The truth, as always, is far different. The thought of eliminating his competition had never occurred to Mel who, at first, was simply after any income he could make as a crazy voice man. And several years later he was far too successful for such unprofessional shenanigans. Yet this silly rumour has become more and more accepted since the cartoons began airing endlessly on TV from the mid-1950s, when viewers who saw his name understandably thought, “Gee, this Mel Blanc guy does EVERY voice: hey, that must be him doing Granny, or that funny singing frog, or that Road Runner.”
Another factor feeding the story of Blanc being high-handed with colleagues was actor Stan Freberg. In his later, dottier years he compounded the situation by insisting Mel getting his name on-screen was morally bankrupt (“illegal”), and Blanc should have made sure his fellow actors like Arthur Q. Bryan got equal credit. With these wrongheaded falsehoods now being parroted on Facebook posts by cartoon newbies I intend to finally clear them up.
First, some background. It should be noted that voice artists were, and still are, specialty people for hire. Classic era movie casting departments referred to them as “extra talent” i.e., non-contract freelancers. With the introduction of sound, early musical cartoons used professional singers who began being heard on soundtracks from the 1931-32 season. Most spoken dialogue was minimal, and mainly handled by in-house employees like Rudy Ising or Dick Heumer. Rare talents like Pinto “Goofy” Colvig or Clarence “Donald Duck” Nash, who showed actual comic talent along with appealing trick voices and barnyard imitations, were soon being retained and nurtured.Professional radio talent was slowly hired from 1930, at first not on a large scale, often due to budget considerations. In 1933, Disney’s Three Little Pigs was released and proved a sensation. Colvig had recommended his silent-era comedy colleague Billy Bletcher when Disney needed a truly distinctive villain voice for the Big Bad Wolf. Disney’s Silly Symphonies became increasingly lavish and cartoons like Who Killed Cock Robin? began featuring a range of outside talent.
By 1936 as theatrical cartoons gained in verbal and comic sophistication and the animation became more polished and accomplished, they relied far less on the early gimmick of musical synchronization. The singers used were reduced to a chorus or two and the hiring of facile radio comedy voices began to be emphasized. At Leon Schlesinger’s studio, standout creative talents like director Tex Avery had the services of a rare studio comic in Ted Pierce, gag man and natural actor, who was used as an opening off-screen narrator in The Village Smithy. Avery was quick to note that his narrator gimmick was soon being copied by Disney.
Schlesinger’s first big star was Porky Pig who was originally spoken by a real-life stammerer, a makeup assistant and bit player named Joe Dougherty. Treg Brown, the studio’s inventive sound man was the first and virtually only editor to pitch-change cartoon voices and give them an extra-funny speeded up quality…Dougherty’s impediment sounded far cuter when sped, while another sound mimic, Count Cutelli, recorded the first stuttering “That’s ALL Folks.” But the ongoing popularity of Porky demanded a much better actor with comic sense and real vocal flexibility… what was needed was a controlled stutter.
It was at this stage that Mel Blanc, struggling young dialect specialist, entered the picture. After moving to Los Angeles, he had begun working for various local radio stations including comedy shows originating from Warner’s own KFWB, housed on the same Sunset Boulevard lot as the cartoon studio. The directors had already begun using some radio voices in their cartoons, and in late 1936 Blanc auditioned.
Treg Brown recorded his tryout session, and was impressed enough to quickly recommend Mel to Lantz, Mintz and MGM. Blanc’s voice test with its crazy yells and comic dialects stood out…a lot of the actors being hired were adequate, some were proven talents like Billy Bletcher, but Mel had a natural comic flair that many others lacked.
At this stage, though, Blanc was just one of a band of reliable radio funny folk with trick voices and party piece comic characters…Joe Twerp, Bletcher, Don Brodie, Elvia Allman, etc. Schlesinger was fortunate enough to house some of the industry’s top young gag-men, and Avery worked with this crazy group to create his first really successful character, Daffy Duck. Fortuitously, Blanc’s first major cartoon assignment was Porky’s Duck Hunt in which he debuted his new and improved Porky as well as the earliest incarnation of Avery’s insane Daffy.
It was soon apparent that Blanc’s voice work, which complemented the wildly silly material supplied by Tex and the other gagsters, had a uniquely “cartoony” quality. With his musical background, he could even sing in his screwball voices. The Schlesinger cartoons had begun getting positive reviews from exhibitors for their advances in color, improved animation and mostly better comedy, and Mel would prove their perfect fit.
