Friday, November 24, 2006

Paul Harrison's Prescience

Here's something else I posted on a message board earlier but am only getting around to reproducing here. I searched to see if there was any press coverage of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies while they were still in production; as expected, there wasn't much. But I did find one entertainment journalist who was singing the praises of these cartoons before anyone else. This would be Paul Harrison, whose syndicated entertainment column (for "XEA Service Inc.") appeared in some of the smaller newspapers. I know nothing else about the guy; I don't know how well-known he was or if he was considered particlarly good. All I know is that in 1937, before Daffy Duck was known to anyone, before Bugs Bunny, he was writing an article about how good the Leon Schlesinger/Warner Brothers cartoons were. The article, dated July 3, 1937, also goes into various details about how animated cartoons are made. Plus it features Schlesinger predicting doom for Walt Disney's crazy idea of making an animated feature -- a common view at the time.

An animated cartoon factory is a much quieter place, and more efficient, than an ordinary movie studio. Without bellowing assistant directors and bleating players, life is pleasanter, if more purposeful.

It didn't take long for the animators to introduce machine-like efficiency into their realm of pure fantasy. I used to think that all such films were turned out painstakingly, picture by picture, by a lot of busy little gnomes named Disney, sitting cross-legged in a grotto somewhere.

Instead of that, the pen-and-ink and water-color epics represent just about the highest development of the unit system of production in Hollywood.

There are budgets and shooting schedules and production charts. There are producers and directors and art directors and story departments. From inception to preview, each picture has its own full staff of executives and technicians.

The man who makes the most animated pictures is Leon Schlesinger, a veteran showman who has been in practically all branches of the stage and movie business, but who can't draw a straight line.

In 1930, when he had a prosperous little studio turning out titles and trailer ads and such, Jack Warner suggested making cartoon films.

So Schlesinger started "Merry Melodies [sic]" with a staff of 36 people. Now he has two studios, a staff of 170 workers, and a payroll of nearly a third of a million dollars a year.

This year he will make 20 Merry Melodies in color and 16 Looney Tunes in black and white. That's twice the number of cartoon shorts issued annually by Disney.

Schlesinger is a pleasant, solid man who reminds you a little of Hal Roach. He likes his work and gets a kick out of his own pictures, although with a modesty that is particularly non-Hollywood he says he's just a businessman, and acclaims the artistry of Disney.

As a businessman, though, he doubts that full-length cartoon features ever will make money. Disney has 575 employees and will spend nearly $1,000,000 producing "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Schlesinger's current pride is Porky, a pig that stutters.

"I discovered Porky two years ago," he said. "We had a picture about a schoolroom, and the pupils were a cat, a turtle, an owl, and all sorts of animals, including a pig. Well, the minute we saw that pig we knew we had something. It was just like spotting a promising personality among the extras or bit players in a regular movie. So we got busy and gave Porky screen tests and changed him a little in developing his character. And now he stars in 16 pictures a year, the 'Looney Tunes.'

A stuttering character actor does the Porky dialog for a recording; then the record is speeded up so that the voice is about an octave higher when it reaches the film. Before they attained acting prominence, Rochelle Hudson and Jane Withers worked for Schlesinger, dubbing in their voices for those of cartoon characters.

Hollywood has scores of people capable of imitating voices, and the producer never has any trouble finding talent for impersonating, in sound, the Crosbys, Stepin Fetchits, Garbos and other celebrities whom he frequently satirizes in "Merry Melodies."

If you saw "Coocoonut Grove" you'll recall that Katharine Hepburn was caricatured as a horse. Schlesinger has heard that she was delighted with the impudence and went to see the picture three times.

In cartoon shorts, he explained, the animators are the real actors. They're the artists who sketch the action and the expressions of the characters, and they work from complicated scripts, or charts, plotted by the directors.

On these charts the notion of each scene is minutely described and a certain number of "frames," or individual pictures, is allotted for each bit of action. On the screen you see 24 of these frames a second.

