Saturday, 14 April 2012

Why Leon Schlesinger Fired Buddy

You’d think the first place anyone wanting an interview about cartoons would go, circa 1935, was the door of the Walt Disney studio. Disney had the name, Disney had the prestige. But that wasn’t the case for one Hollywood columnist who decided to talk to Leon Schlesinger.

Alice L. Tildesley worked for the Philadelphia Ledger, which syndicated several full-page stories with photos for papers every Sunday. Tildesley generally did puff stories on Hollywood items appealing to women—fashion, hair, romance and the like. But she interviewed Leon Schlesinger for one column, perhaps because Leon came from Philadelphia. Then she decided to a whole page on the making of animated cartoons and the bulk of the spotlight went to Leon.

I’ve only been able to find one paper that ran this particular story, The Baltimore Sun of June 20, 1937. Judging by the rare references to Tommy Turtle and Oliver Owl, one suspects the story was written maybe even a year before and banked for publishing at a more convenient time. Unfortunately, I can’t view the full text, let alone the photos, so the version you see below may not be complete. Still, as Leon died in 1949, before he could be interviewed by animation historians, this story is about as good as we’re going to get. It’s likely the only time anybody spoke much about “Page Miss Glory,” other than director Tex Avery, who didn’t like it. Or the less-than-winsome Buddy.

Stars Without Temperament
There Is One Set Of Actors In Hollywood That Never “Crabs” About Parts Or Clothes They Don't Get Upstage, Try To Hog The Camera And, Best Of All, Pay No Taxes
HOLLYWOOD. THIS is a story about motion-picture actors who have no morals clauses in their contracts. They are never temperamental, never keep the director waiting, never argue with the make-up man or drive the wardrobe designer crazy because they can’t wear green, won’t put on calico, or don’t think the dress is as smart as Marlene Dietrich’s last outfit. None of these incredible actors ever upstages each other or attempts to hog the camera. They don’t descend on the publicity director and storm because there are no stories about them in the paper today. Most startling item of all: They don’t crab about their income taxes!
No, they’re not angels. They're cartoon characters.
In spite of their perfections, they are like regular picture actors in that they can rise from obscurity to stardom, they can fail to register on the screen, they get fan mail—or don’t—
and they make fortunes for their producers.
“Personality is what counts, whether in a cartoon character or in Greta Garbo,” said Leon Schlessinger [sic], producer of “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies.” “Porky the Pig is a good example. He was a minor character in a cartoon but his stutter and his expressive face—or should I call it a countenance?—attracted so much attention that I said: ‘Star him!’ after the first preview. Now Porky has his own starring vehicles specially written for him.
“What makes personality is as much a puzzle to me as it is to any producer of films starring human actors, however. Once we used Buddy, a little boy who seemed to have comedy possibilities, as a character in a cartoon, but on the screen he was negative. We tried several times to pep him up, but he seemed to go flat, he couldn’t develop personality, so we let him out.”
In major studios some attention is paid to the comments of critics, the tenor of fan mail, etc., concerning new players. This is just as true in cartoon studios.
“We had a monster in one picture,” Mr. Schlessinger related. “We thought him quite a minor menace, but we had letters complaining that children who saw him had nightmares. The monster received his notice that same day, and since then scary creatures are barred from our cartoons.” You never hear of the Wolf bringing suit because the Three Little Pigs got top billing; you never read that Mickey Mouse has gone to Europe after a dispute over salary, or that Oliver Owl has walked off the just because he doesn’t like the camera man. All these things happen at major studios.
Yet now and then a cartoon comedy gets under way, with as many as seventy drawings completed, and then goes blah. “‘There’s nothing in that story,’ I decide,” said Mr. Schlessinger. “We haven’t the right slant on it, so we put it away. After a few months or a year, some one on the staff gets a new idea, and we rearrange the scenes, add to them and have a hit.
“No one ever destroys a drawing, once it’s made, for you never know when it can be used. Sometimes we use a sequence from an old picture, just as stock shots of floods, fires, trench warfare, and so on are used and reused in regular films. We merely change the background or reverse the action.”
Andy Devine’s appeal to film fans seems to be his earnest look and his stutter. Imagine creating a cartoon star from a bodyless stutter!
“There's a boy on the lot, doing props for Warner films, who has an uncontrollable stutter,” said the producer. “It was from him that Porky the Pig got his voice. The boy can’t talk to order, so we record his lines first then draw Porky to conform to the [stutter].
“Our stock company—we have company just like the human ones on the major lots—consists of Beans, Oliver Owl, Kitty, Ham and Ex and Tommy Turtle. A middle-aged woman who works on the lot as dressmaker does Kitty’s voice. It’s her own natural voice, but it sounds like that of a very small girl.”
A cartoon studio often gets actors to imitate actual well-known voices. A crooner in a recent cartoon did a perfect imitation of Bing Crosby.
“Farmyard characters are funnier than human characters in a cartoon,” Mr. Schlessinger pointed out. “Making our crooner a rooster, the honest farmer a black crow, the deceived maiden a bantam chicken, adds to the comedy of the old story of the farmer’s daughter and the city slicker.
“Not long ago, we decided to do something definitely different. A girl from Chicago showed me some ultra-modernistic sets she had designed which she thought could be used as backgrounds for a sophisticated cartoon. In order to show off the sets, we had to use human characters and have the camera shoot the sort of angles Busby Berkeley made famous. The idea was novel and the result original, but somehow it was not so funny as if animals, fowls or insects had been used.”
A cartoon begins in a story conference. Mr. Schlessinger, his three directors and the staff assemble to discuss ideas. The ideas are drawn, not written, and are talked over in sketches. The musical tempo is decided upon, the musical score written, the art director creates the sets or backgrounds and the animators draw the characters. Then each scene is drawn, transferred to celluloid, which is first inked, then painted, then photographed. As many as thirty animators may work on different scenes of the same picture, so each animator receives a sketch of every character in several poses and must conform to these sketches.
Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, who were pioneers with Walt Disney in the cartoon field, when all three shared a garage-studio in Kansas City and produced locally distributed films, have advanced in ten years in Hollywood from a one-room office to an extensive plant of their own, employing 335 people. Bosko, a small Negro, is Harman-Ising’s oldest cartoon character.
“In the beginning,” explained Mr. Harman, “you could hardly toll whether Bosko was a child or an animal, but with the passing of years he has evolved into a real and believable character.”


