Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Shutdown

The average person going to the movies in 1953 would never have known it. Bugs Bunny was still on the big screen; by the end of September, he was even in 3-D. But the people who drew Bugs would have known it because they weren’t working.

Warner Bros. had shut down almost its entire cartoon studio.

The shutdown didn’t last long, 5 1/2 months for two of the animation units, longer for the third. And you can put part of the blame on 3-D.

Daily Variety reported on April 29, 1953 that “Warner Bros, is now in a state of suspended animation, while studio execs study public reaction to ‘House of Wax.’” The Vincent Price thriller was made in 3-D, one of a number of ideas tried by studios to get people away from their TV sets and into movie houses again. But 3-D was iffy. The Variety story pointed out theatre owners were hesitant to spend the $1,000 needed to retool their houses to show movies in that format. The “suspended animation” ironically applied to the Robert McKimson unit at the Warners cartoon studio. It had been disbanded earlier in the month.

Did anyone see the shutdown coming? Weekly Variety of June 3rd talked of possible expansion: “Warners cartoon studio, ahead of its 20-per-year schedule, is considering an expansion of activities to include a program of commercials.” But writer Mike Maltese saw the proverbial writing on the wall. He must have started poking around for work because he landed a job just as he was being laid off at Warners.

Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons refers to a story in the June 16, 1953 edition of Daily Variety detailing what happened. It was repeated almost verbatim in the Weekly Variety out of New York the following day. Here’s the story in full. It discusses the situation at other West Coast studios as well.

Warners cartoon studio will shutter Friday [June 19, 1953], with the exception of 10 employes working under topper Edward Selzer, and will remain closed until probably Jan. 4, 1954. Approximately 70 cartoonists are affected by sudden move. At the time they were pink-slipped, they were told by Selzer that they might be recalled within 90 days. More likely, however, exec said, studio would remain dark until January, and it was suggested that those given notices take new jobs.
Those remaining include a director, a story man, a layout man, three background men, a cutter and three office staffers. They will handle a small amount of commercial work during the summer, and prep work for resumption of activity, so no time will be lost when workers return.
Sudden cessation of cartoon activity is due to two chief reasons, a heavy backlog which gives Warners finished releases until late in 1954 and uncertainty in what process to make further cartoons, 2-D or 3-D. Company, which now releases 20 cartoons annually, has 38 cartoons ready for release, 20 more three-quarters complete, including all the animation finished, and 12 stories completed and most of the direction completed.
Two units are affected by studio closing, a third having been closed out two months ago. At that time, the annual releasing slate of 30 subjects was cut to 20.
Metro cartoon department also is a casualty of a big backlog and 3-D. Department now is operating with only a single unit, for its Tom and Jerry series, a second shutting down last March 1. Studio currently has an inventory of 32 completed cartoons for its 24-a-year release. Department is expected to be back in full swing in the early fall, however, Fred Quimby, department chief, declared yesterday, with the second unit again functioning. Studio actually is waiting to see whether to continue with 2-D or go all-out in 3-D, he added. All future films, at any rate, will be adapted to wide-screen projection.
Walter Lantz Studio, on the other hand, has increased its annual output from six to 13, for release through UI. Lantz yesterday hired Mike Maltese, story man who swung over from Warners, and two weeks ago took on a pair of top Metro animators, Ray Patterson and Grant Simmons. Studio also has stepped up its commercial cartoon production.

Who were the ten staffers that were kept? The process of elimination answers some of the question. Chuck Jones went to Disney and Mike Maltese was hired by Lantz, so the writer and director were Friz Freleng and Warren Foster. Presumably, Freleng’s layout man, Hawley Pratt, stayed. Who the “three background men” are is up for debate. If Variety reported correctly and animators weren’t included, the answer may be simple. Irv Wyner had been doing Freleng’s backgrounds, Jones used Phil De Guard and McKimson’s former BG artist, Dick Thomas (on one pre-closure short). Presumably, the film cutter was Treg Brown (whether the studio had more than one cutter at the time, I don’t know). Brown didn’t start getting credits on Warners shorts until some time after the shutdown.

How much of a cartoon backlog did Warners have? Thad Komorowski’s extremely helpful web site fills us in. The last McKimson unit cartoon produced before the shutdown was “Too Hop to Handle,” released January 26, 1956. McKimson animated his unit’s last three cartoons, the final two with the help of former assistant animator Keith Darling. The last Jones cartoon was “Guided Muscle,” released December 10, 1955, with his full contingent of animators, but Phil De Guard drawing the layouts and Dick Thomas the backgrounds; Maurice Noble had left the studio for John Sutherland Productions before this.

