In the early 1930s, two young men began to assume responsibilities well beyond their hired roles as animators for Universal Pictures. The better known of these two, Tex Avery, left the studio in 1935 to achieve lasting fame for his work at Warner Bros. and MGM. The other, Manuel Moreno, stayed with Walter Lantz and deserves more recognition for his many contributions to the Universal cartoons during that decade.
As Lantz increasingly became the managing producer for the Oswald series and less available to direct, it was Moreno who filled the gap with his talent and prodigious work. His creative stamp on the evolving complexion of these cartoons was huge. He redesigned Oswald as a cute white rabbit to follow the Disney trend. He also quietly assumed the mantle of director over the unit that was reporting to Lantz and then later for the entire department.
Moreno modernized the animation and visual style of the cartoons and even launched his own series for Universal starring three monkeys named Meany, Miny, Moe. These were bustling with irreverent humor, but Lantz was constrained by the pragmatic budgets that he embraced to survive. Under the weight of growing financial troubles, Lantz was charting a different course than Disney. A series with three main characters was a costly extravagance and the series was shortly ended. Meanwhile, Disney was forging ahead with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Turbulence swirled at Universal during this period. Tex Avery left under strained conditions, as did the co-producer of the Oswald series, Bill Nolan. By the latter half of the 1930s there was a palpable sense that the Oswald staff was sinking on a rickety ship. As top talent maneuvered for work at other studios, it frayed a gentlemen’s agreement among the animation studio bosses. These producers may have balked at the inflationary costs of a revolving workforce, yet they were happy to poach some of Lantz’s best artists.
Despite his usual gracious nature, this was a panicky time for Lantz. He was known to place calls to other studios to stave off some of these defections. To fill shortages, he also hired from these same competitors. As Lantz spent more of his time navigating the maze of Hollywood business tactics, he kept delegating more and more creative authority to the guy everyone called Manny.
When Walter faced new constraints, it was Manny who would innovate on the shop floor. New guys, especially from New York, often could not draw the newer, less geometric Oswald, so Moreno diverted scenes to a growing number of side characters, beginning the road to less appearances by the Lucky Rabbit in his own cartoons. Moreno created lots of model sheets at scaled sizes for animators to literally copy and he also drew key-poses within sequences to guide the artists along.
He was the designer of the major 1933 and 1935 character revisions, a compromise between the need for a contemporary look and practical drawbacks that existed, such as problems with animators drawing Oswald’s bulky pants. This was a period in the industry when all cartoons were generally performing well at theaters, so trends were optimistic enough for Lantz to cut an independent production deal with Universal in 1935—even though the Cartoon Dept. remained in place on the lot and the work continued there as if nothing had changed.
Despite never getting screen credit to acknowledge that he was effectively the supervising director, Moreno worked tirelessly to hold together the floor operation so Lantz could keep meeting the tight deadlines. As people moved to other studios, the word was out that Moreno was Lantz’s secret weapon—and it is was known that Lantz made some countermoves to keep it that way. Moreno stated that they got along wonderfully until mid-1937 when “he pulled a couple of fast ones.”
From a 1982 interview with Milt Gray, he said, “Even then, I made allowance for that because [Lantz] was under pressure at Universal. He started getting panicky, and Disney and Schlesinger had taken some of his staff. He couldn’t keep them even if he offered more money.” Jerry Geronimi, one of the early Lantz-to-Disney defectors, had apparently tried to bring Moreno over to the Disney studio several times earlier, but Manny felt a sense of loyalty and gratitude to Lantz, politely declining each time. By 1937, the offer was no longer on the table, but he did finally leave. He helped Hugh Harman and then took a contract to work as an animator at MGM. This photo dated August 26, 1939, shows him sipping a root beer at his desk. And yes, that’s Barney Bear on his drawing board.
Ed Benedict once told me the tremendous regard he had for Moreno when the two worked together at Universal in the early 30s. He even offered his strong opinion that if Manuel Moreno had gone to Disney he would have become one of the top animators there, leaving me to wonder what might have been had he taken that path. Instead, like Tex Avery, Manny was entrepreneurial and itching to run his own business. He also was technically inclined and liked the whole nuts ‘n’ bolts process of filmmaking.
After WWII, he fulfilled an independent production deal to make cartoons in Mexico. That is a forgotten story of the Golden Age of Animation that will soon get its own blog post here, but there is no doubt his years at Universal were formative for him. Leading an animation staff during periods of studio upheaval gave him the confidence to dream big and to perform under pressure. The experience there also sapped him. He spoke of being constantly exhausted making the deadlines on the Oswald series. His legacy, in many ways, is Lantz’s resulting success. He propped up the studio at a critical time, allowing for the second chance that Lantz got with characters like Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker.
However, Moreno found another passion while working at Universal. He was a shutterbug who took his hobby seriously, shooting both still photography and motion pictures. The studio gave him access to camera equipment and knowledgeable people to advise him. He was even known to film home movies and gag reels of the animators, one of which I own. This source of relief during the unrelenting production demands of the 1930s also became an off-ramp for him in the following decade.
In 1941, his brother George was drafted and sent to Britain for military service, obliging him to leave behind a photo processing store that he owned and operated. It was located at the intersection of Crenshaw and Adams, in the Mid-City section of Los Angeles, and was called The Camera Bug. Its name evokes some of those whimsical cartoons Moreno had supervised for Lantz, such as The Toy Shoppe (1934) or Night Life of the Bugs (1936). Manuel briefly left his work in animation to take over for George, but with the wartime rations and shortages making film too scarce for retail, he ended up liquidating and closing the store.
After a few years building up and running his own animation studio in Mexico City, he returned to Los Angeles. He ultimately found his greatest success opening a business called Professional Color Service. This served a wide clientele of post-war camera enthusiasts for twenty-five years. For the Moreno family, this became the anchor of their financial well-being, freeing them from the boom-or-bust seesaw of Hollywood filmmaking.
By any regular measure, Manuel Moreno had a wonderful and gratifying life. However, among the pantheon of American animators, the elevated standing that he might have attained was lost when he never pursued those multiple offers to work at Disney. That, however, is no reason to overlook his substantial body of work at Universal, which we ought to put under our own generous lens for consideration.
(Special thanks to Mario Prietto, the grandson of Manuel Moreno, for the photographs he provided that appear above.)