As I’ve hinted now and again, I am an animator by trade. While it may seem as if my days are filled with nightmares, exploitation and pornography, the truth is that the majority of my time is spent with gentler souls. Sometimes, however, the two intersect, and in honour of Warner Bros. animation director Isadore “Friz” Freleng’s 100th birthday I would like to discuss a few of those moments. Freleng’s career spanned the entirety of the Warner Bros. studio, even before and after it was Warner Bros. (don’t ask). He was the elder animator at the studio when the young turks like Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin and Bob Clampett came in, giving them a foundation from which they could push against and innovate. It’s entirely possible that without Friz there would have been no Warner Bros. cartoons, or at least there wouldn’t be any as we recognize them today.
It’s been speculated that the reason Freleng has been somewhat neglected by the general public over the years has been because his Warner Bros. isn’t as iconic as other directors he worked with. I suspect that in truth it was his reserved, gentle demeanour and unwillingness to agressively promote himself that may have been the cause of this oversight.
And it’s that personality trait that brings us to the reason why I’m writing about him here, on a horror site. While there were other directors who created spooky Warner Bros. cartoons, none were as adamant as Freleng. Actually, that’s only partly true. Freleng was even more specific in his obsession with horror, as he was the only director at the studio to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde not just once, but three times in the films Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide, Hyde and Go Tweet and Hyde and Hare. And while it may seem out of sorts for the studio’s finest creator of vaudeville and musical-inspired mayhem to place an axe in the hands of an animated madman, it actually makes complete sense. Who else but the studio’s most repressed craftsman would distort some of the world’s most beloved characters in ways that even the mavericks of Warner Bros. animation wouldn’t dare.
As I’ve already mentioned, these aren’t the first times that Warner Bros. cartoon creations have been menaced by horrific forces. The difference is that in each of these shorts we see such iconic Warner Bros. characters as Tweety, Sylvester and Bugs not only threatened, but undergo monstrous transformations which make them threatening themselves. This is Freleng trading on the good will and affection of his audience by creating grotesque mockeries of characters beloved by generations, even then. Despite the gags, this subversion of our expectations is discomforting, almost as if the hundreds of cartoon shorts that came before were just a slow burn that led up to this moment. Surprise!
This has been my contribution to the Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon. If you’re interested in reading more about Freleng, please check out the other contributions. And happy birthday, Friz!