Wednesday, 31 July 2013

MGM’s Cartoon Mogul

Today marks the birthday of one of the most celebrated artists in cartoon history, and a pioneer in animation. I’m talking about none other than Fred C. Quimby.

Don’t believe me? Check out what’s in his obituary published on Monday, September 20, 1965:

HOLLYWOOD (AP)—Episcopal funeral services were planned today for film cartoonist Fred Quimby, creator of the Tom and Jerry series. The 79-year-old artist died Thursday after surgery for an undisclosed ailment at a Santa Monica Hospital. Quimby, who retired nine years ago, developed one of the screen’s earliest cartoon series, “Colonel Heeza Liar.” Later he delighted audiences with “Barney Bear,” “Droopy” and “Red Hot Riding Hood.”

Animation fans are no doubt sputtering in disbelief at the claims contained therein. Quimby was no artist, he was nowhere near New York City when the Bray studios developed Colonel Heeza Liar and the other characters mentioned were the creations of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, Rudy Ising and Tex Avery.

Quimby’s best-known for being the man put in charge of the MGM cartoon studio from its creation in 1937 until a prolonged vacation and then retirement in 1956, accepting Oscars along the way for work done by his employees. But he was also involved in an interesting and long-forgotten footnote in silent film history.

Frederick Clinton Quimby was born on July 31, 1886 in Morton, Minnesota, 10 months after the marriage of his parents, Edward Bartlett and Nellie (Gardner) Quimby. His father was a train engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway and by 1893, we find the family living in Hope, Idaho, the railway’s new divisional point for the Rocky Mountain Division. The Quimbys moved down the line to Missoula, Montana after the turn of the century and the Anaconda Standard of May 30, 1903 stated that Fred had accepted an undisclosed job in Spokane. By 1910, he was married and living on East Cedar Street in Missoula.

Fred became interested in movies—not the making of them, but the selling. The World Encyclopedia of Film (1972) credits Quimby with designing, building and running the Isis Theatre in Missoula. This story in the Moving Picture World of December 1, 1917 gives us a bit of biography and a lot of puff. By this time, he had been working out of Seattle and Spokane.

F. C. Quimby Pathe Sales Manager
New Office Created and Branch Manager Promoted to Fill It — Other Changes.
PATHE announces this week the creation of a new position, that of sales manager, and the appointment of one of the best known salesmen in the country, F. C. Quimby, to the post. Mr. Quimby knows the Pathe organization from the ground up, there being few if any of the present sales force who have been with the company longer than he. He was special representative in charge of the Pacific Coast offices when he left Pathe recently to take a very responsible position with the First National Exhibitors' Circuit, and now returns to take active charge of the entire Pathe selling organization. Mr. Quimby is a big, powerful, energetic man, above all things a practical film salesman who knows the exhibitor and the newspaper business as well as the exchanges. He has been four years in the newspaper business and for four years he managed his own theater. He has been six years as exchange man and division manager. He knows advertising and the practical exploitation of the picture. He is the kind of man who can take his coat off and go out and actually put a picture over for an exhibitor. He has done it time and time again, and his idea is to train the entire Pathe sales force till every man in it can do the same thing.


And it goes on and on. Quimby moved to Manhattan, and then up in the corporate world. The Film Daily of January 20, 1920 reported:

QUIMBY LEAVING PATHE
Elmer K. Pearson has been selected to succeed Fred Quimby, who last week resigned as director of exchanges of the Pathe Film Company, to accept the appointment of general manager of the Associated Exhibitors. Pearson was formerly feature sales manager for Pathe.


Associated hoped to release 26 pictures in addition to supplying projectors and even seats to theatres. But one of Quimby’s films ran afoul of the law. It was a filmed version of a heavyweight fight in 1921 at Madison Square Garden between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier that Quimby made into a series. Variety reported on August 26, 1921:

The story of the neat coup by which the Dempsey-Carpentier fight film was eased over the New York-New Jersey state line in violation of the federal law against interstate commerce in prize fight records was circulated in Times square this week.
According to the gossiped version, Fred Quimby, who is handling the enterprise, made arrangements to have the film exhibited privately to a group of convalescent soldiers in one of the upstate New York hospitals. After the screening it was intended to send the picture back to Jersey.
But somehow—by accident or design—the film container was addressed to Fred Quimby at his New York City address and delivered there by the messenger. On the surface it was a mistake and may have been an error. But once the film was in Quimby’s possession in New York, Quimby took the position that he would break the law by transporting it back to Jersey. So he took it to the 44th Street instead.


