A TRIBUTE TO FRIZ FRELENG


Written by Kevin McCorry



Every boy of every generation has his heroes, and from the tender age of three to the more sophisticated level of school Grade 4, mine were foremost a certain grey bunny name of Bugs, a conniving, lisping, black-and-white alley cat called Sylvester, and tiny but terrific Tweety, the yellow, baby-babbling, anything-but-naive canary.

When the six o'clock evening television viewing hour approached on Saturdays, my excitement peaked for the whole week, and provided that Canada's CBC television network was not so capricious and tantrum-triggering as to preempt or delay and join in progress my favourite television show, the rising of the curtain on the stylishly designed stage of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour was regarded with such awe and jubilation by the only child of the McCorry household that my parents frequently urged me to sit more than my selected five inches from the Zenith floor model colour television. My little magnetic-tape recorder (audiotape, of course) was activated, its microphone positioned with expert precision atop a stack of pillows beneath the television's tinny, monaural speaker, and I watched as Bugs pranced elegantly to and fro across the television screen and sang "This is it" with Daffy Duck and my beloved cat-and-bird duo marched separately in a procession of characters from screen right to screen left. Bugs' cartoons were usually the first to appear in instalments of the television show, and the rabbit was an endearingly genial protagonist amid settings as diverse as the world, history, and imagination are vast. I especially enjoyed his constant conflict with "fiery redhead" Yosemite Sam.

Bugs, Tweety, and Sylvester all had something in common which I experienced with them before I was old enough to print my name. All three characters underwent a transformation into a monster due to consumption of a laboratory liquid. Bugs and Sylvester were also at the mercy of irregular-interval chemical change as another character metamorphosed again and again into evil-eyed, hairy hideousness as Mr. Hyde or a not-so-fine-feathered version thereof. The bunny, the cat, and the canary were the only three "stars" of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies to be tainted with the terror of Dr. Jekyll's awful experiment, and my fascination herewith coincided with recurring nightmares. Thus, the Bugs Bunny cartoons and those of Tweety and Sylvester interested me above all others. Knowing that these stellar cartoon personalities succumbed, in one cartoon each, to Jekyll's mixture, I enjoyed their many other adventures all the more, especially Tweety and Sylvester's. My friends knew that the bad ol' putty tat and his itty-bitty prey were my Looney Tune preferences. And quite fortuitously, Bugs, Tweety, and Sylvester were The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour's most regular entertainers, plus the Road Runner, of course.

It was by means of Bugs Bunny and Tweety and Sylvester that I first learned about foreign or exotic lands, like Italy, Japan, France, Hawaii, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica, and about the lion feasts in the Roman Colosseum, about the existence of circuses and zoos, about men in armour once upon a time jousting to the amusement of crowds, about the legend of fire-breathing dragons, etc..

The Warner Brothers cartoon characters were not immune to illness. Sylvester turned green from seasickness; one of two likably polite gophers- in their most famous cartoon involving a food processing factory- fell into a vat of pickling juice and became groggy and apparently nauseous; Sylvester plummeted into a similar vat, filled with Tabasco sauce, and his carcass assumed an infernal red hue; Yosemite Sam imbibed a poisoned glass of carrot juice and convulsed so powerfully that he rocketed through the roof of his house; Yosemite Sam as the Black Knight rode a dragon plagued by sneezing; and Sylvester and an orange cat fell into an ice-covered lake and were infected by flu.

Because the original opening sequences of the cartoons were removed and replaced with standardised, non-crediting title cards on The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour, I had no way of knowing that certain animation directors presided over the cartoon careers of particular characters or pairs thereof. Thus, for many years, I just regarded the Warner Brothers cartoons as a homogeneous mass, with each one stylistically indistinguishable from the others. I thought that the three men, Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng, and Chuck Jones, listed at the end of every Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour, together created each cartoon with equal labour and conceptual input.



