Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Professionalization of Voice Acting

Well, time for another post full of probably incorrect assumptions, but a shorter one. I've always meant to mention this, but to my surprise I can't find an animation-related post where I brought this up: I've always wondered why Tedd Pierce and Michael Maltese, two Warner Brothers cartoon writers who also did voice acting, more or less stopped acting after about 1951. They continued to write cartoons for the studio, but Pierce's last known voice job at the studio -- maybe there's a later one I didn't notice and didn't make it onto IMDB -- was in 1951, and so was Maltese's. It's particularly surprising in the case of Pierce because he was a really good, versatile voice actor who performed in other people's cartoons (like the Babbit and Catsello cartoons), not just his own.

Thinking about this, I recalled that Tex Avery was another cartoonist/performer who didn't do much voice work after about 1950. So it may have been an actual trend at the time, toward a more professional approach to the art of voice acting. Thanks to Mel Blanc and others, voice acting had already become much more of a profession than it had been in the early days of sound cartoons, when voices were as likely to be performed by an animator or writer as by a full-time actor. In the late '40s into the '50s, it seems like the studios shifted even more strongly toward hiring professional actors for everything. So if there was a small male part at Warner Brothers that Mel Blanc wasn't doing, it might have gone to Pierce or Maltese in the '40s -- but in the '50s, it would have gone to Stan Freberg or, later, Daws Butler. Just as in Avery cartoons, the parts he once did himself probably went to Butler or Don Messick in the '50s.

This isn't a trend that lasted, since the non-professional voice actor actually came back -- mostly in TV animation. (Bill Scott didn't get to do much voice work at Warners or UPA, though he did get to do the funny-animal voices in the UPA cartoon sequence in the movie The Girl Next Door. But in television, he became as prolific an actor as he was a writer.) I just wanted to make a note that there does appear to have been an "actors act, writers write" idea in the later years of theatrical short cartoons.

Here's my favorite Mike Maltese voice job, in 1948's "A Feather in His Hare" (though the first sounds the character utters are not from Maltese but Mel Blanc, who was called upon to do the screaming).


Steve said...

Just a guess, but I would imagine the growing unionization of Hollywood made it more difficult for non-pros to step behind the mic, especially as TV was knocking down radio a notch in the food chain, and radio actors sought to cover their turf. And I'm sure the graphic artists had their own rules to follow as well. But even of that's not the case, there's no denying Butler, Messick, and Freeberg brought a new level of voice acting to animation.

Yowp said...

Avery is on Deputy Droopy.

If I were to guess, it's probably because they wanted to use professionals. When I took over as production manager at one place years ago, they had salespeople, writers and the receptionist voicing commercials. All for free, of course. I put a stop to it and hired professional voice people instead. The spots instantly sounded better. The sessions took up a lot less time. And it was easier to schedule instead of waiting around for someone to come back from a sales call so I could produce a spot.

You know the old saying about hindsight. Using that, it seems odd that Warners didn't use Bill Scott in the studio, but perhaps he didn't think of himself as a voice person at the time.

Andrew Leal said...

Scott can be heard in a handful of UPA shorts, including PETE HOTHEAD, which he co-wrote (as a department store boss who fires Jim Backus as a "Heavens to Gimbels!" floorwalker).

I suspect that in addition to some perceived distinction between writers and actors, the temporary move away from in-house voices was perhaps because by then they felt like they could more readily afford to hire actors, most studios had established folks more or less on contract by that point anyway (i.e. you have Mel Blanc, so why use Pierce? and UPA had Backus and Hausner) and as noted, the dying state of radio meant more voice people were available (Marvin Miller at UPA, and Alan Reed popping up in a few Disney shorts pre-Flintstones) This obviously had less impact in the East Coast; the New York shows took the longest to die, since soaps dominated, and long-running series like SUSPENSE and YOURS TRULY JOHNNY DOLLAR actually moved from Hollywood to New York, and combined with the dubbing and narration industry, their pool was kept busy and very few who weren't already in cartoons, like Jackson Beck, sought the work at that point. This is obvious at Famous (Jack Mercer continued to voice and script, they brought in Eddie Lawrence to do both), and where even cameraman Doug Moye voiced the father in the Terry Bears and originated Clint Clobber, before they decided that Allen Swift did a better job (I forget the details but I think it was not just a pro vs. staffer decision but, well, I think Moye just had trouble with readings and of course this was Deitch era, and he used Swift whenever he could, but you still had Tom Morrison doing in-house voices for example).

As you noted of course, it would make a comeback. Even Disney, much later, would use storymen or artists as voices again. Jane Fowler Boyd, an effects animator who also did some live-action reference work, crops up in bits in several shorts and featurettes (most notably as the Red Queen in Donald in Mathmagic Land) and longtime employee Ralph Wright would play Eeyore (in a Pooh cast mixing TV cartoon voices like Howard Morris and Hal Smith, character stars like Sebastian Cabot, and old-radio refugees like Junius Matthews and Barbara Luddy).