The Bear That Wasn’t (1967)

I just finished reading the new Maurice Noble biography Stepping Into The Picture by Robert McKinnon and am working up a review of it. In the meantime, I thought it’d be worth posting the 1967 short The Bear That Wasn’t (1967), a film on which Noble receives co-direction and production design credit.

It’s based on a 1946 illustrated book by Frank Tashlin, and Tashlin detested the finished film, saying that, “[W]ith the exception maybe of your best girl friend running you over in your own car, that was just about the worst experience I ever had, the making of that cartoon.” He explains further in this interview with Mike Barrier why he hated the film.

Tashlin is right. It’s not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. Conceptual problems and weak animation aside though, I have to admit having a soft spot for Noble’s production design on the film. Even if in many ways the design is largely inappropriate to the tone of the story, it’s undeniably appealing, inventive and fun. Credit is also due the background painters Phil DeGuard and Don Morgan.

While The Bear That Wasn’t may not make anybody’s all-time greatest shorts list, it does show Noble at the height of his game, and a willingness to always push animation production design in new and exciting directions. This film has intriguing earmarks of a highly abstracted “pure” design approach that Noble was exploring in the mid-’60s, which become epecially evident when you place it alongide another film he worked on during that period, The Dot and the Line (1965). It’s a shame that Noble never had the luxury of letting this approach evolve over the course of multiple films, like his work on the earlier Warner shorts, because with appropriate stories and collaborators, I think he could have taken animated films in some fascinating directions in the 1960s.


  • slowtiger

    I agree that this is not a very good film – some funny details aside, but it’s completely off balance, and much too slow, especially for today’s watching habits.

    The strange thing is that I remember a totally different film! It had been shown on german TV, it had of course a german narrater (who did the re-occuring “Aber ich bin ein Bär!” soo funny) – and it had a bear who got shaved and put in a work coat, which, if my memory serves me right, indicates that there was at least one more animated version of that story.

  • http://michaelspornanimation.com/splog/ Michael Sporn

    Maurice Noble was an absolutely brilliant designer, but I don’t think he did his best work when he was the director. It might suggest that he needed someone to work against or for.

  • eero

    Oh wow I remember seeing this film a few times on tv as a child, and finding it’s visuals really intriguing. They’ve been haunting me a few times since and I wondered if I’d ever see this again, thanks for posting this!

  • http://www.danyboom.blogspot.com dany

    Weak animation? WEAK ANIMATION? From supervisor Ben Washam, who animated such great stuff for Chuck, like Porkys laugh in ROBIN HOOD DAFFY?

    Who are you, amid? Do you know ANYTHING about what you are talking about, or do we just assume you do because you wrote books and stuff? What I see has LOTS of appeal, and I was glad I watched it.

    I’m not so happy about your snarky comments though, which run through this site like a rot. You cant even watch something beautiful like Jamie Mason’s Kid man and Lemon without leaving some vitriol in your wake.

    I guess we do come here for some extent for a point of view. I just wish it wasnt from such a grump.

  • http://tomatofactory.tumblr.com Anthony L. Lamberty

    I have to disagree with Amid, this is one of my favorite cartoons, because its so terribly depressing. The background design of Noble’s made me want to be a better designer.

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    There was always something … off … about the writing, I thought, as if this project should have started life as a Jules Feiffer cartoon and STAYED that way.

  • http://hitlersbrain.deviantart.com R

    Personally, I always thought it was awesome, but then I didn’t write the book. It always made a nice change of pace for me, on the rare occasions CN would show it in a Looney Tunes block.

  • http://thad-k.blogspot.com Thad Komorowski

    Dany—
    Abe Levitow animated Porky’s laugh in “Robin Hood Daffy”.