It wasn’t too “neat” as things turned out. Quimby was arrested. The case ended up before a senate committee of the Department of Justice in 1924. Quimby was subpoenaed.

WASHINGTON, March 15.—(AP)—Investigation of the department of justice and Attorney General Daugherty, got off into less turbulent waters today in comparison with the explosive sessions heretofore. It revolved around the story of "protection" for the showing of the Carpentier-Dempsey prize fight films. . .
F. C. Quimby, producer of the fight films, testified that he and Tex Rickard, the promoter, had no intention of showing the films outside the state of New Jersey and abroad, because of the law prohibiting their interstate transportation, until Jap Muta, Will H. Orr and Ike Martin came to him and explained a plan to permit exhibition of the films in the various states without getting trouble, Orr, Quimby said, referred to the late Jess Smith, Attorney General Daugherty's friend, as a friend of his but he (Quimby) said he did not know the attorney general. Orr, Muma and Martin, Quimby testified, told him to go ahead.
"These three gentlemen told me to go ahead with the picture and I would not be bothered," he testified.
A lawyer named Urion, Quimby said, was retained by Orr, Muma and Martin, was to designate lawyers in various states who were to look after exhibition of the films. The plan as he outlined it was that the films were to be shown in each state first before some "veterans organization."
"Then," said Senator Wheeler, the committee prosecutor, "the buyer in that state would be hauled up before some justice and fined. That was the arrangement, wasn't it?"
While Quimby would not agree to that, he testified there was a plan of taking fines and then going ahead and showing the picture was followed in some states, and he identified the list of individuals give out last night by Attorney General Daugherty as those who had been prosecuted for showing the films, as the same men who had been the buyers for the state rights under the plans of distribution he outlined in his testimony.


The A.P. went into great length about Fred C.’s testimony. Quimby was subpoenaed to appear again. He, Rickard and four others were then indicted by a grand jury and were tried. Quimby and his company Quimby, Inc. were convicted in federal court in Trenton, N.J. on March 19, 1925 on one count of conspiracy and three of transportation. He was fined $7,000 and that was the end of it, except that in 1927, the Attorney General quashed indictments against Quimby and seven others in yet another case of transporting fight films across state lines, apparently from a 1923 enterprise of his called the Cinema Contest Syndicate of Hollywood.

Quimby’s career wasn’t hurt in the slightest by the case. The Film Daily reported on January 15, 1924 that he had been hired as the short subject sales manager for Universal in New York City. Within a year, he went to Fox to do the same job. He resigned in January 1927 to accept a five-year contract to distribute Hal Roach films for MGM worldwide then The Film Daily announced on March 2, 1927 he had been appointed head of MGM’s short subject department in Culver City, California. It crowed he had been “instrumental in launching the first two reel Harold Lloyd comedies” but his resumé neglects to mention his little legal difficulties.

And so it was in that capacity that Quimby found himself in the cartoon business. Not right away. MGM didn’t distribute cartoons until the sound era when Mickey Mouse had West Coast studios jumping to sign up their own versions of black-and-white characters dancing and making music and other sounds with other black-and-white things. In 1930, MGM signed a deal to send to theatres cartoons made by the Man Behind Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks. Four years later, Iwerks was dropped in favour of the Other Men Behind Walt Disney, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. Cost overruns resulted in Quimby or someone above him deciding in April 1937 the studio should dump Hugh and Rudy and get into the cartoon business itself. Quimby started shopping around for talent and ended with such a mess that The Film Daily announced on October 10, 1938 that Quimby had signed none other than Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising.

