Buddy: Warner Brothers' most Underappreciated Character
This page is a project concerning the history of a character whose recognition is long overdue. Always in the shadow of earlier and later Warner Brothers cartoon characters, the character and films of Buddy have never been truly analyzed or recognized. Criticized in many animation articles and books as a "bland" knockoff of Bosko, the earlier Warner/Harman-Ising creation, it seems Buddy is something fans and critics of animation are ashamed of.
But Warner Brothers cartoons did not just appear miraculously with a full slate of star characters, and they did not begin with Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, generally regarded as the first major Looney Tunes stars (and wrongfully so.) The story of Warner Brothers cartoons begins in 1930 with "Sinkin In the Bathtub", a musical black-and-white tour de force starring Bosko. Harman/Ising's Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, a humanoid inkspot character resembling a cross between Mickey Mouse and a young black boy, is generally regarded as the first major talking cartoon character, created with the advent of sound film in 1930 (though the pilot film for the idea, "Bosko The Talk-Ink Kid", was created as a sales example in 1929). Bosko's claim to fame was that he could not only move believably and dance, he could also speak in clearly defined synchronized lip motion, and sing too. Though other cartoons may have beaten Harman, Ising, and Schlesinger to the punch in terms of officially releasing the first sound cartoons, many of the characters in them would speak in mumblings, grunts, squeals, and screams, with little plot. Bosko was something new, something different. He was extremely popular, and the cartoons themselves feature credits with names fans would become familiar with later: Bob McKimson, Isadore Freleng, and others. Many believe that Isadore "Friz" Freleng directed some of the Bosko cartoons uncredited.
After a successful 4-year run of creating black-and-white musical and adventure cartoons for producer Leon Schlesinger, Bosko creators Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising left the Warner Brothers cartoon studio they had helped found. Apparently due to a disagreement over money with Leon Schlesinger, Hugh and Rudy took what was theirs, including Bosko and most of the animators, and walked out on their producer to join the M.G.M. studio. This left schlesinger with some animators, a studio, and the rights to the names of two cartoon series, "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies". The year was 1934, and here began the story of Buddy, a character forgettable in personality but priceless in his importance to the future of the Warner cartoons we know today.
Left with virtually nothing, Schlesinger had to set up a new studio on the Warner bros. back lot, the one affectionately known to the crew as the "Termite Terrace" (so named for its rather dilapidated condition and insect problem). He took what was left of the animation crew and hired a few new ones, and had them come up with a character that would resemble Bosko and continue the same blend of sound, music and adventure that the studio had made popular with Harman and Ising. Earl Duvall stepped up as director of his new creation, Buddy. Buddy, a young boyish character of varying age and design from cartoon to cartoon with no particular uniqueness about him, was a sort of song and dance man who spread happiness throughout the world in all he did. Well, okay, the concept isn't typically Warnerian, and it doesn't sound particularly thrilling either. That's why Schlesinger hired Friz Freleng back to help with the series, supposedly having him help out Duvall in reworking the first couple of films, which studio boss Jack Warner seemed to really dislike.
But few histories I have read go much further than that. They forget to recognize the work of Duvall, Freleng, Ben ("Bugs") Hardaway, and Jack King, most of whom would later go on to work on the beginnings of the funny, screwball classics of Porky and Daffy that we all know and love. What is interesting about this series is that it began to show distinct director styles, each director had a slightly different way of drawing and characterizing Buddy. The Buddy series was, in many ways, an experimental crash course for these artists, and in that sense it was one of the most important. It is certainly not 'unfunny' or 'boring' by any means, though it is often regarded as such in many peoples' opinion. This is probably because these people have not taken a closer look.
The earliest Buddy cartoon is one exception to the idea I am trying to present in this article, that Buddy cartoons are entertaining. I can personally see why Jack Warner disliked what he first saw of Buddy. The film "Buddy's Day Out", directed by Tom Palmer, is a bland day-in-the-park-turned-bad adventure, with Buddy (here a young boy in the Columbia 'Scrappy' vein) and his girlfriend Cookie taking care of a baby, Elmer, and promptly losing control of him. It has some forgettable park gags and baby gags and plenty of "help! save me!" stuff. Luckily, this generally unappealing cartoon was not a sign of things to come, thanks to an astute Friz Freleng and an increasingly funny and less timid Duvall. Freleng reportedly edited "Buddy's Day Out" from two cartoons Palmer had done, and not surprisingly, Palmer got the boot and left to another studio.It is uncredited and for the most part undocumented, but it is fairly obvious that the following two Duvall pictures, "Buddy's Show Boat" and "Buddy's Beer Garden" were done with Freleng's help. Whatever the story behind these two cartoons, they are among the funniest Buddy cartoons ever produced. In one, Buddy is the captain of a steamboat full of wacky passengers, in the other he is the goofball owner of a bar full of silly German patrons, and an increasingly drunk oompah band. Friz Freleng later recalled disliking the series, but even so, his Buddy cartoons are often masterfully done. Spirited films such as "Buddy the Gob" and "Buddy and Towser" do not at all deserve to be lumped with some of the others that weren't as entertaining. After the early setup and 3 or 4 cartoons, Friz Freleng seemed to shy away from Buddy, instead opting to head up the "Merrie Melodies" of the time, still one-shot musicals at this point. Once Merrie Melodies went to color in 1935, Freleng directed the one and only color appearance (and Merrie Melodies appearance) of Buddy, "Mr. And Mrs. Is The Name", in which he and Cookie are undersea mermaid people making music aboard a sunken ship. It is also odd that this cartoon does not bill either character by name, nor do they go by any name at all. It is not generally considered an official Buddy cartoon, but it is a beautifully directed cartoon anyway.
