ANIMATION ANECDOTES
April 10, 2015 posted by

Animation Anecdotes #207

cerealCocoaSnag1Snagglepuss Is Straight. One of the things guaranteed to irritate animation producer Joe Barbera was when some of the younger staff at the studio would tease him in later years that Snagglepuss must be gay.

“He was modeled after Bert Lahr!” Barbera would roar. “He was anything BUT gay. He beat his wife.” Jokingly, Barbera would indicate something horrible to anyone who suggested the pink mountain lion was not straight.
Snagglepuss’ frequent exclamation, “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” was first uttered by Bert Lahr in the movie Meet the People (1944).

Snagglepuss was advertising Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies on television at the same time his “voice inspiration” Lahr was pitching for Frito’s Corn Chips. In 1963, Lahr sued for $500,000 (against Kellogg’s, Screen Gems and Hanna-Barbera), claiming that audiences would be confused and think that he was recommending the cereal.

The result was that the Snagglepuss commercials featured the on screen credit “Snagglepuss voice by Daws Butler”, the first and perhaps last time a voice artist was credited on screen for a commercial. By the way, Lahr had been suing companies since 1958 claiming that various commercials were doing imitations of his voice.

Mrs. Sullivan’s Cat. Who created Felix the Cat? Well, until 1932, everyone in the world thought it was Marjorie Sullivan, the wife of cartoonist Pat Sullivan.

When Felix started being syndicated as a comic strip by King Features, the company produced the following press release: “Pat Sullivan, creator of Felix the Cat… was a lucky gentleman who preferred a blonde…and married her. But the plot thickens! She was a girl who loved black cats! Contrast for her blonde beauty? Maybe! Anyhow Mrs. Pat gets all the credit for Felix the Cat. This tale of a cat which has no end is just like the story books. They lived happily ever after.”

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In a visit to Australia in 1925, Pat Sullivan told The Argus newspaper that “the idea was given to me by the sight of a cat which my wife brought to the studio one day.”

Just like the tale of Mickey Mouse, there were many variations on the story in the early years from Mrs. Sullivan adopting a black stray cat to just being a cat person. However, with her death in 1932, her involvement with the origin of Felix the Cat was dropped completely from any future re-tellings.

In 1967, at the Cinematheque Quebecoise Retrospective of Animation Cinema, for the first time animation legend Otto Messmer was credited with the creation of Felix the Cat.

Supporting that claim were fellow honorees Dave Fleischer, Paul Terry, Walter Lantz, Ub Iwerks and John R. Bray, a pretty prestigious bunch of animators who worked in the earliest days of animation. Staffers at the Sullivan studio like Al Eugster and Hal Walker (Messmer’s assistant) also supported the contention that Messmer created Felix.

Animation historian John Canemaker followed up on the claim that Messmer was the creator of Felix (with a documentary film and a book) and concluded the Felix would not have been born without Messmer but would not have received the recognition and success without Pat Sullivan.

In 2005, a museum in New South Wales, Australia made a very public attempt to “reclaim Felix the Cat” as the creation of Pat Sullivan with Messmer as just a “hired hand”, one of several artists Sullivan employed to work on the character.

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Brad Bird and Curious George. In November 1999, director Brad Bird was at Universal Pictures working on a feature film version of the popular children’s story “Curious George” which was to be done in a combination of live action and CGI animation. “There was a great script done by Brad Bird before he got a call from Pixar and had this amazing opportunity to direct his story of The Incredibles,” said producer David Kirschner. Bird had pitched the idea of The Incredibles to his friend John Lasseter in March 2000. It was based on a concept he began developing in 1993.

Other writers had struggled with the “Curious George” screenplay over the years including William Goldman (The Princess Bride), Pat Proft (Police Academy), Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (A League of Their Own), Joe Stillman (the first two Shrek features) and Daniel Gerson and Rob Baird (Monsters Inc.).

