Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons,
By Leonard Maltin, Plume, 1987
Try to Overlook Speedy Gonzales and Bosko
I can only imagine what was in the drinking water in Kansas City, Missouri, at the turn of the last century, but somehow that town was the stomping ground for some of the most influential and important animators in film history: Walt Disney was barely in his twenties when he started his own company, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, and hired cartoonists Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Ub Iwerks, and Isadore "Friz" Freleng, to produce animated shorts for local theaters.
The popularity of his creations (if not the studio, which went bankrupt within a year), sent Disney and Iwerks to Hollywood to complete the weird live-action/animated short subjects called the "Alice Comedies," and develop the more enduring cash cow that would be Mickey Mouse. Harman, Ising, and Freleng stayed behind to found their own short-lived studio, creating their own Mickey-like character Bosko, a happy-go-lucky Negro boy. Their cartoon was one of the first to synchronize speech and music with animation and was quickly picked up by Leon Schlesinger, producer of what would become Warner Bros. Animation classic series, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.
While Harman & Ising were making money for Schlesinger, Freleng went to New York to work on the animated version of the sublime Krazy Kat comic strip, eventually coming round to Warner Bros. to be replace Harman & Ising who had quit Schlesinger over contract disputes.* Freleng became the head director and developed the first fully-defined character, Porky Pig, in 1935. He in turn left Warner Bros. for an unhappy two-year stint with the animation studios of MGM (because those cartoons were stupid), then came back to Warner's to stay in 1939.
Thus began the Golden Age of movie cartoons, particularly for Warner Bros. Some of the finest, funniest, sharpest shorts were created under the direction of Friz Freleng and his fellow animator/directors, Bob Clampett, Robert McKimson, and Chuck Jones. Freleng introduced or retooled such beloved characters as Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam (whom he was said to resemble), Tweety Bird, and Sylvester Cat, and went on to win four Academy Awards for the studio.
Freleng was also responsible for Speedy Gonzales, a cringeworthy character developed in the mid-1950s and a precursor to the less clever, less-deftly animated creations of the DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (DFE), which he co-created with Dave DePatie around the time the Warner Bros. animation studios folded in 1963. You can thank DePatie-Freleng for the Ant and the Aardvark series, The Barkleys (a cartoon based on All in the Family ...only with dogs), and most famously and profitably, The Pink Panther. DFE made cartoons until 1981, when it was bought by Marvel Comics Group and renamed Marvel Productions.
And that, Jimmy, is where Transformers comes from.
Eventually (and inevitably) the Disney Conglomeration bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, so here we are back at square one and the drinking water in Kansas City.
Throughout the 1980s, Freleng did very well for himself as an executive producer of various Looney Tunes-related vehicles and revivals. He retired from Warner Bros. in 1986, handing the reins to his former secretary, Kathleen Helppie-Shipley, who has quietly become the longest-serving producer of the franchise, second only to its creator, Leon Schlesinger.
Friz Freleng died of natural causes on May 26, 1995 at the age of 88.
He did great things.
* This does read a bit like the history of dotcom techboomers, I realize. Everyone knew everyone and only worked places for two years at a time, then took each other's jobs.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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