Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Cherry Man and his Sea Serpent

It’ll probably never be written, but someone should objectively tell the tale of Snowball, the studio set up by Bob Clampett to make Beany and Cecil cartoons in the early ‘60s.

In theory, Snowball could have grown to become another Hanna-Barbera. The studio had some very good talent. But it had an extremely short life-span. Animator Fred Kopietz spoke to historian Mike Barrier about money troubles, assistant editor Pete Verity remembered the almost-impossible deadlines and network meddling. And then there was the matter of timing. Clampett put ‘Beany and Cecil’ on the air in early 1962 during the boom in prime-time animated cartoon shows. But as soon as the first failures sunk in the ratings, networks quickly looked to other kinds of programming.

Here’s a syndicated newspaper feature dated March 4, 1962 where Clampett talks about the show and why he feels other prime-time cartoons failed. Interestingly, Clampett is pretty deprecating about his work at Warners. And if success followed the Beany and Cecil puppet show because he “threw away the script,” it naturally follows that the success was due to the ad-libs—by puppeteers/voice actors Stan Freberg and Daws Butler, meaning Clampett had nothing to do with it.

By CHARLES WITBECK
HOLLYWOOD — ABC has ushered in another cartoon series on Saturday nights at 7.00 p. m. entitled “Matty’s Funnies with Beany and Cecil.”
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“Matty’s Funnies” used to be a collection of old cartoons. Now it has teamed up with Beany, a little boy with a propeller on his beany, and a friendly, semi-stupid sea serpent called Cecil. As puppets in Los Angeles during the pioneer days of TV, Cecil and Beany were quite the rage. Even grownups got home early to pat their kids on the head and catch the show. Creator Bob Clampett used to throw out scripts and have the puppets talk up for the benefit of the grownups during most of the half hour. The next morning fans called into praise or damn the proceedings, so Clampett knew where he was going. Cecil, a hand puppet with a very mobile cloth face that screwed up in a most engaging way, was a celebrity equal to the Lucky Strike marching cigarettes. While Kukla, Fran and Ollie had the east coast sewed up, Beany and Cecil were LA heroes.
The puppets have become cartoon characters and in five minutes initiate heroics that used to take Bob Clampett six weeks to tell. In other words, the chit-chat for grownups has disappeared, this cartoon series is strictly for kids.
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And that’s why Clampett, a man who looks like he'd just gotten out of bed, isn’t worried about the series’ success. “ ‘Top Cat,’ ‘Calvin And The Colonel’ (Bob has other names for them) were aimed too high,” he says.
Bob is going to ignore the adult class and concentrate on the population explosion of unending youngsters. “We’ll have a whole new audience every year,” he says, meaning an audience range of from six to 11. It can go lower. Clampett’s year and a half old daughter, Baby Ruthie, can sit through five cartoons without wandering, and his five-year-old boy, Bobbie, can say all the names of the Clampett characters.
Would Clampett list a few? Bob nodded and pulled out illustrations of Go Man Gogh, a painter with a mobile wrist: Flora the Clinging Vine, a girl-like plant who goes for Cecil; Jack the knife; Normal Norman; Davy Crickett and his leading lady bug; Careless the Mexican Hairless; a lobster called Snapsie Maxie; The Boo Birds; and Lil Homer, a baseball playing octopus who cavorts in the little leagues under the sea. There’s Twinkle Twinkle, the starry-eyed starfish: the town of Los Wages; So What and the Seven What Nots. And that's only the beginning. In case you didn’t get the idea, Mr. Clampett likes names.
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The Saturday night show of five minute cartoons is billed as “The cleanest show on TV.” The reason — a Cecil bubble bath will be on the market along with other toys like Dishonest John games and a Cecil jack-in-the-box. The sponsor is a toy maker and he has nine months to capture the Christmas market with his cartoon characters.
Clampett has been a cartoonist and gag men since the age of 15. He spent 15 years learning his trade at the Warner Bros, cartoon division. “I was low man on the totem pole over there during the thirties.” he said. “The cartoon division was above a grocery store and I spent most of my money buying bags of cherries.” At noon, young Clampett joined the cartoonists at the drug store counter. “We filled up most of the seats,” he said, “and when a stranger deigned to sit with us. We would put on a little show. The fellas used to burp with great skill, and we often put on a small concert for the stranger, working down the counter from right to left. Few stayed to finish their meal.”
During this time Clampett dreamed up “Tweetie” and thought about Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd during working hours. “I tried every gag that came into my head,” said Bob. “Most of them were terrible, but it was the only way to learn.”
Clampett used to preview his cartoons in seven Los Angeles theaters and reactions would change from place to place. “Some jokes would be a dud even where and we were forced to take them out,” he said. “I learned to make many changes, but in general I wrote what I thought was funny.”


There was always something disconcerting about the “Beany and Cecil” cartoons to me as a kid and I never could quite pinpoint what it was. In watching them now, I think I know what the problem is. The old theatricals and the Jay Ward cartoons featured wise-cracking protagonists who deservedly got the best of their opponents. Beany was expressionless, creepily so. The Captain played virtually no role in the action. And Cecil was constantly physically and mentally abused, as if sadism is supposed to be funny. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were treated in a few of Clampett’s cartoons. And the stars of the supporting cartoons were lacklustre. Dishonest John was the show’s best character and even he wasn’t as over-the-top as Ward’s Snidely Whiplash, a little ironic considering Clampett was Warner Bros.’ most over-the-top director some 15 years earlier.

Still, I’ll take Beany over ‘Calvin and the Colonel’ any day. You can’t dislike a cartoon series with a jolly version of “Rag Mop.”

2 comments:

  1. Beany and Cecil were among my absolute favorites when I was a kid, to the point of receiving a B@C Jack in the Box on my 6th birthday (1963)..Saying that, you bring up interesting points about the show I hadnt considered..Still love it, though..I think from watching a few Calvin and the Colonel episodes, it was better than what folks gave it credit for at the time..Good post..

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  2. Even in limited animation (VERY limited on Beany's face), Clampett was still able to come up with ideas and images (via Art Scott's direction) that could be a bit uncomfortable at times. But for the most part, he and/or the ABC censors knew where the boundary lines were between "funny" and "painful/gross" (and you can obviously see via that walking-the-line-on-good-taste why John Kricfalusi would have been drawn to doing a revival of B&C in the late 1980s and later into the creation of Red & Stimpy, which would spawn a two-decade glut of far lesser "fart-poop-piss" type of gags and characters).

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