Wednesday 5 September 2012

Tex? Tash? I Got Jobs

By 1936, the Leon Schlesinger cartoon studio was rising from primordial ooze after a couple of years of poor directors and fair to lousy cartoons. It had some new starring characters it was testing. It had at least one director, Friz Freleng, who knew what he was doing and Leon was on the hunt for more. He changed animated humour for good with the men he picked.

The Film Daily reported on the activities of the Schlesinger studio in its editions of 1936. I’ve gone through them all to pick out most of the highlights. Anyone interested in the what-happened-when aspect of the Schlesinger studio can get an idea of the timeline from these stories. Even people familiar with the studio may be surprised by some of the things here.

January 13, 1936
LEON SCHLESINGER, producer of "Merrie Melodies" and "Looney Tunes," has added a new unit of 25 animators, increasing personnel to 100 people. The new unit is under the supervision of Fred Avery. Eleven cartoon subjects are now in production.

Ray Katz, assistant to Leon Schlesinger, and Mrs. Katz, formerly Johanna Salzenstein of Peoria, Ill., who were married at the Schlesinger's Beverly Hills home, have returned from a honeymoon trip to Palm Springs.

January 15, 1936
LEON SCHLESINGER, under his new three-year contract with Warners, will make annually 13-three-color Technicolor "Merrie Melodies" and 13 "Looney Tunes" in black and white.

February 4, 1936
Schlesinger Introducing Modernistic Line Cartoon
West Coast Bureau of THE FILM DAILY

Hollywood — Leon Schlesinger's next "Merrie Melody" cartoon for Warners, entitled "Miss Glory", will introduce an innovation in that the caricatured backgrounds will be entirely modernistic in line, achieved through an airbrush process. The idea was developed by Leadore Congdon, Chicago artist. Another highlight of the picture, which is in three-point Technicolor and was five months in production, is a typical Busby Berkeley dance sequence revealed for the first time in cartoon animation. A male chorus of 16 voices provides musical arrangement of the song "Page Miss Glory."

April 28, 1936
West Coast Bureau of THE FILM DAILY

Hollywood—As a result of a deal negotiated with Norman H. Moray, Vitaphone short subject sales manager, Leon Schlesinger is boosting his 1936-37 cartoon program to 34 subjects, including 18 "Merrie Melodies" and 16 "Looney Tunes", compared with 13 of each in previous seasons. Jack L. Warner has approved plans for the reconstruction of a building which will house all the Schlesinger activities under one roof. Addition of 25 animators to the Schlesinger staff brings the total payroll up to 125.

April 29, 1936
Norman Spencer, composer and director of music for the "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" cartoons being produced by Leon Schlesinger, has signed a new three-year contract. His son, Norman, Jr., handles the musical arrangements for the series.

June 24, 1936
Leon Schlesinger's organization is believed to have established a speed record in the making of cartoons. Working day and night, his staff made two "Merrie Melodies" and two "Looney Tunes" in two weeks. The subjects were rushed to the Warner Bros. conventions in Chicago and New York.

August 3, 1936
Carl W. Stallings has been made musical director on the Merrie Melody and Looney Tune cartoons produced by Leon Schlesinger for Warners. He succeeds Norman Spencer, resigned.

August 31, 1936
Leon Schlesinger has signed Frank Tash, former comedy strip artist, to a new five-year contract after spotting the artist's first directorial efforts in "Pokey's Poultry Plant," new Looney Tunes. Short also features the initial work of Karl W. Stallings as musical director.

September 19, 1936
Schlesinger on New Lineup
Hollywood—Leon Schlesinger has started production on the first of his 1936-1937 program for Warner release. A Merry Melodies subject, titled "Boulevardier From the Bronx", and a Looney Tune called "Milk and Money", are in production.

September 30, 1936
In order to make theaters in time for the world series, Leon Schlesinger is rushing "Boulevardier from the Bronx," a Merry Melodies subject, to New York. The cartoon is a satire on baseball.

October 6, 1936
LEON SCHLESINGER has signed I. Freleng to a new contract. Freleng, who is directing the "Merrie Melodies" cartoons, has been with Schlesinger for the past three years.

October 26, 1936
LEON SCHLESINGER, producer of "Looney Tunes," and "Merrie Melodies," entertained at his Beverly Hills home in honor of Frank Tashlin ("Tish Tash") and his bride, Dorothy Marguerite Hill. Miss Hill, who sings on the Shell Chateau program, met Tashlin when she applied for an audition.

November 25, 1936
Schlesinger Drops Deal for New Novelty Series
West Coast Bureau of THE FILM DAILY

Hollywood — The deal whereby Leon Schlesinger was to have produced a series of novelty shorts for M-G-M has been dropped. Schlesinger will concentrate on his "Merrie Melodies" and "Looney Tunes" cartoons.

December 18, 1936
LEON SCHLESINGER. Producer of "Merrie Melodie" and "Looney Tunes" cartoons for Warner Brothers and a veteran of well nigh every branch of show business! First contact with theater was as usher at Blaney's Arch St. Theater, Philadelphia, and thence into its box-office. Next at the old Colonial, Chicago, as treasurer, with later years as p.a. and manager for road shows and vaude. First film post was with old Metro Company as salesman out of Chicago. Subsequent affiliations: Inter-Ocean Film Corp., New York; Agfa Film as West Coast sales manager; Pacific Title and Art Studio, which he founded. Then, back in '30, Jack Warner suggested he make a cartoon, with 30-day option for 12 more. It took Warner seven minutes after he saw the first to exercise it. Now has a straight three-year Warner pact.

Some observations...

