LEAVING IT TO THE ANIMATOR: Remembering The Best Work of Bill Melendez

5 Sep

Charlie Brown fails again, from the Bill Melendez-directed "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" (1966). Below, a frame from his work on Bob Clampett's "Baby Bottleneck" (1946)

Charlie Brown fails again, from the Bill Melendez-directed "Charlie Brown All Stars" (1966). Below, a frame from Melendez' work on "Baby Bottleneck" (1946)

By Kevin Wollenweber

I was saddened to hear of the death, on Tuesday, of Bill Melendez. He is most remembered for his excellent production work on the adaption of the Peanuts (Charlie Brown) comic strip to the medium of the animated cartoon and with good reason. Those earliest Peanuts specials were exactly what I expected an animated cartoon of this particular newspaper strip to be! It was so perfectly suited to the “limited” or stylized animation of the age of TV, where animation production had to be done in a timely fashion yet still be appealing to an audience on the small screen. So Melendez did indeed deliver a very likable and inspired version of the popular comic strip and actually won an Emmy his first time out with the first special, “A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS”, a Holiday tale in which Charlie Brown believes he’s lost the spirit of Christmas due to its horrific commercialization, an emotion that I’m sure we, religious or not, have all had around the holiday season.

Each special neatly adapted actual strips, complete with original images and poses from the respective four panels that appeared in newspapers and, later, in paperback books that reprinted the weekday and Sunday strips, many of which I was, at that time, long before the specials, avidly collecting!

Bill Melendez also worked during the first golden age of animation, the theatrical years, at such studios as Walt Disney and, most remarkably, at Warner Brothers, within the Bob Clampett unit, during the last great days of Clampett’s directorship there. His work can be found in some of my favorite entries, like Falling Hare. He is immortalized on LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION, VOL. 3, disk 4, doing commentary for this cartoon. There is so much I like about this particular title. I’d run it, alongside The Flying Bear, a more elaborate cartoon from rival MGM studios that had its title character, Barney Bear, taking a solo flight and having every horror befall him. It is an incredible film to watch from beginning to end, with its climactic scene, in which the bear and his small airplane with human facial expressions, is falling headlong toward earth in one of the most harrowing bits of animated footage ever to grace the screen.

In contrast, “FALLING HARE”, as the title implies, also ends with such a climactic scene with far more gags per minute than MGM could ever dare to do…and I’ve always liked Bugs Bunny’s twisted little terror-stricken cry, done as if leading a cheer, which comes out as mere yelps of “Eee…arr…oooh…eee…arr…oooh…eee…arr…oooh…eee…arr…oooh!” I dare any cheerleading squad to perform that whenever they think that their team made a ghastly error in judgment that could cost them the game!! C’mon; it’s inspired!!

Oh, and let’s not forget the design of the gremlin, that little green guy who sneaks past an unbelieving Bugs Bunny, otherwise laughing wildly at the notion that there could be such a nasty little bugger secretly destroying American airplanes on their way to war. The very first conversation between the two when they first meet is proof positive that we’re about to be taken on the laugh riot of our lives. Bugs, chewing on his usual carrot, asks “what’s all the hubbub, bub?”, with “bub”, coming out as a belch as he swallows his mouthful of food. The pointy-eared gremlin explains that “these blockbuster bombs don’t go off unless you hit them juuuuust right!”

“Yeah?” Bugs asks, almost in mock surprise.

“Yeah.” Answers the little guy in that quavering little voice. He continues whapping at the pointed dome of the warhead to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” courtesy of Carl W. Stalling and his wackily gifted orchestra. Bugs continues chewing and decides to, himself, “take a whack at it!” The gremlin agreeably yields the hammer to the unwitting wabbit as Bugs gets ready to do his worst, spitting into his hands before summoning up all his strength to swing the hammer and deal the bomb a blow, stopping mere micro-inches from the point to look at the audience and howl “WHAT AM I DOING??”

Bill Melendez, that Mexican-American genius of an animator did indeed know what he was doing when he got behind the pencil and paper!!

It is said that Bob Clampett relied–sometimes too much–on his animators and, if this is indeed true, than I believe we can thank Bill Melendez for that exaggerated body language that permeates just about every favorite Bob Clampett-directed Warner’s title, showing that even the tears of an insect become twice the size of the little creature or a breaking dish slamming against the floor or a table shatters across the entire screen…or *SEEMS* to do so! Bill Melendez was so gifted an animator that he could take Bob Clampett’s wildest series of poses and make ‘em move in that rubbery fashion that we have raved about in the past and continue to enjoy for years to come!

Both in the fully animated looniest of LOONEY TUNES and the simpler style of the PEANUTS specials, Bill managed to take that original vision of the characters involved and make us all realize that the end result was clearly what we should have expected from the time that the ideas were first put to paper and introduced to us years and years ago. Would we really want those aforementioned Bob Clampett poses to move any other way in those cartoons? Even Snoopy, in his infinite wisdom, in his TV adventures, had the energy of that little gremlin in the older theatrical cartoon!

