The following is an appreciation of Friz Freleng, part of the Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon being shepherded by Brian Darr at Hell On Frisco Bay to commemorate the director's 100th birthday. My consideration of Freleng is based strictly on observations regarding two Tweety shorts—“Canary Row” and “Putty Tat Trouble”-- and two others featuring hapless gangsters Rocky and Mugsy—“Golden Yeggs” and “Bugs and Thugs”—all of which are available in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume One box. I can't pretend to have a proper overview of Freleng’s career or his Warner Brothers output— it’s just too vast for a short post or my capacity to take it all in. I’m hoping to get a better view of the big Friz Freleng picture by reading the pieces submitted by my fellow Freleng blog-a-thonners. Like Brian said in his post, feel free to disagree with anything I’ve come up with here. When it comes to Friz Freleng, I want to know more.
I came of entertainment age in the early ‘60s, and in so doing I was immersed in the TV cartoons of the day, all of which seemed to have leapt from the loins of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera or the Harvey comic book catalog. But as far back as I can remember, there were always Warner Brothers cartoons available, in some form or another, on Saturday mornings too, and those always trumped everything else. Come the morning of the first day of the weekend, it didn’t matter what else was going on—everything else stopped, all available Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs and Crispy Critters were readied, and the dial turned to what I think of as TV’s original WB. The cartoons appeared on Saturday morning TV, in one form or another, from 1962 until well into the ‘80s, under various banners-- The Bugs Bunny Show , The Porky Pig Show, The Road Runner Show, The Bugs Bunny Hour and the most bounteous incarnation, in terms of program length, The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Show, which claimed 90 minutes (including commercials) of Saturday morning CBS time. It was these showcases, which gave equal time to Bugs, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner and the entire roster of supporting characters and bit players, that was the introduction, for most of us who pulled up the tail end of the Baby Boom, to the joys of these short cartoons, which were originally produced by Warner Brothers to run theatrically, most of them dating from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
(It wasn’t until I started seeing them show up before features at the local movie theater that I realized they had also frequently been cut by overzealous network censors looking to protect the youth of America from the insidious influence of stylized cartoon violence. I suppose until then I’d just chalked up scenes that seemed to end before they were supposed to, along with the mismatched sound and visuals that would frequently earmark the cuts, as by-products of bad prints—I was certainly used to seeing enough of those running at the local movie theater.)
But even when the Warner cartoons were cut, enough of their anarchic spirit and verbal/visual wit still shone through the roughshod splices to expose the rest of the network Saturday-morning fare as relatively innocuous and uninteresting. And even though the cartoons ran without opening credits, with only a cheaply produced title card cluing the kids in to what the cartoon was called, it became fairly easy, after enough exposure to them, to discern the styles of the various directors, through the differences in the curves and angles with which the familiar characters were rendered from piece to piece, to the varying speeds with which the directors would take them through their often grueling paces.
A Chuck Jones cartoon was often discernible by the whiplash speed of the characters’ movements in and around the frame, or the way that Bugs might address the audience with a sly aside or a brief, knowing glance before waylaying Daffy’s brainpan with the butt of a shotgun disguised as a bundle of flowers. Bob Clampett’s animation, which I was more familiar with from the Beany and Cecil show, highlighted a kind of fluidity, a literal roundness, both to the characters (he did, after all, do a lot of the original Porky Pig shorts) and the way they negotiated a path through their given space. The entire Clampett universe had a sort of malleable quality that resembled (a little too much for my taste) the sinister mutability of some of the rural-tinged Disney shorts. And Robert McKimson’s style, one of my favorites perhaps because he tended to work with my favorite characters, Daffy and Foghorn Leghorn, was marked by the elasticity of his characters in their reactions to other characters—it wasn’t unusual to see Daffy’s entire head, which already featured a bill and a face that seemed slightly larger in McKimson’s world than in Jones’, literally elongate with rage during one of his tirades. And McKimson would also play up hilarious rates of speed of action butted up against each other for maximum comic effect—the blink of an eye was all it would take for Foghorn to go from quietly considering, from a step or two away, the hound dog sleeping in his house, to holding him by his hind legs with his left hand and beating him mercilessly, at a rate of about five whacks per second, with a wooden plank held in his right.