Buddy cartoons are a mixed bag, ranging from bad to masterpiece, just as one would find in any series. They're gentle comedies featuring a character with a big heart and a twerpy sense of humor. If your idea of a Warner Brothers cartoon is a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or anything directed by Bob Clampett, then they are much different from what you are used to. But 'different' does not necessarily mean 'inferior'. The directors after Duvall and Freleng tried almost everything with Buddy, and the cartoons work best when there is a good story going for them. In the late part of 1934 and throughout 1935, Jack King had a great run of Buddy successes, particularly "Buddy The Woodsman", "Buddy's Circus", and "Viva Buddy". These cartoons cast Buddy as a lumberjack, ringmaster, and travelling Mexican folksinger, respectively. Though King is rightfully labelled as one of the weakest directors early in the Porky Pig series, his Buddy cartoons are among the best. Ben Hardaway did a number of nice films with Buddy, his best, "Buddy's Adventures", seems to capture what Buddy is all about. In this fantasy, Buddy and Cookie try their hands at hot air ballooning, but get stuck in a storm and blown away to a faraway land. They land in the kingdom of Sourtown, where smiling and laughing is forbidden by order of King Sourpan (who squeezes lemons on his head.) Naturally, the good-natured Buddy brings out his guitar and starts singing anyway, but gets arrested. In the end, Buddy and Cookie are taken to the king, but instead of taking their punishment, they start singing again, ultimately making the soldiers and king smile and sing along. Buddy's goal is not to chase someone or be a wiseguy or be edgy. His purpose is to make people happy. Hardaway also directed one of the more controversial Buddy films, "Buddy in Africa", in which Buddy runs a travelling store and sells things to the natives of Africa. A troublesome gorilla and monkey steal the show...not to mention Buddy's wares. Perhaps the stereotypical natives are a bit too politically incorrect for today's tastes, but it is easy to tell that Ben Hardaway had a sense of humor, (Buddy, at one point, umm...'spanks' the monkey). No wonder he cocreated Bugs Bunny and fit in well with the early years of the more familiar cartoons, alongside Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, and the rest..and would later go on to influence the creation of Woody Woodpecker at the Walter Lantz studio.
There were some Buddy cartoons that weren't funny, though. "Buddy's Bug Hunt" ( later semi-remade as the better "Fish Tales" with Porky Pig) and "Buddy Steps Out", both directed in 1935 by Jack King, did not fare as well in terms of storyline. In one, entomologist Buddy accidentally gets high on ether and has a nightmare that all the bugs he has collected torture him. In the other, King tries to do a typical 1930's 'inanimate objects come to life' cartoon, with Buddy and Cookie going out on a date and Buddy's photo coming to life and teaming up with the other things in the house to rescue Cookie's canary. And still other cartoons fall somewhere inbetween, they're perfectly enjoyable and perfectly average.
With the creation of Beans the cat and Porky Pig by Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Jack King in 1935, the Buddy series was soon phased out in favor of giving these new stars a chance, and when Fred "Tex" Avery joined the crew not long afterwards, Buddy was left behind completely. But these transitional cartoons for the Warner cartoon studio are a very important part of its history. If anything, they show that the directors we would see later doing cartoons with the more familiar and beloved characters could do a gentle comedy/adventure style as well as a zany 'Looney" style. All in all, the Buddy films are not near as unappealing as most critics lead us to believe. They are gentler and a different type of humor than the cartoons preceding and following them. Buddy is a character in a class all his own.
The only problem for you, the cartoon fan, is that you may have a hard time actually seeing these. The Buddy cartoons were last seen on television around 1993, before Nickelodeon completely dropped the black and white cartoons from their playlist. Still others have not been on television at all, or at least not in the days of VCR tape. Warner Brothers has released one or two Buddy cartoons through Columbia House, in an apparently successful "Looney Tunes" mail order video series. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will at some point release some or all of these films on video or DVD for the general public.
Interesting Buddy trivia:
The first use of 'Acme' was in a Buddy cartoon ("Buddy's Bug Hunt").
Buddy was cross-dressing long before Bugs Bunny ("Buddy's Beer Garden").
Buddy went through a lot of dogs: there was Towser, Happy, and Bozo.
Bob Clampett was once quoted as calling Buddy "Bosko in whiteface"
Buddy sometimes wore a sailor's cap, sometimes no hat at all
Cookie went through at least three totally different character designs
It gives good cheer to drink his beer...in "Buddy's Beer Garden", a cartoon celebrating the end of prohibition
"Buddy's Day Out" is the first voice work by Bernice Hansen, the future voice of Sniffles
The music in the Buddy cartoons was scored by Norman Spencer and Bernard Brown. Frank Marsales had left the studio, and Carl Stalling did not arrive until 1936.
The Buddy series has a few other memorable characters. In most of the Earl Duvall cartoons, a thug in a jailbird-striped jersey kidnaps or bothers Cookie in some way. In Jack King's "Viva Buddy", a Pancho Villa character tries to kill Buddy throughout the picture, ultimately beating the crud out of him only to end the film with this line: "Gosh, I was only foolin', Buddy!"
Article © Matthew Hunter
Special thanks to Jon Cooke (trivia section ideas) and Pietro Shakarian (several images).
The following sources were used for some details: Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies by Jerry Beck, www.toonzone.net/early-years, all of the Buddy cartoon films, and Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years And Only One Grey Hare by Joe Adamson
Beck, www.toonzone.net/early-years, all of the Buddy cartoon films, and Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years And Only One Grey Hare by Joe Adamson