Saturday, 28 February 2015

Leon Looks Back

Leon Schlesinger’s claim to fame was running a production company that made animated cartoons, but he and his brothers were around show business for a number of years before that. All of them were involved with theatres.

It’s hard to say whether it was due to interest in cartoons being boosted by the production of Disney’s “Snow White,” or some aggressive press agentry by Rose Joseph, but a pile of articles quoting Schlesinger started popping up around 1937. This story appeared in the Buffalo Courier-Express, January 31, 1937. It’s mostly a reminiscence and only deals partly with his cartoon studio. One can only imagine the reaction of Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising as Schlesinger relates how he made “Sinkin’ in the Bathtub.” Then, again, credit went to the top. The top paid the bills. And had the press agents.

Cartoon producer waxes reminiscent of old days in show business and stars whom he met when legitimate theater was going strong.

HOLLYWOOD, CAL., Jan. 30—“Somebody once said, with more cleverness than fairness, that the motion picture industry's typical executive is a man who has risen from pressing pants to pressing buttons. They're got to leave me out when they say this, because I have the longest career in show business of any film executive. I started as an usher, as a boy, and I've been through every phase of show business, except acting, before I came into films as a producer of cartoon comedies.”
This from Leon Schlesinger, genial ex-Chicagoan who makes Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, for Warner Brothers release. Considerable attention has been attracted to the Schlesinger outfit by the release of Coo Coo Nut Grove, a colored musical short, containing caricatures of many of Hollywood's notables. Clark Gable is shown, flapping his ears to applaud an act; Katharine Hepburn is caricatured as a horse, Hardy of Laurel and Hardy as a pig. Jack Barrymore is billed as “Profile Barrymore.”
So They Can Take It?
In general, the darlings of the film colony are called on to “take” a bit of rough but good humoured kidding. How have they liked it?
“At the Boulevard theater where it has been shown, the box office girl reports that Hepburn came four times to laugh at herself and Gable at least twice, mesmerized by the rhythmic waving of his own ears. That ought to answer any questions about can Hollywood stars take it,” says Schlesinger. “My new plans are for a comedy burlesque on Cinderella, using a caricature of Garbo as the girl with the feet in the glass slippers. Any place in the world, prominent people know that they will be cartooned, or burlesqued. It's only natural that Hollywood stars should come in for some of the same thing. My experience with show people is that they love this sort of thing. After all it is advertising, in a way, and a compliment too.”
“Oh, yeah?” says this writer.
Many years ago, Schlesinger took care of the box office at the then new Colonial Theater in Chicago when in 1908 it was opened by George Lederer. He kept a book of photos and autographs of the stars who played there over a long period of time, and today that little book is in the top drawer of his desk in the business office of his studio. He took it out for us; there was the signature of John Drew, uncle of John Barrymore; Lina Abarbanell and George Damerel in The Merry Widow. Incidentally Damerel, who played Prince Danilo, has some claim to radio fame today; his wife and daughter are your favorites, Myrt and Marge.
Maclyn Arbuckle, Jimmy McIntyre, of Mclntyre & Heath; Charley Ross of Ross & Penton; Johnny Slavin, then playing with Anna Held; Elsie Ferguson, then in Such a Little Queen; pictures of those, and many others, with their autographs, are in the little book. “One day,” says Schlesinger, “I slipped a pass, made out in Anna Held's handwriting, and in French, into my purse. Here it is,” and there it was, faded and frayed, but treasured in the purse.
Santley and Barrymore
"Joseph Santley, now a Hollywood director, was getting his start in those days, before he went into musical comedy; he was playing in a melodrama, Billy the Kid, as the hero. I remember Jack Barrymore in what I believe was his first stage role; he was in The Dictator with Willie Collier, over at the La Salle Theater. It was a road show; Barrymore was in stock.
“The other day, I met Lottie Williams out at Warner Brothers; in the old days, she was a soubrette in the ten-twenty-thirty houses in Chicago, and had as many as 200 stage door Johnnies awaiting outside to see her come out. She's 60 now; she gets $50 a week on her stock contract at Warners now. She's lucky to be taken care of that way.
"Bob McIntyre, casting director at United Artists now, and for some years past, used to be in the box office of the old Wall Street Theater in Philadelphia at that time.
“I can remember when The Merry Widow opened in Chicago. The marble foyer of the theater, with its ornamental stairway, was a brilliant spectacle, filled with the cream of Chicago society. A string orchestra played in the foyer, and the first nighters waited, until at 1 o'clock, the string of carriages began arriving to take them home. The Swifts, the Marshall Fields, the Potter Palmers, and all the rest were there. The celebrated Everleigh Sisters were regular patterns of our theater, they always bought three seats, two to sit in, and a third for their hats. Chicago at that time was a very colorful city; we used to have the yearly Follies come on from New York, along with all the other good things of the theater that made history.
Twenty Years in Films
“In 1917 I found myself entering the film business. I was a picture salesman for the old Metro Company. Later I managed a de luxe movie house in New York; in 1922 I came to Hollywood to sell raw stock to the studios which I did for two years. Then I bought the Pacific Title and Arts Studio which in the silent days Blade those printed titles; we still do a good business.
“In 1930 Jack Warner came to me and asked me to take charge of some experimental pictures along the animated cartoon line; the first one I made was a burlesque of a hit number in the first Gold Diggers film, Singing in the Bathtub, and it was a hit and I made twelve more.
“Later I developed the technicolor end of it for one cartoon series, known as Merrie Melodies; they have been running for six years now. Our Looney Tunes had their seventh birthday this year. Our yearly output is now 34 cartoon shorts, eighteen Merrie Melodies and sixteen Looney Tunes. Our newest screen character whom we intend to build for stardom is Porky Pig.”
A tour of the Schlesinger plant shows a very busy bunch of cartoonists giving their brain children an airing on paper, for the approval of the boss. Story conferences are held, just as in a regular studio, but plot must be worked out with a series of arresting sketches, instead of with words. Then there are the animators, who supply the in-between pictures between the high spots of action.
Calculations Meticulous
Twenty-four pictures must be made for one seconds screen release. Accompanying sound effects and music must be keyed to a carefully made chart, in which action is indicated, worked out in beats, just as music. For instance, it may take fifteen beats on the key for Porky Pig to turn around. I may be less than a second on the screen. Sounds and music must be calculated to conform. It may look very breezy and amusing on the screen but it's meticulously calculated in the studio laboratories.
Backgrounds are traced and finally painted on huge celluloid sheets. On these drawings of characters are imposed, also drawn on celluloid sheets. Not more than five layers of such superimposed characters can be photographed. They are all keyed together by holes at the top of the sheets. When the lineup is complete, the camera, operating on a lever that raises and lowers it, photographs these sketches. Roughly, 11,000 such sketches are used for three minutes on the screen.

1 comment:

  1. Leon would get to fulfill his acting role a couple of years later, of course, even if he ended up with a pig and duck as his co-stars.

    In relating his stories -- even if filtered through Rose -- you can still see a little bit of star-struck fan in Schlesinger, looking up at the celebs instead of down from a purely business point of view, which may have been part of the reason why he wasn't as stiff as the other non-cartoonist studio heads of the era.