I asked in an earlier column, “How much of what everyone ‘knows’ about animation history is wrong?” This week’s column will look two more widespread animation myths. Here’s the first:
The Warner Bros. cartoons were so great because studio bosses Leon Schlesinger and Eddie Selzer took no interest in them, and had no idea what their animators were turning out.
This myth is attributable directly to WB director Chuck Jones. He said so. He should know, shouldn’t he?
Leon Schlesinger (1884-1949) worked in East Coast movie theaters in his youth, and later moved to “Hollywood” where most of the cinema industry was. In 1919 he founded Pacific Title and Art Studio in Burbank, to make title cards for silent movies. In 1930, he was contacted by Rudolph Ising and Hugh Harman from a team of movie animators who had been making the “Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons for producer Charles Mintz, who sold them to Universal Pictures. (Mintz had earlier hired the animators away from Walt Disney, who had created “Oswald” for Universal.) Universal had just fired Mintz and taken over producing the “Oswald” cartoons with its own studio, headed by Walter Lantz. Mintz had closed his studio and let all his animators go. Instead of dispersing, Ising & Harman persuaded them to stay together long enough to see if they could sell their services as a complete animation studio to someone else. Ising & Harman offered their services to Pacific Title & Art. Schlesinger, who could see the disappearance of movie title cards with the introduction of sound films, in turn offered the services of an animation studio to Warner Bros., the last major motion picture producer that did not have a cartoon department. WB hired him, and Schlesinger hired Ising & Harman and the former Mintz animators as Leon Schlesinger Studios. In 1934, after a dispute with Ising & Harmon, the two left Schlesinger taking their cartoon star Bosko with them. Schlesinger quickly hired back most of the other animators plus some from other studios, and arranged with WB to set up his own studio on the WB lot, later dubbed “Termite Terrace” by the animators. (Schlesinger sold Pacific Title & Art Studio in 1935 to concentrate on his animation studio. PT&A is still in business as a general post-production house for the movie and TV industries.)
Schlesinger’s own offices were not in the ramshackle animation building, which helped to create a feeling of separation between the animators and management. The animators have told similar stories about Schlesinger looking in upon them briefly occasionally, and saying approximately, “How are you boys doing? Is everything okay? Well, keep up the good work.” The plump Schlesinger, who wore an obvious toupee, reeked of cologne, and dressed nattily in a white suit, made no secret that he considered himself above his working-man animators. He owned a yacht, often spent all day at the horse races, and commented aloud about the Termite Terrace workshop, “I wouldn’t work in a shithole like this.” This increased the animators’ willingness to make fun of him.
But it was good-natured fun. Rather than not caring about the animators except for the money that their cartoons brought in, most of the animators agreed that Schlesinger kept a close eye on his studio and deliberately gave them maximum creative freedom. His attitude, openly expressed, was, “I pay you boys to make funny cartoons. As long as the public likes your work and you stay within budget, you can do whatever you think will bring in the laughs.” Schlesinger jovially agreed to not only let his animators make a Christmas gag reel in 1939 and 1940, he participated in them. Schlesinger also agreed to star in a combination live-action/animated short directed by “Friz” Freleng, You Ought to Be in Pictures (May 1940), playing himself as the head of his studio with Porky Pig and Daffy Duck (animated) unhappy with their contracts. Other Schlesinger employees also appear in You Ought to Be in Pictures, including writer Michael Maltese as a WB studio guard, and Henry Binder, Schlesinger’s executive assistant, as a stagehand.