Friz Freleng directed Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck occasionally, and he also handled minor characters like Speedy Gonzalez, but the cartoons he became most closely associated with in my mind were the ones featuring the Warner Brothers character I cared for the least—the insufferably cute Tweety. His relationship with the forever beleaguered Sylvester the cat was roughly that of the Road Runner to Wile E. Coyote, and though I was and am able to muster a sizable amount of sympathy for the food-chain follies of the cat and the coyote, I never harbored the kind of ill will toward the Road Runner that I did for Tweety. The reason, I think, is fairly simple. The Road Runner, though not blessed with speech, could often commandeer and bend physics to his will and manipulate circumstances to often outsmart Wile E. Coyote at his own game—eating bird seed tainted with gunpowder to no ill effect, or traveling down the Z-axis into a perspective mural of a highway designed to fool him and flatten him against the desert wall, for example. (Of course, Wile E. was a nemesis who again and again just as often outsmarted himself.) The very nature of Wile E.’s pursuit—constant motion on an endless desert highway—implies the action and movement are imperative to the Road Runner’s survival. But Tweety was often far too passive in the various cat-and-bid games in which he often found himself at the center. He rarely did anything but sit guilelessly by as Sylvester found one way after another to beat himself—Tweety was rarely an active participant in the action (the one exception I can think of being the cartoon in which he ingests a potion that turns him, without warning, from tiny canary to gigantic, hulking, Hyde-like beast of prey) and was always far too willing to let his cute speech impediment serve as and the be-all and end-all of his charm.
So I decided the thing to do would be to screen two of Freleng’s Tweety titles—“Canary Row” and “Putty Tat Trouble”—to try to discover what Freleng brought to the party that helped make Sylvester and Tweety such an enduring pair, despite an aversion to the yellow avian with the swelled cranium that I can’t help but suspect is shared by at least a few others.
The first thing that struck me about Freleng’s approach is that, as much as the other directors are concerned with speed of action and movement within the frame, his cartoons—at least these four—seemed perceptibly more measured, if only by a degree or two, in their pacing than those of Freleng’s contemporaries. Freleng doesn’t seem as concerned with the kitchen-sink approach to piling on gags that might suit Jones, or with the rat-a-tat, in-your-face verbiage and slapstick one might encounter in McKimson. From the opening song Tweety sings while swinging on his perch (“I’m a tweet wittle bird in a dilded tage/Tweety’s my name, but I don’t know my age/I don’t have to wowwy, and that is that/I’m tafe in here from dat ol’ puddy tat”) to the well-known line that opens the action in each Tweety cartoon (“I tink I taw a puddy tat. I did! I did! I did taw a puddy tat!”), Freleng’s Tweety shorts are marked by ritualized format or behavior. (This includes a patience for setting up gags and allowing them the time to reach a zenith of hysteria in their payoff, an aspect of Freleng’s directorial approach that is intelligently considered in the look at Freleng’s “High-Diving Hare” that Brian offers in his post.) This ritualization, I think, serves to prime the audience to expect a sort of comfort—we’re eased into this world in the same way repeatedly-- than they might expect to find in the typically anarchic visual style and borderline sadism of a Road Runner cartoon, and to expect that the antics of Tweety and Sylvester will be grounded more, if only ever so slightly more, in the day-to-day, the familiar.
