Saturday, 24 October 2020

Fred Quimby—The Authorised Story

Fred Quimby could lift a pencil. But he couldn’t draw a cartoon with it. Yet he spent years in charge of, or overseeing, cartoon operations at MGM.

If you think about it, it’s a wonder Quimby kept his job. In 1937, Metro decided to have its own cartoon studio on the lot instead of relying outside on contractors (first, Ub Iwerks, then Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising) for animated shorts.

Things became a disaster. Animators hired from New York didn’t get along with the ones from West Coast. Harry Hershfield and Milt Gross were brought in the run things and were quickly shoved out. Studio politics got so bad that Friz Freleng wasted little time in getting back into his car and pointing it at Leon Schlesinger’s ratty building on Van Ness and Fernwood. Quimby was forced to bring back Harman and Ising, who he didn’t want in the first place. This was all in about two years.

What kind of executive runs things that way? Well, a guy who had owned a theatre, been a film salesman and was without any apparent artistic creativity.

Quimby’s office must have been built on a pile of horseshoes. Somehow, two of Ising’s underlings—a failed director and an ex-writer for Terrytoons—were allowed to make their own cartoon that became a huge hit and an Oscar nominee. Quimby gave Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera their own unit to make more Tom and Jerrys and rack up Oscars (granted, he was opposed to the idea of a cat and mouse series at the start). Then he had the good fortune of picking up an at-liberty cartoon director named Tex Avery. Oh, and a strike over at Walt Disney’s allowed him to populate his studio with top new animators—Ken Muse, Ray Patterson and Preston Blair among them.

We profiled Fred C. in this post, but Metro did it, too, in the April-May 1940 edition of Short Story, the studio’s magazine dealing with its short subject programme. It conveniently ignores Quimby’s arrest in 1921 on a charge of illegal interstate transport of film (something that would be absolutely ridiculous today, given technology).

One wonders which radio network wanted him to “take charge of television development” as there was only one experimental station west of Chicago and a handful in the eastern states. And if he supervised “Gray’s Elegy,” he supervised it out of existence because it never got finished (animator/historian Mark Kausler got a first-hand story on that from Hugh Harman).

Quimby retired around the start of 1956—likely for health reasons—and died in 1965 at the age of 79.

