January 18, 2016 posted by

A Chat with Paul Fennell


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.”


  • I wish someone got a recording of Fennell punching Eddie Fitzgerald at Filmation.

    • I was in the next room at Filmation. All anyone in that corridor heard was just the impact of the hit, followed by the thud of Eddie hitting the floor as he took his chair down with him. The supervisor asked, “Paul, are you hitting people again?” Then they moved me in with Paul after Eddie moved out. Paul was generally a great deal like my grandfather so we got along. The thing that set Paul off was that he couldn’t stand Bob Clampett and Eddie was always enthusiastically describing how great he was. One morning (I suspect) Paul didn’t take his heart medication and came in in an extra foul mood. Of course, the first sentence he heard out of Eddie contained the words ‘Bob Clampett…’ and the rest is history. Why did Fennell dislike Bob? No one knew for certain but he once admitted to me that when I said he didn’t think much about Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones it was just sour grapes. I asked him what he had against Jones. Paul considered the question, then said “Well, Jones was a hard worker. I’ll give him that.” It may have been that both Jones and Clampett started as inbetweeners, Jones working for Paul at a point when Paul was an ex-Disney animator, then in a few short years both Jones and Clampett went on to eclipse him as directors. But that’s only my conjecture. I mean, no one in the then-young generation of 1978 was talking about Paul Fennell cartoons at lunch.

  • I wonder what his working relationship was with Larry Harmon? Harmon took co-director credit with Fennell on many of the Bozo the Clown cartoons, though it’s pretty obvious Fennell must have been doing all the heavy lifting; and the Harmon staff became the nucleus of Filmation.

  • The only thing I heard Paul say about Harmon, one day when he was probably fed up with the young people in his vicinity talking about Jones, Clampett, Tashlin and others who weren’t him, was “Now, surely you’re not gonna tell me that Larry Harmon was a great producer.” Despite his fabled mood swings, Paul was an articulate fellow (compared to many of his contemporaries), having dealt for years with ad agencies when he ran his studio, an attribute evident in the video clip posted here.

  • IIRC, Ed Benedict said he was Fennell’s partner when Fennell opened his studio.

  • I’m Tom and my dad is Paul Fennell. Here’s a little background on dad and his health issues. I was with him doing some art work at the studio on La Cienega – when he got his first heart attack. Johnny Burks, his partner and long time Navy friend drove me home while the ambulance took him to the hospital. He was In his early 50’s. The medication slowed him down over time – but he pushed thru 3 more attacks spanning another 25 years of work. Dad was a larger than life, articulate, funny, tough (but a real softie when it came to any kind of physicality with us kids) and loving father. Always there for us . . . usually when we didn’t want him to be. He was also a truly accomplished artist. For example, he did a portrait of a little girl when he was around 13 years old which would have made ‘Loomis’ proud. I’ve been drawing and painting for 50 years and still cannot come close to that little masterpiece. Dad was also articulate and an avid student of philosophy and the language there-of which set him up perfectly for negotiating with the big agencies in NY. He also had a long time friend named Tom Shields who may have been his business attorney/consultant. If you have any information on Tom or want more information on the 50’s art scene – let me know.

    • Hey Tom…I’ve come across a few drawings, signed , presumably by your father…care to see them? Email me and I’ll sent you some photos of them…thanks and cheers.

      • Hi Chad. Somehow missed your delightful post from 3 years ago but so glad to have discovered it today (New Years Jan 1, 2023). I would love to see any of my father’s drawings since he never really shared anything from work nor did he draw much at home. I truly appreciate your saving them. My email is Did you work for my father or know any of his fellow cartoon folks? Are you in the animation business?

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