A couple of other notes about the story: the MGM unit which shut down was Tex Avery’s. Grant Simmons was one of his animators, while Ray Patterson worked in both the Avery and Hanna-Barbera units. Patterson and Simmons seem to have acted as their own little unit at Lantz. They made two cartoons, “Dig That Dog” (released April 12, 1954) and “Broadway Bow Wow’s” (released August 2, 1954). Internet sites have suggested these cartoons were made by the Grantray-Lawrence studio. As Grantray didn’t exist until July 1954 (see Variety, July 21, 1954), these two shorts couldn’t have been made there.

Selzer said it was likely the Warners studio would re-open on January 4, 1954 and that’s exactly what happened. In the meantime, the Jones-directed 3-D cartoon “Lumber Jack-Rabbit” was rushed into release. It was the only 3-D cartoon short made by Warners. It’s unclear when the studio soured on the idea of people being forced to wear red-and-green glasses to watch its movies.

Here’s Daily Variety again, from December 4, 1953.

WB Cartoon Studio Resumes Production Operations Jan. 4
Warners cartoon studio will resume operations Jan. 4, Edward Selzer, who heads unit, reported yesterday. Unit closed down last June, due to a backlog of nearly one year of completed product. Key workers have been trickling back to WB employment during the past several weeks, to prep a schedule of between 25 and 30 cartoons in 1954, with balance to report before Jan. 4.
In preparation of new schedule, Selzer already has arranged for purchase of an all-purpose camera and crane, which will be installed late this month. Larger swivel units for the animation, inking and painting desk also have been ordered. New cartoon sked calls for subjects to be produced for a 1.75 screen, suitable also for standard showing. Selzer tosses annual Warner Club Christmas party at his home Dec. 20.

Chuck Jones was one of those “key workers;” he had left Disney in November. Tedd Pierce returned as well. He had gone to UPA from Warners well before the shutdown and was replaced with Sid Marcus in the McKimson unit. But Pierce wrote for Jones when he returned; He didn’t write for McKimson right away because only two units operated again when the studio resumed full production. McKimson returned a little later. Variety reported on March 9, 1954.

Warners Expanding Its Cartoon Studio Into Three Units
Warners cartoon studio, which resumed production the first of the year with two units, very likely will be expanded to three following arrival later this month of Norman Moray, Warners' shorts sales [boss].

McKimson’s new unit consisted of Darling, Ted Bonnicksen, a former Disney animator who had been in Freleng’s unit at the time of the shutdown, and Russ Dyson, another ex-Disneyite, who died September 25, 1956 at the age of 50. Thomas handled backgrounds.

Maltese rejoined the studio and the Jones unit at the end of August 1954.

As for MGM, Quimby never did bring back a second unit for theatrical cartoons, but he did have Mike Lah work on the animated segment in the Gene Kelly feature “Invitation to the Dance.” Variety
● Reported on May 27, 1953 a cartoon/live action scene was being considered but hadn’t been filmed,
● Ran a story on August 10th saying it would go ahead,
● Blurbed on March 12, 1954 that Quimby had set a finishing date of June 15th for it but
● Announced on June 8th that Kelly couldn’t shoot it until August.
Lah ended up directing a second unit after Quimby retired around the start of 1956. Meanwhile, Tex Avery landed at Walter Lantz (Daily Variety, Dec. 23, 1953), but lasted only eight months and completed four cartoons.

Warners maintained its cartoon studio into the 1960s, merging it with the commercial and industrial films department under David DePatie. When Variety reported on May 31, 1963 that DePatie-Freleng Enterprises had formed, it stated that what was once the cartoon studio was “a recently dissolved WB subsidiary.” The studio did eventually reopen for a few years, but it just wasn’t the same.


  1. Warner Bros, is now in a state of suspended animation...


  2. "The studio did eventually reopen for a few years, but it just wasn’t the same. "

    And it's STILL not the same today. In fact, when the studio was under ownership by Sander Schwartz, it was like the late 1960s all over again! ("What's New Scooby-Doo" felt pretty similar to the Bill Hendricks/Seven Arts cartoons, but with less H-B sound effects and a more "modern" music soundtrack instead of the twangy Bill Lava music.)

    Closest they've got to those glory days was the 1990s, under ownership by Jean MacCurdy and Tom Ruegger, when they did stuff like "Animaniacs" and "Tiny Toon Adventures."