Speaking of mummies reminds me of my first job in Hollywood when I worked as gag man for Universal Comedies in a picture which featured Jake Earle, the Boy Giant.
Hollywood was new to me and I was undecided whether I wanted to be a gag man, title writer, scenarist or an actor. Ah! An actor! So one day I spoke out of turn and talked the director into letting me play the part of a mummy, and in so doing I soon learned why most every character actor plays the part of a mummy only once.
On each of the fourteen days during the making of the picture it took me approximately two hours to put the makeup on and over three hours to take it off. If you should care to do it sometime, try the following:
First, undress. Then, put on an old-fashioned, one-piece suit of long underwear. Now, cut out two round pieces of adhesive tape (about the size of a dollar and a half) and fold. Cut a slit in each (the width of a dime), unfold and press one piece over each eye. Now, stick a gob of nose putty on each cheek, smear your thumb with brown greasepaint and press deftly against each gob and swipe your thumb downwardly, thus giving the appearance of hollow, dried cheeks.
Now twist and roll your ears and stick them fast with tape, and pucker your mouth like you are going to whistle and apply adhesive tape all around it.
Now you stand by while a prop boy winds around you yards and yards of old burlap and electrician's tape, leaving only the face exposed.
Now comes the "dirty work." Close your eyes and order the prop boy to throw shovels-full of powdered concrete, cookin' flour and "fuller's earth" all over you. You are ready now for the camera.
Possibly the gag will call for some "action," whereupon the director puts a tablespoonful of Kingsford's corn starch into your mouth and explains, "Now remember, you are an Egyptian mummy. You have been dead for thousands of years. In this scene Big Jake accidentally bumps into your chest, thus causing the dust of ages, or corn starch, to ppffft from your mouth."
"But who gets the laugh?" I asked, "Me or the Kingsford's corn starch?"
"That all depends," quips the director, "upon the 'ham' who's acting the part!"
It so happened that shortly after the picture was completed, a group of Englishmen dug up the remains of Old King Tut, who had lain in his tomb for lo these many years. At once, the whole world became King Tut-conscious. King Tut haircuts, King Tut frocks, King Tut this and King Tut that. Naturally, all of the studios became interested, but Universal had beaten them to it. Our picture was entitled "King Tut's Return."
Henceforth, "King Tut" pictures were being produced by almost every comedy company, and I was definitely becoming "trademarked" as a mummy character. I received many calls to do the part, but declined them all. Once a mummy, never more.
A few words about Jake. At that time he was seven feet seven inches tall, seventeen years old, wore a size seventeen collar and a number seventeen shoe. He seemed to take a special liking to me. (Probably because he was going through the adolescent age and wanted brotherly advice.) Having trouped with circuses and knowing intimately many sideshow folks, I knew how he felt.
"Listen, Jake," I encouraged him, "you have something that no other person has--seven feet, seven inches--and you're still growing!"
"I know," he [Jake Earle] lamented, "but there are three other guys who are just as big as I am."
"Forget them," I said. "After all, you are young, educated, have a good physique, a smiling personality and perfect health."
"But the other guys are bigger," insisted Jake.
"Maybe so," I agreed, "but one of them is a Chinaman, the other a Hindoo and the third an epileptic. Now, what you should do is to capitalize on what you already have and keep right on growing until you are pos-i-tively the tallest man in the world."
"You talk like a circus guy," he laughed.
"Now, we're getting somewhere," I assured him. . . .
Eleven years later, when Barnum and Bailey showed in Hollywood I visited the sideshow to look up an old "barker" with whom I had formerly trouped. To my surprise, a human figure standing eight feet six inches in his Texas boots picked me up and lifted me almost to the top of the tent.
"Pinto, you old so-and-so," he said. "YOU got me into this circus business!
"Jake!" I exclaimed. Whereupon we had a good time reminiscing about the old days in Hollywood.
Incidentally, Jake weighed but three pounds at birth. He was born in Denver, Colorado (The Mile-High City) and reared in the great big state of Texas.
