Saturday, 17 May 2014

Off-Screen Talkers

Until Mel Blanc and his agent came along, actors in cartoons were anonymous, so it’s interesting seeing a reference to them in the pre-Blanc days. Here’s an example from the Los Angeles Times of April 29, 1934, though it talks about one-reelers in general.

There wasn’t much of a need to hire someone to provide voices when sound cartoons became practical in 1928. Cartoons were mainly gagged-up musicals, so a singer or someone around the studio could handle the limited amount of dialogue. That changed as cartoons became chattier. Studios decided they needed professional actors. Billy Bletcher was the first popular choice among cartoon studios on the West Coast as he seems to pop up everywhere during the early 1930s. By the end of the decade, Blanc was equally ubiquitous and was finally limited by his exclusive contract with Leon Schlesinger. And there were, of course, many others whose work has brought happiness to people over the decades—most of whom never had their names appear on screen.

Alas, Bletcher gets no mention in the Times story. Neither does the “cartoonist” who “speaks for Mickey Mouse.”

Stars Who Are Heard But Never Seen, Get Top Billing
Short Subject Commentators and Cartoon “Voices” Grow in Screen Importance

A man used to beat a tattoo on wood blocks offstage to give the effect of horses galloping. He also furnished lightning, thunder, or the muttering of an unseen villain. But by slow evolution his much-despised job has grown into something big. By degrees the man whose voice is heard but who is never seen in the flesh has become important until now the movie commentator, latest outgrowth of the old sound effects department, has become a star, and invisible hero whose name flashes at time above those of his more earthly brethren, the actors, on theater marquees.
One of the steps in this evolution was undoubtedly the illustrated songs of the early cinema days. Those who remember that far back will recall the leather-lunged gentleman who stood beside the silver sheet and either talked or sang as the crude pictures unreeled. Now the commentator speaks into a modern appliance, the microphone. The film is not shown while he talks and his vocal efforts are dubbed in afterward, which makes timing the important thing.
Whereas talks accompanying pictures have heretofore been in serious vein, the new idea is humor. Something apropos but light. Most of the well-known commentators on short subjects and newsreels have adopted this method. Stodgy lectures are out. Previously little attention was paid to these “voices with a smile,” but the movie-going public of today has taken to them surprisingly. Popular commentators at the present time include Pete Smith, whose remarks accompany M.-G.-M. series; Graham MacNamee of radio fame, who vocalizes for a newsreel; Gayne Whitman and John P. Medbury. And of course, there are the various cartoon voices. Smith’s progress in the field is outstanding. He lays credit to the writing, which he does himself, rather than the speaking. “It’s a new type of movie writing,” he says, “like putting together words for newspaper headlines. You watch the short subject, timing each sequence in which you aim to talk and then fit the ‘dialogue,’ as we call it, to the scene. Of course, it’s somewhat difficulty to try to be funny five seconds at a time.
“The trick is to make humor fit facts and I never try to ‘kid’ the audience but rather attempt to make it laugh with me at crazy things happening on the screen.”
The commentator comes by his job naturally since he has enjoyed some not as a humorous after-dinner speaker. A position as head of the M.-G.-M. publicity department has helped, too. He has turned out some fifty short subjects to date.
Most of the men in this line of work agree that at times silence is very golden indeed. Certain scenes are found to be intensely effective without any talk at all, as even feature film-makers have also finally discovered.
Cartoon characters enjoyed by old and young alike have recently been given voices, some to advantage and others not. But the idea has apparently caught on tremendously and few of the funny figures remain silent now.
Pop Eye, the pugilistic sailor man of the Paramount cartoon, masquerades under the voice of a man named William Costello, well known in vaudeville circles as “Red Pepper.”
Betty Boop, the little sex-appeal lady, has found audible expression through three different young ladies in New York, namely, Mae Questal [sic], Margy Hines and Bonnie Poe, all of whom have entertained from the variety stage.
The Screen Souvenirs, one of Paramount’s most popular short subjects, are accompanied by the comments of a veteran Broadway actor, Leo Donnelly, who has appeared opposite Lenore Ulric and other noted stars.
Walt Disney used various employees as voices for his famous cartoon characters. Once cartoonist barks for Pluto, another speaks for Mickey Mouse, etc. The Rhythmettes, a girl trio, sang as the “Three Little Pigs.”
Where the situation will lead is a question. The commentator may become passe all of a sudden or the idea might be carried into features. Pete Smith favors the latter thought and foresees comments by unseen persons in full-length films.

My thanks to Mark Kausler for the transcription.

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