Saturday, December 15, 2007

"In Praise of Coarseness" part two

The whole issue of the Durante influence in old cartoons got very much into my thoughts and subconscious recently. For my own benefit I wrote several pages about it even before I remembered referencing Durante (superficially anyway) in ALADDIN. Durante himself was really just a typification of general burlesque comedy that ran rampant in cartoons until it just faded away eventually.

I grew up watching old movies of vaudeville comedians like the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, but there was something different about the 3 Stooges (who I also liked) and Durante that I couldn't put my finger on until I heard people discuss the word "burlesque" on a TV show. I thought that word just referred to striptease acts, but gradually discovered that it was a style of stage entertainment that grew out of vaudeville, only it was not as genteel. In a word burlesque was more "coarse," like vaudeville with the gloves off. I gradually found myself enjoying that kind of humor more over the years, probably provoked by seeing the movie A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, which was a kind of nostalgic revival of burlesque done in the 1960's. The movie features Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers, two burlesque geniuses, but I have also seen it done on stage many times. When the acting gets too "clowny", you check out, but if the actors make sure to be big, real, and coarse, it can be very funny.

BTW, by "coarse" I do not mean out and out crude or dirty humor, or shock effects or gross-out gags, (though those all have their place). I just mean that burlesque had a more deliberately unrefined and unrestrained energy which I call "coarse." And when it flowed over into cartoons it had a definite impact. It seems that much of the 1930's found studio animators all seeking to make the smoothest actions possible, even during manic sequences. All they could do to make things seem more frantic was to speed up the pace, but the action still derives from graceful arcs and precise spacing of drawings. In the 1940's some animators and directors began to shake this elegant purity in favor of more erratic, stoccatto motion and it made for funnier, punchier results. One of my favorite examples is in Bob Clampett's BABY BOTTLENECK, when a small dog marches into Porky's office with a rocket strapped to his back declaring he has an idea that is "a loo-LOO!" He bounces into another shot, lights the rocket, which explodes and chars him completely. With no less energy he declares that he's "back to the drawing board" and he marches back out. The timing and spacing of the drawings, the articulation of the poses, and the overall energy is fluid, but it has enough jerks and surprises in it to keep the little guy looking like a ball of energy. He's not just acting weird or strange, he is excited, committed to his idea, and undaunted despite defeat. That's basically what Durante and other burlesque comics did--act at pitch volume of their emotions much--if not all--of the time. Don't get mad, get "mortified".

The upshot of viewing these old cartoons and writing about them is that a week or so ago I wound up seeing in a dream a pencil test of my character "WTF? MOUSE," pacing back and forth as he cursed and shouted in a Durante voice. It was something of a revelation, even though I never thought of that voice or personality for him. I had been wanting to do some animation of this character and I always pictured him doing something graceful and Disneyesque, but suddenly I had a vision of him bristling with emotion (in this case anger) and it made me realize how important the energy of burlesque comedy is to funny full animation.

Lately I catch myself drawing characters staring into space or just shrugging, which may stem from my own reserved personality. That doesn't really make for hilarity though. Maybe because as I grew up, the old cartoons were replaced by limited animation that put a high premium on static, casual poses, I lost sight of the broader actions that made me laugh when I was little. Even when I started learning to animate, it was at a time very much like a repeat of the 30's: we were all trying to crack the code of smooth, naturalistic action. Doing something more off-beat was rarely called for, at least not at the big studios. In fact, REN & STIMPY is probably one of the only recent cartoons I can think of that called for voices and animation to be played at the peak of real emotions for humorous effect. And of course it has to originate in the voice tracks, just as much as the dog in BABY BOTTLENECK was inspired by Mel Blanc's awesome delivery. Mel Blanc wasn't just being loud and weird (like a lot of current TV voices), he was actually playing genuine enthusiasm at peak level, which is what made it funny.

No doubt about it, I like subtle acting and humor and there is plenty of room for it in cartoons. But even much of today's broadest live action comedies feature laid-back, moon-faced schlubs more often than not. I'd love to see a comeback for broader burlesque kind of comedy in general, at least in a segment of what gets released in animation and elsewhere.


