Sunday, 30 April 2017

413. A Corny Concerto (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 412.
Release date: September 25, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), Bob Clampett (Vocal effects). (Thanks Keith Scott).
Story: Frank Tashlin.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Parodying Fantasia, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig perform ballet; followed by a musical story about an ugly duckling.

Disney's Fantasia became controversial since it first opened at New York in November 1940. Critics were polarised by the film. Some praised Walt Disney for making "motion picture history", while others critics associated with classical musical roots, openly criticised it. Soon enough, Fantasia proved a disappointment at the box office. It was without a doubt, Disney's most ambitious feature at the time, while some argue it was Walt at his most pretentious. Ambitious or pretentious (I personally love it), it held quite an impact amongst the Schlesinger staff - so much so that they went on to parody the film - using two infamous pieces of music by Johann Strauss - Tales from the Vienna Woods and Blue Danube.

It so happens that Frank Tashlin is credited for story work in this cartoon. Tashlin spent some years at the Disney Studios during the late 30s, but left in 1941 after a quarrel with Walt. He returned to the Schlesinger Studio in September 1942 in the story department, before taking over Norm McCabe's unit. A part of myself suspects whether or not Tashlin wrote the cartoon as a snide towards Disney?

While Tashlin may have blueprinted the cartoon, the feat had to be met by a director with a great understanding of classical music, and how to combine it within animation. One would suspect Friz Freleng would be equal to the task, which I don't doubt, but instead the short fell into the hands of Bob Clampett.

"Fantasia" - except in Clampett style.
Clampett has directed several cartoons beforehand which were heavily themed on music - like his success with Coal Black. According to Bob Clampett in Michael Barrier's 1973 interview with Wilfred Jackson, Bob attended the Carthay Circle Theatre premiere of Fantasia, and vividly recalled the audience's reactions to the use of Fantasound: "the whole audience [at the Carthay Circle] kind of gasped, or oohed and ahhed."

While other Schlesinger employees may have attended the Fantasia roadshows - it appears Bob Clampett was the right candidate to take on the parody.

For the most part; Clampett's parody of the Disney masterpiece is well executed right down to the frame. Clampett's excellent use of parody couldn't have been more perfectly fulfilled by casting Elmer Fudd as Deems Taylor. Not only is Elmer the perfect option as far as speech-impediment exploitation goes, but both he and Taylor have similar looks - with a five o'clock shadow and glasses for the right touches. Fudd could easily pass as Deems Taylor's animated counterpart.

The scene begins with an establishing shot of a sound stage orchestra - with colour styling and staging almost comparable to Fantasia. Clampett applies a great gag of a large shadow walking up to the podium - suggesting a well-built person is about to make an appearance. Then, the shadow reveals to be meek Elmer Fudd. It's a great gag that contrasts size and personality comedically.

Clampett applies some charming touches to Elmer's awkward personality. Elmer announces to the audience of an orchestration of Johann Strauss' Tales from the Vienna Woods - but at the same time, Elmer has difficulty of keeping control of his tuxedo shirt, which constantly springs out from his tucked in suit.

Elmer's tuxedo shirt becomes a great annoyance of Elmer; that he tears it apart. Later on, when Elmer introduces the Blue Danube - Elmer finds new difficulty with his pants - which drops at its own accord. Both Bob McKimson and Rod Scribner were assigned the animation of Elmer's scenes - and both excel in capturing the timing and humanistic approach of Elmer's embarrassment.

Arthur Q. Bryan's vocal delivery is sublime, especially his use of awkward laughter, and the classic line, (quoting the popular song The Music Goes Round and Round): "Wisten to the wippwing whythm of the woodwinds, as it wolls awound and awound, and it comes out here...". Personally, I wish the cartoon ended, after the Blue Danube segment with another payoff of Elmer struggling with his starched tuxedo. So much potential for so little time.

Clampett's unit also come close to matching the beautiful artwork and colour styling that embellished Fantasia. A lot of it appears throughout the cartoon; but its most revealing for the introduction shots of each musical score. The opening pan shot of Vienna Woods, featuring a stylised woodlands background holds as a reflection to the elaborate Multiplane camera shots in the feature.

Despite budget constraints from a studio that couldn't afford to build a camera as elaborate as Multiplane, or let alone, shoot entire pencil tests; Johnny Burton's camera department achieved the effect by using an overlay which was moved by the cameraman differently from the background.

One of the more subtle references to Fantasia appears during the title card of the Blue Danube. The titles are followed by a falling flower landing in water - creating a beautiful ripple effect. The scene itself is lifted from The Nutcracker Suite segment in Fantasia; so it's nice to see Clampett subtly insert a reference without a forced gag in sight. It's a rare privilege to see how artistic and lavish how the Schlesinger studio could be - evident of the meticulous ink and paint work on the flower. The colour styling, probably by Mike Sasanoff, is also comparable to the Disney feature - as Sasanoff's work expresses a carefree quality, too.