The Hanna Barbera Drop. It wasn’t just the Disney Studio where animators did pranks. In the early 1980s, there was a tradition at Hanna-Barbera called “The Drop”. The animators worked on the second floor and directly below were the cel painters who were not allowed to talk or make noise because it would distract from the work that needed to be done.

hB-ParadeWhenever animator Tony Rivera would randomly sneeze, it would trigger the rest of the animators to do “The Drop”. It would start with pencils being dropped on the floor, perhaps followed by a coffee mug or two. It would escalate to larger objects including a metal sign and animators picking up an animation desk and dropping it to the floor.

The laugher stopped when they heard footsteps. The head of ink and paint was a woman with no sense of humor at all and she would walk sternly up to the second floor and glare at the animators while asking what was going on. She was greeted by looks of innocence, blank stares and puzzled denials.

The Moving Michael. Animation Producer Joe Barbera had an autographed poster of performer Michael Jackson on the wall of his office. As Jackson got into more and more trouble, the poster slowly migrated from being prominently displayed to further away from the entrance and eventually disappeared.

The Sleeping Beauty Fairies. Live-action film reference for the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather in the Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty was made to help lead animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.

That footage featured top film character actresses like Spring Byington (perhaps best known for the December Bride television series in the 1950s), Madge Blake (who played Aunt Harriet in the Batman TV series) and Frances Bavier (who was Mayberry’s Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show) among others.

Amelia’s Cord. Legendary animator Ed Benedict purchased the 1936 Cord Sportsman Convertible Coupe previously owned by famed aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart shortly after her disappearance in 1937. The only change he made was to paint the roadster black. At the time, Benedict was animating at Universal Studio on Walter Lantz’s Oswald Rabbit cartoons.

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12 Comments

  • Was Bert Lahr successful in his lawsuit against H-B/Screen Gems/Kelloggs? In other words, did he get any money?

    • When Bert Lahr had his first Broadway hit, the movie version replaced him with Joe E. Brown — who Lahr thought ripped off his exact character and performance. Brown was a movie star for some years, while Lahr — always huge on stage — had only intermittent success on screen. In later years, when he was firmly established and commercials were paying more than Broadway ever did, he was able to go after HB the way he couldn’t go after a major studio as a young stage actor. You might compare it to the Disney brothers losing Oswald and taking a hard line on ownership and other legal issues forever after.

      Son/biographer John Lahr mentions the action in passing in “Notes on a Cowardly Lion”, although he refers to a duck character. Was there another commercial?

      Think it was previously mentioned here that Jackie Gleason growled about “The Flintstones” but took no action. He supposedly gave the Warner “Honeymousers” shorts a sort of blessing after seeing them.

      From the 30s on, cartoon studios have used identifiable performers, from stars like W.C. Fields to character actors like Ned Sparks, as templates for cartoon characters. Sometimes in a satiric way (Bugs Bunny’s encounters with Bogie), sometimes not (The Abbott and Costello cats in “Tale of Two Kitties). Were there lawsuits before?

    • Bert Lahr sued Adell Chemical Co., and Robert Lawrence Productions for $500,000 over their use of an imitation of his voice (performed by Sid Raymond) to sell a cleaning product called Lestoil. An article in Broadcasting magazine about Lahr’s legal action mentioned that he was considering a suit against Kellogg’s over their use of an impersonation of his voice without his permission, but I can find no indication that a suit against Kellogg’s ever actually happened. The suit against Adell Chemical and Robert Lawrence Productions was ultimately settled out of court.

      The offending commercial is embedded below:

      https://youtu.be/mezMXElut9g

    • This is a good example of how sloppy research gets spread and accepted as fact. You can read all over the internet references to Bert Lahr suing Kellogg’s, Hanna-Barbera, and Screen Gems over Snagglepuss. Everybody’s always vague on the facts of the case, though, for the simple reason that it never happened. Lahr did some saber-rattling, threatening to sue Kellogg’s over their use of his voice via Snagglepuss in their commercials, but he never actually did so. An agreement was reached between the involved parties that averted court action. The only legal action Lahr ever took against anyone for use of his voice was directed toward Adell Chemical and Robert Lawrence Productions, the companies Jon cites, in 1961. The commercial in question, to which Jon provided a link, was produced in 1958. (One of Adell/Lawrence’s arguments for having the case dismissed was that Lahr had waited too long — they argued — to take action.) First time around, the case was dismissed. Lahr appealed and won, the court ruling that the case could be tried for defamation and unfair competition. The Adell suit was to go before federal court in Boston, while the action against Robert Lawrence Productions was to be tried at New York Supreme Court. At that point, Adell and Lawrence settled.

