Saturday, 24 August 2013

They Never Got Credit

You couldn’t miss the name “Mel Blanc” in the credits of Warner Bros. cartoons. That’s because, for years, he was the only voice actor under contract (an exclusive one at that) so he was the only one who was credited on screen. That lasted until about the time the cartoons became so ubiquitous on TV that critics were sick to death of them.

So it was I grew up through the ‘60s not knowing there was such a person as Arthur Q. Bryan. His name never appeared on screen. It wasn’t until Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic and Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald’s The Warner Bros. Cartoons that the identity of a number of the voices at various studios were revealed. And, today, there are still cartoon characters whose voices are mysteries because their names were never included in the credits.

On rare occasion, long before books on animation studios were written, the public press would mention cartoon voices. Two feature stories appeared in newspapers in 1935, a couple of years before Blanc’s cartoon career began. The first is from the Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1935. The author was later a syndicated TV columnist. Only part of the story involves animation. The Disney explanation about why voice actors weren’t acknowledged shows you corporate spin is far from something new. My thanks to Mark Kausler for deciphering some of the text.

Business of “Ghosting” Now Hollywood’s Oddest
Heard But Not Seen, Cacophonous Army of Men, Women and Children Make “Dubbing” Pay Dividends

Hollywood has one industry you never heard about. It is made up of an army of men, women and children who—unwept, unhonoured and unsung, if not unsinging—are the disembodied voices of the talking picture . . . the “ghost stars” of the screen!
Their business is like no other on earth. Before the sound film, they did not exist—yet today the highly complicated machinery of the talkie could scarcely turn without them. Of their total number—100, 200, 300, who can say?—the names of perhaps a scant dozen are known to the world outside. The rest are—ghosts.
A few—fewer than are generally supposed—“double” the voices of recognized stars. Bu what Nathan Finston, musical director at Paramount, calls “the first-line artists” cannot afford to employ doubles in singing for long. They can’t get away with it; for one thing; and for another, it isn’t worth the deception. Teaching the stars themselves is easier, as whatever vocal deficiencies they possess can usually be made up by that indefinable thing known as personality. Audiences will forgive their favorites anything.
So it is really the “ghosts” of the newsreel, the novelty, the cartoon, and the “background” in a feature with which we are concerned.
The newsreel personalities come off best, in the long run. You are already familiar with most of them: Graham MacNamee of the “Times”-Universal, Lowell Thomas and Lew Lehr (dialect) of Movietone, Edwin C. Hill of Metrotone and perhaps a couple of others. Their reputations have been previously established on the lecture platform or the radio.
In the “novelty short” field, Pete Smith takes the lead, along with Grantland Rice and his “Sportlight.” Smith, of course, was western head of M.-G.-M. publicity until he got to be in greater demand as a master of ceremonies at studio and social functions. It was only one step from this to commentator on odd bits of film found lying around on cutting-room floors, and only one more, when these caught on with the public, to actual production of “Oddities” and “Goofy Movies.” Grantland Rice is too well known as a sports writer to need introduction.
Most Paramount short subjects are prepared and “ghosted” in New York. Leo Donnelly, an actor from the stage, officiates on the “Screen Souvenirs.” Another, described somewhat mysteriously as “a vaudeville actor” (Papa, what is vaudeville?) and named Red Pepper Sam, is the voice of “Pop-eye.” May Questal [sic] functions shrilly as “Betty Boop” two days a month, and fills in the remaining time making personal appearances as “The Betty Boop Girl.”
Leon Schlesinger, who sponsors “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies,” says most of his voice specialists were reared on farms. He employs twenty-five persons who can approximate the “talking” and “singing” of dogs, cats, mice, elephants, cows, snakes and the like. There is no age limit: Jackie Morrow, the “Buddy” of “Looney Tunes,” is only 9 years of age, while Dorothy Varden, who “talks” Buddy’s companion, “Cookie,” is in her early twenties. Yount [Young] Morrow’s chief worry is that his voice will change. Billy Bletcher, an expert at barking and growling, is “Bozo,” the dog; and only the other day they could not resist hiring a man because he gave an elegant imitation of a stuttering pig. Now they have to create the pig.
Charles Mintz, who makes shorts for Columbia, acknowledges the services of Leone Ledoux as “Scrappy” and George Winkler as “Krazy Kat.” One Allen Watson sings bass when bass is required, and there is a useful lady named Celeste Rush and a Paul Taylor quartet.
Harman-Ising (“Happy Harmonies”) draw 75 per cent of their people from radio, the balance from stage and film. Ian Wolfe, an actor in “David Copperfield;” Johnny Murray, K.F.W.B. m.c.; the Four Blackbirds (KFI;) the Californians and the Three Rhythmettes (said to have been the original “Three Little Pigs,”) are a few of them. A reel will provide only about thirty minutes’ work for a capable artist, Harman-Ising state, with salary ranging from $10 to $50.
The Walt Disney studio prefers anonymity for its vocal performers in according with a policy of not showing favoritism to anybody. Around the plant, you know, they speak of the various characters—Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Donald Duck and the rest—as living personages, and they don’t see why the rest of the world shouldn’t do the same.
As a spokesman for the company summed it up, “Kids of 12 and 14 don’t believe in Santa Claus, but they don’t want to see him without his beard.
“Besides, we don’t have more than a few words in our ‘Mickey Mouses’ and ‘Silly Symphonies.’” Other than to intimate that those few are spoken by “people around the lot,” he refused to commit himself further.
The Norman Bennett Agency provides disembodied voices to most of the studios, with more than 200 singers on its list. Occasionally these “dub” the voices of those less gifted (Nina Koshetz is an example of a talented artist much in demand for this purpose.) but more often they form part of a solo or ensemble “background” for a musical scene.
Paramount’s director, Finston, declared he has a “perfect organization” of more than 100 voices to call upon at a moment’s notice; voices in every possible combination, from soloists, duos, trios and quartets on up through male groups, soprano groups and mixed choruses.
“There are as many tricks to recording as there are to photographing,” he said. “For the ‘Tosca’ sequence in ‘Enter Madame,’ we needed two choruses—an ‘interior’ and an ‘exterior’ (off-stage.) We recorded the same thirty-four voices for both, and simply ‘doubled’ the sound track. Together they created the mass effect of a choir of—well, 175 voices would be no exaggeration.”
Many a ghost singer “graduates” to flesh-and-blood fame. The King’s Men, crack Whiteman vocalists, once did shadow work regularly for Finston. A crooner from a downtown band used to come out and croon for three hours at $50—“and the front office squawked that he was getting too much!” The crooner was Bing Crosby, whose earnings are now about $12,000 per week. Five singing units made up the nucleus of a chorus for the “I Wished on the Moon” number which Crosby sings in “The Big Broadcast of 1935.” They comprised the Three Shades of Blue and the Rhythmettes, female trios, and the Singing Guardsmen, male quartets.
You won’t see any of their faces in “The Big Broadcast”—but who can tell what a year may bring? One of their number may be Bing Crosby’s successor . . . a ghost already singing his way to visibility!

