Thursday, 4 July 2019

Leon Schlesinger in All His (Old) Glory

It’s 1939. You’re a cartoon producer who isn’t making a feature and isn’t named Walt Disney. How do you get publicity?

You wave the flag.

Leon Schlesinger managed to keep his name in the trade press, thanks to publicity director Rose Horsley. Some of the news spilled over into the popular press—such as when he withdrew his shorts from Oscar contention because of Disney and when he worked out a deal with Jimmie Swinnerton to put his Canyon Kiddies in a series (which turned out to be one cartoon). But one story which garnered a jackpot of press was when the studio made Old Glory.

With war brewing overseas, Warner Bros. had decided to make a series of patriotic two-reelers in live action. Schlesinger quickly jumped on the idea and soon let it be known to the world he would “personally supervise” the production of a patriotic Porky Pig cartoon in time for Easter release (Film Daily, March 21, 1939). The Newspaper Enterprise Association’s Hollywood columnist nibbled and interviewed Schlesinger about it. Leon seems delighted to have been able to talk about himself.
In Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD—(NEA)—The movies’ patriotic parade has even reached the field of animated cartoons. Leon Schlesinger’s cartoons, anyway. He makes the Merrie Melodies and the Looney Tunes which are released by those busy eulogists of the land-of-the-free, the Warner Brothers.
Thus it may be possible during a single evening in the theater (preferably the evening of July 4) to see a stupendous patriotic feature, a mildly colossal four-reel featurette from American history, a patriotic newsreel and a patriotic Porky Pig.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” probably would be heard, too. It already is being played in many of the Warner theaters at every performance by executive order. Nearly all the Schlesinger films are satirical, but “Old Glory” will be played as straight as is consistent with the whimsical notion of Porky sitting on Uncle Sam’s knee and listening to stories about Paul Revere, Bill of Rights and Yorktown.
At the beginning, Porky is lying in the grass trying to memorize the Pledge to the Flag. He finds it difficult and gives up to take a nap. So along comes Uncle Sam, in a dream sequence, and shows him some inspiring flashes from the past. In fact, just about the whole cavalcade of American history is being put into a seven-minute color cartoon.
Tries Anything—Once
Schlesinger makes more movie cartoons than anybody else in the business. His output is 42 a year now and the studio is geared for 52—one a week. Walt Disney’s huge factory, pre-occupied with three features, produces only 18 shorts a year.
The Merrie Melodist doesn’t expect ever to be bothered with full-length animations, although his personal slogan is “I’ll try anything once.” He just doesn’t believe that cartoon features will be very popular if they get out of the novelty category.
“Double bills promise to be pretty generally abolished one of these days,” he said, “and that’s going to boom the shorts market. We may make a few two-reelers here, but nothing longer. I think 650 or 700 feet (about 6 minutes) is the ideal length. Hit ‘em and run, leaving ‘em wanting more. The best compliment anybody can pay me is to say, ‘Your stuff is too short.’”
The cartoon factories all are rather remarkable for their lenient, generous treatment of employees and the co-operative spirit they foster. The reason is, of course, that hand-made movies are an especially exacting, nerve-wracking task requiring rest periods and relaxation. Also, the spontaneity and zip of these short films depend a lot on the enthusiasm of the many departments through which they pass.
Coach Inspires Cartoonists
Schlesinger is a good boss with the inspirational talents of a football coach. His staff of 200 is smaller, compared to annual output, than that of any other animator. Yet he is the only one who actually is ahead of his production schedule. He was the first to inaugurate the five-day week, and his plant never has worked Saturdays or Sundays except for the many shifts of cameramen who work every day and night.
This studio, unlike Disney’s, also gives screen credit to its producers, directors, writers and animators.
Every outgoing picture is subjected to the criticism of every employee. They file into the theater and are handed printed forms for their comments. These forms are not signed when they are filled out. On the strength of these opinions Schlesinger has held back many a film for revisions.
He let me see a picture made last winter for the studio’s annual Christmas party. The staff worked on it secretly for weeks in its spare time, and the film is a pretty biting satire on the organization’s morale and its esteem for the big boss. Schlesinger is prouder of it than if it had been a fulsome tribute on a golden scroll.
Once the cartoon was finished, Mrs. Horsley supplied some facts and figures to reporters and United Press put together the following story. Note that it’s as much about Schlesinger as it is about the cartoon. It mentions no names of anyone who worked on it.
First Patriotic Cartoon In Hollywood's History Set for July 4 Release
200 Artists Work 10 Weeks at Full Blast Turning Out "Old Glory."