      It was after he won the appeal, in 1962, that Lahr began threatening to sue Kellogg’s/H-B/Screen Gems. Given the circumstances, Kellogg’s and company were, for obvious reasons, inclined to come to terms with him, too.

      The Lahr case has been cited in subsequent court actions and did have an impact on the animation business in that it made everyone more wary of simply appropriating an actor’s voice and mannerisms as the basis for a cartoon character. It underlined the need to be very aware of the difference between legitimate parody and caricature, and just redrawing an actor as a cartoon character and throwing in an imitation of his voice. At least not without making sure that proper legal clearances had been made.

    • Bert Lahr used to needle Milton Berle for imitating him (he once sent Berle a telegram which read “Thanks for doing me”), even when Berle wasn’t consciously trying to mimic him. Interestingly, Berle voiced the Cowardly Lion in “Journey Back to Oz.”

  • He was awarded one Lay’s potato chip.

    Just one.

  • So…..the tale of Felix the Cat thickens, eh?

  • The antagonist Lion in Terrytoon’s “The Newcomer” from 1938.10.21 talks and acts like Lahr, but The Wizard of Oz premiered 1939.08.25. Can anyone explain this?

    • The Wizard of Oz was a major MGM production and got much press while in production. Lahr was signed to play the Cowardly Lion in the summer of 1938. It’s not impossible that Terry used that news to “cast” the lion in The Newcomer, but even under their usual rushed production schedule, that seems a bit tight.

      The reality is Bert Lahr was a well known stage, screen and radio performer BEFORE “The Wizard Of Oz“. Terrytoons “borrowed” his famed vocal persona – and its simply a coincidence that was a lion, an animal Lahr would forever be linked with.

    • As Jerry says, Bert Lahr’s was a well known voice, especially in New York. The impersonation was used for several Terrytoon characters before Doomsday. They did seem to milk the lion connection after Wizard of Oz though…

  • From Weekly Variety, August 21, 1963
    Lahr Wants 500G For ‘Yogi’ Voice Imitations
    Bert Lahr is suing Kellogg Co., Screen Gems and Hannah-Barbera [sic] Productions in N.Y. Supreme Court, alleging that the audio voice character Snagglepuss in “Yogi Bear” cartoon, imitates, simulates and mimics Lahr’s vocal style.
    Lahr in his suit is seeking $500,000 damages.
    “Yogi Bear,” produced by Hanna-Barbera, is distributed by Screen Gems, which sold the show to Kellogg on a national spot basis.

  • Felix the Cat was created by Australian Pat Sullivan. Messmer claim that he created Feline Foliies from home singlehandedly as quoted in John Cane makers book is ridiculous. Have a look at the hand writing in Feline Follies that match Sullivans. The use of the word Mum at the 4:00 minute mark of feline follies which is an Australian term for mother in a speech bubble on the bottom left. If Messmer singlehandedly drew the entire cartoon by himself why would Sullivans handwriting be in Feline Follies and an Australian term Mum? Messmer was a liar. Except the hard evidence imbedded in the artistic DNA of the Feline Follies cartoon and acknowledge that Messmes claim was pure fantasy.

    The only evidence from Messmer is hearsay. The evidence for Sullivan is in the cartoons with the handwriting, the Australian language and the humour. See Great-Idea Jerry comic strip from 1912 by Sullivan and compare handwriting. Also 1917 Tail of Thomas Kat at the US Library of Congress Copyright Office. Which Universal Pictures now have this film in their archive.

    Would be interesting to have the reel of The Tail of Thomas Kat digitised so the world could see it and would almost certainly show that this film was the precusor to Master Tom and Felix

    Just accept the truth that Pat Sullivan, an Australian, created, Felix the first cartoon superstar.

    Anyone can see the efforts to denigrate his name across the internet as ‘a shifty businessman’, a pedophile, and racist to try and have Sullivan fall out of favour. But the cartoons and comic strips dont lie unlike Messmer.

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