  • http://Lukefarookhi.blogspot.com Luke Farookhi

    Though the cartoon is flawed, I actually have quite a soft spot for it. I love the sequence where the Bear is taken to higher and higher authorities, each of whom claims that he is ‘a silly man who needs a shave, and wears a fur coat’ – the President looks like he’s going to drop dead at any moment. But the backgrounds in the opening autumn scenes are probably the highlight for me.

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    Wasn’t Tashlin’s major gripe against the cartoon due to Chuck having the bear smoke a cigarete?

  • Celia

    Odd, I grew up reading a children’s book called “The Bear who wanted to be a bear”. Similar title, same exact premise. There appears to be no relation between the two: http://www.amazon.com/Bear-Who-Wanted-Be/dp/0976205602

  • red pill junkie

    I like that short too :-)

  • Kyle Maloney

    ahh, wow, I used to love to hate this short as a kid. I kept wanting to argue with the people’s lack of common sense.

    “HE IS A BEAR HE IS A BEAR!!! friggin idiots”

    looking back though, it is much too slow for my tastes, but I think I can appreciate what was trying to do.

  • slowtiger

    Celia: I think you solved that riddle. Jörg Müller illustrated several picture books written by Jörg Steiner, and his “Der Bär, der ein Bär bleiben wollte” (1976) is marked “after an idea by Frank Tashlin”. Several of his books have been adapted to german’s children TV, and what I remember must have been one of them.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    OMG, if that had come out of an eastern european toon studio in 1967 people would have been rushing to hail it as a breathtaking send-up of the blindness and foolishness of capitalism or something like that. They would have thrown awards at it and and film professors would still be pointing to it as an example of how the un-commercialized, un-corrupted, non-american artists really “got it”.

    This may not be up to the American standard, but you just go sit thru a typical program of tedious, heavy-handed, european (government subsidized) shorts from that time and you’ll know this little bear cartoon ain’t all that bad.

  • Doug

    Well, I’m just a peasant and I really enjoyed it. I find the look very appealing and though the story seemed to be reaching for some greater significance it still worked for me. The music is a howling scream of a thing!

    Is it just me or does Chuck Jones direction tend to be slow and much more deliberate (and perhaps a tad too precious)? I’ve always wondered what folks think of this question and this short reminded me of it.

  • Tessie O’Shea

    Perhaps Jones was too much the establishment figure when “Bear” was made to effectively pose as a proletariat underdog, up against the capatalist system. The anti-non-conformist bent of “The Dot and the Line” further underline this championing of the straight and narrow, the very same year. And the damned thing won an Oscar, in an era when Academy voters were their straightest laced.

  • gene schiller

    The brilliant production design is enough to carry the film – what do you want from a six minute cartoon?

  • Mike Kazaleh

    Classify this film as a glorious failure.

    Actually, the worst feature about this cartoon is the tasteless musical score by Dean Elliot. Elliot’s music tended to be loud, overpowering and over syncronized. Compare it to Gene Poddany’s score for “The Dot and the Line”, and you’ll see what I mean.

    If you want a clue about how Fank Tashlin might have handled this story on film, listen to the MGM record he made with Keenan Wynn. (In fact, the singing secretaries routine seemed to have been lifted right off of the record!)

    While the visual treatment of the cartoon may have been inapprpriate for the story, it is very fascinating and wonderful in its own right. The abstract and symbolic motion is very clever, and very startling when seen on a theatre screen. Maurice was actually very proud of this film.

    Maurice had a pretty faultless sense of staging. This talent was put to good use on many more conventional-type cartoons. It was only in films like “The Bear That Wasn’t”, “The Dot and the Line”, and “Now Hear This” that you really got see the other side of him. It makes you wonder what else he might have done if he was working for a more adventurous studio.

    • kathy

      The Keenan Wynn version was excellent– my favorite record from my childhood! I am trying to find the audio online someplace. This version isn’t too bad, but it pales in comparison to the one so wittily narrated by K.Wynn with the singing secretaries.