After Ising and Harmon left, it was Schlesinger who put Friz Freleng in charge of his studio, and hired such animators as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, and Chuck Jones, and voice artist Mel Blanc and musician Carl Stalling. According to animation historians, it was Schlesinger who made the final decision to name Bugs Bunny. The character had already become a favorite at the studio among the animators, and was unofficially known as “Bugs” from being labeled as “Bugs’ Bunny” on a model sheet for Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, the first director to use him. In 1940 Tex Avery directed A Wild Hare, the first cartoon where the rabbit would have to have a name. Avery called him Jack Rabbit. (Mel Blanc said it was Happy Rabbit.) The rest of the cartoon’s animators wanted to make the Bugs Bunny name official. The argument grew so heated that both sides took it to Schlesinger to decide. Schlesinger said Bugs Bunny, definitely. It was already in use by most of the animators; it was a more striking name than the generic Jack Rabbit; and it fit the smart-alec personality of the rabbit. The disappointed Avery quit and went to MGM. It was also Schlesinger who named Bob Clampett’s notorious Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. Clampett intended to name it So White and de Sebben Dwarfs, but Schlesinger worried that that was too close to Disney’s original.
Tom Sito, a veteran animator and animation historian, and President of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonist’s Local 839 (animation’s professional labor union) from 1992 to 2001, commented on a 2008 Cartoon Brew story about Schlesinger’s obituary, “Many Termite Terrace vets who disparaged Leon’s leadership, all admit what Leon was best at was keeping the meddling suits from the main lot from annoying the artists with their “creative” opinions. We could use a lot more Leon Schlesingers today. Leon also was a champion of his animation unit and once complained to the Academy that Disney won the short film Oscar too many times.”
More pertinently, was Daffy’s and Sylvester’s juicy lisp copied from Leon Schlesinger’s, and was Schlesinger ignorant of this? Maybe, maybe not. Besides Jones in Chuck Amuck, cartoon writer and gag man Michael Maltese is quoted in Joe Adamson’s Tex Avery: King of Cartoons (Popular Library, 1975) as saying that Schlesinger lisped “a little bit”: “But we were not hampered by any front office interference, because Leon Schlesinger had brains enough to keep the hell away and go aboard his yacht. He used to lithp a little bit and he’d say, ‘I’m goin’ on my yachtht.’ He’d say, ‘Whatth cookin’, brainth? Anything new in the Thtory Department?’ He came back from Mexico once, he had huarachas on, he said, ‘Whaddya think of these Mexican cucarachas? Very comfortable on the feet.’ He said, ‘Disney can make the chicken salad, I wanna make chicken shit.’ He said, ‘I’ll make money.’” (pgs. 125-126) Blanc might have based his lisp for the duck’s and the cat’s speech on Schlesinger’s, and exaggerated it to such an extent that Schlesinger did not recognize it as based on his own lisp – or even if he did, he may have recognized that Blanc exaggerated it so outrageously that it was funny. Schlesinger has shown that he could go along with a gag. Basically, by the time Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989) was published, Schlesinger was long dead, Clampett was recently dead, and most people didn’t care. Jones’ story was too good not to repeat. The scenes of Schlesinger in You Ought to Be in Pictures and the 1939 & 1940 gag reels (embed below), where Schlesinger’s real voice is heard, although very brief, do not hint of any lisp on the sound track; though arguably, Schlesinger could have deliberately concentrated on not lisping since he knew that he was talking on camera.
In 1944, Schlesinger sold his animation studio to Warner Bros. and retired. WB officially made the studio its cartoon department, and assigned Edward Selzer (1893-1970) to replace Schlesinger. Selzer, whom everyone agreed was more humorless and formal than Schlesinger, deliberately continued Schlesinger’s policy of giving the animators creative freedom as long as they stayed within the increasingly smaller budgets.
Jim Korkis said here in his Animation Anecdotes #107, posted on April 26, “Animation legend Chuck Jones was always fond of telling the story of his meeting with Jack and Harry Warner of Warner Brothers Studio. ‘Friz Freleng and I had a meeting with the two of them. We were taken to the private executive dining room. Jack looked over at us and said, with a mouthful of food, ‘You know, I don’t even know where our animation studio is.” Harry nodded and said, ‘The only thing I know about our cartoon studio is that’s where we make Mickey Mouse’. They didn’t realize we didn’t make Mickey Mouse. When they finally found out, they closed the studio.’”
