Wednesday 22 August 2012

How MGM Made a Captain

When you think of how Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera churned out Oscar-winners and Tex Avery was creating some of the funniest cartoons of all time, it’s unbelievable how much turmoil happened before the M-G-M studio finally reached that point by the mid 1940s.

In a nutshell, the studio decided to sell cartoons once the sound era began, and distributed shorts made by Ub Iwerks from 1930 to 1934, then Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising from 1934 to 1937. MGM didn’t like Harman’s constant budget overruns, so it allowed the contact with Harman-Ising to expire and set up its own cartoons; Boxoffice magazine announced the plan May 29, 1937. After working in temporary headquarters, the animators moved into a brand-new building in Culver City on August 23, 1937.

That wasn’t the end of the problems. Factions instantly developed amongst the animators. Harry Hershfield was brought in to run the studio and fired. Milt Gross was brought in and fired. Hugh and Rudy were brought back as employees. All this happened by October 1938. Finally, Friz Freleng had enough and high-tailed it back to the comfort of the Schlesinger studio. Freleng had been hired in September 1937 and rolled his eyes at the prospect of animating what M-G-M bought as their starring characters—a carbon copy of the old Katzenjammer Kids comic strip (which had its own turmoil). An “animated turkey” he once called the series. He should have known the assignment was coming. Boxoffice announced on June 26, 1937 that rights to the Captain and the Kids had been purchased and Max Maxwell would be supervising them.

Of course, that was all behind the scenes. Publicly, everything was optimistic. The United Press even did a story on the newly-opened studio that started with a staff of 25; trade publications announced new hirings over the next few months. It’s interesting to note the only people mentioned in the story are the freelance voice actors, not studio head Fred Quimby, production manager Max Maxwell, or any of the directors or animators. And it was apparently impossible to do any kind of story about animation without mentioning Walt Disney.

They Make Faces At Themselves, Then Draw Movies
(U. P. Hollywood Correspondent)

HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 6— (UP) — Fifty profoundly serious men went to work here today, making funny faces at themselves in looking glasses.
They’re the animators at M-G-M’s new and ultra-modern cartoon studios and when all 50 of them really got going in front of their mirrors, they are quite a sight.
The studio intends to make movie stars of the captain, mama, the inspector, and Hans and Fritz, who have chasing one another across the newspaper comic pages these many years.
“The Captain and the Kids” first installment, now is in production. The resultant goings on inside a major studio nobody ever saw before.
There are first the authors writing the story of the captain and the brats. These writers don’t bother with manuscripts. They draw their stories in picture form, one panel after another, and paste ‘em on the wall.
The animators take a look and then they go to work drawing thousands upon thousands of separate pictures, each only slightly different from the next one, so that when they’re photographed on a strip of film and run through a movie machine, they look like they’re moving. It takes 11,600 separate drawings to make an eight minute show
The head animators, who are skilled artists and who earn a couple or three hundred dollars a week (according as to how expert they are) draw only the principal sketches, with the aid of their own faces, and their looking-glasses.
Whenever they’re at a loss, say, to depict mama in the act of weeping, they stop everything and weep themselves. Then they look in the mirrors and draw what they see.
They also have full-length mirrors with three panels, like tailors use, for struggling-with –tiger, slipping-on-banana-peel, and bucket-of-water-on-head scenes. They act these scenes out in front of the mirror, making mental sketches of what they see. They then run quickly to their desks and put pencil to paper before they forget.
Each animator has in front of him constantly a master drawing of the captain and each member of his family. This is so no artist will start drawing the characters to suit his own ideas. The work of each animator must exactly match that of every other, or the result is a mess.
When the head animators finish the key pictures, they turn them over to their assistants, who, without mirrors, put in the rest of the action. It takes about 30 pictures for the captain merely to scratch his head; 40 for mama to blow her nose, and 50 for Hans and Fritz to hand the inspector an explosive cigar.
After all the pictures are drawn on paper, a platoon of girls trace them with color on to celluloid, whereupon they are photographed, one by one, with a camera which rings a bell every time, the shutter clicks.
The studio had considerable trouble finding the proper voices for all the characters, but finally selected Billy Bletcher to growl like the captain, Martha Wentworth to bring mama’s voice to the screen, and the Misses Shirley Reed and Jeannie Dunn to impersonate respectively Hans and Fritz.
The head men were cogitating the hiring of small boys for the latter two parts, but decided that eventually that boys would turn into baritones. The Misses Reed and
Dunn won’t, hence their change of sex insofar as M-G-M is concerned. The inspector always has been a dummy, anyway, so he’ll have no voice.
The only other news about cartoons is the fact that Walt Disney, who started the whole business many a long year ago, has finished his first full-length, full-color cartoon feature, a task so prodigious that it almost gives you the willies to contemplate it.
Disney is holding a preview for his cartoon film, with all the trimmings that a Gable or a Crawford opus would get, later this week.

Billy Bletcher, not Mel Blanc, was the original cartoon voice acting super-star. He was Peg Leg Pete at Disney and seemed to work for just about all the cartoons studios of the ‘30s, providing dialects and growling bad guys. He found time for it in between on-camera work in both features and shorts. M-G-M (Tom and Jerry’s Spike) and Warners (Papa Bear) still used his services in the ‘40s. In the ‘50s, he added children’s records to his resumé. All the voice work seems ironic considering Bletcher started in silent films.

