Obituary:Virgil Ross

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The Independent Online
Bugs Bunny, the "Wascally Wabbit" who always eluded the half-pint huntsman Elmer Fudd, Tweetie Pie, the canary bird who "Taut he taw a puddy tat" named Sylvester ("Sufferin' Succotash!"), and Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in Mexico, are but three of the world's top animated cartoon stars who today must surely be shedding a tear over the loss of an animator who, whilst not their creative parent, surely brought them to life. Virgil Ross, the brilliant film cartoonist who spent over 30 years in "Termite Terrace", as the animation studio on the Warner Brothers lot was affectionately called by its inmates, has died at the age of 88.

Ross was born in 1908 and first linked his talent to draw with a love for the movies by becoming a title designer in the waning years of the silent cinema. Always an enthusiast for the animated cartoon shorts which backed up so many double-bills of the day, he seized his opportunity when he heard that Carl Laemmle, the tycoon behind Universal Pictures, was setting up his own cartoon studio under the talented young director, Walter Lantz. Laemmle took the character of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit away from the entrepreneur Charles Mintz, who in turn had appropriated it from Walt Disney, because he thought it would be cheaper to produce his own short films instead of having to pay additional profits to independent producers.

This shrewd if somewhat sharp move meant Universal was the first major Hollywood studio to own its own cartoon unit, staffed by salaried employees, and Lantz was perfectly happy to turn out 26 monochrome one-reelers a year, even if it did mean taking in on equal terms a partner to share the load. This was the veteran animator Bill Nolan, and under this talented team of two the tiro Virgil Ross learnt his trade.

The year was 1929, and Lantz's first job was to add soundtracks to the Oswald Rabbit cartoons in stock, which gave his group time to work out how to make talkie cartoons from scratch. Titles like Saucy Sausages (1929), Tramping Tramps (1930) and Trolley Troubles (1931) rolled off the animation assembly line, with now and then an unusual science- fiction item such as Mars (1930) and The Mechanical Man (1932). A new character was created to take the pressure off Oswald the Rabbit, and Pooch the Pup made his debut in The Athlete (1932), and later in an impressive parody of the Edgar Wallace horror film King Kong. Called King Klunk (1933), this was the first ever cartoon to be designated "Horrific" by the nervous British Board of Film Censors.

In 1935 Fred (shortly to be rechristened Tex) Avery moved from the Lantz studio to the newish set-up at Warner Brothers, where Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes were being made with rather more care and certainly more jokes than those at Universal. Avery took his favourite animator Virgil Ross with him. Ross would remain at Warners for the rest of his animating life - although Avery himself would make one more major career move.

Porky Pig, the stuttering swine who had made his debut in the Merrie Melody I Haven't Got a Hat (1935), reciting "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" to Miss Cud the Cow, starred in the first production of the Avery-Ross partnership. It was called Plane Dippy (1936) and showed the fat porker joining the Air Corps and getting tangled up with a mad monkey's robot airplane. The first new character to come from the couple was a totally whacky black duck. Nameless, he was billed as "That crazy darn fool duck", but soon was dubbed Daffy. The film was Porky's Duck Hunt (1937). The quacker returned the following year as titular star of Daffy Duck and Egghead (1938), the first Merrie Melody to be filmed in Technicolor.

For some years Ross was credited on seldom more than two films a year, which suggests that Warners allowed more production time per film than they would a decade later. In 1941 Ross is credited with nine cartoons, while both 1951 and 1953 clock up totals of 10. Bugs Bunny, who adapted his name from his designer, Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, made his fourth film appearance in Avery's remarkable A Wild Hare (1940), becoming a fully fledged star complete with catchphrase, "What's up Doc?" Elmer Fudd, too, was here fully established as the lisping "Wabbit hunter", as voiced by the radio comedian Arthur Q. Bryan. For Ross it was his first Academy Award nomination; several more would follow.

In 1942 Tex Avery moved over to MGM to head his own unit. Ross stayed on with Warner Brothers and found himself seconded to the well- established and truly wonderful director, Isidore ("Fritz") Freleng. Sylvester Pussycat the raspberry-blowing feline was first animated by Ross in Life With Feathers (1945), although the feathers in question belonged to a little lovebird. Tweetie Pie the canary came along later, co-starring with Sylvester in a film called after his own catchphrase, I Taw A Puddy Tat (1948). Freleng also created the perfect opposition to Bugs Bunny, the sawn-off but hairy cowboy Yosemite Sam, and Ross animated them in Mutiny on the Bunny (1950) and many more. Other regular stars were the Goofy Gophers, first seen in Pests For Guests (1955).

After several nominations, an Oscar finally came Ross's way for Birds Anonymous (1957), starring Tweetie and Sylvester, followed by another for the world's favourite rabbit in Knighty Knight Bugs (1958). The last film Ross worked on at Warners was the The Spy Swatter (1967), in which one other great animation star, Speedy Gonzales, "the fastest mouse in Mexico", ate secret cheese that gave him the strength of 10 cats. He put paid to Sylvester with the immortal motto of all movie heroes, "Us good guys always win!" This was made under a new and more economical production team, and, after having worked on some 230 cartoons, Ross felt the time had come for him to retire; so he did.

However, in 1979 he worked once again when his first boss, Walter Lantz, was awarded an Oscar for Special Achievement. He operated the Academy lightboard so that a giant-sized Woody Woodpecker ran on to the stage to shake his old creator by the hand.

Denis Gifford

Virgil Ross, film animator: born 1908; married (one daughter); died Los Angeles 15 May 1996.