Ha ha; very funny! As for being true … Well, all of the biographies of Jack Warner do agree that he ruthlessly concentrated on the studio’s live-action features only, and dismissed the cartoons as worth making only because theater-owners wanted them as part of a complete theatrical package. The WB facilities were huge, and in 1953 the cartoon department was at WB’s Sunset Boulevard lot, not the main Burbank lot; so maybe Harry and Jack Warner didn’t know exactly where it was. But Jack kept track of whether the cartoons stayed profitable or not, and it was Eddie Selzer’s job to see to it that they did.
(On the other hand, one of Harry Warner’s other well-known comments, in 1927, was, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”, in response to Sam Warner’s support for making The Jazz Singer. Fortunately for the world, Sam Warner won that argument – and died the day before the movie’s premiere.)
What Jones did say, on page 89 of his Chuck Amuck autobiography, was, “Friz Freleng contends that the Warner brothers implicitly believed we made Mickey Mouse, until 1963 – when, shocked to discover that we did not, they shut the studio.” Oh, so it’s Friz Freleng’s story now. By 1963 Harry Warner was dead – he died in 1958 – so it was Jack’s decision alone to close the animation unit. The reason given by the studio was the increasing production costs of animation, plus falling orders from theater-owners who by the 1960s felt that audiences no longer demanded a cartoon with their feature. That is a more believable reason than that Jack Warner had just found out that WB did not make the Mickey Mouse cartoons.
The two stories that seem verified to Selzer’s discredit are about Selzer ordering Freleng not to team up Tweety with Sylvester – Wikipedia says, “Some historians also claim that Friz Freleng nearly resigned after butting heads with Selzer, who did not think that pairing Sylvester the cat and Tweety was a viable decision. The argument reached its crux when Freleng reportedly placed his drawing pencil on Selzer’s desk, furiously telling Selzer that if he knew so much about animation, he should do the work instead. Selzer backed off the issue and apologized to Freleng that evening.” — and that, after director Robert McKimson made the first cartoon featuring the Tasmanian Devil, Devil May Hare in 1954, Selzer ordered him not to made any more because he was afraid that audiences would dislike the ferocious Taz. It was not until Jack Warner personally told Selzer that the Devil was getting “boxes and boxes” of fan mail, and should reappear in the cartoons as soon as possible, that Selzer greenlit Taz’s further appearances. And those are not among Chuck Jones’ stories. Jack Warner does not look so ignorant of WB’s animation there, as long as it pertained to the studio’s overall income.
One story that Jones does tell about Eddie Selzer in Chuck Amuck is, on page 93, “He once appeared in the doorway of our story room while Mike Maltese and I were grappling with a new story idea. Suddenly a furious dwarf stood in the doorway: ‘I don’t want any gags about bullfights, bullfights aren’t funny!’ Exactly the words he had used to Friz Freleng about never using camels. Out of that dictum came Sahara Hare, one of the funniest cartoons ever made, with the funniest camel ever made.
Having issued his angry edict, Eddie stormed back to his office. Mike and I eyed one another in silent wonderment. ‘We’ve been missing something,’ Mike said. ‘I never knew there was anything funny about bullfighting until now. But Eddie’s judgment is impeccable. He’s never been right yet.’ ‘God moves in wondrous ways, his story ideas to beget,’ I replied. Result: Bully for Bugs – one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons our unit ever produced.”
