach’s Our Gang to Bogart, Cagney, Bete Davis, Errol Flynn, Busby Berekleys Gold Diggers, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.    His high school yearbook bears the autographs of not only chums, but Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlie Chase, and other notables.

Hmm, seems like he and Chuck Jones should have bumped into one another somewhere.

Many of Clampetts ideas, he has said, stem from the films he saw as a youngster.  His major comedy influences were Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton, and the bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd.  Lloyd, who was a friend of Clampett’s father is best remembered for his comedy stunts, such as hanging from the hands of a clock in “Safety Last” (1923).  What Clampett means, in essence, is that certain bits and pieces, attitudes, actions, timing, posing, facial expressions and gags that top comedians executed in their movies became a source for animators to draw from and refine.

“Sometimes a character comes to you in just one night, “ Clampett explains, “and other times it comes in little tiny individual pieces like a jigsaw puzzle that finally comes together in one magical moment.  In school I remembered seeing nature films which showed newborn birds in a nest.   They always looked so funny to me.  This stuck in my mind; the helpless bird in the nest.  One time I kicked around the idea of a twin pair of baby birds called ‘Twick ‘n’ Tweet’, who were the precursors of Tweety.”

During Bugs’ first years on the screen, Clampett and other directors at Warners began to explore the outer boundaries of his possibilities.  As Clampett later said; “We originated and developed a number of divergent formats, each of which was tremendously successful.  For one of the strengths of Bugs Bunny is that, like all humans, he has varying moods.  At one point he is at peace with the world and slow to react to an invasion of privacy.  At another time, he is in a playful and mischievous mood, full of practical jokes.  At other times, he is irritable, bugged by the claim that a tortoise can beat a hare, or whatever.  So you can see we made every effort to keep Bugs in character – to retain his true personality – but this never meant keeping him at all times exactly the same.”

Clampett cartoons are distinguished by the lifelike personality he brings to each character.  The characters in a Clampett cartoon are not only agile, full of vitality, insane and slapsticky, but also imbued with very appealing and believable personalities.  This spark of life his characters have is due in part to his own role-playing of each character.  When making a cartoon he visualizes and then acts out each character’s complete performance – each movement, facial expression, voice inflection, nuance, each gesture of the hand.

As he explains: “If I’m doing Porky Pig I don’t stand off removed from Porky directing him; I get inside of Porky and I think like Porky.  I talk like Porky.  I have a s-s-s-s-speech p-p-problem.  I walk like Porky, and I feel like Porky.  I m too, was short and hubbey as a child, and I know exactly how Porky feels.  I’m helpful, trusting,  concerned, kindly and sometimes a trifle pu-pu-pu-put out.  S-s-s-s-shucks, I am Porky.”

He says the same applies to Bugs Bunny:  “Bug’s personality  is quite opposite of Porky’s.  And much more fun to do. Whe I do Bugs Bunny I get inside of him, and I not ony think like, feel like and walk and talk like Bugs [whispers] but confidentially, Doc [yells] I am the wabbit!”


United Artists asked Bob to come to New York to discuss the creative aspects of the contract.  After Bob had returned home to Hollywood, United Artists phoned saying before the contract could be signed they had to have a complete list of the titles, story outlines and names of all new characters in the 104 cartoon shorts being contemplated.  U.A. Called on a Thursday and said they had to have the list early the following week.  Sody Clampett vividly recalls how bob originated and wrote and she typed all 104 story ideas in that one weekend and got them to New York in time.  The Beany and Cecil series you saw hewed closely to what Bob wrote that one weekend.  He always felt they could have been (even) better if he had more time.

That’s amazing.

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