Paul John Fennell is certainly no stranger to Cartoon Research readers. Not only is there a series of posts by Mike Kazaleh on various TV commercials made by his studio, Paul J. Fennell Co., but there’s Jerry Beck’s fascinating post here about This Changing World, the aborted series of animated documentaries released by Columbia in 1941. The latter films alone would seem to earn him at least a modest spot in animation history. Nevertheless, I had forgotten my video interview with Fennell, despite his conversation with me about my father; in retrospect, I found some of his comments quite interesting, including two that peripherally related to the Fleischer and Disney strikes—after all labor history is my thing.
Fennell, who went into the Marines at 17 for 4 years, started in animation as an inbetweener at Disney in 1931, becoming an animator after 6 months. He then went over to Leon Schlesinger where, famously, Chuck Jones was one of his assistants. He then went to New York to work at Fleischer on Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. When he developed a bad cold, he became scared he might get tuberculosis and returned to the West Coast. It’s not clear when he got sick, but his story provides some context for what happened to inbetweener Dan Glass, who died of TB in January 1935; Glass’ death became a factor in the run up to the Fleischer strike 2 years later, as some blamed the studio’s cramped working conditions for what happened. (Inbetweener Lillian Oremland, a high school classmate of animator Lillian Friedman, also came down with TB.) Fennell didn’t blame the studio for his getting sick and remembered Max Fleischer as “the finest man I worked for in all my 50 years” in animation.
He ended up at Harmon-Ising, where he co-directed To Spring (1936) with Bill Hanna, though he did not get screen credit. A few years later he joined Ub Iwerks’ Cartoons Films, Ltd., in Beverly Hills, which he helped run when Iwerks returned to Disney; however, he indicated the studio was controlled by a British company whose name I can’t decipher. (Can anyone out there help?) He stayed there until the US got into the war, went back into the Marines and became a Lieutenant Colonel, running the Navy’s Animation and Art Department, at its Photo Science Laboratory in Washington, DC.
I must agree with Jerry on the importance of his pre-war This Changing World films – Broken Treaties and the Oscar-nominated How War Came — which can now be seen as part of a trend towards more dramatic animation triggered by Hugh Harmon’s Peace on Earth (1939)—its ultimate inspiration was probably Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). I must add it not only anticipated the Superman cartoons and Victory Through Air Power, but also Clyde Geronimi’s Education for Death (Disney, 1943) and Frank Capra’s famed Why We Fight documentaries made for the Army.
During the Disney strike, Cartoon Films hired some artists off the picket line, which Walt choose not to forget. As such, he refused to hire Fennell after he got out of the service, leading him to open his own studio, Paul J. Fennell Co., which became a major producer of TV commercials, as well as industrial and educational films. After the war, employment opportunities in theatrical shorts was actually rather limited and new markets, such as TV, provided a way for artists to break free of the major studios. He points with pride to the fact that his company made the first Campbell Kids commercials, as well as spots for Post Toasties and Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. He subsequently worked for a number of TV animation studios, including Filmation.
When I asked him what he would he wanted to be remembered for, he pointed to his work during World War II, including some highly classified work he did in preparation for the 1944 D-Day Normandy invasion of France, which he felt “was probably the most useful thing I ever did.”