The golden age of American animation gave us many enduring cartoon characters, from Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny. In an era that spans from 1928 to 1972, hundreds of animators contributed to this store of characters, each claiming their special place in cartoon history. One of the most intriguing animators of the era is Bob Clampett, the man who brought surrealism to Warner Bros cartoons.
Clampett was the son of an Irish immigrant from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, born in 1913 in San Diego. While living in Hollywood as a young boy, the Clampetts lived next door to Charlie Chaplin, and Clampett's father played handball with another famous silent movie era comedian, Harold Lloyd.
Clampett loved to draw from an early age, and published cartoons in the Los Angeles Times while still in high school. Despite dropping out of school just a few months before graduation in 1931, Clampett demonstrated his ambition by pitching the idea of Mickey Mouse dolls to a receptive Walt Disney, who loved the idea and used to collect the figures in his car.
In 1931, Clampett began working for Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros, and cut his teeth animating secondary characters for the earliest Merrie Melodies. Clampett worked with Tex Avery in a crumbling studio known as 'Termite Terrace', and during these early years, the two developed a number of characters that would soon become ubiquitous; Avery drew the first version of Daffy Duck, and Clampett animated him, and Clampett created an early, bald (and cranky) version of Tweety.
The two also pushed the envelope in terms of the content and style of the Warner Bros cartoons, with Clampett specialising in a Dali-esque surrealism which found its greatest expression in 1938’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’.
Clampett’s work, emphasising gags, humour, and action, were popular with audiences, and other directors were encouraged to emulate him. His mischievous streak extended to his attempts to get content past the censors, and in a 1971 interview with Funnyworld, he claimed he would often add material that he knew they would object to in order to distract from the material that mattered to him.
Jazz, literature and popular culture were important to Clampett, and their influence can be seen throughout his work, which is almost always intertextual. ‘Tin Pan Alley Cats’ (1943), ‘The Book Review’ (1946) and ‘The Great Piggy Bank Robbery’ (1946) demonstrate his love of jazz and literature, with the latter casting Daffy Duck in an homage to Dick Tracy.
In his later post-Warner Bros. work such as 'Beany and Cecil' (1962), while the cartoon is aimed at children, wry satirical allusions provided entertainment for older viewers. This subversive use of satire has been influential on modern day animators such as Brad Bird (The Simpsons, The Incredibles) and Jim Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy), who create work that appeals to both adults and children.
Clampett’s work is also noted for the consistent quality of its animation, in an era when animation budgets and schedules varied wildly. Several of his cartoons including ‘Tin Pan Alley Cats’ and ‘Porky in Wackyland’ have been inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for their cultural significance.
Describing his love of animation, Clampett said: “An artist can take pencil and brush in hand, and on a piece of paper can create a scene, be it an ancient city or a strange planet, and then animate figures doing anything at all that comes to his imagination. No other medium allows the creator to control every detail on every frame so completely.”
The history of animation is fraught with controversy and authorship claims. Clampett had left Warner Bros Studios because of artistic differences in 1946, soon after which he began to make authorship claims about Bugs Bunny which irked some who had been involved in the character’s genesis, including Fritz Freleng and Chuck Jones. Jones in particular was critical, calling Clampett “an egotist who took credit for everything”.
Controversy aside, it is indisputable that Clampett, the son of a Nenagh emigrant, contributed hugely to the complex evolution of modern cartoons. As animation historian Jerry Beck tells us, we should thank Bob Clampett for “putting the ‘looney’ into Looney Tunes”.
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director of Epic, The Irish Emigration Museumin Dublin's Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.