HE STICKS TO SHORTS
THIRTY-FIVE years ago, a lean, lanky lad of fourteen jogged contentedly over the plains of Montana, alone except for his spotted pony. It was an unusual animal, but no more unusual than the boy. For other boys his age were riding horses now. In this country a boy waited for the day when he could own a man-sized horse with even more anticipation than his Dude cousin did his first pair of long trousers. His friends often taunted him because his pony couldn't keep up with them. But the boy was loyal. His pony was short but it was substantial and it got him there just the same. He decided to stick to his pony.
Still a ponyboy at heart, Fred Quimby has been figuratively riding a short horse ever since. Today he is foremost among Hollywood's altogether too few champions of the screen's little short subject. And if he was determined about his pony, he's stubborn as a mule about his shorts.
First Quimby had to sell himself on short subjects. That was back in 1913 when he operated a movie emporium in Missoula, Montana. Then he began his everlasting job of selling them to others, taking charge of the Denver and Salt Lake City territory for Pathe, the industry's largest shorts producers at the time. Even in those days the exhibitors smiled when Quimby sat down to expound about the importance of shorts. Nobody took shorts that seriously they told him. But they did condescend to buy a few and their disparaging attitude only served to stiffen Quimby's resolve to defend these belittled little pictures against all odds.
Within three years Quimby's singular sincerity about shorts had carried him to the post of general manager and member of the Pathe board of directors. In 1924 Fox Films called upon him to reorganize and enlarge their short subject activities. And in 1927 when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to establish a short subject department under the guidance of the best qualified executive in the industry Fred Quimby was the logical choice for the job.
Today as manager of the Metro shorts department, he has achieved the longest career on record in the short subject field. Others have used shorts freely and frankly as only a stepping stone to the larger rewards in the realm of feature pictures. Quimby has had such opportunities too. He has turned down better jobs than some of his friends were ever offered. Not long ago one of the big radio networks prevailed upon him to take full charge of television development. His friends chide him when he passes up these opportunities to escape from shorts much as they did about that pony. But his answer is just the same — he'll stick to shorts. By this time he's pretty well stuck with them. He's made shorts his hobby as well as his work. And he's happy about the whole thing.
Certainly the short subject needs a Quimby — or preferably a number of Quimbys — today more than ever before. Where he used to fight for shorts against features, to get increased budgets for production and corresponding larger revenues from exhibitors, he now has to fight against double features. In fact, the advent of double billing all but wiped out the shorts entirely. They have been scorned by critics, spurned by exhibitors, scoffed at by industry wiseacres and slighted by nearly everyone concerned. Through it all, Quimby's job has been a discouraging and a thankless one but his abiding faith in shorts remains unshaken.
The principle upon which Quimby bases his belief in shorts can be very simply stated. He believes that quantity does not make quality — in entertainment any more.
On the other hand, he contends that it is very possible for a ten-minute short to leave a greater impression on an audience than a two-hour feature, just as a good short story is often remembered longer than a dozen novels. He likes to recall that Lincoln's 250-word Gettysburg address still lives while the 14,000 word oration delivered by Everett on the same occasion was forgotten the next day. By the same token, he believes that many feature stories could be improved by producing them in shorter form. Particularly he deplores the Hollywood system of buying stories originally written as shorts and stretching them into features. It is the same idea, he reasons, as pouring water — and cold water, at that — into a good cup of coffee.
Quimby is currently devoting his special attention to the birds and bees of the animated cartoons. Foreseeing the present popularity of this type of short, Quimby persuaded Metro to become the first and only major Studio to operate its own cartoon plant. Believing that the surface of cartoon potentialities has hardly been scratched, he seeks to introduce new ideas into the field. To this end he has for the past two years supervised the cartoon experiments of co- producers Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, a notable example of which was the widely acclaimed "Peace on Earth." Here for the first time the cartoon turned its satire on a serious and timely topic in order to show the futility of war. "Gray's Elegy," a far cry from the ordinary cartoon themes, is now in production.
Man and boy, Quimby's career has been characterized by his ordinary stick-to-it-iveness. He still indulges his boyhood appetite for chewing gum and candy, keeps his desk stocked with the stuff. His absorbing interest in shorts calls for long hours at his desk and leaves little time for outside interests. He arises at 6:30 every morning, invariably goes straight home from work. He is shy, sensitive and sentimental, still knows how to blush. He has been playing golf for years but is still taking lessons. Occasionally, he finds time to go to the races where he always bets — you guessed it — on the littlest horse on the track.

4 comments:

  1. MGM as a whole seemed to be content to simply do whatever has just worked for some other animation stuido, and hope that drowning the project in money would make it all work out, whether it was Harmon & Ising mimicking Disney, the studio hoping for a Popeye-like newspaper-to-cartoon splash with "The Captain & The Kids", or Quimby deciding he wanted more Warner Bros.-like slapstick in his cartoons (but without that Warner Bros. rowdyism he'd later warn Avery about). I suppose Quimby does get a little credit for the latter change in direction by giving Bill and Joe their own unit, when both Hugh and Rudy still wanted to chase Walt and were adverse to doing anything like the Tom & Jerry series (and where at least the animation studio's fortunes were on the rise in the early 1940s, while the live-action shorts outside of Pete Smith's efforts were becoming a total waste of celluloid).

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    1. What's wrong with John Nesbitt's THE PASSING PARADE?

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    2. Those Our Gang films weren't very good either. Aside from seeing older versions of Spanky, Darla, Alfalfa and Buckwheat the novelty wears off pretty quickly with the arrival of Froggy, Janet and Mickey..

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  2. Why is it always the most humorless men who got to run studios' cartoon divisions? According to Chuck Jones' account at least, Warner Bros.' Eddie Selzer wasn't exactly laugh-a-minute either.

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