By Frederick C. Othman
United Press Hollywood Correspondent.
HOLLYWOOD, June 16—Leon Schlesinger, the cartoon producer who couldn't draw a picture if his life depended on it, completed today Hollywood's first patriotic cartoon for July 4 release by the brothers Warner, flag-wavers extraordinary.
This is important news for number of reasons:
1. Schlesinger set an all-time record for speed by producing and photographing 20,000 separate drawings in 10 weeks flat; the average cartoon of the same length takes 10 months to make.
2. The picture marks an extraordinary turnabout of the old phrase, "From the sublime to the ridiculous." Schlesinger's cartoon went from Porky Pig to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
3. It was an excellent production and included more American history in one reel than ever has been packed together before. Schlesinger said live actors would have taken a full-length feature picture to tell the same story.
The business of producing a cartoon in 10 weeks, with drawings in full color being made at the rate of 2,000 a week, turned the Schelesinger headquarters inside out. When he thought of the idea in bed one night in March, the boss told his scenarists to write a patriotic story and then he set all his 200 artists working on it. For the full 10 weeks, they didn't do a lick of work on a merrie melodie or a looney tune, the Schlesinger specialties which he turns out at the rate of 42 a year.
"And it costs me 25 per cent more than any other cartoon," he said, "and I'm bound to lose money on it. Only return I'll get is the satisfaction of having made it."
Called "Old Glory."
The film is entitled "Old Glory." It opens with Porky Pig trying to memorize the pledge of allegiance to the flag: he falls asleep and in his dream Uncle Sam comes to life and shows him the history of the United States, including high points in the lives of Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, with some thing of the American epic westward, thrown in for good measure.
A 50-piece symphony orchestra plays patriotic music and when the picture ends with Porky Pig learning the pledge, letter-perfect, it gives you a bit of a tingle in your spine. That is an accomplishment. No movie pig ever caused anything before but chuckles.
The gray-haired Schlesinger is something of an anachronism, even in the movie business. He makes more film cartoons than any other producer, yet he never has even been interested in trying to draw pictures. As a boy, he was an usher in a Philadelphia theater; later he became a vaudeville press agent, and eventually he came to Hollywood in 1922 as sales manager for a raw film factory. Three years later he organized the Pacific Title and Art Studio, which still flourishes in the manufacture of fancy titles for feature pictures.
This concern, of course, had to be staffed with commercial artists who could draw pictures and designs for shining on the silver sheet. It thus was a cartoon studio, fundamentally, even before the drawings were cartoons.
"You Make, I'll Sell."
So Schlesinger hired scenarists and animators and told them to make cartoons; he said he'd sell 'em.
"I always figured that I was a business man and that art and business didn't mix," he said. "I never saw an artist who could handle his own bank account. And never saw a business man who was any ready hand with a paint brush. So I merely hired the best artists and writers I could get and let them go to it. It seems to have worked out all right."
Schlesinger has a $300,000 annual payroll, a plant of his own, a Beverly Hills mansion and a medium-sized yacht. And that's not bad for a cartoonist who admits he can't draw anything but checks.
Old Glory was released July 1 but the trade press got a sneak peak. Film Daily called it “Stirring entertainment,” and referred to director Chuck Jones, animator Bob McKimson, as well as Johnny Burton, Milt Franklyn, narrator John W. Deering and the Paul Taylor vocalists by name; the latter four likely never got screen credit. Motion Picture Daily declared it “compact and pleasantly palatable lesson in Americanism” and “a nice job of cartooning, more serious than most” while Showmen’s Trade Review dismissed it as “okay as propaganda.”

It’s a matter of speculation why Jones was picked. The other directors at the time were Cal Dalton/Bugs Hardaway, Bob Clampett and Tex Avery. Clampett was working on animation on the Republic feature She Married a Cop while the Dalton/Hardaway unit had finished sequences on the Robert Benchley short How to Eat for MGM. Jones may have been the best choice but the cartoon suffers through his slow pacing, though perhaps he (or Leon) wanted a reverential gait.


  1. My guess for a while was that Jones was probably the only director who would take the concept "seriously".

  2. I'm now curious to see "Paddy the Pig". Is that sequence available online?

  3. I think making a patriotic cartoon in 1939 with the world on the brink of a global war is more than an exercise in ... "flag waving."

    At one time (sorely missed) patriotism was our default position. Now it's seen as a fault.

    1. Still have my 16mm print. Years ago when I would drag it out every 4th of July, the kids groaned, but I still like it.

  4. Hans Christian Brando7 July 2019 at 17:26

    I'd never have figured Patrick Henry looked so much like Patricia Neal.

    And notice, fundamentalists, that there was no "under God" in the Pledge at the time.

  5. Those Warner American-history two-reelers of the late '30s would be shown in schools, well into the '70s, despite their inaccuracies. I recall seeing one of the shorts in school (probably "Declaration of Independence") which featured a sped-up fistfight after one of the combatants leapt upon the other from horseback - it could have come straight out of a B-Western and we laughed at it.
    The scene of Patrick Henry in "Old Glory" was roto-traced from the "Give Me Liberty" short, with John Litel as Henry.