As early as mid-1937 Blanc was being hired for virtually every Warner cartoon, at first in bits but also as the studio’s leading star Porky, who was just kicking off a new series at Leon’s second division cartoon wing, Ray Katz Productions. The young Bob Clampett was the first director to use Mel as sole actor supplying every voice in one cartoon (in entries like Porky’s Badtime Story). The old vocal groups soon took a back seat, and Mel and his radio co-stooges like Harry Lang, Phil Kramer and Sara Berner were soon dominating West Coast animation voice work. Mel and Dave Weber, a dialect coach and mimic recently transplanted from New York, became two of the most commonly heard voices in LA-originated cartoons of the late 1930s. Mel’s timing was certainly good…as he ascended so did the confidence and abilities of the Warner directors, animators and story staff.
Tex Avery kept excelling too, and he took the young voice man with him. After Porky’s Duck Hunt, he and Blanc scored a big success with Daffy Duck and Egghead. And in 1940, following the enormous reaction to A WILD HARE and Blanc’s marvellous new rabbit voice, as coached by Avery, the industry took notice. He was also noted by his employers: his continuing quality work playing studio stars Porky and Daffy convinced Schlesinger and Henry Binder that it would be highly advantageous to have Blanc under contract for their exclusive use. And not before time: Hardaway and Lantz already had him doing their new Universal star Woody Woodpecker, MGM had used him as a lead voice in some of their cartoons, and Frank Tashlin nabbed Blanc for his new Fox and Crow starrer at Screen Gems just days before he would no longer be available.
In the spring of 1941 Mel’s status changed forever. On April 25th, Daily Variety noted, “Mel Blanc, the gravel-voice in Bugs Bunny Merrie Melodies cartoon, has been signed to term contract by Leon Schlesinger, setting a precedent in the animated cartoon field.” His signature was appended to a two-year “Artists – Stock Talent” deal. Blanc’s salary at the start was $65.00 per week for 50 weeks, and the piece of paper had no other hold on his services. Daily Variety added, “Contract does not conflict with Blanc’s radio engagements. His first impersonation for Schlesinger was Porky Pig…” This meant that while Mel could no longer speak for cartoons made at other animation houses in Hollywood, he was still free to do any radio or live action film work (his character voices are heard in a WB live action short called Sniffer Soldiers from 1942).
Interestingly for the first two years of his contract Mel’s fee of 65 bucks per weekly cartoon recording was less than the session fee paid to the more-established radio comic Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), who got a negotiated fee of $75.00 a session, above the then-scale payment, and not bad pocket money in 1941. And Bryan upped his fee with each passing year.
The cartoons kept improving in the new decade, and Mel’s work became still more distinctive. Leon’s starring characters of Bugs, Porky and Daffy were now being singled out by both exhibitors and in fan-mail as superior to standard bearer Disney’s short cartoons.
When it came time to renew Mel’s contract his salary was increased to $75.00 per week for another guaranteed 50 weeks per year. The second contract was signed in April of 1943 to take effect on the 24th, and this time it would be for three years. Importantly for Blanc, it allowed him to exercise any contract options before one full year had elapsed. And before that next option signing occurred in 1944, the issue of giving Mel screen credit had been discussed and agreed to.
Giving an unseen dubbing artist name billing was definitely a new wrinkle in Hollywood. Producers followed Disney’s long-stated policy of anonymity. Walt’s reasoning was that audiences should fully believe in the animated onscreen animals, and publicising a real person behind a microphone would destroy the element of fantasy. (That, and the possibility that an actor with his name on screen might just demand more money!)
Of course in Mel’s autobiography and in countless radio / TV interviews he gave from the late 60s, he embellished the “story” of his screen credit. Explaining that wife Estelle made most of his financial decisions, he writes “At my better half’s urging, I marched into Leon Schlesinger’s office to demand a salary increase. It wasn’t going to be easy because the producer was notoriously tightfisted with money.” He goes on with his patented narrative: Leon’s response was, “What do you want more money for, Mel? You’ll only have to pay more taxes.” To which Mel counters, “Well, if you won’t give me a raise, how about at least giving me a screen credit?”
It doesn’t help that Mel’s chronology is a couple of years too early, and his discussion with Leon occurs before Mel even did Bugs Bunny’s voice in 1940. But that book later has Mel signing his exclusive deal with Leon in 1949 (eight years after it actually happened), and not until he’d done some thirty Woody Woodpecker cartoons…he actually completed just four. As Bob Clampett once quipped, “Mel was the greatest cartoon voice and the worst cartoon historian.”
The reality is that when his next renewal was signed, under the Options paragraph it stated the Producer was to give Mel “screen credit for Bugs Bunny’s voice in all Bugs Bunny pictures that Employee’s voice is recorded. Such credit is to appear on those pictures recorded by Employee during the term of this contract.” It was obvious by 1943 that Bugs in particular was already a highly prized cartoon property.
And so over the next year Mel’s name finally appeared on-screen, after the distinguished sounding “Voice Characterization,” at first in just his Bugs Bunny cartoons beginning with Little Red Riding Rabbit released on January 1, 1944. While every non-Bugs cartoon still bore no voice credit, Mel’s name appeared on the following releases in 1944: Bugs Bunny and The Three Bears, Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips, Hare Ribbin’, Hare Force, Buckaroo Bugs, The Old Grey Hare and Stage Door Cartoon.