After my experience as a "mummy" I worked for practically all of the comedy companies but said nothing to any of my associates about ever having anything to do with the making of animated cartoons until one day while under contract as a gagman for Mack Sennett an idea was suggested during a story discussion. They wanted to have a big swordfish swim through the scene and pass directly between Billy Bevan's legs. [Probably in "Down to the Sea in Shoes," released October 7, 1923.] As usual, I spoke out of turn and tried to put the damper on the gag by challenging, "Now, how th' devil yuh gonna show it?" I should have known better than to start an argument with "The Mighty Bulwark" of Comedy, Mack Sennett. How was I to know that he had recently caught the biggest swordfish of the year and had been honored and given medals for his achievement? Why, at that very moment his coveted prize was being stuffed, Simonized and mounted for posterity--to hang over the fireplace in the mighty fisherman's den. Yes, a swordfish was dear to "the old man's" heart, and here I had to go and make light of it.
When Sennett's face flashed from pink to red and he caught you under the magic spell of his cold steel Irish eyes, you weakened. You retracted every negative thought you ever uttered in his presence. Maybe you'd argue, and raise your voice, and bang a few desk tops, but in the end you were just another fish on the end of his line. He would unreel a bit and feed you a little slack, then tighten, work fast, draw you in close to the side of his boat, sock a gaff hook into your hide, and you, poor sucker, fishlike would flounder a moment, start blinking your eyes wonderingly, and then begin slowly to hinge your jaws open and shut for want of breath. He had you hooked! Now, don't get me wrong. Far be it from me to ever take a rap at Mack Sennett--grand old man that he is. It was just these methods that yanked him from obscurity to Fame.
Also, it was by these same methods of Sennett Schooling that many a nobody who heeded was later to have a star painted on his or her dressing room door.
Well, anyway, let's get back to where I was gasping in "Pop" Sennett's net.
"Yes," I said (You always said YES to Sennett), "I guess you're right. A swordfish would be just the thing!"
"Yeah, sure--it's a grand idea," cut in director Del Lord, "but I'll be damned if I'm going to use that old rubber dummy prop swordfish in another comedy. We've had it in almost every picture since the old Keystone days. The paint's all off, the patches show, and it looks just about as in-animate as Buster Keaton."
In-animate--in-animate--animate! Those words buzzed around in my mind. I looked over to Ernie Crockett, the special effects cameraman. "Say, Ernie," I ventured, "d'yuh s'pose there's some way you and I could animate th' darned thing?"
"Explain yourself!" barked Sennett. Then I was in for it.
"Well," I gulped, "I was just thinking, maybe if Ernie could get me a plain underwater shot showing Bevan swimming across the scene, possibly we could work out some animated drawings of a swordfish coming through and doing just what we said--skim right between Bevan's legs and on out of the scene. Then--"
"This ain't no Felix the Cat!" stormed Sennett. "We're making legitimate pictures . . . and besides, where are we gonna get an animated cartoonist to draw it?"
"Why, I've done some things along those lines," I replied. Sennett just sat there and eyed me. Ernie Crockett brightened.
"By golly! I think we could do it!" he said, snapping his fingers.
"It'd sure save me a lot of grief," spoke Del Lord.
"And me a lotta worry," added Bevan, who was hoping that nobody would suggest his being photographed with a live "in the flesh" swordfish.
I had suggested the idea in the first place, and now I had to go through with it. How, I didn't know. Sennett challenged me to show him something on film by the following week and got up and left the room. The others looked at me sympathetically. Unless you have ever been at the mercy of a Mack Sennett super-challenge you "ain't been at nuthin'." Ernie Crockett, on whom I depended greatly to help me out of the tangled net, took pity on me and nodded toward the door. We walked across the street and ordered a stiff drink.
The following morning, Ernie brought me the required strip of film--an eight-foot length showing Bevan swimming through kelp, seaweed and other underwater growth.
Technically, there are sixteen frames (or individual pictures) to each foot of film, and this, multiplied by eight, equalled 128 "set-ups" or separate sheets of paper on which I would have to draw a swordfish, animated to correspond with the action of Bevan's movements.
Now, Mr. Sennett knows his swordfish, so for several days I did a lot of research reading and pawing over every bit of art and information pertaining to swordfish that I could lay my hands on. I even bought some swordfish at a market, took it home, cooked it and ate it. (I really did!)
Finally, I started on the actual drawing of my 128 swordfish. Each on a separate sheet of paper. To give them a certain softness I rubbed them with an artist's stomp [Pinto probably means "pounce"] dipped in powdered amaranth--red and charcoal. Why, I don't know. It just seemed to be a nice thing to do. Then, with a little piece of art gum, I erased in the horizontal stripes running from backbone to belly. There was no monkeying around with this job; no grotesqueness of action. Boss Sennett knew his swordfish, and he had challenged me to do the "impossible."