Now, let’s see. Eddie Selzer, their boss and an angry man with no sense of humor, had just ordered them to never make a cartoon about bullfighting; and had previously issued a similar order about camels. Both times, his animators had immediately disobeyed his orders. Are we to believe that, if this had happened at another studio, Walt Disney’s maybe, that the boss would not have instantly fired those employees? Maybe Jones meant this to serve as an example of how little Selzer kept track of what went on in his studio. A cartoon short, from every studio, took months to produce; and when it was completed, everyone including especially the producer viewed the finished product. Are we to believe that Selzer remained ignorant of the camel and the bullfighting cartoons all during this time? It is more probable that Selzer was aware of and continued Schlesinger’s managerial practice: give the staff complete freedom to be as funny as they can, as long as they stay within budget. Also: WB released Bully for Bugs on August 8, 1953. Sahara Hare was not released until March 26, 1955. Was Freleng over two years in production of Sahara Hare, or was Jones less than accurate in his reminiscing?
Here’s this week’s other myth…
Balto was the lead sled dog of the team that brought the diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925.
This myth is not particularly animation-related, but it was the basis for three animated features; the Balto 1995 theatrical feature by Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation studio, and the direct-to-video sequels, Balto II: Wolf Quest (2002) and Balto III: Wings of Change (2004), both produced by Universal Cartoon Studios. So it seems worth covering here.
It is “true, but”. In January 1925, Doctor Curtis Welch, the only doctor in Nome, Alaska, isolated by the winter season, discovered that a diphtheria plague was breaking out. The nearest antitoxin was in Anchorage, almost a thousand miles away. No airplane was available. The closest that a train could get was the town of Nenana, 304 miles from Anchorage and still 674 miles away. The only way to transport the serum to Nome in time was by dog sled. The 674-mile journey was made by not one, but several Siberian husky sled dog teams. Relay teams were organized by radio from Nome and from Nenana. The two would meet at Nulato, a halfway point, where the Nenana team would hand the serum to the Nome team for the return journey.
The teams from Nenana faced -50º F temperatures and lower in blizzard conditions. Several dogs died. The last sledder, Henry Ivanoff, decided to go past Nulato to save the Nome team some time. The Nome team was led by sledder Leonhard Seppala, and his lead dog was Togo, named for the Japanese admiral who had won the 1905 Battle of Tsushima. Seppala was travelling through a storm with a wind chill factor of -85º F. It took him four days to reach the point where Ivanoff was, and he would have passed him in the storm if Ivanoff had not called out. Seppala took the serum and turned back to Nome immediately. (There had been seven deaths when he left, and over twenty more confirmed cases.)
Seppala and Togo travelled back across a frozen sound with ice breaking up. He was met en route by Charlie Olsen, who took the serum but was blown off the trail by the storm and suffered extreme frostbite. Olsen made it to where Gunnar Kaasen’s team led by Balto was waiting. Kaasen took the serum the rest of the way to Nome. They did pass through some horrific conditions – visibility was so poor that Kaasen could not see his closest sled dog, and he also developed frostbite – but they were relatively fresh when they pulled into Nome. The waiting press hailed Kaasen and Balto as the team who brought the serum from Nulato, or all the way from Anchorage. Seppala and Togo, who had covered the longest and most dangerous distance, were recovering from extreme exhaustion and frostbite at the time. Togo recovered first, and escaped to hunt reindeer. By the time he returned to his kennel, Kaasen and Balto were on the publicity circuit; being praised by the press, President Coolidge, and the U.S. Senate.
Seppala and Togo got plenty of recognition later on. They toured the U.S., and in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Togo was given a gold medal by the Swedish explorer Roald Amundsen. But Balto kept getting the greater publicity. There is a statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park, and Cleveland’s school children raised enough money to buy him. He lived the rest of his life in the Cleveland Zoo, and is stuffed and mounted today in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. And there are three animated movies, – fantasies – but who cares? – to keep his memory alive.
Balto never had offspring; he had been neutered as a young dog. Togo became so popular as a stud dog that most working huskies in the U.S. today are his descendants. Seppala sold the rest of his team to a dog breeder, so today’s American huskies who are not descendants of Togo are likely to be descendants of his teammates.
Here’s a nice piece about it from The History Channel.