I always enjoyed those wonderful touches brought to the PEANUTS specials, including a trait that I’ve heard (in some snarky comic monologues) annoys some, the voices of the kids that seem to be reading the dialogue from the books or a script. I thought that aspect was part of the charm of these series of specials, with the little action sequences, mostly involving Snoopy, lending that link to the more elaborately animated LOONEY TUNES. My favorite was the opening moments of a long overlooked special, Charlie Brown All-Stars in which we see Charlie Brown in the outfield, mitt on hand and waiting for that inevitable fly ball. We hear the crack of a bat and Charlie fades back…and back and back and back to the strident beat, on the Vince Geraldi soundtrack, of bass and drums, running out through the neighborhood and even through a house, in through the front door and out through the back door, over fences and across streets until he is sure he is right under that ball. It lands in his glove…and bounces out onto the ground, causing Charlie Brown to utter one of his trademark reaction shouts of “AAAAUUUGH!!” You know that Melendez is at the helm!

I’m sure he was also on hand to bring to life another overlooked Peanuts special, He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown, in which Snoopy is considered to be an obnoxious antagonist to all the kids in the neighborhood, constantly kissing Lucy full on the mouth just to delight in her disgusted reaction (“AAAUGH! Dog germs! Get some hot water! Get some disinfectant!”); pulling Linus around the yards by the scruff of his blanket and swinging him around like a ball in a rubber band and letting him go, THWACK! and crash somewhere offscreen; and just becoming an overall pest while the kids are enjoying their usual fun in the sun!

So Charlie Brown decides to send him to an obedience school. But Snoopy needs a place to stay while away at school, so “Chuck”, as Peppermint Patty affectionately calls him, decides to call up this freckled tomboy of a girl to ask if Snoopy could stay at her place while attending this school.

Needless to say, Snoopy never makes it to the school, preferring the good life as Peppermint Patty offers him deluxe accommodations. It starts dawning on Patti that “the kid with the funny nose” doesn’t appear to be leaving for school, taking full over-advantage of her hospitality, so she puts him to work “pulling his weight” around the house, washing dishes and cleaning the rooms, hoping that, eventually, he would leave. Snoopy manages to escape and returns to the yard of his original master, Charlie Brown and to a neighborhood of kids who eventually realized how much they missed his antics as he returns to sub-normal.

Here we see the range of expression that Bill Melendez’s animation can give Snoopy as he hangs around Peppermint Patti’s house, snapping his fingers as if Patty were his permanent waitress and housekeeper! Expressive little bits and pieces like this ended up putting Snoopy out front as the favorite character in the Peanuts strip. Of course, Snoopy had also become a favorite in the comic strip with his humorous thought balloons and alter-egos of the World War I flying ace or Joe Cool or any number of disguises. But Bill Melendez proved that, even without those bits of imagined dialogue, substituting squeaks and squawks that perfectly conveyed his various emotions, Snoopy could mime and ham it all the way to the top!

So let’s bid a fond farewell to a man who was enthusiastic and emotionally charged about the animation industry, one that is not easy to learn to love especially if you are working in it! We fans of the art love the results, but it should be noted that it is, and always has been hard work to get that art out there, and that is why it is well worth noting from the mouths of those who spent the hours to see that vision make it to the big or small screens. Melendez knew how to make that happen, even as disillusioned as the business of animation could probably make him at times! He always will remain one of the greats.

Let’s hope this sparks further restorations of Bill Melendez’s work on the Peanuts specials with loads of history and commentary about the making of these specials.

Maybe one day, also, we will get the full history, on DVD, of his years at UPA, where those who did the cartoons believed in what they were doing as a genuine art form. I believe it is all art, and I’m delighted that Bill Melendez did feel some of that appreciation before he passed away. All those years slaving behind those drawing boards and piles of cells were not for naught!

P.S. From Rachel: As a bonus, rather than merely tell you, we’d like to show you the opening sequence of the rarely-seen “Charlie Brown All Stars” from 1966, with Charlie Brown’s famous run all over creation to retrieve that elusive ball. Perfect Melendez timing, worthy of his days with Clampett. (Video courtesy of YouTube).

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2 Responses to “LEAVING IT TO THE ANIMATOR: Remembering The Best Work of Bill Melendez”

  1. Leon December 10, 2008 at 4:55 pm #

    That is sad… Never knew who he was, until now. I will check him out. Thanks for sharing.

  2. J.W. Nicklaus April 25, 2009 at 9:55 am #

    I have always loved that particular Bugs Bunny cartoon. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, but I still watch it if it comes on TV. I can still picture the little gremlin getting on his invisible bike and pedaling away, and Bugs thrashing about as the airplane plummets, screaming “EE! AY! OOH!”

    Great memories from a wonderful animator. Thank you for gently raising them from the dust of time.

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