The situation still wasn’t stable but Quimby ran into a string of good luck. He listened to the whispers of two chaps under Ising named Hanna and Barbera who wanted to work together on their own, Ising-less cartoon, and then listened to a letter from Interstate Theatre shorts mogul Besa Short that there really should be more of those Tom and Jerry cartoons that Hanna and Barbera were making. It translated into Oscars. And he then had the foresight to hire Tex Avery, who had been nominated for a couple of Oscars at Warners, and let him loose making some of the funniest cartoons ever.

Boxoffice magazine of June 4, 1955 reported Quimby had decided to take an extended vacation. Barbera said in his autobiography that Quimby made it permanent in an announcement to the staff in early 1956. He died on September 16, 1965 in St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, two days after an operation.

Animation fans know Quimby through the few recorded stories told by the people who worked for him. Jack Zander was quoted by Tom Sito in Animation magazine:
[T]hat whenever you went to Fred Quimby with a complaint or to ask for a raise, he would pull out his “Footage Book” and would knit his brows darkly as he perused the record of your performance thus far.
In the same edition, animator Bill Melendez tells about another veteran animator fed up with Quimby’s footage book routine.
Animator Rudy Zamora retaliated by figuring out where on the second floor he would be directly over Quimby’s office so he could practice with his bowling ball over the bosses' head. After a few frames, Quimby fired him.
Mike Maltese related in “Tex Avery, King of Cartoons” that Quimby warned him that if was to be hired to work for Avery at MGM (apparently Quimby didn’t hire all the staff), “We will not stand for any of that Warner Bros. rowdiness in our cartoons.” One wonders what he saw in the Warners cartoons that he didn’t see in Avery’s. Animator Tim Walker tells how Ed Love was fired by Quimby at Christmas time in 1946 after amounts of Christmas cheer were given to the women in the ink and paint department. It was only after Love was fired that Quimby found out writer Cal Howard was responsible. Howard, who never got screen credit at MGM, was no fan of Quimby, either, taking his son’s Boy Scout troop past the Metro cartoon studio and having the kids yell “Quimby is a red-faced jerk!” Writer Heck Allen says Quimby actively disliked him and periodically fired him, only to eventually return whenever Avery needed a writer.

So what’s Fred Quimby’s animation legacy? As Bill Hanna recalled, not only did Quimby think making more than one cat and mouse cartoon was a bad idea, he flatly rejected Gene Kelly’s proposal of an animated/live action sequence in “Anchor’s Away” until Kelly went over his head. It appears cartoons were produced in spite of the producer. Still, Quimby seems to have given his staff enough freedom to make top-of-the-line cartoons and, for fans at least, you can’t ask for much more.

3 comments:

  1. There was also Quimby's alleged comment to Avery, following the making of "Blitz Wolf" that MGM needed to be careful in the making of their WWII cartoons because "We don't know who's going to win the war". The blurbs from his previous jobs (along with the obit info), indicate Fred was quite a self-promoter, as well as something of a self-preservationist.

    Quimby's boxing film partner Rickard wasn't just a fight promoter in 1925, he was also owner of Madison Square Garden, and had just built a brand-new arena on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan near Times Square (the hockey team created for the new building was pun-named 'Tex's Rangers'). So Fred had a pretty well-connected partner on this endeavor, even if they still got in trouble with the law and even if that Tex association isn't as well-known or as long-lasting as the one he had on the other coast with Avery.

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  2. I didn't include the Hitler story because I couldn't find a reference to it. I've found it comes from the Canemaker book on Tex which I'll have to look up.

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  3. Quimby was clearly a successful film executive. For forty years, he showed that he knew how to get films made and how to get exhibitors to buy those films, no small feat. And he survived at MGM for almost a generation, again no small feat.

    His problems seem to have been that he had a strong doofus strain in his personality, probably not an artistic bone in his body, and probably no real sense of humor outside of a salesman's jocularity ("I'll laugh at your jokes if you buy my films"). Which made him like an alien from Mars at an animation studio.

    Leon Schelesinger had a sense of humor, as did Disney, the Fleischers, and Lantz, who were also artists. Crustly old Paul Terry was also an artist. Charles Mintz and Eddie Selzer were Quimby-like, and perhaps thus less warmly remembered by the artists they employed.

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