(Alternate commentary-free version: This link will allow you to watch the original cartoon without audio commentary)
This week we shine a spotlight on a rarely seen Hollywood cartoon by the great Bob Clampett. It’s a Grand Old Nag (1947) is in fact Clampett’s final animated cartoon created during the golden age of Hollywood.
Clampett was one of the chief architects of the Warner Bros. school of cartoon comedy. In addition to directing dozens of classic Looney Tunes (including such titles as Porky In Wackyland, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery and Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs), Clampett created two Warner Bros. mainstays, Tweety and Beaky Buzzard. After Clampett left Warner Bros. in 1945, he spent several months punching up stories for Screen Gems (Columbia’s ill-fated cartoon unit) while setting himself up as an independent producer. He approached Republic Pictures, which did not have a cartoon division but had a need to demonstrate a new 2-color film process: TruColor (the studio owned one of the biggest film labs in Hollywood, Consolidated Film Industries).
In 1946, Clampett made a deal to produce one theatrical cartoon, budgeted for $20,000, with an option to make 35 more. Taking his cue from the kind of pictures Republic was known for–B-Westerns and rural comedies–Clampett created “Charlie Horse”, sort of a four-legged Mortimer Snerd (not unlike the personality he gave to Beaky Buzzard at Warners).
The film is filled with Clampett’s gag sensibilities, from the eye-popping double takes to the punny signs that cover the action. (I’ve Always Loathed You was a take-off of Republic’s biggest film of 1946, I’ve Always Loved You; Ciro Van Snoot being referred to as “The Horse With The Inhuman Mind”, a jab at the billing for Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger, “The Smartest Horse In the Movies”).
The cartoon even has a “joke” director credit (to “Kilroy”, the graffiti phenomenon of the 1940s), and though Don Towsley (Dumbo, Bambi, Fantasia) is credited as Supervising Animator, Clampett clearly has his fingerprints all over the film (and that’s literally his handwriting in the credits and in other lettering seen throughout the film). Bob used voice talents Dave Barry (as “Mr. Retake”) and Stan Freberg (as “Charlie” and “Ciro” – take note, this is Freberg’s first official screen credit!) both of whom had worked with Clampett at Termite Terrace. One credit noticeably missing is that of “story.” Rumor is that Clampett hired Michael Maltese to moonlight on the film. (In 1954, animator Paul J. Smith directed A Horse’s Tale for Walter Lantz. It’s a de facto remake, with a tell-tale story credit to Maltese.)
It’s a Grand Old Nag was released on December 20th, 1947. No information exists to gauge its initial success, but it was released at a turning point in Republic’s history. Financial losses due to the war and depressed revenues at the box office were forcing Republic to tighten its belt. Early in 1948 Clampett’s multi-cartoon deal was cancelled. Undeterred, Clampett threw himself into his pioneering TV puppet show Time For Beany (bringing Stan Freberg along for the ride). Clampett returned briefly to animation in the late 50s/early 60s with a series of Beany & Cecil cartoons for ABC-TV.
Charlie Horse is just a footnote in the fabulous career of Bob Clampett. One wonders what the other 35 cartoons could have been like – or where Clampett (and Republic) may have gone if things worked out differently. For now, we have this one surviving example of that alternate route – and, like the rest of Clampett’s work, it’s a refreshing blast of cartoon energy.
Jerry Beck and Mark Kausler provide audio commentary on this short. Thanks to Michael Geisler for recording the commentary track, and Randall Kaplan for his expert sound and picture editing.
Here is an original cel from the short: