Thursday, 19 March 2015

The (Cartoon) Voice

Have you ever heard of Arthur Kay? He was the voice of Gandy Goose and Sourpuss. And a number of Bert Lahr-sounding lions and wolves that spoke like George Givot in Terrytoons cartoons of the 1930s and ‘40s. But you’d never know it watching the cartoons themselves.

One of the real crimes of the Golden Age of theatrical cartoons is the lack of screen credit for actors/actresses who supplied the voices for the characters. Mel Blanc’s name, of course, eventually appeared on a title card, but he needed a contract to do it (either in exchange for a raise or exclusivity, depending on which version you want to believe). But he was an exception to the rule. It was years before anyone else got their name on a Warners cartoon. The Walter Lantz and UPA studios started adding actors’ names to its opening credits in the ‘50s. People who voiced at other studios were pretty much out of luck.

Fans know Kay’s name because it was revealed in Leonard Maltin’s history-making historical overview of Golden Age studios, Of Mice And Magic (The book doesn’t reveal Kay’s fate or any biographical information; I presume Kay was a stage name). No doubt Maltin found it in the off-screen places where names of voice actors were bandied about—the trade or popular press. Perhaps the first time voice actors were revealed was during coverage of Helen Kane’s lawsuit in the early ‘30s against the Fleischer studio for appropriating her act and installing it in Betty Boop. Photos of Mae Questel, Margie Hines and others who played Betty appeared in newspapers, yet Questel never was credited on screen in a Paramount cartoon.

People who grew up watching all the old cartoons on TV no doubt love the voices and have their favourites. I’m not much on “Best of” and “Top Eleventy-Two” lists when it comes to animation, but I am interested in one that’ll be coming soon on Mark Evanier’s blog. If I had to pick any one person’s judgment about voice acting, it’d be Mark’s. As you may know, he’s been voice directing and casting for cartoons for years. He plans on a pre-1968 list and I’m anxious to see who he chooses.

Some of the picks, I suspect, would be on anyone’s list, names known even if they didn’t appear on screen. Were I to prognosticate, I imagine they would include Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Jack Mercer, Paul Frees, Bill Scott and, of course, June Foray (you’ll notice four of the six just named were employed by Jay Ward).

After that, I’d like to see who Mark picks. Sara Berner came out of a Major Bowes amateur show to become one of the top dialecticians on radio and she had a comparatively short career at Warners. Don Messick was Hanna-Barbera’s workhorse for years, playing title roles, sidekicks, incidental characters and wheezily laughing for a variety of animals. Hal Smith accepted work all over the place when television rolled around; you can hear him on such forgettable series as “Rod Rocket” and “The Funny Company” in addition to Hanna-Barbera cartoons. And a case could be made for one Walter Elias Disney, at least when it comes to influence. If his Mickey Mouse hadn’t have spoken in a falsetto, would other studios have been rife with falsetto cats, dogs, foxes, pigs, gila monsters, etc. in the early ‘30s?

I have my own personal favourites. Frank Graham, whose life ended in suicide, played both lead characters in Columbia’s “Fox and Crow” series in the ‘40s and was employed at MGM (“House of Tomorrow”) and Warners (“Horton Hatches the Egg”). Kent Rogers career was cut short at a young age by a training exercise accident during World War Two; he was one of the voices of Woody Woodpecker and you can hear him on Warners and MGM cartoons of the early ‘40s. I like Bea Benaderet; I still laugh at her screaming “The 5 O’Clock Whistle” in “Little Red Riding Rabbit.” And I love Hans Conried because he’s Hans Conried.

There are so many others who worked in cartoons. Jackson Beck. Jim Backus. Billy Bletcher. Danny Webb. Walter Tetley. Marian Richman. Jack Mather. Colleen Collins. Jerry Hausner. Cecil Roy. Pat McGeehan. Elvia Allman. Arthur Q. Bryan. Sid Raymond. Dayton Allen. Wally Maher. The squeally Berneice Hansell. Well, you get the idea.

These names are just off the top of my head. I really don’t want you to debate them. Wait to see what Mark has to say. Read his blog’s other great animation and comic-related posts in the meantime.

Unfortunately, voice actors suffer the exact opposite of the problem they had in the ‘40s. They now get too much credit; that is, they’re credited for cartoons they never appeared in. Well-meaning but tin-eared fans come to their own conclusions about who is voicing something and splatter the information all over the internet without so much as a smidgeon of basic research. Thus people like Bill Thompson and Daws Butler were, if you want to believe make-up-the-facts websites, employed at studios when they were thousands of miles away from them. Others somehow voiced cartoons after they were dead. I’m sure Mark Evanier would love that kind of thing to be true, because then he could bring back Daws. Regardless, he’ll come up with a great and thoughtful list. And if he could tell me whatever happened to Arthur Kay, I’ll be happy about that, too.

3 comments:

  1. I really like your choices. Frank Graham is definitely overlooked when such discussions begin - and he's near the top of my list (Blanc will always be number #1). Graham was quite versatile and was apparently quite popular among the directors at Warner Bros. MGM and Disney. More research into his career is required.

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  2. You can't leave out Billy Bletcher. He was Pete for Disney, Chuck Jones' Papa Bear at Warner Bros., and incidental villains all over the place. Stan Freberg deserves a nod as well.

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  3. Howard Morris, Janet Waldo, Verna Felton, Frank Nelson, Billy DeWolfe, Leo DeLyon, and others.And MY voice, Dallas McKennon (unfortauntely along with Morris snagged by Filmation for some, well, less worthy 60s-70s favorites.: along with hit and miss Lantz stuff).

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