In fact, it was not until the Warner Brothers cartoon Golden Jubilee videotapes were distributed in 1985 and I read notation by Leonard Maltin on the videotape jackets to A SALUTE TO CHUCK JONES and A SALUTE TO FRIZ FRELENG that I learned about the specially delegated nature of cartoon animation at Termite Terrace and later Warner Brothers cartoon studios. Cartoon directors worked routinely with same characters and character combinations, and Isadore (Friz) Freleng's trademark pairings were Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, Tweety and Sylvester, and Sylvester and Speedy Gonzales. Here was the man behind the exploits- and occasional maladies- of three of my youth's greatest heroes, specified from the three cartoon animation unit leaders responsible for the super-stylised Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, 1948 to 1964. I did not intend to favour the work of Friz Freleng; it just so happened that the cartoons by which I was most delighted- and unnerved- in my formative years were directed by Friz Freleng, written by Warren Foster (Freleng's longest-serving provider of story ideas), and cartoon-animated by Gerry Chiniquy, Virgil Ross, Arthur Davis, Ken Champin, Manuel Perez, Ted Bonnicksen, etc., with layouts by Hawley Pratt (the stalwarts of Warner Brothers Cartoon Animation Unit # 1).

In 1985, another of my childhood television fancies, The Pink Panther Show, returned for reruns on a local television station after nearly 9 years, and, lo, there was Friz Freleng's name as producer and in some cases also as director on the multitude of Pink Panther, Inspector, and Ant and Aardvark cartoon-animated gems, including "Sicque! Sicque! Sicque!", yet another cartoon with horrid beaker fluid and repeated monster transformations. Sergeant Deux-Deux drinks the notorious and noxious substance to soothe his heartburn and changes when burping into a green, egg-headed, fanged brute flustering and frightening the Inspector as the two Parisian law enforcers investigate the mansion of a mad scientist. This 1966 6-minute shocker, that first upset me on an afternoon in 1975, was directed by George Singer, with Friz Freleng as executive producer.


Fascinated by the preponderance of incisive Friz Freleng films in my early life, I became keenly observant of the Freleng design of physique (pointy noses and concentrated hair on sides of head on the human caricatures), characterisation, and movement, the Freleng type of comedy (fast-paced, Vaudevillian-styled slapstick), the Freleng inclination to particular motifs (e.g. stately elegance often juxtaposed with violent, regressive behaviour), historical time periods (e.g. the Wild West, the days of high seas piracy, and ancient and medieval times), and classic literature (e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Treasure Island). I noticed the tendency for the name of Friz to appear on billboards, signs, posters, boxes, and crates in several Freleng unit cartoon shorts.


Each time that I viewed a cartoon which I knew or did not know was a work of Freleng, I looked for hints of Freleng's distinctive style. His Bugs is Victorian genteel, referencing the grace of the Gilded Age, without the eyebrow-raising, gazing-at-camera suavity and intellectualism of Chuck Jones' rabbit. The Freleng bunny is quick-witted and impulsive but not as sassy and aggressive as that of Robert McKimson. The Sylvester of Freleng's works, even those without Tweety, can be distinguished by his carnivorous, seldom verbose deviousness from Robert McKimson's boastful yet affable father to Sylvester Jr. and fighting contestant to baby kangaroo Hippety Hopper. Bugs and Sylvester both have less fluffy facial hair in their Freleng outings compared to McKimson's versions of the same characters.


In 1989, with the purchase of Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies- A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Brothers Cartoons, my curiosity about the breadth of the Freleng unit's contribution to the history of animated cartoons at Warner Brothers and elsewhere was at last satisfied! Indeed, Freleng was director of all three post-1948 Warner Brothers cartoons to contain Hyde formula and its gruesome effects: "Hyde and Hare" (1955), "Hyde and Go Tweet" (1960), "Dr. Jerkyl's Hide" (1954). What has amazed me is that he was never once asked in interviews about this interesting statistic.

All but one Tweety-and-Sylvester cartoon series entry were the product of Freleng and company. I was amazed with how regularly that the "labours of Friz" coincided with my childhood preferences. "I Gopher You" (1954), with the Goofy Gophers in the food processing factory, was his work. So too was virtually every Bugs Bunny encounter with Yosemite Sam, except for the Ken Harris-directed "Hare-Abian Nights" (1959), an "economy" cartoon composed almost entirely of footage from previous Bugs Bunny outings, as Bugs is ordered by Sultan (Yosemite) Sam to tell stories. The funnier instances of Speedy Gonzales-vs.-Sylvester came out of the Freleng animation unit, as also did the cartoons in which a character- for nearly the full duration of six minutes- dreads his forecast or threatened demise, including John Rooster by farmer Elmer Fudd's axe in "Each Dawn I Crow" (1949) and Sylvester by Tweety guardian Granny's promise to send him to a violin string factory in "Tweet and Sour" (1956). Chopin's Funeral March was heard in both cases, denoting interest by Freleng- and perhaps also by music provider Carl Stalling- in that composer that is also evident in "Pizzicato Pussycat" (1955) (which revolves around a mouse's obscure ability to perform Chopin's Minute Waltz on a miniature piano) and "Hyde and Hare" (wherein Bugs plays the same waltz on the keys of Jekyll's musical instrument).

