Sunday, 8 February 2015

Some Thoughts on 1930s Terrytoons

Some cartoon fans are stuck in a Land of Childhood TV pining for a time that, frankly, was in one way inferior to today. Back then, an awful lot of old theatrical cartoons were never or rarely seen emanating from your box in the living room. Today, the internet (or a disc you can purchase) allows you to look at animated shorts you may never even have known about when you were a child.

Steve Stanchfield deserves everyone’s lasting gratitude for labours of love that have brought us works of the Van Beuren studio as well as the adventures of Pvt. Snafu. He’s got cleaned-up shorts from Ub Iwerks coming. That’s only to name three.

Other than the output of the Mintz/Columbia studio, the most difficult-to-find Golden Age animated shorts may be the Terrytoons. They’ve been denigrated in some corners as extremely repetitious and poorly animated. They were released by a distributor (20th Century Fox) that didn’t care what they looked like as long as they filled screen time and showed up at exchanges on time. Terrytoons’ owner Paul Terry was quite happy to oblige. 20th’s attitude saved him money. Saving money seems to have been one of Mr Terry’s goals in life.

Fortunately, a pseudonymous Paul Terry has begun posting his collection of Terrytoons on-line, which gives everyone a chance to make their own judgments about them. Unfortunately, some prints are chopped up for TV. Don’t expect DVD quality, either.

I’ve pooh-poohed the idea of DVD sets of cartoons in chronological order, but have to eat my words a bit. I’ve watched the posted series that way and it’s been an interesting exercise. I haven’t studied them to any great depth but the studio definitely evolved during the ‘30s. The cartoons started out in the early ‘30s much like any other studio’s—characters joyfully singing and dancing, with gags tossed in, in the first half; boy-rescues-girl-from-villain in the second half, with animation a step up from the silent era. Within in a few years, Terry added an operetta element which finally wore out its welcome—when it began, The Film Daily gurgled in delight about it—and then ran into the same problem as other studios in the middle part of the decade: finding a new starring character. Eventually, Terry settled on a watered down version of Daffy Duck. Gandy Goose doesn’t woo-hoo like Daffy but he constantly laughs. Both engage in a lot of silly stuff. Frankly, I find Gandy’s constant laughing annoying and his story elements are weak in a lot of places. By the late ‘30s, Terry seems to have fallen in love with Arthur Kay’s celebrity impersonations and dialects. There are an awful lot of Greek-accented wolves and Bert Lahr soundalikes. Like Warners cartoons, radio catchphrases are tossed in on occasion as funny-because-it’s-familiar gags (one cartoon includes a character briefly launching into an Elmer Blurt routine, a couple make reference to Jell-O’s “six delicious flavours,” others have the NBC chimes, and still more toss in Joe Penner-inspired reactions).

But if anyone thinks all Terry animation is mediocre, they haven’t watched the cartoons. There’s some really nice, expressive animation of a mother mouse singing the hi-de-ho blues in “Lion Hunt” (1938) that Milt Knight tells me is by Ralph Pearson, just to name one example. And there are some inspired gags, too, some that predate routines at other studios. “The Last Indian” (1938) is a little disjointed, but has a great climax where the nutty native is speeding in a touring car on roads shot in live action, just like Porky Pig did a few years later in “You Ought To Be In Pictures.”

My favourite Terry cartoons (until Heckle and Jeckle came along in the late ‘40s) still have to be the early sound era ones. I really like every studio’s cartoons made around 1930. There isn’t much point to them, but everything in them is alive—hot dogs, pianos, clouds, trees, cars, outhouses—and having fun. And there are some images that are downright bizarre. Take this one from “Hungarian Goulash” (June 1930). Who’d think up such a thing? I love it. As a bonus, there are Felix-style cats found in a bunch of studios in the silent era that stuck around for the first few years of sound cartoons. (Sorry the picture quality isn’t a little better).

Yes, the ‘30s output of the Terry studio isn’t as slick-looking as Warners, let alone Disney. And, yes, there are too many character-accidentally-backs-into-something-and-hilarity-ensues cartoons. But the studio did have some craftsmen. Any problems with the Terrytoons seem to rest at the feet of Paul Terry himself. He lost quality people because he was incredibly cheap; they went elsewhere. As Izzy Klein once noted, he considered himself “Mr. Story Department.” I can’t help but believe, judging by the neat gags in some of the shorts, the stories would have been better had he left the story department alone. And composer Phil Scheib could have created more imaginative scores had be not be hamstrung by Terry’s directive to have all the instruments heard at all times whenever possible (in the ‘50s, Scheib was using still using saxes skipping up and down the scale in the same tempo as he was in the ‘30s). But 20th Century Fox didn’t want quality; it only wanted cartoons because exhibitors had a contract to play them. That’s what Terry delivered. But the cartoons on the whole weren’t, and aren’t, a total loss. Occasionally, some creativity came through. It’s bound to happen when you have creative people.


  1. Great post, Yowp!
    It's really nice for everyone to appreciate the very Terry library (my own rhyme for the chronology).
    Slowly but surely, the 1940s are now rolling in, with the last B&W entry released in 1942.

  2. Another thing that enhances the enjoyment of Terrytoons - of any era - is watching them in 35mm (and if in color, Technicolor) on the big screen. Even digitally restored copies from original elements (such as the copy of HE DOOD IT AGAIN which originated on true Bakshi-Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures DVD, but now easily accessible on You Tube) helps to truly assess them in their proper context.

    I've been lucky to see 35mm prints of several 1930s b/w Terrytoons - and it's a world of difference from the usual TV prints we've seen for decades. The sound is better, the picture clearer... they somehow seem funnier! The Deitch era - for me - is a particular mind-blower in 35mm Tech and Scope. THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY is particularly incredible when seen the proper way. Other stand-outs include IT'S A LIVING, ANOTHER DAY ANOTHER DOORMAT and SICK SICK SIDNEY.

    It's pretty tortuous learning that these cartoons aren't as bad as we thought – and then realize there are so few ways (at present) for the public see them.

  3. The other day, while looking for Snagglepuss cartoons on YouTube, I stumbled upon Deputy Dawg cartoons. Not finding any Snagglepuss, I settled for Deputy Dawg, which I had never seen or heard of before. And, I must say, I was impressed. I thought it was hilarious. I ended up watching several: one about "National Lazy Day" in which Deputy and his two rodent foes compete to see who is laziest, one about an elderly Civil War veteran who thinks the shooting of a Civil War movie is an actual Civil War battle, one where Deputy has to force the two rodents to stay in school, and a couple of others. I've always been a sucker for Southern stereotypes, so Deputy Dawg pleased me.

    While I watched Deputy Dawg for the first time, I actually thought it was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon (maybe because I had been searching for Snagglepuss). I was shocked to see the Terrytoons logo at the end. Before watching Deputy Dawg, I had never thought much of Terrytoons. Now I have a new appreciation for them. It's a shame they're not available remastered on DVD because they are truly underrated. I wish Nickelodeon (Viacom owns the rights to Terrytoons now) would air reruns like Cartoon Network airs Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes, but, what are you gonna do?

  4. I wish I could agree. I couldn't stomach Terrytoons when I saw them on local TV as a teenager, and I tried to watch one of them on one of your links and still didn't get it. Leonard Maltin in OF MICE AND MAGIC said Paul Terry knew that little kids love repetition, and his cartoons sure fed it to them. I'm sure that's why, as a middle-aged man, I still adore the "golden age" of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, and I still find Terrytoons so blah.