Saturday 24 August 2019

One of the Flip Cel Flippers

Ub Iwerks was man behind Flip the Frog. Well, unless you lived in one town in Montana. Someone else got the credit there.

Here’s a story from the Independent-Record, published in Helena in 1931.
Townsend Boy Author of "Flip the Frog" Animated Cartoons
Townsend, Sept. 16.—"Flip the Frog" whose antics on the animated cartoons has delighted millions of people about the world owes his popularity to a former Townsend youth, Ben Clopton, son of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Clopton, Sr., of Townsend. The author-cartoonist is at present visiting his home on a much needed and hard earned vacation from the Hollywood artists colony. Mr. Clopton does other drawing but "Flip the Frog" is the one cartoon that will make him famous. He expects to return to Hollywood shortly to continue the activities of "Flip."
To the best of my knowledge, none of the Flip cartoons have the names of any animators on them (aside from Iwerks), so this was a nice little revelation.

The first time I saw Clopton’s name was many years ago watching those blasé Buddy cartoons produced by Leon Schlesinger. I’m always interested in biographical information about the people who worked on the old cartoons, and the world is fortunate that animation historians are, too. Some of them had the opportunity to interview co-workers of ones who had passed away so we can get a better idea of what they were like.

So it was with Ben Clopton.

Clopton was Montana-born and bred. He was born July 22, 1906 in Belgrade to "Rimrocker" Benjamin Ashby (Sr.) and Olivia Clopton. The family moved to Townsend in 1910 where Clopton graduated in 1924. Not many weeks later, he scoped out a job in Los Angeles as an electrician but moved back home and enrolled in university in Missoula. Timothy S. Susanin’s book Walt Before Mickey reveals Clopton went to work for Walt Disney in February 1927. It quotes Hugh Harman as saying “Ben developed this facility under Ub’s tutelage. He was not really as flexible or good as Ub . . . But he was a very excellent assistant[.]” Clopton was one of the Disney animators lured to work for middleman Charles Mintz after lawyers claimed Universal Pictures, and not Disney, owned the Oswald the Rabbit character; Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons states he left in May 1928. Clopton even got to direct some Oswald cartoons, including (Jungle Jangles and Saucy Sausages in 1929), before Universal punted Mintz and his studio. Barrier’s book gives the impression that Clopton stayed loyal to Harman and Rudy Ising when they signed their deal with Schlesinger to make a series of Bosko cartoons in 1930. Later in the year, he was obviously with Iwerks.

Mr. Barrier’s website features a fine interview with Warners animator Phil Monroe, who gave him some insight into Clopton.
Cal [Dalton] was influenced by an animator named Ben Clopton, who was the studio drunk, but was a goddarned good musical man, and his dances were all funny. He was good in the early '30s, or in the middle '30s, when they were making all those Merrie Melodies, when they used all of the songs. They would give Ben Clopton all of the dance sequences, and he'd get carried away. Say it was a lobster, doing a dance; they gave that to two different animators. They would give the lobster to Ham Hamilton, and Ham would make it look like the best dancer you could ever see, because Ham was probably the best animator that ever worked at Warners. . . .
If you'd give him the same dance you gave Ham Hamilton, Ham would put realism into it, and give you all the clicks. Clopton would give it a lot of bouncy rhythm, and all of a sudden a character would stand on his hands and dance on his hands and click his feet together and fly around—just wild. It was all in good rhythm, but it wasn't dancing, it was just good rhythm stuff. Every one of his dances received good comment; he was known as a good dance man. But he was wild.
The truth of the matter [was], he was drunk most of the time. I used to be his assistant, and I'd come in, and I'd be afraid to be around him, because you could smell the liquor on him. He thought he was a prizefighter, and the story about Ben Clopton is, at our Christmas parties he would always get drunk, then he'd go across the street to the drugstore—maybe to buy more liquor—and get in a fight. Every year he'd meet the same guy, and the other guy beat the hell out of him, and he'd come back. The next year, he starts breathing heavy and getting drunk, and he'd remember that fight he had—"Dammit, I can take him"—and he'd go across the street, and the guy'd beat the hell out of him again. That happened two or three years, and he always got beat up. He thought he was a fighter; he'd come in, and he'd spar around you while you were working. Cal Dalton would not pay any attention; Cal would sit there and work. Ben would sneak up behind Cal, and his fists would be coming right close to Cal, and Cal would just sit there and say, "If you hit me, we're going to have trouble." He never did hit Cal. He loved Cal; he thought Cal was the funniest guy. They really liked each other.
I remember one time in the late '40s that I came out of that studio at lunchtime, and I saw this guy lying in the gutter outside—a common drunk—and it was Ben. In '34, when I started, ten years, fifteen years before that, he was the top-paid animator, next to Ham Hamilton.
Clopton bounced from Schlesinger to Lantz to MGM (when Fred Quimby set up the studio in 1937) to Fleischer back to Los Angeles. Was he working for Hugh Harman Productions then? I have no idea.

His biggest publicity didn’t come from his work in animation but from his divorce in 1945.
Lamarr’s Stand-In Divorces Husband
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 3 (AP).—Sylvia La Marr [née Carmichael], stand-in for actress Hedy Lamarr and Joan Crawford, was granted a divorce today from Ben A. Clopton, rancher, when she testified:
“He kept a loaded rifle around the house. He used to shoot holes in the ceiling. It made me very nervous.”
Judging by the story, Clopton had forsaken animation for ranching. In 1950 he had a home at Arbutus near Clarendon in the Huntington Park area before moving to Santa Monica. His obituary in several newspapers in Montana reveal he returned to Victor, Montana to live with two of his sisters because of an unspecified injury. In 1979, he was moved into the Masonic Home in Lewistown, Montana, where he died of natural causes on November 19, 1987.

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