Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Cameraman Who Wrote a Cartoon

He wrote one cartoon and vanished from Hollywood forever.

The Leon Schlesinger studio began expanding its release schedule in 1937 and that meant it had to hire cartoon writers. And it hired them from everywhere. Dave Monahan ran into Tedd Pierce and got a job. Ernie Gee was a high school buddy of Bob Clampett’s, hired after Howard Baldwin came from somewhere but wasn’t to Clampett’s liking. Warren Foster had worked for the Fleischer studio and came recommended by assistant animator Mike Maltese. And then there was Fred Niemann.

Niemann’s name appears on one short—“Now That Summer is Gone” (1938), directed by Frank Tashlin. Then, he vanishes, never to appear in connection with animation in Hollywood again.

So what happened?

We’ll get to that in just a moment. First, some biographical notes compiled from census and other U.S. government records and some clippings from various newspapers.

Fred Stepina Niemann was born March 14, 1912 to Fred William and Ida M. (Stepina) Niemann, who had become married in Chicago in 1909. The Niemann family owned a prosperous table-making company. One of Niemann’s uncles apparently killed himself in 1905 after shooting a woman who may, or may not have been, his wife. Another uncle was sued for $50,000 by a woman for breach of promise. Niemann’s dad deserted his mother and she won $50 a month in a divorce in October 1916, though census records in 1920 list her as a widow. She married George Griffiths, a construction company owner, before 1930. Niemann went to the Boys’ Latin School, Culver Military Academy and Brown University. He married Laura Leppler in Wilmette, Ill. in 1935. They were still in Chicago in September 1936. By then, Niemann had his own business, Fred S. Niemann Productions, specialising in (as the Brown Alumni Monthly put it) “films for business and television,” even though all of Chicago’s pre-1939 experimental TV stations had signed off for good. There’s nothing to indicate any of Niemann’s films had anything to do with animation. Regardless, something induced him and his wife to move to the West Coast, and the pair are mentioned in a social story in the Los Angeles Times on Feburary 8, 1938.

How did a man like this get hooked up with the Leon Schlesinger studio? Was it because Schlesinger and brother-in-law Ray Katz had family in Chicago? Did he try to pitch an industrial film partnership with him? After doing all the research you’re reading here, I decided to look at the one cartoon where Niemann got credit. It’s on a DVD with a commentary by animation historian Mike Barrier. I should have listened to it first because it would have saved me some time; Mike had already dug into the subject some years ago (he interviewed Tashlin, for one thing) and came up with some answers.
[Niemann] worked for several different directors but he and Tashlin were certainly the ones that hit it off the best. Fred was not your typical cartoonist. He was from a very wealthy Chicago family and attended Brown University. He was movie-smitten and came to California hoping to become a cameraman but union restrictions kept him out. Fred and Frank Tashlin were extremely different people from very different backgrounds. Tashlin was from New Jersey and worked as an errand boy in cartoon studios in New York and they found each other very compatible and remained friends. Fred did not work at the Warner Bros. studio more than a year or so and then he went back to Chicago, started his own motion picture company and had nothing more to do with animation.
By 1940, Niemann was divorced, and living with his mother and step-father in Chicago where he owned a commercial photograph business. He got engaged on New Year’s Eve 1940 but his fiancée married someone else in 1941. Niemann had other problems dating back to his stay in California. The Daily Globe of Ironwood, Michigan published this story on December 15, 1944:
Fred S. Niemann, 32, of Chicago, arrested by Ironwood police Wednesday on a fugitive warrant for check fraud in Los Angeles, was placed on $500 bail bond in Ironwood municipal court before Judge C. C. Keeton Jr. yesterday. Being ill he was taken to Runstrom’s hospital where he is under police guard.
Charges were withdrawn by police in Los Angeles the following month and Niemann was off the hook.

In Chicago, Niemann resumed making industrial films. Among the titles I’ve been able to find—“Skid Row,” a documentary of Skid Row Chicago produced about 1950; “The Church Moves In” (1950), a documentary about the work of the Chicago Christian Industrial League in a run-down part of Madison Street; “The Vicious Circle” (1951), tracing the downfall and rehabilitation of a man who used alcohol to attempt to escape from reality, “The Choice is Yours” (1952, 23 minutes), featuring young people questioning a science teacher about alcohol and “Behind the Skyscrapers.” The latter three were produced for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Niemann died in Chicago on March 29, 1997 at age 84. His Chicago Tribune obituary refers to his work “as a gag writer and story man with Merrie Melodies Cartoons.” The sad thing is he only got one credit, and it was removed from the screen when the titles were lopped off in 1947 and the cartoon was re-issued as a Blue Ribbon. Fortunate, we have historians like Mike Barrier who had the foresight to talk to many people involved in the Golden Age of Animation—famous and obscure, some who are no longer with us—who can provide us with some insight into the people who made those wonderful little films.

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