The second story isn’t bylined and contains some of the information in the Scheuer story. Either he reworked his Times story for syndication with additional information, or he expanded a news release from the Schlesinger studio for his Times story. Anyway, this appeared in the Schenectedy Gazette on May 30, 1935. The comments by Bernie Brown should put to rest Blanc’s claim (which expanded like a fish story over the years) that Norman Spencer wouldn’t hire him and then died. Brown hired the actors at Schlesinger and when he left the studio Treg Brown took over.

Learn to Talk Animal-Like to Crash Movies
If you want to crash the gates of Hollywood and are willing to give up your identity and be just a voice, move out an a farm and study, animals.
This is the advice of Leon Schlesinger, producer of “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies,” animated cartoons, in whose employ are 25 unsung heroes and heroines who sing and talk like pigs, mice, elephants, cows and snakes, and what have you?
There is no age limit for those who can "do" the voice for cartoons. For instance, the dialog for “Buddy” in “Looney Tunes” is done by 9-year-old Jackie Morrow, who was selected for the job after some 300 aspirants of ages raging from 6 to 60 had been interviewed. Jackie's chief worry is that his voice will change some day and he'll be out of work.
Dorothy Varden, in her early 20's, does the dialog for “Buddy's” companion, “Cookie.” Like Jackie, Miss Varden is afraid that the passing of years will not be kind to her voice and career.
Billy Bletcher is the man behind the voice of “Bozo,” the dog. An expert at barking and growling, Bletcher does dialog for the “heavy” dogs too.
Bernard Brown, head of the Schlesinger sound department and “voice casting director,” tells of a man who came into the office the other day stating that he could do something different—a stuttering pig. An audition was arranged and the pig stutterer had created a job for himself. Now the studio is thinking of making a stuttering pig one of the featured players in “Merrie Melodies.”
Before the animators start work, the cartoon's voice characters gather around the microphone and record their lines. Then, Brown, with a print of the sound track before him, translates into words what he sees on the track and creates assignments for the animators. His detailed instructions tell the animators just when the cartoon character starts to open its mouth for a word, when the tongue touches the lips and when the mouth is closed at the end of the word. It's all very intricate, but the drawings always match up with the sound.
Brown, one of the best known engineers in America, believes in doing things well—that's why he took a lip reading course at night school.

