Saturday, 26 May 2018

Sidney's Golden Moment

Terrytoons weren’t exactly witty or magnificently animated into the 1950s. Then Gene Deitch came along in 1956 as creative supervisor and changed that.

He succeeded in some ways. Deitch invented Tom Terrific for television, little bare-bones cartoons that were imaginatively animated and occasionally dry in humour (thanks, Manfred). And his most enjoyable new creation for theatres, at least in my estimation, was Sidney the elephant. Sidney was well-defined. He was clumsy, helpful, neurotic and occasionally obsessive. He wasn’t a complete winner, like a Bugs Bunny, or a loser, like Wile E. Coyote. He got support from a giraffe that sounded like Carol Channing (both characters were played by Lionel Wilson, who was also Tom Terrific). And his beach-ball design was pretty clever, too.

Sidney outlasted Deitch at Terrytoons and appeared in 19 cartoons. It doesn’t seem like there were that many, but perhaps it’s because whoever owns these cartoons won’t put them into home video circulation (“Tusk, tusk,” as Sidney might say).

The Terrytoons, as Leonard Maltin opined in his still-valuable book Of Mice And Magic, suddenly got noticed. Around the world, too. Animated films appeared for the first time at the London Festival in 1959. Sidney’s Family Tree was screened along with animated features from Czechoslovakia and Japan, and cartoon shorts from Yugoslavia, Romania, East Germany, Canada and England’s Halas and Batchelor studio (The Insolate Matador). In other words, the kinds of films you’d expect at an international festival. And Terrytoons belonged there. This was the same studio that was foisting Dinky Duck on people just a few years earlier.

Why all the Terrytoon talk? Note this short article in Picturegoer, a British publication, of January 16, 1960.
Move over, Magoo
A FEW years ago the critics were raving about the wit and stylishness of UPA’s Magoo shorts. Today, if they bother to comment, it’s only to deplore the way the series has got stuck in a rut. Meanwhile Terrytoons—a name that once caused shudders in other animation studios—comes up with so many inventive productions that it’s won the place that UPA held as the most imaginative of American groups.
Films like Flebus and Sidney’s Family Tree have been the talk of international film festivals. They offer something new—animated psychology. The characters have complexes—and the studio uses artists like cartoonist Feiffer to explore them.
There’s even a line in crazy mixed-up animals. The elephant in Sidney’s Family Tree may be forty-four, but he still so pines for mother love that insists on being adopted by two very small monkeys. The dog in The Tale Of A Dog is mistaken for an employee by a frankfurter company and works his way up to be president. . . .
Bob Godfrey, a director of Britain’s own off-beat Biographic Cartoon Films, comments: “Terrytoons uses to turn out the worst American cartoons. Now it’s about the best. But I don’t that kind of psychological humour will be imitated over here. We’d call it sick humour.”
Sick . . . or sophisticated. Does Magoo need spectacles to read the writing on the wall? It’s time he got the opposition into focus, particularly after 1001 Arabian Nights, not on release. Or are the men behind Magoo short-sighted too?
Unfortunately for Magoo, things got worse for him, not better. Hank Saperstein soon bought UPA and started churning out television dreck, including cartoons featuring the almost-blind old man saddled with an outrageously unfunny Asian stereotype houseboy. (Magoo, in a way, recovered to star in the first animated Christmas special for television). Terrytoons then decided it didn’t want “a different approach to animated subjects,” as a PR flack for the studio put it when Gene Deitch was hired. Deitch was out (he moved on and won an Oscar). Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle were in (and looking cheaper). People went to theatres to see them. But critics weren’t talking about Terrytoons any longer.


  1. Dayton Allen would end up doing Sidney's voice in the final handful of shorts Terrytoons did with the character. Allen's take was less neurotic than Wilson's original voice and more fast-talking crazy, which likely was due to Bill Weiss by 1961 pretty much demanding that all the theatrical shorts be geared towards either afternoon syndication or Saturday morning use for kids by parent company CBS. Unlike Deitch's other creations (and as Maltin noted) Sidney was the most readily accessible to children of the late 50s characters.

  2. Perhaps Sidney outlasted Deitch's stay because he was the only animal character?
    Bill Weiss and Hank Saperstein were basically salesmen, not creative types. Deitch harbors an understandable grudge against Weiss to this day.

    1. To clarify: perhaps the only animal character created during Gene's tenure, that is.

    2. That sounds feasible to me, though there were some human characters (Hector Heathcote) under Weiss.