Monday, 7 November 2011

Casper the Grouchy Caveman

Chuck Jones was hopelessly enamoured with cuteness in his early cartoons, so it’s somewhat startling to find him not only trying for comedy in one of them, but a Tex Avery-style take as well.

As much as the drawing style may look like something from a late ‘30s Fleischer cartoon, this is actually from ‘Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur’ (1939). This animation credit is given to Ace Gamer, but Jones had stalwarts like Ken Harris and Phil Monroe already in his unit at the time.

Ace was born Adolph Charles Gamer on May 13, 1897 in Chicago. He got his nickname because he was a World War One flyer, arriving home from overseas in 1919. He was living in St. Louis in 1930 and six years later was employed in Los Angeles at Leon Schlesinger Productions. Ace eventually became head of the special effects department but left the studio by 1949 to open Animated Video Films, Inc. with Dick Huemer. In the mid-‘40s, he was president of the Screen Animators Guild. Ace died on June 9, 1964 in Los Angeles.

The voice of Casper Caveman belongs to Jack Lescoulie doing what was supposed to pass for a Jack Benny impression of the day. Lescoulie was in demand for it. He was hired to do Benny on Joe Penner’s show in November 1937, Eddie Cantor’s the following month, and even showed up on Benny’s own show to play him in a ‘tenth anniversary in radio’ sketch on May 11, 1941. He later appeared as a cartoon Benny stand-in in ‘Malibu Beach Party’ (1940) and ‘It Happened to Crusoe’ (Columbia, 1941).

Lescoulie is probably best known for being the original stooge on ‘The Today Show’ and as Jackie Gleason’s announcer before Johnny Olson. His New York Times obit doesn’t mention impressions, cartoons, or his early radio career, which has several connections to this cartoon.

John Pierre Lescoulie was named for his grandfather, a Frenchman who settled in California. His parents, John Marie Lescoulie and Daisy Alice (Teazle) Lescoulie were married January 17, 1912. Time was of the essence as Jack was born May 17. The family had artistic talent. After arriving in Los Angeles, Jack’s father was a carpenter for one of the movie studios, his sister was a dance teacher and his brother was a musician. Jack became an announcer at KFWB, the Warner Bros. radio station on the same lot as a certain cartoon studio. An unbylined United Press story datelined Hollywood, July 8, 1939 talks about Lescoulie’s big break. After talking about two other talents to watch for in Hollywood, namely George Parrish and Keye Luke, it says:

Finally we have 27-year-old Lescoulie, who earned $30 a week three years ago as an early-up radio announcer.
One morning Lescoulie got tired of his fake cheer. He said he felt lousy and that he’d play their records for ‘em and even give the folks time signals, but he wasn’t going to be in a good humor. He was on the verge of getting fired, when the letters began to come in by the hundreds, from radio fans who said they surely did appreciate an announcer who was human enough to be grouchy on the morning after the night before.
So that started the grouch club, a radio favorite, now running coast-to-coast under auspices of Lescoulie and his writing partner, 24-year-old Nat Hiken. The radio listeners liked the grouches so much and sent them so much mail detailing their own grouchers, that the partners began making movies on the subject for Warner Brothers.
They've made five, so far, in the Warner Brooklyn studios and have signed contracts for the production here of 13 more two-reelers about the things that make people grouchy.

‘The Grouch Club’ started as a local show on KFWB, then a regional one, and became a network offering April 16, 1939, as a lead-in to (surprise) Jack Benny. It expanded beyond Lescoulie griping. Cast members were added, including Arthur Q. Bryan, Phil Kramer and Walter Tetley, all of whom lent their voices to animated cartoons. Bryan became the voice of Elmer Fudd and Kramer appeared on ‘Hamateur Night’ (1939). It’s not inconceivable that the Warners cartoon writers were fans of ‘The Grouch Club’ and thought a cranky Jack Benny would make a funny idea for a cartoon. Lescoulie was cranky, Lescoulie played Benny and Lescoulie worked not far down the lot. It’s quite possible that was the spark behind this cartoon and Lescoulie’s hiring.

Casper Caveman never appeared in another cartoon but Lescoulie and Hiken (Fred Allen radio show, ‘Bilko’) both went on to bigger things. Jack Lescoulie died July 22, 1987.


  1. Jack's staff of writers was still rounding out the complete Benny personna and the supporting cast of characters in 1938, when this cartoon would have been storyboarded, and the Jack of that period was a tad gruffer and less finicky than the Benny that would be crystallized within a year or so. So the WB staff may have borrowing from the Benny show itself when they came up with the 'grouchy Jack" personality here.

    As for the cartoon, while the first half is very Averish, the final section is pure Jones, with Daffy's sign fetish foreshadowing the sign gags in "Rabbit Seasoning". It's also the first of a (very) lengthy series of Jones cartoons where Daffy doesn't fare all that well by the iris out, though overzealousness instead of greed and ego end up causing the scheme to (literally) blow up in Daffy's face here.

  2. Two of my all-time favorite endings in Warner Bros. cartoons are in Daffy Duck cartoons.

    This one: “Ya know, maybe that wasn’t such a hot idea after all!”

    And, “Yankee Doodle Daffy”, where Sleepy LaGoon (?) gets us once with an unexpected singing voice – and Freleng and/or his writers wring that little bit extra by having him cough and choke on the last line of the song!

  3. AC Gamer probably only did effects in Daffy and the Dinosaur? Did he do the inflatible duck at the end?

    I think Rudy Larriva did the wild-take of Casper the Caveman? If he didn't, then who knows.

  4. I haven't a clue, Steven. But Gamer was more than an effects guy at one time so I suspect he animated here.
    The problem is there were uncredited animators at the studio so it's difficult to say with absolute certainty who did some scenes. I've talked with people who worked with some of the old-timers and even they were cautious about identifying each and every bit of work.