Saturday, 3 November 2018

Booting a Puss and an Animation Career Into High Gear

Puss Gets the Boot changed the MGM cartoon studio forever. But not right away.

The cartoon was released on February 10, 1940. It wasn’t on the studio’s 1939-40 twelve-release schedule unveiled by Variety on October 9, 1939. It was on the schedule by December (Showman’s Trade Review, Dec. 2, 1939) and the cartoon was profiled (with cel set-ups) in the January-February 1940 issue of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Short Story, an internal magazine (which trumpets it as “Rudolf Ising’s latest cartoon” and calls the characters “Jasper,” “Pee-Wee” and “the housekeeper”). It’s clear the cartoon was ready before the start of the year.

What else is clear is that someone at MGM decided to allow a former storyman from Terrytoons and a failed MGM director to make a cartoon, at the very least on a trial basis. At the time, the Metro cartoon division was rife with politics and turmoil. I’d love to know exactly how it was that Hanna and Barbera became directors.

After Puss was released, Variety announced on March 23rd that Hanna and Barbera would receive their own unit and leave Rudy Ising’s. Their first cartoon was to be Swing Social, without Tom and Jerry (it starred fish in blackface); it was one of the 12 cartoons announced the previous October.

Interestingly, the Associated Press did a story on the unknown Hanna and Barbera. The premise seems odd. The author says people saw Rudy Ising’s name on the screen but wondered who designed the characters. Wouldn’t they think it was Ising? Weren’t these the same people that thought Walt Disney was the driving force behind all his cartoon shorts because his name was the only one on the credits? We printed part of the story on the Yowp blog some years ago. We’ve found a longer version since. It appeared in papers starting May 5, 1940.
New Cartoon Enters Movies