The Avery story is a little unexpected. Tex told Mike Barrier he thought he arrived at Schlesinger’s around May 1935. At any rate, his first cartoon, “Gold Diggers of ‘49,” was in theatres by November 27, 1935. “Plane Dippy” was next in the production line, followed by “Page Miss Glory” which, according to the clippings, went into production in September 1935. So Avery’s unit (part of which was caricatured in “Glory”) was in operation before the 1936 Film Daily story. Either Leon formalised the existing unit or he added to it.

Evidently Leon had high hopes for Art Deco-styled cartoons but “Page Miss Glory” was it. Avery hated it. He told historian Joe Adamson “I think I was forced to make it.” And Miss (Mrs.?) Congdon remains a Warners mystery.

Chuck Jones used to moan that Leon never associated with the staff but evidently Schlesinger thought highly enough of Tashlin to host him and his bride at the Schlesinger home. If you want to wash the vile taste of Jones bias out of your mouth, read Martha Sigall’s book, which paints a different picture of Leon than the one Chuck spouted to anyone who would listen for years.

Leon fashioned himself as somewhat of a minor film mogul. He produced films with John Wayne in the early ‘30s and had at least one other series of shorts involving organ melodies. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see he was working on the idea of novelty shorts. What’s interesting is he took the proposal to Metro. Perhaps MGM was looking for another series. Whether they were live action, animated or a combination isn’t clear.

It’s startling to see that Schlesinger signed Norm Spencer to a renewal, only to hire Carl Stalling to replace him a few months later. It could be Spencer left on his own volition. Anyway, it was another stroke of genius by Schlesinger to bring into his fold the man who defined cartoon music. And if anyone still believes Mel Blanc’s story that he only got hired at Warners after Spencer dropped dead, this should put an end to it. (Anyone who has followed Mel’s tales in chronological order knows that the “death” part of the story was a comparatively late, and contradictory, addition). It also settles something I’ve wondered about the pre-Stalling scores. Spencer and Bernie Brown’s music sounds pretty similar. That would make sense, given that Spencer, Jr. was arranging all the scores. I’d be interested to know who Stalling brought in before Milt Franklyn arrived in the late ‘30s.

Conversely, there’s no mention at all of Jack King returning to Disney. Tashlin took his spot as a director.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in Film Daily for the second half of 1935 to reveal staff changes at the studio. And no copies of the publication exist on line for the first half of 1935 or after 1936. The studio still had changes to go through; Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones would be directing within a couple of years and Friz Freleng would have a short career at MGM. But the pieces were starting to fall into place. The studio finally had a starring character in 1936 in the person of Porky Pig. Their biggest stars were only a few more years away.


  1. Stalling's story about finding empty liquor bottles in his desk when he arrived may explain why Spencer was dismissed so soon after signing a new deal. And just the fact that almost immediately after hiring Avery, his unit was promoted above Jack King's to do color Merrie Melodies, and was given the "Page Miss Glory" assignment shows someone -- Leon, Henry Bender or Ray Katz -- had some idea of what they were doing in terms of judging animation talent, Chuck Jones' claims to the contrary that the studio ran for a quarter century on auto-pilot.

    (And as far as the aborted MGM series goes, everyone does agree Leon was a money man, and part of being one involves occasionally playing hardball with the people you're contracting with. Aside from the MGM deal, Leon did work for RKO, UA and Paramount, none of whom had their own in-house cartoon studios in the late 30s. The idea that Schlesinger could not only do contract work for other studios, but could pull a Disney or a Lantz and take his whole studio there may have been in part a way to negotiate more $$$ or films out of J.L., and possibly in 1944, the sale of the entire studio to Warners.)

  2. Could be, JL. But bottles in drawers were not uncommon back in those days. There were lots of functioning drunks in print, radio, lord knows where else.
    Jones' denigrations notwithstanding, Leon worked in show business all his life, and would have had a pretty good idea of what ordinary people found entertaining. I think he could tell between Jack King and Tex Avery who made funnier cartoons.
    There seems to have been a lot more wheeling and dealing going on back then than what people know about. Too bad no one, as far as I know, have written about the business of producing shorts back then.

  3. It's possible Spencer did find some other better-paying job. But reading the interview with Stalling (who didn't seem like the type of kid around the way some others in animation were), the story about the bottles seemed to be a polite way of saying his (unnamed) predecessor may have gotten to the point where he was non-functioning (and with Bernard Brown's departure to Universal, Spencer was now shouldering the entire load of the growing output of Schlesinger scores. The drinking may have been something he could work around with the lower output, but couldn't once he was required to churn out a new score every 10-14 days).

    The Avery thing interests me because the decision was made so fast to make him the No. 2 director behind Friz. Going from memory, I think "Miss Glory" was just the third cartoon out of Tex's unit, so the body of work was pretty slim when the decision was made, and Leon, Ray or Henry obviously were less enamored with King's Disney credentials by 1935.

    Leon seemed to know he had a pretty good thing going by 1941, since he settled his strike in only a few days, unlike Mr. Disney. I'd also love to know if J.L. or Norman Moray was given a heads-up in 1944 when Bugs popped up in a Paramount Puppetoon. Aside from being a surprising gag, it also may have hammered home the point that as 1944 dawned Bugs Bunny did not belong to Warner Brothers, but was Leon's to use as he saw fit. If you're negotiating to sell your studio to J.L. and now have the biggest animated box-office draw, that's a nice bargaining chip to have.

  4. The 1936 ad for 'Let It Be Me' talks about the studio's "swifter pace and smarter gags." Sure, it was a Freleng cartoon, but the phrase fits Avery perfectly. And it's a tacit admission guys Leon had directing before .. King and Hardaway .. weren't getting the job done.
    I've had a complete dead end trying to find what happened to Spencer.