Contrary to latter-day comments by Freberg, Chuck Jones and June Foray, Mel was not responsible for other people’s careers. And in any event, had Bryan, Bletcher, Bea Benaderet or any other voice performer asked their agent to negotiate screen billing, the odds are they would have been unsuccessful. Aside from Bryan, considered a one-trick pony, the other voice talents were essentially day players who didn’t speak for any regular or star characters. The only non-Blanc character of note in this period was Elmer Fudd but he only appeared sporadically. Besides, Arthur Q. was so busy with Fibber McGee and other national radio shows he may not have felt it was worth seeking credit. Most actors regard each gig as a gift and he might have thought “Who knows, maybe this’ll be the last time they use this Elmer loser!”
Blanc’s next contract update was in March, and before he exercised his yearly option, the credit paragraph was amended to specify that Mel’s name would now appear on “Bugs Bunny as well as Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoons.” That meant that throughout 1945 Mel’s name was emblazoned on-screen in Herr Meets Hare, The Unruly Hare, Hare Trigger, followed by his first non-Bugs Bunny credit for the Porky cartoon Wagon Heels, Hare Conditioned, Hare Tonic, and in his first known credit for a Daffy entry, Nasty Quacks.
(Researching this chronology is a pain thanks to those execrable Blue Ribbon cartoons…I am unsure if the earlier Daffy from 1945 – Ain’t That Ducky – features Mel’s name, although I suspect Nasty Quacks was indeed the first Daffy-with-credit because it fell in the new season’s releases covered by the contract; I also note that the next Daffy released, Book Revue did not feature Mel’s name…there are two reasons: production had commenced on Book Revue before Nasty Quacks, and as brilliant as Blanc’s and Daffy’s performances were, the little black duck was still a glorified cameo in this books-come-to-life entry.)
The next option renewal following Blanc’s 1945 updated agreement states the same screen credit as before for each Bugs, Daffy and Porky release, but this time around adds “and in all pictures in which the Employee’s voice characterization is used for a major portion of the motion picture.”
And so in 1946, Mel’s name was seen in Baseball Bugs, Hare Remover, possibly in Daffy Doodles (a Blue Ribbon reissue), and for the first time in a cartoon which featured none of the regular Warner stars: Hush My Mouse. And it’s from that point that Mel’s name appears in virtually all the studio’s cartoons to come. The exceptions in 1946 were the earlier Baby Bottleneck (featuring Porky and Daffy) and Bacall To Arms, both of which very likely had their credit titles prepared before the new rider in Mel’s contract.
The only remaining 1946 cartoons for which we need to confirm Mel’s screen credit following Hush My Mouse are those Blue Ribbon reissues which were vandalized by being shorn of all original opening titles. We can assume Blanc got screen credit on all the releases that he contributed voices to (Tweetie Pie and Mouse Menace, whose original titles still exist, confirm this).
Let’s hope the real titles can be found for Daffy Doodles, The Eager Beaver, Of Thee I Sting (unlikely, as Mel is not heard in this), Walky Talky Hawky, Fair and Wormer, The Mouse-Merized Cat, Mouse Menace,and Roughly Squeaking. From 1947, however, I can state with confidence that Mel received voice credit all the way to the end of the Warner cartoon releases in 1969.
By now Blanc had more clout. His 1946 contract also strictly specified that his cartoon recordings be scheduled so as “not to conflict with his radio work, and at the same time, enable himself to render his services to Producer” while an extra Paragraph 19 was added to include Warner Bros. payment to Mel of “20% of net royalties received from the sale of Phonograph Records,” as the deal with Capitol was finalized. And other terms improved: he was now given eight weeks off each summer, two with full pay (now at $125 a week).Of course having his name at the opening of highly popular theatrical cartoons on a huge Technicolor screen in the town of Hollywood guaranteed industry notice, and Mel was now able to ask for better terms as a radio stooge on his regular shows, Abbott & Costello, Judy Canova, Burns & Allen and Jack Benny. Jack loved Mel’s scene-stealing ability and from 1943 Mel began appearing more and more on the Benny program. He soon became a weekly fixture and the recipient of Benny’s real-life generosity. Blanc revealed he was paid far above scale for the Benny gig. The Jack Benny association did as much as his cartoon billing to make Mel famous enough to star in his own one-season Mel Blanc Show for Colgate-Palmolive on CBS in 1946-47.
By 1947 Mel’s cartoon salary grew to a weekly payment of $175.00, increasing the following year to $200.00 for each successive year through 1952. Frustratingly I found no contracts beyond the 1947 document, so we can only presume his management may well have negotiated more raises for his Warner toons post-1952. This was good money back then, particularly when combined with his radio fees and, in the burgeoning TV era, the advent of commercial residuals.