Also on the animator's chart is written the dialog, divided into syllables and each syllable indicated for a certain group of pictures so that the characters' lip movements will synchronize perfectly, as though they're actually speaking.

In fact, the animators actually try to reproduce the true lip movements; they use themselves as models, looking into mirrors to see how certain sounds are formed.

After writing that column, Harrison didn't stop plugging the Schlesinger cartoons; two years later he wrote a short item on Schlesinger's attempt at a serious patriotic cartoon, "Old Glory," and in 1940 he raved about the Schlesinger studio's mix of live-action and animation in "You Ought to Be in Pictures."

With Walt Disney devoting his talents to features and allowing his short subjects to sag under artistic emphasis which neglects story values, I'm becoming still more of a fan for the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies of Leon Schlesinger. The producer is one who believes that cartoons should be made just for laughs.

I've just previewed a Porky Pig and Daffy Duck vehicle called "You Ought to Be in Pictures" which is the first film in more than 20 years, as far as I know, to combine cartoon characters with real people. Of course the effects are many times better and different than away back in the days of the "Out of the Inkwell" series.

This isn't a series, anyway. Schlesinger never does a stunt more than once. It deals with the ambitions of Porky, who decides he'll quit cartoons for higher dramatic art -- maybe as Bette Davis's leading man.

He trots into Schlesinger's office, gets a release from his contract, drives to Warner's studio, eludes the gateman, crashes a busy sound stage, is tossed out on his ear and after some further disillusionments finds himself back at his old job and glad to be there.

All these things happen with the hand-drawn characters of Porky and Daffy mingling with normally photographed people and backgrounds. The process is too tricky for description.

Notice that bit at the beginning where Harrison says that he prefers WB's short subjects to Disney's. This is a normal enough sentiment nowadays, but it was close to blasphemy in 1940 to say that Schlesinger's factory was making better animated cartoons than Disney. It's often said that Manny Farber of The New Republic was the first "mainstream" journalist to make such claims for the WB shorts, but Harrison beat him to it by at least two years. Of course he attributes the cartoons to the producer, Schlesinger, rather than the directors; this was inevitable, because Schlesinger's name was more prominent on the cartoons than anyone. Still, Paul Harrison, whoever he was and whatever else he did, seems to have been ahead of the curve when it came to cartoons.


Anonymous said...

Nice find on the Harrison pieces -- I have seen the first one, but the second, on "You Ought To Be In Pictures" is new to me.

Conventional wisdom in mass market publications or broadcasts is often two or three steps behind what the public is actually thinking and saying; in 1940 the pre-strike Disney operations was probably at its highest point public relations wise than at any time at least until the opening of Disneyland in the mid-50s. To come out and not only say the emperor has no clothes in the short subjects department, but to correctly tag his replacement before the arrival of Bugs Bunny shows Harrison wasn't just going along with the crowd and singing Walt's praises simply because that's what everyone else had done for the last 12 years, and at the same time wasn't just knocking Disney to be a contrarian without any constructive criticism (there are way too many in the media nowadays like that, who go against the grain just for the sake of being different, but don't really have a clue on directing people to something that's both good and underappreciated).

Anonymous said...

I think "XEA Service, Inc." is actually "NEA Service, Inc." NEA (for Newspaper Enterprise Association) was a Cleveland-based newspaper syndicate whose clientele tended to be newspapers in smaller markets (although papers as large as The Detroit News also used their features). It produced whole rafts of columns and comics that these papers could use to dress up their appearance. My guess is that Harrison appeared in many papers, although not large ones. As a result, he would not be as well known as Parsons, Hopper, Fidler or other Hollywood columnists.

F Flood

Anonymous said...

Jaime, these were very interesting. I notice Schlesinger's reference to (I presume) Joe Dougherty, but I thought Mel Blanc had arrived by then. I didn't realise Jane Withers had provided voices. Which cartoons was she in?