Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bob Clampett: Breathing Life Into Inanimate Objects

Breathing life into inanimate objects proves very popular among animators from early cartoons to features like THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (1987) or CARS (2006). One does not have to look far to see that especially Bob Clampett's early black and white cartoons are full of such literally "animated" objects. As usual, most often it is not the corny gag itself but the way Clampett and his crew put it on.

While Walt Disney was fascinated in his early years by hand-drawn mechanical machines that imitated animals, most other cartoonists - especially those from Termite Terrace - indulged in providing everyday objects with life and personality as can be seen in the following pictures of an aircraft factory that is "humming" in MEET JOHN DOUGHBOY.
Animal Objects

Bob Clampett's black and white Porky cartoon POLAR PALS seems to be mainly built around variations of this basic idea. The film starts with an alarm clock coming to life next to Porky lying under a pile of bearskins. These allegedly dead blankets then come to life and we discover that these bears were just sleeping.
But when half-way into the picture the villainous fur trapper I. Killem is introduced, the theme of "animating" dead objects is reversed. First he is only imagining sea lions as fur coats...
...then he blows his prey to kingdom come:

Justice is restored in the end, when an animal finally gets back at I. Killem. First the trapper's ship is sunken and at the last minute comes alive. This, in a way, prepares the final gag.
Meanwhile the villain escapes in a kayak. In opposition to all the earlier "coming-alive" gags of this cartoon, it is not the kayak that actually assumes animal or human shape and behavior. It has simply been mistaken for a kayak and is an angry pot whale, in fact.

Rubber Guns
Guns and cannons have to be stiff and sturdy by definition or else you couldn't shoot straight. But in animation, strong forces are often expressed through violent movement. The stronger the distortion of an otherwise stable form, the more powerful a force is felt. Often the impact of a movement is measured by the amount of anticipation. It's no surprise then, that the trapper's gun is reacting like a living being to Killem's pulling of the trigger rope. What is unusual about Clampett's treatment of the action is not that we see an anticipation and an exaggerated recoil. The unusual part is the way this anticipation is animated: the cannon bends back like the arm of a shot-putter and then spits the cannonball out:
While his contemporaries most often defined physically rigid objects by animating them with almost no squash and stretch in contrast to the materiality of highly flexible human/animal bodies, Clampett even squashed anvils (as can be seen in A TALE OF TWO KITTIES, 1942), if it helped translate energy to the screen.

The way Clampett made the distortion of stable objects part of his gags can be seen in a comparison of his first cartoon PORKY'S BADTIME STORY (1937) (which unfortunately is only available on youtube in a colorized version) and Frank Tashlin's PORKY'S RAIL ROAD which was made around the same time. Animator and historian Milt Gray has written about this in a post about Clampett's use of expressive animation on John Kricfalusi's blog.

Likewise, when the faux-Disney squirrel in A CORNY CONCERTO shoots back at Bugs, Porky and the dog, the gun feels very rubbery for a moment. Since this is a direct spoof of FANTASIA (1940), the large arcs of the histrionic gestures are probably as slow and conspicuous to expose Disney's excessive use of squash and stretch. Then, the anticipation and recoil are straight in the line of shooting. Since the squashing recoil is happening very fast (just before the cut the victims), it doesn't seem as outrageous as the distortions at the beginning of the clip.

Spitting Images
While the villain's cannon may have looked like a blowtube, Porky's gun is literally spitting bullets out by the dozen. The muzzle is literally transformed into a mouth with lips and tongue:

These weird "hole-to-mouth" gags had probably started with Clampett's INJUN TROUBLE (1938, not available on disc or online anymore) which he later remade as WAGON HEELS. So technically POLAR PALS already re-uses an animation sequence from an earlier cartoon which was then re-used in a later color cartoon.
Between the two "western" films however, "the tube mouth" as I like to call it evolved into a Clampett trademark. At the beginning of PILGRIM PORKY an anchor is sucked in by a porthole-mouth with the mouth characteristics emphasized by lips and a large tongue. This short piece of animation stands out to me because of how the animator made unexpected use of the tongue to push in the anchor.
Whenever this mouth tranformation happens to an inanimate object, we can clearly see the tongue. In the lackluster army cartoon MEET JOHN DOUGHBOY the spitting gun is turned into an airplane called "spitfire":
Later on, the narrator talks about a most potent cannon. Immediately before, two soldiers are forgetting to shoot because they are comparing sticks with the words "mine is longer". It comes as no surprise that the cannon is shooting stiffly and only flags after shooting several loads off.

It is only then that the exhausted tube turns into a mouth with its tongue panting like that of a dog. This panting is re-used in a more obvious environment in CRAZY CRUISE: a carnivorous plant is portrayed as a mouth that encloses a bumblebee. The insect is so determined to resist its fate that the plant is getting exhausted, spits it out and resign breathing heavily.
Transfer of Function
Unlike all the objects we have seen so far, Horton already has a mouth. But since the water is finally rising above his head, the mouth's function to deliver dialogue is transferred to Horton's trunk which then continues to rhyme in accurate lip-sync.
A few years later, Porky's dialogue is enunciated by a tea kettle tat is stuck on his head. Since delivering dialogue is rather exhausting for a kettle that is not used to it, the shot ends with the now familiar tongue action.
Bob Clampett has often been accused of completely arbitrary gags and stories. And even though he did not care if a joke was trite or even tasteless, all of his (later) films seem to come from a surprisingly coherent world that simply followed its own set of rules. Sacrificing materiality references to express strong forces and equipping rigid tubes with mouths were only two of them.

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