Saturday, 21 January 2017

Paul Terry, Poet at Heart

How things changed for Paul Terry within a few years.

In 1940, he talked to the venerable New York Times about how his cartoon studio didn’t have any stars, and he liked it that way. Within a few years, he was churning out Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle cartoons. So much for “everybody is a lot happier” with variety in cartoon characters.

The most interesting revelation in the feature story is Terry was still scoring his cartoons before a frame was drawn. On the West Coast, it was the exact opposite; Carl Stalling or Scott Bradley would score to the action on the screen (though Bradley wasn’t very impressed with the suggestions given to him by director Tex Avery). Well, interesting, too, is word that Terry’s staff spent their off-hours in his office.

This story was published on July 7, 1940.


UP in New Rochelle there is a film producer who rarely goes to Hollywood. He has no lot; his study is in the five floors above and below his own tenth-story office. He differs in other ways. Though his actors sometimes become temperamental and get out of hand, they never quarrel over the assignment of a role, never demand more salary or the star’s bungalow dressing room. There are, in short, an impresario’s dream of what actors should be. For the producer in this case is Paul Terry and the casts of his Terrytoons are the blithe genii that reside in the inkwells and palettes of several score artists and craftsmen. Riffing his calendar the other day, Mr. Terry by a hasty computation discovered that this year is the twenty-fifth since his first cartoon, “Little Herman,” tickled the ribs of the youngsters hastily gathered for a test preview. Reasoning that a twenty-fifth anniversary of anything—even to be alive if one considers today’s diminishing life expectancy on insurance actuarial tables—is in the nature of an event, Mr. Terry invited the press to come up and survey the progress he’s made in the interim.
Admittedly, he has come far since Winsor MacKay’s [sic] “Gertie, the Dinosaur” inspired him to give up newspaper cartoon drawing. He has come a good way since he produced fifty-two “Aesop’s Fables” a year with a staff of only nineteen men. Today, Mr. Terry produces half that number of cartoons, twelve or more in color, with an organization that numbers 125. Sound and Technicolor and other improvements have made the process more complex year by year.
* * *
For the animated cartoon is no longer a pawkish stepchild among the crafts; it has become an industry. Henry Ford has come to the subterranean smith of the black dwarfs and the workbench of Santa Claus. The muse of comic invention must sit at the assembly line. The gag men must turn out a story, the tracers and animators bent over the rows of transparent drawing boards must turn out 8,000 to 10,000 frames, the composer must write a score, and the whole dubbed, photographed and tested every two weeks. But the vagaries of the creative mind, especially the pixie-ish minds who conceive the Terrytoons, keep even mass production on an informal basis.
Take the story conference, for instance. Here a mad crew of cartoonists sit in conclave with sketch pencils and pads. No story is ever dully committed to a typewriter; every step of the outline is drawn in pictures. And as the story develops the walls are slowly covered with endless rows of rough sketches showing the opening positions in each sequence. Most of the scenes are extemporaneously acted by one of the cartoonists while another times the sequence with a stop watch. Mr. Terry is never startled if he hears a loud “quack, quack” outside his private office. He merely knows the boys are really at work.
* * *
The musical score is completed before any of the actual sequences are drawn. Timing and rhythm are of the essence of cartoon comedy; scenes are often cut or expanded to follow the score. Even the lazy peregrinations of a bee around a daisy are governed by the metronome. After the music is completed the director charts each of the sequences frame by frame and the cartoon is in the hands of the animators, the traces, the painters and the photographers in turn.
Over all this, Mr. Terry presides with the aplomb of an industrial tycoon. But he’s a poet at heart. Rufus Rooster, Lucky Duck and the others are very real to him, he admits dreamily. He was one of the first, in fact, to humanize his animal actors. And in setting his mice and hippopotami and dogs and lions on two legs, so to speak, he found a little stratum of fantasy that the camera could never challenge. Aesop, of course, had the idea first and it was that moralist with a cartoonist’s mind who inspired the 490 fables which Mr. Terry produced during ten years before 1930.
By and large, Mr. Terry’s animals stick to the characteristics which wishful human beings attribute to them. The wolf is the perennial heavy, the fox a shyster lawyer, the dog a “friendly cuss,” the grasshopper a ne’er-do-well, the spider a species of bela lugosi. Though he allows his animals some of the prerogatives of homo sapiens, Mr. Terry tries to avoid Freudian complications. A pup may suffer from an inferiority complex but never schizophrenia.
On the master drawings in which the personality is fixed by the director for the benefit of the animators one may find such annotations as these: “Turkey is a dumb, sympathetic personality; at no time is he vicious,” “Lucky Duck is good-hearted, but simple, trying like hell to make good; note pigeon toes standing or walking,” or “Indian is a goofey sort of guy, at times he becomes foxy; note low lantern jaw.” But within these idiomatic delineations the character must be consistently maintained. During conference one cartoonist may often say to another: “He (a mouse) wouldn’t do that. It’s out of character.”
* * *
During off hours the story staff pores over the volumes of fairy tales, folklore and children’s verses in Mr. Terry’s office. Though the material is rarely used directly it does refresh their inventive faculties. And Mr. Terry permits the boys to go to town on any idea if it’s amusing. He has no “stars” that he has to feature in one film after another.
“Maybe it’d be better business,” he explained. “But I used to know Bud Fisher and how he hated to sit down every day with that same pair, Mutt and Jeff. Up here we haven’t a single character that we’re stuck with. We take any idea that sounds like a laugh. We like variety and if it isn’t soundest commercially the work is a lot more fun and everybody is a lot happier. That’s very important, don’t you think so?”

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