One of the most underrated people at the Warner Bros. animation studio during the era of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was animator and director Robert McKimson.
Born in Denver, Colorado in 1910, McKimson’s mother was an artist and his father was a newspaper publisher, and Robert, his older brother Tom McKimson and younger brother Charles McKimson learned everything they knew about art and publishing from them.
When the family moved to Los Angeles, California, all three McKimson brothers entered the animation industry, Tom a student at the Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) who joined Disney in 1928 as an assistant to Norm Ferguson and later Harman-Ising and WB as an animator in Bob Clampett and Arthur Davis’s unit; Charles as an animator in Tex Avery’s unit who later worked in his brother Robert’s unit as a lead animator. Charles and Tom were also comic book artists who teamed up to make comics based on Looney Tunes characters among their other work.
As for Robert, he spent ten years getting his art education before joining Disney in the late 1920s and working as an animator for two years.
In 1930, he worked for the Romer Grey studio in California, an animation studio that made several cartoon shorts but could not close a deal due to the Great Depression. The would-be star of the studio was Binko the Bear Cub but only one print of his shorts called Hot-Toe Mollie survived.
At the same time, McKimson was hired by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising to do ink-and-paint duties on their first Looney Tunes cartoon Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (1930).
By the late thirties, McKimson was the head animator at WB. While all three of the McKimson brothers were great animators, after Robert McKimson suffered a concussion in a car accident, he actually worked twice as hard as other animators because the accident apparently improved his ability to visualise and increased his work speed. He didn’t even need to sketch down ideas before animating them. He was an animation prodigy who could picture a scene in his head and draw it on the spot.
McKimson animated primarily for Bob Clampett but he also animated on cartoons directed by Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin and Chuck Jones. In many ways he was the Milt Kahl of Looney Tunes because he could draw practically anything and all the other animators were in awe of him. He was the go-to person when the directors needed someone to animate complex actions, realistic characters and dramatic moments.
In addition to his solid animation, he is responsible for the definitive design for Bugs Bunny which made its first appearance in Bob Clampett’s 1943 cartoon Tortoise Wins by a Hare and has been the regular design for Bugs Bunny from that point forward.
McKimson was so good that WB animation producer Leon Schlesinger offered him the chance to direct in 1937 after Friz Freleng left for MGM, but he declined and Chuck Jones took the offer to direct instead. Of course McKimson would eventually become a director in 1944 following the departure of Frank Tashlin.
When Robert McKimson was a director he created some well-known cartoon characters, including Foghorn Leghorn the obnoxious and loudmouthed rooster who is the bane of everyone he comes into contact with (primarily Barnyard Dawg), Speedy Gonzales the fastest mouse in Mexico, Bugs Bunny’s adversaries Tasmanian Devil and Pete Puma and Sylvester’s adversary Hippity Hopper.
The first Looney Tunes cartoon he directed was the film Daffy Doodles (1946) which was about Daffy Duck going on a crime spree drawing moustaches on every face in the city while officer Porky hunted him down.
Other favorites of mine directed by McKimson include Acrobatty Bunny (1946), Gorilla My Dreams (1948), Daffy Duck Slept Here (1948), Rebel Rabbit (1949), What’s Up Doc? (1950), Hillbilly Hare (1950), Early to Bet (1951), Rabbit’s Kin (1952), The Hole Idea (1955), Tabasco Road (1957) and Rabbit Romeo (1957).
McKimson continued directing animated films for WB into the DePatie-Freleng era and even worked on a few Pink Panther and Inspector short films for DePatie-Freleng in addition to UPA where he worked on Mr. Magoo.
The last of the cartoons from the Merrie Melodies series was WB’s 1,000th cartoon short Injun Trouble (1969) starring Cool Cat and directed by Robert McKimson, making McKimson the only person who worked on both the very first and very last Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoon short and the only person employed throughout the animation studio’s entire run from 1930 to 1969.
He died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 66 just as WB’s animated shorts started gaining new fans and people like Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones obtained new respect from people who recognized the comedic genius behind these films. But McKimson was a soft-spoken and reserved person who wasn’t as outgoing as Freleng and Jones anyway so it likely would have made little difference if he had attended more fan conventions.
Although he is often overlooked because his track record for making great cartoons is lower than those of Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, I have always liked his cartoons and thought they were some of the funniest made by the studio. I still think he is underrated because every short I’ve seen of his always has at least one hilarious gag. Especially if you like slapstick and physical humor.
And fun fact: he is also one of the few professional animators who has animated his entire film single-handedly joining the ranks of Winsor McCay and Bill Plympton. His 1955 short The Hole Idea was animated by himself because following the popularity of 3D in the fifties, Jack Warner shut down the animation studio in favor of focusing on 3D films, but when the 3D fad died down, the animation studio was brought back and Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones reformed their units, but everyone in Robert McKimson’s unit had left which meant that for a short period during the fifties, McKimson had a one-man unit. I don’t know if Freleng or Jones could have done that.