Finally came the day when I had finished the drawings. Ernie and I photographed them and had the negative developed. We sneaked into the projection room and ran it--and darned if it didn't look pretty good. This, however, was only the first step. My further worries were how to double-print this cartoon swordfish onto the motion picture negative of Bevan swimming, how to perfectly match and synchronize it with Bevan's actions. When double-printed would it look like a cartoon fish and a real human being? That would never do! Ernie's attitude assured me that my worries were unnecessary, so we went ahead to delve into the mysteries of the final stages. We double-printed the two negatives, struck off the positive print and ran it. It matched perfectly, and the actions of both fish and man were okay; but the general composition didn't look so hot. The fish looked "hard"--too detailed--and the man looked soft; however, the softness on Bevan's part was okay, as underwater shots are supposed to look that way. Now, to soften down the swordfish to match up with the man--that was the question.
"Nuthin' to it!" said Ernie. "All I gotta do is photograph your drawings over again through a number three diffusion disc."
"A what?" I inquired.
"A diffusion disk," said Ernie. He reached into his pocket and brought out a simple little round piece of glass that had been molded to appear all criss-crossy and frosty-like.
"You see," he explained, "by placing this over the camera lens you sorta diffuse your drawings--soften 'em down--take off the hard edges and goof 'em a little out of focus."
"Oh--" I said dumbly.
"But that isn't all," Ernie went on.
"It isn't?" I asked, bewildered.
"No," said Ernie. "You see, as it is now, we got the appearance of water between the fish and the man, but none between the fish and the audience."
"How come?" I asked eagerly.
"Well," he explained, "if we double-print the two shots, this way, the result, when run on the screen, will make the fish appear is if it were pasted on the outside of the water--soft of like a glass partition is between Bevan and the fish--Bevan all wet in the water and the fish all dry out of the water."
"A pretty kettle of fish," I lamented. "What are we gonna do now?"
"We'll just photograph a third strip of film and then triple-print that over the double-print," said Ernie assuredly.
"We?" I retorted. "That's your job. After all, I'm just the cartoonist, not the cameraman. My work's done!"
"But we gotta stick together," he argued. "After all, it was you who got me into this."
"O-kay, Ernie," I said. And together we carried on with our final experiment, which was to make Sennett either praise us poor Caesars or bury us.
On an upright frame we stretched a large piece of black velvet cloth. A short distance away, through a hose we ran a constant flood of water down over a 4' x 6' piece of mirror. A spotlight was focused into the mirror and the reflection of the ripples on the velvet cloth gave the appearance of sunshine and shadow watery highlights.
"We're all wet, Ernie!" I yelled. "These water reflections will appear up and down, and the general flow of water in Bevan's scene flows from left to right."
"Well, what do you think I've got this camera turned on its side for?" Ernie answered emphatically. "We can't make the water take a natural slow flow across the mirror, so we do the next best thing--let it ripple down over the surface from the top--and start cranking. When we develop the film and project it in the usual manner, the water will appear to be running across the screen and not from top to bottom."
"I see," I said--but I really didn't.
The next day birds were singing and the rest of the world seemed gay--but not me. The long strain had been too much. I had tossed half the night and in my dreams I had wrestled with millions of swordfish. With heavy eyelids and a likewise heavy heart I went to the studio to await the verdict. I pulled myself together and ventured into the darkened projection room. All was quiet. There sat Sennett, chewing impatiently on the butt of a cigar. Ernie Crockett sat beside him. Del Lord was there, too. Oh, yes, and Lee Hugenon--the guy that hired and fired! Also, Walter Klinger, cashier--the man folks meet last on the lot, when he hands you that final check for the return of your studio pass card. A tough jury for anyone to face.
"Good morning," I gulped. No one answered. The house lights went out. As the leader of blank film was running up to speed, my heart pumped with equal synchronization to the whir of its motor. Ah! A beacon of light to the screen and----just like that, my eight-foot length of "swordfish worries" was on and off the screen.
Sennett groaned inaudibly. Silence chilled the room. "Run it again!" he bellowed. The machine was quickly threaded and, for the second time, Bevan, swordfish and artificial water skimmed across the screen.
"Jeez!" buzzed Sennett. The house lights flashed on. I looked over to the boss, expectant of a verdict. The others looked at me, but said nothing. They smiled a little, but I couldn't distinguish whether it was sympathy or what. Something like a jury who, after conflicting a man, feels sorry for him--wants to retract, but doesn't for fear of the judge's scorn.