Excluding Elmer Fudd's scenes; the remainder of the cartoon is dialogue-free - save from the occasional vocal effects provided by Bob Clampett. This is already established in the opening scenes of Porky Pig as a hunter in the Vienna Woods segment. The premise is a throwback to the early Bugs Bunny cartoons, that followed a hunter pursuing rabbits. While Elmer Fudd might've been more suitable for the role; Porky Pig is cast instead.

Visual pantomime plays a key role within the cartoon; but sometimes Clampett would cleverly insert sign gags, like Porky Pig holding a sign, reading: "I'm hunting that (explicit) rabbit."

Not only does pantomime allow other forms of communications, but it works as a funny parody; mocking the sophisticated Fantasia, by being unsophisticated - such as suggested blasphemy on the sign.

Deliberately, Clampett creates a clash between fantasy and reality; as he doesn't hesitate to include cultural references, such as an Emily Post etiquette book. Porky's hunting dog points towards Bugs Bunny's rabbit hole; but Bugs opens the book to a certain page which bears the pun: "It ain't polite to point!".

For the most part, Clampett articulately takes advantage of animated action to the classical music - tenderly and comedically. Clampett's skill is evident at the opening segment of the Blue Danube. The waltz has been parodied several times in animated cartoons, and it certainly never lost its popularity overtime. In popular culture it's widely recognisable today for its usage in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The staging might seem a little jarring in
this frame grab, but thankfully, the scene
flows without being too noticeable for
the average viewer. 
Like the previous segment, the premise is also kept facile: an ugly duckling tale - featuring a black duck, who closely resembles a baby Daffy Duck. The opening scene features a mother swan and her baby cygnets; swimming in a lagoon, as well as quacking in synchronisation to the music's most memorable motif.

The layout staging of this scene is a tad sloppy and not well coordinated (at several points, the swans appear to swim through a tree or a piece of grass). However, the beautiful timing of the swans moving in tempo to the music as well as the charming use of quack sound effects makes up for it.

Clampett's sense of creativity and timing is used to its fullest advantage of baby Daffy, following the flock underwater. Bubbles arise at the surface, popping in synchronisation to Strauss' elaborate piece. It's also ambitious to pull off the timing by relying on effects animation, and Treg Brown's sound effects. The gag is topped in some hysterically loose animation by Rod Scribner of the mother reacting to the bubbles arising underneath her.

Animation by Bob McKimson.
Despite the challenges of finding an appropriate story that could be taken advantage of by classical music; extra elements are added to the Blue Danube segment like developed characters, to make the action more compelling. Daffy Duck as an ugly duckling is established enough as an outcast; making it more beneficial for gags.

In a scene of the vulture kidnapping the cygnets one by one; Daffy arrives last from the flock - only to be thrown away by the vulture. Clampett provides added character to the scenario as a 4F rating is plunged on Daffy's rear end.

Daffy's relationship with the mother swan expresses some humanistic qualities; such as the mother's disapproval of an outcast joining the family. Early on in several closeups; the mother glares at Daffy disapprovingly until she strikes the duckling out of her sight.

The mother's neglect of the Daffy duckling is briefly but hilariously executed in one energetic sequence. Leading to the segment's crisis; the mother swan has discovered her cygnets are missing. She reacts in a panic-stricken state; with unparalleled energy made justice through smear animation.

At one point, she picks up a big rock, and finds the Daffy duckling sitting underneath it - only to slam the rock on top of him again until she faints. Not only is the delivery nailed right down to the timing and vast energy, but also based on how subtle it is. Their share of eye contact is very brief, adding extra personality to the judgemental mother.

Applying sound effects would've be an obvious violation to Fantasia - with only two exceptions heard in the Dance of the Hours segment. Nevertheless, it never went as broad as Treg Brown's marvellous effects.

Brown sporadically is given the feat of applying sound effects in synchronisation of both of Strauss' pieces. For one scene in the Vienna Woods segment, Bugs Bunny is heard munching carrots until he places his foot on the pedal of a rubbish bin, and disposing the finished carrot.

Other places, applying cartoon sound effects is almost logical. In one scene, the vulture's hand lurks behind a rock; kidnapping the cygnets - with a "whish" anticipation effect applied in rhythm to the Blue Danube. One of them is even propelled an outboard motor, indicating slack.

While sound effects are applied to deliberately parody the artistically demanding Fantasia, Clampett and Tashlin are faithful enough to its source material that dialogue isn't exchanged at all during the segments.