As a side-note, I had much better luck as a kid identifying actors in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Each Flintstones and Jetsons episode had separate credits and you could figure out who was whom over time using the process of elimination. TV Guide even listed who played specific guest roles. And to the right you see a newspaper story revealing Elliot Field guest-starring on The Flintstones. He was the afternoon drive guy at KFWB radio.

Unfortunately, there are still too many unidentified actors and actresses in animated shorts, and even some TV cartoons for that matter. Worse still, some have been misidentified, either through incorrect guesswork or people making up their own “facts” by stretching logic from snippets of information, and then plastering it all over the internet. Fortunately, a few people are out there diligently filling in the blanks in our animation knowledge, not just when it comes to acting. Animation history will benefit in the long run.


  1. Mel's deal with Warners was sort of the price they had to pay by the end of 1943 for their success -- once the studio realized how wildly popular Bugs, was, combined with the previous characters Blanc was voicing (Porky, Daffy) and the new ones in development by '43 (Tweety), making sure no one else had access to him until the end of the 1950s was a smart move on Leon's part, even if it kept everyone else save Stan Freberg from ever being recognized (and while I've never seen anything official about it, it does appear as if other voice actors finally getting credited in WB shorts with the '61 release season coincided with Mel being freed from his exclusive contract to do TV cartoons, including, and especially, The Flintstones).

    Bernard Brown's stuttering pig story is interesting, because it makes Porky's creation sound similar to the situation with Donald Duck, where Disney designed the character around Clarence Nash's voice. But given Joe Dougherty was a natural stutterer and had problems getting off words, it's kind of hard to envision the entire Our Gang-as-animals concept came out of a Dougherty audition and not the other way around.

  2. "The King's Men", fronted by Ken Darby, later became the vocal group on the "FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY" radio show (1940-'53)....and also provided several vocals in MGM's "Tom and Jerry" cartoons- most notably "Baby Puss" and "Texas Tom".

  3. J.Lee, Mel Blanc's contractually exclusive credit onscreen was a product of two things as you and we all know: his asking for a raise and the credit being cheaper and 2) (as discussed on the sister blog YOWP in the issue with John Seely and Jack Shaindlin, and in animation in general with the studio heads like Max Fleischer and others taking drawing, artistic, and all other credits) a typical "credit goes to the top" instance.

    bgrauman, Bing Crosby also benefited heavily from Ken Darby's groups, especially on my favorite non-Yuletide recording of Bing's, 1949's top selling hit "Faraway Places with Strange Sounding Name", and that was just filling in the cake that was Bing's beautiful crooning [Louis Armstrong was right in his famous analogy of Bing to gold being "poured out of a cup". Red and Beans and Rice, Satchmo!!]. And of course the King's Men are NOT to be confused with that 1960s garage group that popularized "Louie Louie", nor should that group be mixed up with Ken Darby's group. I made that mistake at only 13 when hearing the rock band mentioned after reading about the 1930s-40s crooning group in Leonard Maltin's classic [book and subject] Disney films book [1973 edition, this was in 1974 that I'm talking about.]Steve

  4. And Yowp, regarding your final comment, on the Flinstones and Jetsons, we know that post-prime time Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures TV put stock credits derived exclusively and simply from one 1962-63 episode written by Warren Foster, and with additional voices by John Stephenson and Hal Smith -and more recently, the late Earl Kress who left us a year or two ago compiled a more fair stock credit list of those six plus Jerry Mann, Don Messick and Daws Butler, plus more writers, in the same 1960 style with the "Chinese" Screen Gems font seen in Yowp's blog titles, with one happy straggler from that era, "Inivisble Barney", which as a "bonus" even has the last of Howard McNear on "The Flintstones" among three guest voices, remaining as is, and I THINK that's the last with the Screen Gems fonts for the credits. After that, "Bedrock Twitch", where Ginny Tyler and I think Howard Morris reprising his rockstar voice from the "Jetsons Jet Screamer" episode of 1962 as "Rock Roll", is where the dedicated Hanna-Barbera lettering that sustained themselves well into the next decade appear and original, custom-made invidual credits, remain for all showings.

    Of course Cartoon Network applied similar to the original practice that began in 1966 their own "canned" credits, where, one episode's staff including cast and music wound up as "gang credits" for that season's entire shows. That is how Cartoon Network would show those....

  5. Hal Smith voiced Rock Roll not Howard Morris.

  6. It doesn't have anything to do with cartoons, but there's a misspelling of Lowell Thomas's name as "Lower" Thomas.

    "The newsreel personalities come off best, in the long run. You are already familiar with most of them: Graham MacNamee of the “Times”-Universal, Lower Thomas and Lew Lehr (dialect) of Movietone, Edwin C. Hill of Metrotone and perhaps a couple of others. "

    1. (wishes for the spelling of "Lower" in the article to be changed to "Lowell")