Stephen Worth said...

I'll take James Finlayson over Harry Langdon any day! It's too bad we live in an age of Zeppos.

your pal

Weirdo said...

Groucho Marx was always one of my favorite comedians, even though I was only exposed to him through at first. I like it when Bugs imitated him in "Slick Hare" doing the eyebrow thing. I learned to do that and it makes my mom laugh, even though she doesn't like the Marx Brothers. Later I watched some of their films and I LOVED them. I also like watching Groucho on "You Bet Your Life". I need to see some W.C. Fields films. Is he funny?

P.S., have you checked out my blog lately? I've reviewed Bakshi's first four films, from "Fritz the Cat" to "Wizards". Check it out if you want.

Will Finn said...

Steve-i wonder who would win if Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy all got into a fight? (Answer: "everybody!")

Weirdo--W.C. Fields' output is pretty uneven but i suggest starting with IT'S A GIFT, THE OLD FASHIONED WAY and MIN & BILL. when he was funny he was funnier than anybody IMO. he's more vaudeville than burlesque tho.

amir avni said...

I like reading your posts Will, I really identify with what you write.

I love the excited inventor in baby bottleneck, especially how we he walks through Porky's wall in the beginning of the scene!

Will Finn said...

Amir--that's a really good point about the entrance. It seems like at that stage Bob Clampett was eager to do everything different, even entrances and exits (which can be easily fall into "stock" mannerisms). That little character is one of the liveliest one-shots ever.

chrisallison said...

I love your concept of emotions "at volume". Another real gem, Will!

James N. said...

Hey Mr. Finn!

This is Dave Nethery's son. I just discovered your blog like... now. Great stuff.

I've bookmarked your blog, I look forward to more awesome posts.

-James N.

Weirdo said...

Hey Will, I just read your comments at John K.'s blog and I found them very insightful. I'm glad we have these blogs out so that aspiring animators/cartoonists aren't left out in the cold about what we have to learn and study.

P.S. I've gotten up to "Hey Good Lookin'" on my Bakshi reviews. I should have "American Pop" up today.

Will Finn said...

Weirdo, these posts about "coarseness" have some relevance to Bakshi i think, given his comments on Steve Worth's blog about his love/hate attitude toward Disney animation being "overly-perfect" (i think that's how he put it). Maybe he was trying to get some more rugged energy in everything he did and sometimes, I think, he succeeded!

Hey James--your dad is a fine cartoonist and a good ol' friend from way back. Cheers and welcome!

BillRiling said...


I'm heading out of town. Just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas and hope you get a snoot full on New Year's, Ah-cha-cha-cha-chaaa!

Yer Mortified Pal,


BillRiling said...

PS. Does Jackie Gleason fit into your description of "coarseness"?

Pete Emslie said...

Since you've brought up Zero Mostel's name in the last couple posts, I feel compelled to ask you this question, Will. As I recall that you are as big a fan of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" as I am, is it possible that you've sort of based the look of your two "Fossil Fools" characters (or "Evolutionary revolutionaries" as I like to call them) on the physical personas of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder? They certainly do remind me of those two rascals, regardless of whether it was intentional on your part or not!


Will Finn said...

Bill, I love Gleason, and yes, he is surely in this group IMO. Happy Holidays to you pal and see you in the new year...!

Peter, you perceptive devil. Although they haven't been identified in dialog yet, they are indeed named "Zero" and "Gene" in homage to that great team. There's also a kind of oblique pun in that "Zero" is the first land organism (a kind of fat trilobite) and "Gene" (sort of a worm) can also be read as "gene" as in genetics.
The original title of FOSSIL FOOLS in fact was 'Start the Evolution Without Me' in reference to the old Gene Wilder movie 'Start the Revolution Without Me.'

Weirdo said...

Will, I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Weirdo said...

Hey Will, do you happen to know how to install YouTube clips into a blog post?

Patrick said...

Love to read your post and miss taking movie with you Will.
Happy Christmas and all the best for the new year!