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Monday, April 02, 2007

A Terrytoons Double Bill (Introduction)

Paul Terry, it could be said, was to animation what Harry Cohn was to live-action filmmaking--The King of Poverty Row.

It hadn't always been so. In the silent era, Terry's work was near the top of the ladder. Even the young Walt Disney admired the silent Terry films, and his early films were at least in part inspired by Terry's "Aesop's Fables" cartoons.

Yet by 1940, his cartoons were merely...there. Not that he wasn't innovative--he originated techniques in the silent era, such as the rotating pan shot, that would later be utilized in countless TV cartoons, in particular Hanna-Barbera's. Driven crazy by the fact that Fred and Barney pass the same building five times in the same scene? Blame Terry. However, unlike his onetime admirer Disney, Terry was only as innovative as costs would allow.

As with his counterpart Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros, Terry went into animation because it was profitable. Unlike Leon, he at least had cartoonists' credentials, having done a newspaper comic strip in the early 1900's. But as far as he was concerned, he could have been making shoes, or nails, or doorknobs. Cartoons were product to be delivered on schedule, and deliver them he did, every two weeks, for forty years--"like a bottle of milk", to quote Leonard Maltin in his book Of Mice and Magic.

Of course, to keep to such a daunting schedule, our friend Terry shared one other trait with Leon--being notoriously cheap. In fact, his cheapness was the stuff of legend, making Schlesinger look like a drunken sailor in comparison.

Though it should probably be taken with a mineload of salt, the late Joe Barbera--very briefly an employee of Terry in the mid-'30s--loved to tell the story of his last day at the studio. Though, at first, he hadn't known it would be his last day...

(I should add here that this excerpt is courtesy of The Archive of American Television--R.)

"...Word got around to Terry that people were thinking of [going to California], and about seven of them left--I hadn't left yet, I was the last one. So I happened to go to the water cooler--this shows you the psychology--and Terry is standing by the water cooler:

(grunts): 'I'm takin' care of you!'...

What does he mean by that--'I'm taking care of you!?'...Well, the next day is payday, right?
And here comes the business guy and he gives me a check...I was getting $55 [a week]--the check was for SIXTY-five. Now, the MGM deal was for $87...but I'm thinking, 'Gee, I got a girlfriend here, I just bought a car on time, I have the routine, it's comfortable...

This is flashing through my mind when a hand came back and took the check back. The business guy says--he's got this big hairy arm--he says, "Made a mistake!" I said, 'Now what do I do??'

He comes right back and gives me the check back again...he reduced the raise from $10 to $5! I mean, is this psychology? They want to keep me there, and they give me a raise and cut in about four seconds? So I left..."

(The full interview can be seen here, on Google Video.)

Thus a simple five dollars--or lack thereof--changed the course of animation history. Though not, unfortunately, in Paul Terry's favor.

Though his cartoons' tight budgets made Terry dependable, they often showed in his studio's output.. Sloppy in-betweening, haphazard storylines, and repetition of formulas often crippled what might otherwise have been great cartoons. However, Terry would sometimes let a few gems shine through, almost despite himself. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to be discussing two of those gems, each with an almost identical premise: THE MAGIC PENCIL from 1940, and THE POWER OF THOUGHT from a decade later, starring by far Terry's most popular characters, Heckle and Jeckle. Without revealing too much, the two cartoons together could almost be called The Animator's Manifesto. Stay "tooned"...(OK, I'll probably get divine retribution for that one).

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