  1. It seems as if Leon or the reporter is suggesting that Andy Devine was the actual inspiration behind Porky Pig... I never heard that one before.

    Also, the middle-aged dressmaker that Leon mentions is Bernice Hansen; who was the focus of a previous article you did, I believe.

  2. It interests me on how he always includes Tommy Turtle in his stories who didn't exist in the Looney Tunes (unless in model sheets).

  3. I don't seem to recall Andy Devine stuttering.Sadly, "No one ever destroys a drawing, once it’s made, for you never know when it can be used" doesn't seem true, either...

  4. It's interesting reading what Leon said, his point of focus is going for "funny", while if you look at what Harmon said, his point of focus at this rime was "believability". The two aren't mutually exclusive -- the Schlesinger studio learned how to make really funny cartoons during the 1937-38 season, but they didn't flesh out their characters at fully believable (and their cartoons as really, really funny) until the 1941-42 season, when the animation was finally strong enough in all four units not to sabotage some of the comedy.

    But as an end-point for the cartoons, it does explain what happened by the early 1940s, when Harman's desire to match Disney drawing for drawing resulted in some beautiful, empty cartoons, while the boss Hugh disparaged for not putting enough $$$ into his films was the one that ended up with the shorts that actually entertained movie-goers of the day, and TV watchers over the past 55 years

  5. The Devine line is from the author not Leon.

    Yeah, J.L., I'd rather watch the early Boskos made at Warners than the later MGM ones, no matter what Harman says. Whether the article ends abruptly at that point, I don't know, as I can't read it on-line.

    Steven, yeah, there would have been a Tommy sheet or whatever equivalent they were using then. There's a sheet of all the characters in an animation history book.