There were some surprises. I did not expect Freleng to have been director of "Hare-Less Wolf" (1958) because Bugs' forgetful foe to whom the title of that cartoon refers was named Charles M., after the Christian name and middle initial of Chuck Jones. Even so, "Hare-Less Wolf" was directed by Friz Freleng. With Jones' known fascination with gadgetry and technology, I had thought "Robot Rabbit" (1953) to be one of Jones' endeavours, but, no, it was Freleng's.

Chuck Jones' cartoons about outer space were instrumental in generating my enthusiasm about astronomy, and his Bugs' journeys to South Polar locations stirred my interest about the frigid continent at the bottom of the world. However, a substantially larger percentage of Looney Tune and Merrie Melodie situations by Friz Freleng and his colleagues in Warner Brothers Cartoon Animation Unit # 1 had a profound impact upon my young and highly impressionable mind.

Through my reading of the Beck and Friedwald "bible" of the achievements of the denizens of Termite Terrace, interviews with Freleng in such magazines as Animato and Comics Scene, and Chuck Jones' autobiography, Chuck Amuck, the complete, 50-plus-year span of the Freleng contribution to cartoon animation was outlined. His cartoons won Academy Awards, in particular "Tweetie Pie" (1947), "Speedy Gonzales" (1955), "Birds Anonymous" (1957), "Knighty Knight Bugs" (1958), and the first six-minute Pink Panther film, "The Pink Phink" (1964)- and several others were nominated for Oscars. I had not seen many of the pre-1948 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and these reference materials enabled me to fill huge gaps in my knowledge of Freleng.

Born in 1905 in Kansas City, Missouri, Friz Freleng graduated high school with a talent for illustration. After some travails at Walt Disney's cartoon animation studio, he joined Warner Brothers and worked on "Sinkin' in the Bathtub" (1929), the first Looney Tune. Through the 1930s, he ascended to the role of cartoon animation supervisor on many black-and-white and early colour cartoons, but it was not until he returned to Warner Brothers from an abortive move to MGM that he started directing truly idiosyncratic and wonderful cartoon animation. Freleng had affection for music and timed his cartoon action to music score sheets, and it follows that his publicly-stated best-loved work involves strenuous labours performed to the flow of classical music. Franz Liszt was evidently a Freleng fancy, in that Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody was the tune to which dog-men fallibly construct a skyscraper in "Rhapsody in Rivets" (1941). His "Rhapsody Rabbit" (1946) repeated the use of Liszt but on a stage with a piano, as Bugs and a mouse vie to impress a theatre audience with their energetic "pounding of ivories". "Holiday For Shoestrings" (1946) is the toil of elves in a shoe repair shop in synchronisation with the mirthful merriment of overtures and waltzes, and for "Pigs in a Polka" (1943), the Big Bad Wolf pesters the Three Little Pigs in character movement according with Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Rhapsody.


Freleng is credited for creating Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, gangsters Rocky and Mugsy, two Mexicali crows, and cat-chasing canines Spike and Chester, significantly fostering the development of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, refining Tweety from Robert Clampett's riotous and shameless cat-heckler to an innocent-looking but worldly foil for Sylvester, establishing Speedy Gonzales in his ultimate, dapper form, directing the cartoons in which the Goofy Gophers grapple with human industry, and "be-bop"-jazzing a famous fairy tale with "The Three Little Bops" (1957).