HOLLYWOOD, May 4 (AP)— A very entertaining cartoon making the rounds now deserves some belated attention. Its title is "Puss Gets the Boot."
One gets so accustomed to seeing the "credits" at the beginning of pictures, looking for names of neighbors and fellows we have met, that when there are no names he is curious and a little disappointed.
The credits for "Puss" are conspicuous by their absence. At the beginning, it says a man named Ising produced the picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but more than one person wondered who conceived the characters and the plot and directed the story and, in addition, told it with such simplicity that it will not confuse children—nor bore adults.
The answer is a pair of young fellows, Joe Barbera, who used to work in a bank in New York, and Bill Hanna, who started his film career as a janitor in a cartoon studio the day after he got out of high school.
From now on, because "Puss" is so good, Joe and Bill are a team of producers and they will have their names in large letters on every picture they make.
They expect to turn out six a year, which is a large undertaking, though they do have "inkers-in" and animators and photographers to perform the routine of giving life and illusion to thousands of little drawings.
Joe, who is 29 years-old, is one of the few who is both artist and story constructor. He had sold some drawings to magazines in New York while working in the bank. He went to a film-cartoon factory when the bank, for reasons of economy, reduced the number of its employees. That was five years ago.
Bill doesn't draw much, but he's done about everything else in film cartooning. He and Joe, working at sundry tasks in the one-reel department, complemented each other so well that the boss, Fred Quimby, put them in the same cubbyhole office. Joe and Bill now are working on their fifth picture and the way they get them up is so unusual that it demands telling.
With their feet on their desks, they begin tossing ideas and suggestions back and forth. Bill may say, being one who prefers colloquialisms, "That's swell," or if it isn't, "That smells." Joe is a neat, precise fellow who works with his coat on, a handful of sharpened pencils and a fine regard for the King's English.
Barbara sketches while Bill talks. In four or five weeks, they have a rough draft—in black-and-white sketches—of the picture they intend to make. They have the sketches filmed, which is a new technique and their own idea, and thus they have a preview of the story before getting into, the expensive part of production.
One-reel cartoons cost from $30,000 to $35,000. These "rehearsals" cost about $3,000 and Joe and Bill say, with the time and effort they save by "getting rid of the bugs" first, they're able to effect quite a savings. Their finished cartoons average about $25,000. In the cartoon business, they speak of "arty" pictures which stress color and odd camera angles and freaky stuff, as "cloud effects."
Joe and Bill pick simple characters as the cat and the mouse in "Puss" and animate them against simple, unpretentious backgrounds. The "actors" never get lost in a maze of scenery, something which will give their pictures an unconscious appeal to the younger customers. And, says Joe:
"The idea is to make them funny. The purpose of the cartoon is to make people laugh. That's all we're trying to do."
Joe and Bill don't give a hang for "cloud effects." They can have more fun on the good old terra firma.
What did reviewers have to say? Most liked the cartoon.
“The animation of this item is the usual cat-plays-with-mouse stuff with the tables eventually reversed. The coloring is fine. Humor with injected with sly ingenuity. Ideal for the children.” (Boxoffice, March 23, 1940).
“Here is a lively color cartoon which should draw chuckles from any audience. A cat plays with a mouse until the mouse becomes desperate. However, the cat is threatened with eviction if he continues to break dishes around the house, and the mouse seizes the opportunity to avenge himself on his tormentor. Very clever animation.” (Motion Picture Daily, March 5, 1940).
“The characters are three in this ingenious and really humorous Technicolor cartoon; the cat, the mouse and the menacing feet of an old colored servant. One is pleased to see the little mouse win, although the rules were not written by the Marquis of Queensbury.” (Motion Picture Reviews, May 1940).
“In this Rudolf Ising pigmented pen point of a cat and mouse game, the little rodent comes out of the fray victor over his feline tormentor. How the victim turns the tables on his tormentor results in a gay, brightly tinted and sketched bout. Especially clever is the portrayal of the smug superiority of the cat dictator.” (Motion Picture Herald, March 9, 1940).
“This is a dandy color cartoon. A very different type of humor predominates this in which a mouse discovers one way to keep an advantage over a cat. You'll like it and so will your audience.—W. Varick Nevens, III, Alfred Co-op Theatre, Alfred, N.Y. (Motion Picture Herald, March 23, 1940).
“One of the best cartoons in many months. An idea with laughs aplenty. Play it.—C.W. Davis, Rockingham Theatre, Reidsville, N.C. (Motion Picture Herald, April 6, 1940).
“As good a cartoon as you will play this season. Very funny. —A. J. Inks, Crystal Theatre, Ligonier, Ind. (Motion Picture Herald, May 25, 1940).
“The poorest of this series. Color not so good as most of them and plot below average.—Gladys E. McArdle, Owl Theatre, Lebanon, Kansas (Motion Picture Herald, June 1, 1940).
There was one other review that seemed to mean more to Metro than anyone else. Besa Short, who booked shorts for the Interstate chain of theatres, wrote the studio to ask when more of the cat-and-mouse cartoons would be coming. According to Bill Hanna’s autobiography, that’s when the studio figured the characters had better make a return to the screen.

Puss Gets the Boot was nominated for an Oscar but lost in February 1941 to another MGM cartoon. MGM then announced, as reported by Motion Picture Daily on May 20, 1941, that it was starting “an extended two series cartoon program.” One was to star Tom and Jerry. “Titles of the cartoons planned for this group are ‘Midnight Snack,’ for release this month, ‘Comrade Nix,’ ‘Fraidy Cat,’ and ‘The Girl Friend.’” Midnight Snack came out July 19th, Fraidy Cat was released Jan. 17, 1942. It’s tough to say what the other two were.

Puss was re-issued as late as the 1962-63 season, when it appeared on screens along with the Gene Deitch Tom and Jerrys.

It’s a good thing Fred Quimby listened to Mrs. Short. If he hadn’t there would have been no more Tom and Jerry cartoons, meaning there would have been no Hanna-Barbera partnership, and that meant there would have been no TV animation studio which opened in 1957 which changed television cartoons forever.


  1. 'The Girl Friend' sounds like it could be Puss N' Toots (model sheets refer to Tom's sweetie with that name).

  2. Hmmm... could "Comrade Nix" possibly be a working title for "The Yankee Doodle Mouse"?

    1. I think it's "Comrades Mix", which turned into "Dog Trouble".

    2. It could be, but that isn't the original title given in Motion Picture Daily