Sennett never moved. Just sat there and stared at the floor. Then he spat with a rrrr-rip and a plop into the big sawdust-filled box below. I needed air, so out into the kind world's warmth I started, but just when I got to the door, Sennett's voice barked, "Hey, how long was that?"
"Just eight feet, Mr. Sennett," I said meekly.
"And how many drawings did that take?" he snapped.
"One hundred and twenty-eight," I answered.
"Well," he spurted. "Why didn't you make more drawings?"
"Because," I told him, raising my voice slightly, "there's only one hundred and twenty-eight pictures in eight feet of film. There ain't no more!"
"Well, you could have made more, couldn't you?" growled the boss.
"Sure," I shot back, starting to "burn," "but what for? No answer. I stood for a moment waiting. "Aw--t'hell with it!" I shouted, and walked out. I went to my little studio room and sulked among my one hundred and twenty-eight fish. That afternoon almost everyone on the lot came in to ask me when I was going to run my trick shot of the swordfish again--that they'd like to see it. I thought they were kidding me, so I answered them bluntly. "Temperament," they thought (which is a Hollywood word for "nuts").
Later on that afternoon, I saw Lee Hugenon (the hire-and-fire guy), Ernie Crockett and Del Lord approaching. I started to reach for my hat and began wondering in what nice way I could thank them for the "use of the hall."
"Congratulations!" they all said, entering and beaming.
"Is that what they say to a guy around here when he's fired?" I shot back.
"Whaddaya mean, fired?" asked Hugenon. "The Old Man has been raving to everybody about that swordfish you and Ernie turned out.
"Well, why th' hell didn't he say so to me?" I said. The three of them laughed.
"You don't know Sennett!" they answered knowingly.
The following day Sennett boosted my salary and gave me a new contract. From that day on I drew swordfishes galore. No Sennett comedy was complete without its usual school of cartoon swordfishes. Occasionally, I tricked up other types of shots, such as cartoon taxi cabs leaping over actual railroad trains. Also, animated drawings showing the "smell" coming off a hunk of Limburger cheese which had been thrown into the bellows of an organ being played by Mack Swain in a country church.
Once I animated a cartoon jackass ("white-mulie" likker) kicking inside of a cider jug from which Harry Langdon guzzled. In another picture, where Madeline Hurlock hurled a knife at Ben Turpin, causing it to stick in the door just above his ear, I tricked his cockeyes to whirl around, stop and look straight at the audience. (a la naturel. When Turpin saw the completed film in the projection room, he seriously remarked, "Say, y'know I wasn't so bad lookin'!"
Came the day, however, when swordfish ideas became fewer and fewer. Boss Sennett became obsessed with another "pet"--a full-length feature (Sally Eiler's first starring vehicle)--a war comedy entitled "That Goodbye Kiss," which, as fate would have it, proved to be my "goodbye kiss" as well.
Sennett had a pet gag he wanted to do where, in the trenches, Andy Clyde looked out "over the top" through a pair of binoculars. A cootie hopped from his eyebrow onto the lens. This, magnified, appeared to Andy to be an enormous monster. He almost fainted as he breathlessly grabbed the General by the arm and announced that "the enemy is approaching on dragons!" The blustering General smelled of Andy's breath, grabbed the field glasses away from him, looked through and saw the same hideous monster.
Well, for three months I drew cooties of every description. The picture itself wasn't going along so smoothly. Day by day overproduction costs were mounting higher and higher. So was Sennett's blood pressure, and so was mine. The weather was hot, and I guess it affected the two of us. Anyhow, my cooties just would not please him. One day he bawled me out, yelling, "By God! You've been around here for three months an' I haven't seen a single foot of cootie yet."
"The hell you haven't," I yelled back, "I've drawn over four hundred feet of cooties doing everything from turning flip-flops to dancing the Black Bottom. You just don't want to be pleased, that's all! Anyhow, I think it's a lousy gag, so take your damned old cooties and--Well--I RESIGN!"
"Yeah--and I ACCEPT!" shouted Sennett, spitting and storming off toward his office. Well, that's one way to keep from getting fired.
When "That Goodbye Kiss" was finally finished, the cootie episode remained intact and it got belly laughs, too; but I had nothing to do with it. After I had left, Walt Lantz (now producer of the "Oswald" cartoons for Universal) was hired to redo the job. He simply animated a real-looking cootie and knocked the job out in about two days, and Sennett thought it was great. I could have done it in two days, myself, but from the start Sennett had warned me never--NEVER to draw the exaggerated insect to look like a real cootie--hairy and the like of that. "Too repulsive," he said. "Draw him any way you like, but don't make him look like a real cootie." Well, I did what he asked me to do and I got a kick in the pants. You gotta understand Sennett. (I didn't.)