It says much of Blanc’s enormous native talent that he was considered important enough to receive screen billing. The only other examples of any short cartoons to display a voice credit in the 1940s were Lantz’s use of radio gossip host George Fischer in the 1940 Recruting Daze, and one of two 1945 releases (Sliphorn King Of Polaroo) featuring quirky Hans Conried, who was also billed in later cartoons for UPA and MGM. Famed Calypso singer, Sir Lancelot was credited in Columbia’s The Disillusioned Bluebird, while Stan Freberg received billing in the once-off Republic entry It’s A Grand Old Nag made by former Warner director Bob Clampett. An occasional distinguished New York radio voice was credited in Famous Studios entries – such as Frank Gallop and Ken Roberts – even though the great “Popeye” triumvirate of Jack Mercer, Jackson Beck and Mae Questel was never billed!
Overall, the cartoon voice field was Mel’s by a country mile, but that other great fallacy – that he requested screen credit just to have the game all sewn up so that other actors couldn’t be promoted – is not only plain wrong but a slur on his reputation. If Mel had been that spiteful, let alone that powerful, he would have had real enemies. And he would have run into them each week on radio calls. According to Mel’s son Noel, his father and Arthur Q. Bryan were actually friends in real life, and Mel had acted weekly in Bryan’s own radio vehicle Major Hoople.Blanc was only human and he could occasionally be self-protective. Some people like Bill Scott found him a bit aloof. But beyond some actor-ish sniping and jealousy, most of the industry applauded Mel for his achievements. Although Mel’s screen billing continues to fuel inaccurate cartoon history, it was essentially due to his excellent work and, in retrospect, seems entirely fair.
For other actors, the 1950s saw few changes. With the exception of Jim Backus receiving credit once Mr. Magoo took off, and UPA occasionally affording screen billing to select actors, most other voice artists simply had to wait until the situation changed. Walt Lantz began allowing his voice talents credit, at first with Sara Berner for Chilly Willy in late 1953, then Frank Nelson for Dig That Dog and non-relative Dick Nelson for Broadway Bow-Wows in 1954. Dal McKennon was the first to receive consistent billing in each Lantz release from late 1955 onwards. June Foray and Daws Butler were grateful to Lantz for giving voice credits several years before it became accepted industry practice.
The one Warner exception was Freberg’s credit in 1957’s Three Little Bops, but by then Stan was a big recording name. In the early 60s a Screen Actors Guild ruling resulted in cartoons finally listing other voice artists from late 1961, over thirty years after sound films began! And starting with the 1966 entry Muchos Locos Mel even got his own “starring” voice credit card, followed by other actors’ names on a separate card in smaller font. Of course the cartoons were so diminished by then it meant less than it had earlier.
The new medium of TV cartoons began crediting actors early in the 1950s, and all the Hanna-Barbera shows, starting with Ruff & Reddy in 1957, gave prominent credit to their voices, aware of their obvious importance in the new age of planned animation. This meant that an artist like Daws Butler was soon as well-known for animation voice work as was Mel.Blanc’s own contract was not exclusive to WB Cartoons for television gigs. While he began being heard in Tang spots and other commercials featuring the Looney Tunes gang, as well as recording the new Bugs Bunny Show segments for ABC-TV, he was also free now to work on cartoons for other companies and landed the role of Barney Rubble on Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones. On that show his old Warner co-star Bea Benaderet (the title character “Red” in Mel’s first billed cartoon) finally enjoyed her own animation credit.
I hope this overlong article finally clarifies the fact that Mel Blanc was the first voice person to be signed to an exclusivity deal, and that it can put to rest some long-running falsehoods and wrong assumptions: firstly that Mel had his name on every Warner cartoon of the 1940s (in reality it was more gradual and limited to certain characters’ cartoons over the first three years, 1944-47), and secondly that his on-screen billing had been orchestrated by Mel with the malicious intent of keeping all other voice people anonymous. As I said, in real life such bullying machinations would have seen Mel reprimanded and possibly fired, but it’s the sort of gossipy nonsense that keeps a new generation of know-nothing fanboys mindlessly fulminating some seventy years later.
Sources: Daily Variety clipping (Herrick Library); various contract documents and sound recording logs (USC Warner Bros. Archives); the book “That’s not all Folks! (My Life in the Golden Age of Cartoons and Radio)” (1988) by Mel Blanc and Philip Bashe; author’s telephone interviews with Stan Freberg, Chuck Jones and June Foray. Various audio and print interviews with Mel Blanc; and of course the many cartoons featuring Mel.
KEITH SCOTT is slowly but surely completing a historical survey of Golden Age cartoon voices for an eventual book.