In 1961, Freleng directed a Tweety-and-Sylvester cartoon, "The Last Hungry Cat", that parodied the television programme, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In "The Last Hungry Cat", Sylvester, accusingly spoken-to by a Hitchcock-like narrator, believes that he has murdered Tweety, with dire consequences certain to follow. And from this proceeds a cartoon, completely in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents mold, in which Sylvester experiences intense anxiety, a guilty conscience, and almost a nervous breakdown. Freleng set the scenes for this quite brilliantly, as though he thoroughly studied the Master of Suspense's work and was emulating it precisely. Indeed, the opening of the cartoon, with Sylvester creeping up a flight of creaky stairs in his gastronomic quest for Tweety, is pure Hitchcock. Scene for scene. "Camera shot" for "camera shot". "Camera angle" for "camera angle". I use quotation marks here because, of course, cartoons are not filmed by a camera in the same way as a movie is filmed. But the techniques of presentation are quite analogous.


However, Freleng's predilection for Hitchcock-styled "staging" of scenes and introducing and developing of situations in his cartoons can be traced much further back in his career. Like Hitchcock, Freleng had rather a morbid sense of humour, and his 1949 cartoon, "Each Dawn I Crow", is the most striking example of such. Freleng liked to put sympathetic characters through the psychological trauma of foreseeing a potential terminal outcome, as in the case of John Rooster in "Each Dawn I Crow" and also in 1956's "Tweet and Sour" (with Sylvester fearing being sent to a violin string factory if any harm befalls Tweety), and in "Golden Yeggs" (1950), in which Rocky the gangster has ordered Daffy Duck to lay a golden egg or die.

Several of Hitchcock's distinctive film-making flourishes can be seen in Freleng's cartoons. The through-the-window perspectives, the slow, methodical reveals of a character's violent intentions as a character is shown going through the various phases of his aggressor initiative, and suspenseful "close camera" perspectives on "victim" characters with the aggressor known to be somewhere close but unseen "by the camera". And as already mentioned, Freleng shared with Hitchcock the bravura talent for portraying the psychological processes of anxiety and morbid dread accompanying a character's contemplation of a grimly terminal crisis in which he finds- or maybe just thinks- himself to be. All of these are present in "Tweet and Sour". "Each Dawn I Crow" has some of them, too. And "Birds Anonymous" has opening mise-en-scene that would be perfectly at home in a Hitchcock movie, in addition to a number of the same here-mentioned flourishes during later scenes of Sylvester's struggles to resist temptation.

In Freleng's Jekyll-and-Hyde cartoons, he also suspensefully "stages" his situations. The viewer knows that Tweety has been transformed into a Hyde-bird with horrible intention but is shown Sylvester looking inside table drawers, the monster Tweety lurking somewhere unseen by "the camera" until a large, yellow finger appears from "off-camera" and taps Sylvester on the shoulder. And Bugs is shown in "single-shot" playing Dr. Jekyll's piano with the viewer knowing that the ugly, evil, murderously-eyed Hyde is somewhere close.

If Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, were to have undertaken directing of cartoons, it is Freleng's cartoons that his work would have most closely resembled.

And suspense is the mastery of subtlety, of knowing how much to reveal to the audience and withholding some visual representation of impending danger, leaving the audience to unnervingly ponder where that danger is and how and when it will be manifest. Subtlety is Freleng's trademark.

Freleng also used subtlety in the withholding of displays of extreme violence, such as what an angered lion does to Yosemite Sam in the lion's Colosseum dwellings in "Roman Legion Hare" or an aggressive rooster's thrashing of Sylvester in "Fowl Weather" or the battering and lacerations inflicted upon Sylvester by the bulldogs of a dog pound in "Dog Pounded". Rather than show, quite graphically, the intense physical turmoil incurred by the provoking or reckless character (Yosemite Sam, Sylvester) in such predicaments, Freleng allowed the audience to imagine, to visualise, what type and what degree of violence was being visited upon that character, oftentimes showing the character's haggard condition after his mauler, mangler, and/or puncher is finished doing the injurious deed(s). Because of this, Freleng was affectionately called "the censor" by his cartoon-directing colleagues, but, really, by allowing the audience to "fill in the gap" between the character unwisely arousing the wrath of some fierce creature and that character coming out the other end of his brutalisation, Freleng may have been augmenting the impressions of violence. The precise effect desired by him, I would suppose. It was part of the gag. And the timing of it would always be perfect. Not one millisecond too long or too short.

