How does a one-off Oscar, The Terrytoons-Van Beuren Facebook Page, the retro re-casting of Mickey Mouse, Tom Terrific, Nudnik, Viacom, Farmer Al Falfa, Charles Lindbergh, YouTube, animation historians, Weston Woods, all mesh?
I can’t help but notice the flood of comments about ancient “Terry” Toons that have been filling my email inbox in recent weeks. Only a smattering of it refers to my own extremely short-lived attempt at a Terrytoons turn-around.
Most of the Terrytoon fan Facebook comments are taking seriously what I always felt to be the weakest output of any of the major American cartoon studios. On the Terrytoons-Van Beuren page, the old Terrytoons rate fanhood. Was I misguided in my attempt to reject them? Was I dead wrong, trying to turn the Terrytoons studio into a UPA clone? It appears so.
My insertion at Terrytoons quickly showed me that there were talented and experienced professional animators and craftsmen there, including Phil Scheib – the phenomenal but hog-tied composer. Why hadn’t they done better? I soon saw who were the villains. I realized that it was the leadership of the studio, especially Paul Terry himself who held back the artists from doing their best. The old Terrytoons had some good ideas, even if the finish and finesse wasn’t often there. When I met Paul Terry and Bill Weiss, I saw why that was. I couldn’t quickly change the conditions that ruled the work.
In the inevitable churn of changing times and interests, even my own Terrytoons films, now rarely seen, are by now already considered retro. That’s natural. The first thing I could do there was in story and an attempt at fresh characters. I realize that my thinking was definitely not old-time Terrytoons! I still haven’t shed my fascination with the new and eccentric, but somewhere there must be a bedrock of character comedy and statement, however diverse and bizarre are the coatings. What I was up against made It an exciting attempt at swimming against the tide.
I’m now in a late life mode, where I cannot continue to challenge the current animation norms, or risk financially scary experiments. I’m left only with my past. I’m into examining what I did right and where I went wrong; trying to figure out where I stand, or if I matter at all in the long saga of movie animation.
It’s absolutely clear that I disastrously stumbled in my hot-blooded eagerness to change the world of major-league animation flickers. My only clear success was in the minor-league kiddie film productions for schools and libraries. I was never able to duplicate my earlier 50-minutes of fame in the big-time arena of movie and TV production.
All of the attention I am now receiving is tied to those six-or-seven shining years at UPA, CBS-Terrytoons, and Rembrandt Films in Prague. The following 40 years, pioneering a higher level of meaningful and entertaining children’s films with Weston Woods, was a satisfying success. Nearly all were prize-winners that made me financially secure, but are of near zero interest in the world of movie animation fans.
It’s not only the meaning of my own career that puzzles me, but the seemingly unquenchable fascination, not with the obvious early classics we all learned from, but with the crudest, most naïve, cartoons, made in an animation sweatshop, and mainly for the bucks.
“Bad” seems to be fun these days, but even as parody, where does that stuff lead us? Is it because we are in economic Hard Times once again, and we sense the connection with junk? Is cynicism “in” because we feel our present culture meaningless, and yearn to return to a simple-minded world? But we can’t rewind time.
Our planet is now densely crowded, and we can’t live without the technology we’ve created. What should we animators be doing with it?
I referred to Charles Lindbergh… When I first was brought into Terrytoons, Paul Terry invited me to lunch, claiming to guide me in my new endeavor. He told me that the key to my success would be to create a character in the spirit of Charles Lindbergh, “the greatest hero in modern American history!” That was 1956, when most Americans had either totally forgotten Lindbergh, or despised him as a Hitler Nazi supporter, a confirmed racist and right-wing political propagandist.
I thought Terry was a doddering period piece, and I thought his cartoon output was crudely made crud. I realize now that I actually avoided looking at them.
In the UPA mantra, they were not worth looking at. I heard mind-numbing stories from the staff about Terry’s policy of deliberate low quality. Even now, as perhaps a doddering period piece myself, I am discombobulated by this apparent adoration of Terry’s early output! I was young, and assured. I ignored Terry’s advice, and madly raced down a path that no Terrytooner had trod before! I won the adoration of many animation journalists, and I lost my job.
I had watched and learned from the masterful pioneer Animators. What I’m referring to here is the mysterious trend of admiration for the junky; the kicks from deliberately watching junk, specifically the output of a man who actually seemed to revel in his junkiness! He told me so personally, even as he shifted gears, preaching to me the role model Lindberg! The vastly slicker Walt Disney was also a political and cultural throwback, but he was at least a dedicated craftsman, who if nothing else greatly advanced animation as a craft. Not so Paul Terry!
I later lucked into a new way, at Weston Woods, to make modest shorts of actual value and meaning, possible only because a man of genuine culture, independent of a hyena agenda, Morton Schindel, was behind it. I spent forty years working to his standards, during which I faded out from what was happening in Hollywood. I missed out on the dazzling feature-length animation world of immense studios, immense budgets, immense income, and stunning, constantly upgraded technology, chasing live-action “reality,” and steadily sidelining mere “cartoons.”
After the Prague studio folded, I devolved into a personal recycler, a seeker of the overgrown path for animation to travel on. Are we now on the right path? Do zillions of Twitter one liners, gaglines, smarty retorts, lead us anywhere? Maybe they do. I’m into it myself, just having fun. But I wish I still had a chance to do something truly decent!
Editor’s Note: Gene, your Terrytoon years were greatly appreciated by this particular baby boomer. I personally think you beat UPA at its own game with your marvelous shorts – and with what you had to work with (Bill Weiss, low budgets and disgruntled employees on the down side; but Jim Tyer, Jules Feffier, Alan Swift, Lionel Wilson, Al Kouzel, Ernest Pintoff, Boris Karloff, R.O. Blechman, Jim Flora, Captain Kangaroo, etc. on the positive side) you made little miracles. What you did back then – and throughout your career – was more than decent. You’ve inspired more people than you know – and your works will continue to do so. On behalf of myself and my readers, please know that you gave us more than entertainment. You created timeless art – and we will continue to spread the word. Thank you. - Jerry Beck