What does seem visually distinctive to me in these selected Freleng shorts is the frequent de-emphasis on backgrounds, which tends to thrust the characters out toward the audience and away from their environment in a way that fairly abstracts them, especially in close-up. Freleng’s backgrounds, his settings, seem more simple and painterly than usual in “Putty Tat Trouble,” for example, all the better to call attention to the clarity and economy of the actions of the two felines—Sylvester and another unnamed tomcat—as they double (and usually neutralize) each other’s efforts to capture and consume the Yellow Swollen-headed One. And in the Rocky and Mugsy shorts, the backgrounds themselves are often abstracted into simple geometric shapes or distinctive silhouettes (I’m thinking mainly here of Rocky’s cliff-side hideout in “Bugs and Thugs”) which allow the action to effortlessly, and often invisibly, be thrown into sharp relief. And Freleng loves to put Sylvester through his paces by not just exaggerating physical space, as McKimson or Jones might do, but by stretching the limitations of physical space to hilarious, often horrific effect.
The set piece in “Canary Row” in which Sylvester slithers up a drainpipe that is about three times too small to ever contain him, only to be greeted mid-pipe by a falling bowling ball of roughly the same absurd proportions, which he is first crushed by, and then which he somehow swallows, all within the confined space of this narrow pipe. The ball, of course, immediately deposits itself in Sylvester’s now disproportionately expanded posterior, turning him into a furry version of a clown balancing on a ball—the ball being on the inside, which also makes him resemble a rolling punching bag as he careens helplessly downhill toward—you guessed it—the open doors of a bowling alley. And the pursuit of Tweety across a winter wonderland of snow dunes in an urban park in “Putty Tat Trouble” results in a hilarious gag which has Tweety escaping into one said dune and leaving a perfectly Tweety-shaped hole, of course. It’s only when Sylvester and the tomcat follow suit that the gag pays off—naturally, Tweety’s diminutive stature has allowed him to proceed unscathed underneath the post office box hidden beneath the snow, the sudden encountering with which flattens both cats against each other and pushes them frightening close to two dimensions. (This routine got the biggest laugh from my four-year-old daughter who squealed, “Look, Daddy! The kitties turned into a pack of cards!” That’s my girl.)
From Frelengs' "Hollywood Daffy" (1946)
Freleng also has a taste for using his backgrounds and cityscapes to slip in lots of juicy, throwaway comic asides, many more so than I recall seeing in the work of the other directors. The four cartoons I watched were ripe with deliciously funny signage (the kind which found further flowering in Mad magazine and, most recently, in the Wallace and Gromit films) that could go unnoticed without harming the trajectory of the cartoon, but the recognition of which adds layer upon layer to the experience of these seven-minute worlds and makes us understand how artfully these directors could avoid projecting exclusively to the perceived audience for cartoons—children. When you notice, for instance, that the housing complex Sylvester is about to infiltrate in his pursuit of the smug Tweety is called the Broken Arms Apartments, that’s a big and as subtle a clue as is necessary to imagine the violent fate that might be awaiting him. (Perhaps the oddest reference is a raggedy bill posted to the side of a building seen during “Canary Row” that could be the source of a disorienting and weirdly perplexing shiver if it rings your bell. “Auto Races! 7:30 p.m.! Potter’s Field” reads the bill, which immediately gets the mind wandering into the ghoul zone thinking about just how many fatal games of chicken are run for public entertainment on a race track that runs through a graveyard for the dispossessed.)