Instead, Clampett cheats a little by applying his own voice effects (based on Keith Scott's research) on some comedic scenes. In a scene of Bugs Bunny supposedly dead; Porky's dog is heard bawling as he brings out his first aid bag. In one scene of the Blue Danube segment; the vulture shakes pepper on each individual cygnet. One cygnet is about to anticipate a large sneeze fit, but the vulture's finger holds her nose momentarily. Afterwards, the cygnet sneezes very lightly. Rod Scribner's tour-de-force character animation blends well of a seemingly huge build-up of a sneeze, that's ends deliberately anti-climatic.

To pull off a Fantasia parody convincingly; one must observe the film and divert what goes with it. So, applying cartoon sounds into classical music creates a funny juxtaposition - whilst still maintaining an artistic quality.

Although Bob Clampett pulls off music timing, for the most part, at times he doesn't take advantage of it completely. Had Friz Freleng directed the cartoon, he'd meticulously find methods to incorporate animated action to fit with classical music, without any minor exceptions that may feel less tangible.

Only Clampett could pull off a dangerously
flexible gun gag; and yet the anticipation
feels real!
At times, Clampett appears to struggle to fulfil that completely - especially in elements of the Vienna Woods segment. In one scene, (animated by Virgil Ross) Bugs Bunny has some fun with Porky's dog, by tying its tail to a tree as he runs off. The music is played in a fast-paced fashion, but the movement doesn't blend as solidly as other parts of the piece.

Later on in the segment, an angry squirrel fires his gun towards Bugs, Porky and the hound. This is followed by a melodramatic, hammy performance of Porky, Bugs and dog supposedly reacting to a gunshot wound.

Porky and his hound discover they're wound free - whilst Bugs Bunny supposedly discovers his own wound and collapses - with his "corpse" looking like squeezed toothpaste.

Although Rod Scribner never fails to pull off a funny acting performance; again, the music feels out of place compared to the cartoon action - with an exception being Bugs pirouetting next to the dog. The atmosphere feels wrong, unless Clampett deliberately depicted it that way - but either way his intentions aren't fully realised. Conceiving gags to fit with piece music is difficult enough so direction-wise, you've got to give Clampett credit for trying.

To some extent, at times Clampett gets a little carried away, not only in consistency, but also in taste. At the end of the Vienna Woods segment, Porky attempts to undo the fingers around a mortally wounded Bugs' chest. He pulls them apart, to reveal an exposed bra - riddled with Clampett's risque humour of Bugs shrieking horrifically as sexual harassment is implied.

Bugs finds himself in ballerina forms, slaps Porky and ties his bra on Porky and his hound's head, before he pirouettes away into the distance - and collapses as the finale draws to a finish.

A favourite amongst Clampett fans for its shock value, the gag is too crude and juvenile for my liking. Bob was much funnier when he was subtle in his approach - at least for me, anyway.

For the climax during the Blue Danube segment; Clampett goes a tad too far in a sequence of the Daffy Duck duckling pursuing the vulture kidnapper. While wartime references such as Daffy momentarily morphing into a P-40 Warhawk fighter work; the chase scenes feels too much like a farce that feels like its sidetracking from the musical piece.

In Clampett fashion, the vulture falls from a cloud after Daffy provides him a barrel of TNT; which results in his demise and ascendent to heaven. The overall cartoon finishes with the baby Daffy Duck finally accepted into the mother's family - as they quack away happily to Blue Danube.

For what it's worth, A Corny Concerto is a milestone in Warner's history. For the first time, several star characters appear within the same cartoon - Bugs, Porky, Elmer and arguably Daffy. The studio, by that point, had established their stars to popularity and recognition. A parody of a feature as grand as Fantasia welcomed the opportunity to use their main stars altogether. This trend would appear several more times in later shorts like The Scarlet Pumpernickel or Beanstalk Bunny. Bob Clampett showcases his versatility not only for his energetic timing, but also his ability to time musical classic into animation - which he executes well. While Clampett uses the opportunity to recreate the artistic spirit of the Disney film; he never overlooks entertainment values which are all put to great use. Clampett might not be as skilled at timing music compared to Friz Freleng, but he approaches the challenge well, making it a fine effort for what it is.

 Rating: 3.5/5.


  1. I've always loved the credits. Such a powerhouse of recognizable names can only pull off a master cartoon as this. That flexible gun gag could only happen in a Clampett cartoon (and the crude jokes are no less juvenile than what you would find in a John K. cartoon. In my honest opinion, Bob's gags ARE more subtle, or at least suitable for theatrical viewing, unless they go too overboard (the director's cut to Hare Ribbin'))..

  2. I love when Clampett works with McKimson.

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