I happened to meet him about a year later when I visited his new studios. We shook hands and talked over old times, but neither of us mentioned the cooties. Why spoil a friendly conversation?
After I left Sennett I did quite a lot of that trick stuff as a freelance for many of the major studios. In a shot for a Hal Roach comedy ["Jewish Prudence," released May 8, 1927, viewable at http://silentbeauties.blogspot.com. Written by Stan Laurel, directed by Leo McCarey], I animated a portrait of George Washington laughing! In a courtroom scene, Max Davidson, Jewish comic, (after being accused by the D.A. of lying) held up his hand and swore, "Your honor, if I'm not telling the truth I hope that something drops from Heaven and knocks me cuckoo."
At that instant the judge, in reaching across his desk, accidentally knocked over a pile of law books, which clunked Maxie on the head. The judge, the D.A. and the members of the jury laughed and, of course, as a "topper" for the gag, the framed portrait of Washington did likewise.
Afterward, the same studio called me back to "trick" a sour expression on the face of a bronze bust of the composer Mendelssohn when the comedienne, while playing one of his compositions on the piano, struck a "sour" note.
One midnight, back in 1928, director Richard Wallace called me by phone. (We had formerly been brother gagologists in the story department at Sennett.)
"Pinto," he said, "now, don't tell me you can't. Please don't say NO!"
"What up, Dick?" I asked.
"Well--" explained Dick, "I'm directing that picture out at First National, 'McFadden's Flats,' featuring Chester Conklin and Charlie Murray."
"Uh huh," I yawned.
"Well," continued Dick. "I ran up against a snag yesterday. We got a swell sequence where Chester Conklin as an old fogey tries to horn in on a dance party. The rest of them tell him that he can't go--that it's a formal affair and he's out of luck because he hasn't a dress suit. Conklin says, 'Yes I have!' and goes to his closet to prove it. He searches around and finally brings out a clothes hanger on which is an old dress suit that apparently had been hanging in the closet for years."
"I see," I said, without interest.
"Well," Dick went on, "this old suit is wrapped and pinned in dusty and cobwebby old newspapers. Chester holds it up to the camera and in a closeup we show his blowing off the dust, which exposes the news headlines, 'DEWEY CAPTURES MANILA!' . . . Are yuh listenin'?"
"Oh . . . yeah--YEAH!" I answered sleepily. (My sense of humor is seldom good past midnight.)
"Well," Dick went on explaining enthusiastically, "when Conklin starts ripping off the paper we want a flock of moths to come fluttering from out of the seams and pockets--hundreds of them--"
"And why not?" I yawned again.
"Well, dammit!" Dick cut in, exasperated. "We have the shot all photographed showing Conklin pantomiming the idea that moths are fluttering around, but we haven't any trained moths--and neither has anyone else . . . except you."
"Oh, so you're trying to insinuate that I'm an old washed-up has-been, huh?"
"No, no! You got me all wrong," yelled Dick, "I was just thinking maybe you would cartoon them in--you know, like you did that flock of bees down at Sennett's."
"And don't forget the cooties," I added.
"This is no time for comedy," snorted Dick. "I'm serious. Can you do it or can't you? If you can't, we'll have to 'can' the whole gag."
Hummmph! No time for comedy. And he's asking me to help save what was destined to become the prize gag of 1928 (according to Rob Wagner, editor of
"SCRIPT," who in an article in Collier's mentioned that the gag was worth fifty thousand dollars to the picture!).
"Your moths are already in the picture, so far as I'm concerned, Dick," I told him. "I'll meet you at the studio in the morning. Now go back to bed and forget about it."
I had never animated a moth in my life. I had no idea whether I could make them look like legitimate, convincing moths or not. I got out of bed and began prowling in the clothes closets, bumping into trunks, hat boxes and clothes hangers. The commotion awakened Mrs. Colvig, and she asked me what I was doing.
"Gunnin' for moths," I answered.
"Get back to bed," she said disgustedly. "Of all the silly things I ever heard of--gunning for moths!"
Maybe so; but little did she realize at the time just how important even a tiny moth could mean to my "art."