The Associated Press of November 27, 1937, had this to say about his work on M-G-M’s flagship cartoons.

Billy Bletcher Sells One Voice —That Leaves Him Just 999

Hollywood— The man with a thousand voices has just signed away one of them.
For 15 years—in vaudeville, on the air, in pictures—Billy Bletcher has been in show business. His weird ability to mimic anybody or anything practically stole away his own identity. He found himself becoming a “voice” — or many voices.
Once, on the air, he substituted for a famous comedian and 1isteners never knew the difference. When Hollywood’s animated cartoons began to talk. Billy spoke for all of them. Vocally, he has been pig, frog, dog, rabbit, mouse, horse, cat, practically all the creatures of the animated screen. In spare time he has played parts in feature pictures, sung on the air. His tenor is trained for music, too.
Metro was launching a new series of talking cartoons, “The Captain and the Kids.” For it, Bletcher was signed to a contract. He will speak for the Captain—and he cannot use that voice for any other purpose.
But he is still free to use the other 999 voices in his repertory. He calls it the ideal contract.

Only 12 Captain and the Kids cartoons were released in 1938 and three more in 1939. By then, Hugh and Rudy were back, with glacially-placed stories of animals and cutsie, faux Disney characters. But toward the end of the room, Hanna and Barbera were on their own developing a cat and a mouse. M-G-M’s time of turmoil was about to end.

Here’s a timeline, gleaned from a few months of stories in Boxoffice:

April 17: Harman-Ising rushing seven shorts to completion this week, three with Bosko, two with the little pups and one each with Little Cheeser and a rabbit, and “Smoke Dreams” (Yes, I realise that’s eight cartoons. I imagine “Smoke Dreams” is actually “Pipe Dreams”).
May 1: MGM and Harman-Ising terminate their contact “this week” after not coming to terms on a new one. The pact expires when 18 more shorts are delivered. 14 are to be made.
May 29: MGM will establish its own cartoon department. Unnamed “top flight director” from another studio has been hired. Harman-Ising still has 16 shorts to deliver.
June 26: Fred Quimby closes a deal to produce “The Captain and the Kids.” New cartoon unit will be supervised by Max Maxwell with an initial series of 13 one-reelers. Signed as story writers are Bill Hanna, Bob Allen, Fred McAlpin, Heck Allen, Charlie Thorson and Victor (Bill) Schipek.
July 3: Ground has been broken on the new studio building. It will be 100 feet square and house 150 workers. Max Maxwell is preparing to start production on “Captain.”
July 10: The studio building will be opened August 16 and cost $200,000.
July 31: Karl Karpe signed as a cartoon director, Wilson Collison as a writer. Plans for early production are being rushed.
August 7: Percy Charles joins the cartoon unit as a writer.
August 14: Harry Hershfield arrived last week from New York to join cartoon unit. Will also be gag man and writer on the main lot.
September 4: Animator Cecil Surry becomes father of a girl this week.
October 9: Organisation of studio virtually complete. Bob Allen, Bill Hanna and Friz Freleng are directors, George Gordon is an associate on layouts and animation. Ray Kelly, Kin Platt and Henry (Heck) Allen added to the unit. The first “Captain” cartoon to be released in December in sepia platinum prints in a process developed by John Nicklaus.
December 11: “Little Buck Cheeser,” Harman-Ising cartoon, to be released December 18, first “Captain” cartoon, “Cleaning House,” a week later.
February 5, 1938: “Blue Monday” is set for release as the first “Captain” cartoon on February 5 in sepia platinum.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Tralfaz.

    Odd that the Inspector was made a pantomime character with the claim that he'd always been one—in the comics, not only has he always talked, he has some of the funniest dialogue (and seems to genuinely hate Hans and Fritz in a way that even Der Captain doesn't...)
    Bletcher and Wentworth were born to play Der Cap and Mama; one of the few decisions MGM unequivocally got right.

  2. ...on the other hand, even though Friz brought Mel over from Warners to work on the Captain shorts, they somehow managed to make his voice work annoying in a way he never was at the Schlesinger studio, particularly with the perpetually loud and laughing John Silver (Blanc and Freleng would fare much better with a sea captain who was perpetually loud, but not laughing seven years later at Warners).

    Things would get better as time went on, but even into the revived Harman-Ising era, Metro seemed to think loud, coarse voiced Mel was what the public wanted to hear. It's probably a good thing Bill and Joe came up with a pantomime cat and mouse duo for their first effort, since of the four studios using Mel in the late 30s-early 40s, two seemed to know how to use his voice talents, and two didn't have a clue most of the time.

  3. I guess you have to be a Katzenjammer fan to appreciate Mel's John Silver. It's as perfect as one could imagine from reading the way he talks in the comics.

    On the edge of annoying, maybe, but that's exactly how Der Captain feels about him!

  4. "Even though Friz brought Mel over from Warners to work on the Captain shorts, they somehow managed to make his voice work annoying in a way he never was at the Schlesinger studio"

    I've read that was even the case for the latter Mintz output, with despised hacks like Allen Rose, Lou Lily and whatnot.