And Freleng doesn’t seem to be beyond a bit of Hitchcockian self-promotion and gamesmanship either. In a nod to the Master of Suspense’s penchant for inserting cameo appearances of himself into the action, Freleng’s own visage (in a Dali-esque pose) can be spotted in a portrait propped up carelessly along a cellar wall in “Putty Tat Trouble.” And the man who was named Isodore but known primarily as “Friz” seems unusually delighted in applying his own name to a variety of straight-faced jokes on the banality of advertising. In that same “Putty Tat Trouble,” in that same cellar where Tweety runs into a double of his own to counter that of Sylvester’s tomcat nemesis—a toy sipping bird that bobs its beak into a glass of water and inspires Tweety to do the same—can be spotted an upended cardboard box bearing the legend, “FRIZ—America’s favorite gelatin dessert.” And again from “Canary Row,” there is a sign on the side of one of Freleng’s nondescript city buildings that cries out, “Drink Friz! Six delicious flavors!” Hitchcock glimpsed jumping on a bus or, most convolutedly, in a newspaper read aboard a drifting lifeboat, is amusing, all right. But the exploitation of one’s own nickname in order to associate it with treacly desserts or excessive carbonation, well, that’s a whole different league of self-deprecating wit, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s probably that self-deprecating wit, in the end, that provides as much of a clue to approaching Freleng’s style as anything else. His was probably, for me, the least visually distinctive, the least immediate recognizable of the four Warner animation directors I’ve mentioned here, yet his work displays a simplicity, a modesty, and a sharpness that all somehow lend it weight-- in a graphic sense, not in the sense that you feel his images struggling to take flight, which they often do. Also, his characters—however ridiculously exaggerated—seem grounded in their world in a way that some of the others, gifted with the ability that cartoons can bestow to make physical space their servant, simply don’t. Rocky the gangster, squat body stuffed under a overcompensating hat itself at least as tall as he is, brim covering his eyes, cigarette dangling from lips constricted by the stiffness of his deadpan tough guy line delivery, and Mugsy, ever-loyal, ever-dim and ever-gigantic, provide a disarmingly funny contrast, but they seem to really exist in their highly stylized space and you can see that, as much as they may zip around robbing banks, their true milieu is the getaway car and the hideout, where they can sit relatively still and assert themselves through graphic force (and the point of a pop gun) alone. (Seeing Bugs stuff the two of them, especially the hulking Mugsy, into a kitchen stove—“I must be dreaming. It couldn’t be this easy,” Bugs offers in a Jonesian nod to the camera”—is another great instance of Freleng making physical space accept his demands and coming up with a hilarious set piece as a result.)
Sylvester also seems more like a “real” cat (as does his scruffy competitor in "Puddy Tat Trouble"), through force of his downtrodden yet persistently confident personality, to be sure, but also through the way in which Freleng renders him as slightly worn-down, ungainly in a way that conveys a certain degree of believability on him as a cat whom we might have run across at one point or another. He’s clever, and he’s perpetually hungry, but he’s also constantly trying—his body language tells you this—to reconcile that hunger with his innate laziness. He hasn’t the grace or the speed to have much success as a hunter, but his lack of grace and speed goes a long way toward endearing him to us as a relatable figure, even, for some of us I suspect, a kindred spirit. That quality can be laid directly at Freleng’s creative feet for allowing Sylvester to be as regulated by physics as he is sometimes dodgy of them.
But even after tonight’s four-cartoon mini-festival, scored to the delighted squeals of my two daughters, their hearty appreciation of over-the-top slapstick, and their occasional gasps whenever someone would get beaned over the head with some blunt object, Tweety remains bothersome to me. Perhaps it’s that smug disregard for his enemies that Tweety flaunts while batting his eyelashes that sticks in my craw. Perhaps it’s that he rarely seems to participate in the action literally swirling and crashing all around him, but is instead content to sit and let it happen without ever getting a scratch or seeming otherwise physically affected. Perhaps it’s just that I find his gigantic yellow cranium graphically unappealing. Or maybe it’s that voice, too cloying and cutesy by half. (Sorry, Mr. Blanc, but nobody’s perfect!) Even the prodigious talent of a Friz Freleng can’t get me over my disdain for this spoiled little bird. There’s nothing “real” about him. (Is it too much to imagine that Freleng held him with some degree of contempt too?) Fortunately, in any given one of his cartoons, whether it’s a Tweety or one of the many others he did for Warner Brothers, there’s so much more going on to engage the imagination that not even a supremely annoying central character can derail the possibility of enjoyment that each cartoon holds within it. Tweety may swing on his perch in the spotlight, sing a happy tune, and escape Sylvester’s gaping maw once again, but it’s the grounding confidence and sharp wit of Friz Freleng that matters. He’s the Tweety antidote.
Here are some of the links to those participating in the Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon that Brian has compiled so far today. Check Hell On Frisco Bay throughout the day for further updates.
Gir (Gir's Room With a Moose)