  • Something Red

    I disagree with Amid. I thought it’s a sweet film. Though my opinion might be clouded by the beautiful production designs, I still think it’s a great short film. Disagreements in visions between the directors and writers still exist today and some of them ended up with really good films, regardless of the approval from the writer/creator. It shouldn’t be a reason to judge a film.

    Thanks for showing this short.

  • http://www.octop.com Aleksandar Vujovic

    Thanks for the short.

    Now, I wanna say that this actually made my all-time favorite shorts list. This seems to be one of those “love it or hate it” things. Personally, I am utterly smitten by the design, voicework, pacing, and even the simplistic animation. And the score. I can’t actually think of a single thing I really don’t like about it.
    The only thing I can say about it you might consider to be negative is that it doesn’t seem like it might appeal to braindead children who grow up watching shallow yellow sponges and insert singing variations of such into unnamed orifices to investigate and thereafter regulate temperature thereof.
    But that’s just me.
    Yes, it is depressing, but it’s beautiful.

  • pat

    Pish tush. It’s a very cool piece of animation. Frank Tashlin on the making of it: “I never went near it.”

    It seems to be a theme that people love to animate. Oh, I have tried to find this short called “Wintersleeper”- sadly it doesn’t seem available.
    http://www.flandersanimation.be/index.php?id=165&no_cache=1&tx_elifilmbox_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=446

    Before I knew about either film I made a student piece with a bear and a factory. (“Fast Food Feast”)
    http://patsanimation.com/animation.htm

  • http://RyanMcCulloch.com Ryan McCulloch

    It’s a little dull, but love the style. especially love the theme song, will be humming that all day.

  • Joseph Nebus

    It doesn’t quite make my favorite-cartoons-of-all-time list, but it is in the upper deciles at least, and a hefty part of that is for the animation design. There really aren’t other cartoons that quite look like it.

    I admit I’m susceptible to being charmed by stories in which the protagonist decides that the entire world may be stupid but he’s not going to go along with stupidity. That’s, I presume, a strength of the original story.

  • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto González

    I don’t know what are you talking about, I have always thought it’s a fantastic cartoon since I first watched it and it has a lot of charm. A great theme song, fantastic designs, interesting story, everything is great!

  • Mayo

    I have to admit it, I love almost everything about the film and I don’t care for The Dot And The Line.

  • http://classicshowbiz.blogspot.com Kliph

    I have always thought it was at the top. It’s a fucking great cartoon in every way, design, music, narration. It’s fantastic.

  • Chuck R.

    I’m going to side with Amid.
    I think it’s pretty weak and typical of Jones late in his career. The animation is sub-par, the music is intrusive, and there’s way too much of Jones’ trademark “self-aware” expressions. The way the bear moves one eyeball toward the audience gets old fast. Noble’s work is characteristically excellent, making this film about as watchable as a Jones Tom and Jerry.

    The concept is almost exactly like Feiffer’s Munro which is much funnier and works better on almost every level. Munro was made into a film in 1960 and won the Oscar for animated short the following year. It seems Tashlin wrote his book first, but the success of Munro may have helped this film get made. I wonder who had knowledge of what.

  • Bobzilla

    While most of the criticisms among these comments have some validity, I find the short charming and rather UPA-like. I just got through seeing “The Bear That Wasn’t” for only the second time and while I indeed enjoyed it, I certainly would put it right up there with other Jones one-shots from the 60s, including “High Note”, “Nelly’s Folly” and “Now Hear This” for Warners, and the MGM companion pieces “The Dot And The Line” and “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Perhaps it just isn’t the best of that bunch.

    While “The Bear That Wasn’t” isn’t perfect, or to everyone’s taste (even among Jones aficionados) it ain’t bad. Kudos to Chuck R. for being the only person I’ve noticed on these kind of websites to point out the similarities to “Munro”; I have a copy of Feiffer’s “Passionella” that includes the original story. I have yet, however to see the Academy Award-winning “Munro” cartoon short, and I’m the poorer for it.