Indeed, timing of gags was perhaps Freleng's greatest talent. In "High Diving Hare", Yosemite Sam would repeatedly fall from the diving platform into the bucket of water at floor level, without the cartoon's audience witnessing the circumstances of Yosemite Sam's falls from the platform or his contact with the water bucket. Just the mid-air portion of the falls- and not one instant longer than necessary for full comedic effect.

After directing approximately 266 Warner Brothers cartoons and surpassing all other animation directors at Warner Brothers in this regard, Freleng joined David H. DePatie in the formation of DePatie-Freleng Enterprises to continue the output of quality, mass-entertaining animation after the closure of Warner Brothers' cartoon studio in 1964. The Pink Panther has been Freleng's principal player for the many decades of DePatie-Freleng's tenure, its signature character- and was selected by Freleng in a 1989 interview as his all-time favourite cartoon personality.

Freleng also delighted in anthropomorphising the insect world, with mosquitoes and ants becoming tactical combatants against a hapless human in "Of Thee I Sting" (1946) and "Ant Pasted" (1953) respectively, and "The Fighting 69 1/2th" (1941) and "The Gay Anties" (1947) depict ants as self-aware, determined raiders of a picnic. One of the principal characters of Depatie-Freleng's Ant and Aardvark series of cartoons was an extension of this idea.

Also intriguing to me in my pre-ten-year-old love of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour were the cacti and obscure rock formations of the U.S. Southwestern Desert in the Road Runner cartoons, especially the mesa from which Wile E. Coyote skateboards in "Out and Out Rout" (1966) and the desert vegetation shown on roadsides whenever the speedy bird appeared from the horizon. I always thrilled to the music of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, especially that by Bill Lava in the mid-1960s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies directed for DePatie-Freleng by Hawley Pratt, Robert McKimson, and Rudy Larriva. Freleng was producer of 14 Road Runner cartoon series entries, which I do enjoy as much as the earlier, Chuck Jones-directed cartoons with the fast fowl.

Nobody contributed to the entertainment of my childhood more than Friz Freleng. With Chuck Jones and Robert McKimson, he produced the original Bugs Bunny Show (1960-2), from which many stage scenes were used on The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour, which, together with Freleng's The Pink Panther Show, showcased many of Freleng's theatrical cartoons of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and provided for me hundreds of hours of fun and sometimes fright. Story writers and cartoon animators who worked with and who were influenced by Freleng were involved in the production of The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958-9), The Flintstones (1960-6), and Spiderman (1967-70), all of which delighted my youthful days to no end. But above all of this, it was Freleng's cartoons that spoofed "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" that had the most profound impact upon me from pre-school age to adulthood. Curiously, he was responsible for all of such cartoons to some degree, directing three of them, producing a fourth, and no doubt influencing a fifth (Huckleberry Hound as a London constable in "Piccadilly Dilly" (1958)).

I wrote to him and to Chuck Jones in 1993 to express my appreciation of their cartoon animation achievements and to provide a seminal copy of a highly elaborate essay on "Hyde and Hare" that I was in the process of expanding and refining. Mr. Jones, through his assistant, answered my letter and kept a copy of the essay. I like to think that Mr. Freleng had the opportunity to read my letter and at least knew of the essay's existence before he died on May 26, 1995 at the age of 89.

Reports of his death in newspapers were abysmally short, less than 10 lines long, and were far from sufficiently specific in crediting Freleng's influence on the evolution of the animated cartoon. Canada's CBC television network announcer said that Freleng was one of the men who created Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and a myriad of cartoon characters, and the film clips shown during the televised obituary were of "A Wild Hare" (1940), "Book Revue" (1946), and "Big Top Bunny" (1952), none of which were directed by Freleng. Truly an unfitting homage to such an accomplished man!


With acknowledgement to the Deviantart Website for the main Friz Freleng tribute image
All other images (c) Warner Bros.
Textual content (c) Kevin McCorry, with all rights reserved
This article, the observations, and the remembered experiences therein are the intellectual property of the author unless otherwise noted and may not be reproduced and then altered in any way without the express written consent of the author, and any scholarly quoting, paraphrasing, or other repetition of them MUST be accompanied by full stated credit to the author, with failure to do so possibly exposing an individual or group to litigation and possible civil or criminal penalty