Wednesday, June 11, 2008

THREE LITTLE BOPS: A FRELENG/FREBERG/FOSTER THREEWAY

threelittlebops

Released in the first week of 1957, "Three Little Bops" was no doubt seen, chuckled at and as quickly dismissed as any other cartoon of the time--the time being the waning days of the Warners animation unit. Over the years, however, a rather sizable cult has grown up around the film and the jazz score that accompanies it--several bands have even performed the entire piece as a stand-alone concert work. And if the below links to a few different sites are any indication, "Three Little Bops" continues to live on in the imaginations of film buffs and provoke some rather provocative commentaries.



bopspicThe film's premise is a re-telling of the three little pigs story in which the pigs are a trio of bop musicians and the big bad wolf is a square, no-talent horn player whose greatest desire is to join their band. Stan Freberg narrates the tale with a strong bop-vocal performance and apparently provided the other voices (pigs and wolf) as well. Shorty Rogers arranged the music and the line-up of musicians (if Wikipedia can be believed) is impressive: Art Pepper on sax, Pete Jolly piano, Rogers himself on trumpet and Shelly Manne on drums. The bass player is thought to be Joe Mondragon and the guitar is, alas, "unknown"--a shame as the guitar work is superb and key to the overall success of the sound which is clean, crew-cut be-bop--sort of reminiscent of the Gerry Mulligan "Jazz Goes To High School" sound.



bopstitleThere are any number of questions that remained unanswered, so far as I know, about how the work came into being. For instance: the cartoon's director is Friz Freleng, a wonderful and singular Warner Brothers hand. But the layout work is quite striking and unusual, provoking comparisons with Calder (the influence on the title card--above--is clear). Who's concept was this? And who really came up with the entire idea? Warren Foster, a "story by" credit on hundreds of Warner Brothers cartoons, is listed--but did he write the lyrics? Why was Freberg employed as the vocalist? The entire concept feels Freberg-ian to me--this is around the time of his hilarious record sending up the payola scandal, "The Old Payola Role Blues". I imagine he must have been in on the concept--as well as the hiring of Shorty Rogers. Also, the cartoon deploys no sound effects--only the music and the sounds the instruments make are used for effects. This also feels less standard-issue cartoon deptartment and more the work of an outsider. I imagine a simple conversation with whoever was involved who is still living (Freberg?) could clear this up. Perhaps a certain Manhattan based blogger who writes daily about jazz at jazzwax.com might take up this investigation...


If Warner Brothers cartoon directors could be compared with feature directors, I'd match Freleng with, say, Cukor at MGM--a supremely confident technician who, given the right elements, made the bubbles rise to the surface. Robert McKimson would be Michael Curtiz--dependable, stolid, knocking out the work. Chuck Jones of course is the Minnelli figure--the genuine artist as contract employee, always alert to the hidden opportunities for greatness buried in the daily grind. Tex Avery is Preston Sturges--the dangerous radical who somehow was offered a contract. Freleng (whose real name was Isadore and was occasionally billed as I. Freleng--an early sop to Hollywood's home-grown anti-semitism?) had, like Cukor, a deft touch and a better than average sense of theatricality and pace. His Bugs Bunny's are the best of the lot for me (Bugs is to Friz as Hepburn is to Cukor) and "Three Little Bops" proves his versatility at things previously untried--it is to Friz as, say, "Bowhani Junction" is To Cukor.


I was always thrilled when, as a child, I caught a showing of "Three Little Bops"--the visuals, the music and the way the characters dance were as delightful to me then as they are now. Indeed the cartoon grows richer with repeated viewings. I can't say, however, that I agree with the assertion posted on this Friz Freleng blogathonhosted by Brian of Hell On Frisco Bay that there is some color-line messaging going on in the movie...that the three little bops are all white and that they've "stolen" the wolf's music (implying I suppose that the wolf is black?) Yes, the nightclub patrons are all white, and yes they desert the dance floor when the wolf plays...but let's not go there. The very fact that a fifty year old six minute cartoon can continue to provoke speculation of this sort is, I suppose, a tribute to its originality and continued freshness. Here then, without further ado, is "Three Little Bops"...



3 comments:

Brian Phillips said...

Great cartoon! I first saw it back in the 1980s.

Here are a couple of answers/theories:

Stan Freberg was employed as the vocalist because he was a hot property, a Jazz lover as well as someone who had done voice work for Warner Brothers previously (remember Junior from the "Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears"?).

Freberg was also a songwriter ("Fatback, Louisiana, USA" was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, for example), plus he had/has comic timing and a familiar voice.

With all that going for him, it's pretty much a slam-dunk decision to employ Freberg. Studios tend to work in the familiar; there was a time if you wanted a Jazz score for a movie, regardless of the many talented musicians out there, you either employed Dave Grusin or Tom Scott.

If you posted what you did, assuming much of the above, I apologize for restating it.

Brian Phillips said...

OH! I almost forgot:

It's "The Old Payola Roll Blues", not "Role". It's a take-off on the song title, "The Old Piano Roll Blues".

Also, to bolster my point about working with the familiar, Freberg loved/loves Jazz and who did he tend to work with? Capitol label mate Billy May, who, in my opinion, was usually a bit too slick for my tastes.

As for I(sadore)'s Freleng name being shortened due to anti-semitism, I had not thought of it that way. Charles M. Jones, became Chuck Jones over time and it's possible that since Freleng's name was so close to "Isadora", he might have gotten tired of the jokes.

Name game part two: Ted Pierce became "Tedd" Pierce to disassociate himself from his family (!)

Raymond De Felitta said...

Thanks, Brian, for these commets. You're right about studios using the "familiar" and the world of jazz was growing smaller commercially around the time of Three Little Bops--but the question remains: did Freberg conceive the entire thing? Who wrote the lyrics? Or was he just a hired gun singer/vocal artist?

Very funny about "Tedd" Pierce. Oh--and Marc Myers from jazzwax.com chimes in that the sax player on "Bops" is more likely Pepper Adams than Art Pepper--due to the extensive baritone sax work which instrument Adams was playing a lot of at the time.