Luckily I ran into very little trouble in cartooning a flock of moths for Wallace's picture. I knocked out the job in about two days flat and got six hundred bucks for it and everyone was pleased, including myself. That is, I was pleased until a year later when I read Wagner's article saying that the gag was worth fifty thousand dollars! (Why don't people tell me these things?)
----I looked into the possibilities of more than a dozen such contraptions, but in most cases all I found was the recording arm from an old phonograph, a network of wires and a million squeaks. Like everyone else in the business, I gave the matter of sound much serious thought. A few of the producers shrugged their shoulders and said that it was just a passing fad. Personally, I sized up the comedy situation. It looked like the day of opportunity for one who could draw a picture and make a noise. I quit everything else, dug up all the money I could and, with Walter Lantz, worked out one of the first animated cartoons in sound. What a picture! We called it "Blue Notes"--featuring Bolivar, the Squawkin' Ostrich. I played the part of a goofy, wandering minstrel clarinet player (in actual photograph), while "Bolivar," my partner, was a bowlegged cartooned ostrich. Bolivar was a pest and I couldn't get rid of him. When I tooted my sour clarinet, he danced and sang with a gearbox tenor voice. During a certain passage in the music, he leaned over and gave me a peck on the head. Resenting this, I put down my clarinet and, while I was rolling up sleeves to take a poke at him, he picked up the clarinet in his beak and ran over the horizon, tooting Tosti's "Goodbye." In those days I didn't know that music rights for sound recording had to be paid for according to the title and copyright laws. A great number were absolutely forbidden at any cost. I went right ahead and used Tosti's tune just as though I had written it myself! Years later, at Disney's I suggested the "Goodbye" theme in one of the Silly Symphonies. All thumbs turned down.
For over a period of several years this idea of double-printing animated cartoon shots in with the human action built itself into quite a business. Also a lot of headaches! Occasionally, when a comedy director would run into technicalities, he'd just say, "We'll skip this part and let the cartoonist do it." Then they would shoot the natural scenes without consulting me first about necessary details such as proper backgrounds, lighting and general speed. After the picture was photographed, and the final editing was being done, they would hand me the negative film, explain what they wanted cartooned and expect me to do the impossible.
Del Lord used the idea probably more than any other director. Once in a Sennett comedy, a very funny situation depended greatly upon establishing the fact that a cat chased a mouse up the comic's pants leg. The comic, a heavy, was shown seated with others in a poker game. To him it looked like cheating was going on. He pulled out a big pistol, slapped it down on the table menacingly and threatened the others with what would happen if they were caught cheating. The big play was on and the table piled high with "dough." All were very cagey and played their hands "close to their vests." During this tense moment, after the others had, one by one, laid down their hands, the comedy-heavy smiled and laid down four aces, but just as he started to rake in the pot, the cat chased the little rodent up his pants leg and then followed through himself. The comic grabbed the pistol, poked it down the back of his shirt and started shooting. With every blast he shot a bigger hole in the seat of his pants, and from all parts of his clothes aces flew out by the dozens.
For that one necessary short piece of film (establishing the cat and mouse) Del Lord had spent almost three days trying to photograph the real thing--to say nothing of using over 4000 feet of film and the time of a dozen prop boys, cameraman, electricians and other standbys. They had tried every known device, but always it looked faked--mainly because the wires around the animals' necks photographed highlights and one could see the "yank" in their necks as they were being pulled up into the pants.
On the afternoon of the third day I had occasion to go on the set where I found Del and the others in a state of distraction and on the verge of giving up the cat-and-mouse episode completely. I knew better than to talk to him (or any other director) when he was in that state of nervous tension. All of a sudden Del looked at me with a peculiar glint in his eye.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed, brightening.
"I'm way ahead of you," I answered. "Give me a plain shot of the guy's pants leg as he sits at the table and a shot or two of the cat and mouse for models." The following day I handed him the completed scene, showing a "synthetic" cat chasing a fake mouse up the comic's pants leg. It all happened so fast when shown on the [screen] you couldn't tell it from the real McCoy.
Another time Del called me out to the United Artists studios where he was making "Topsy and Eva" with the Duncan Sisters. In the picture there was a "spook" scene showing Rosetta (Topsy) walking through a graveyard. A live owl stepped down from the limb of a tree and perched on Topsy's bustle. Those were the days B.S. (Before Sound). In this I showed the owl saying, "Who-o-oo!" by cartooning the letters in, one by one, and wiggling them spook-like until they spelled the complete word.
In the same scene I did another shot which showed Topsy looking down and seeing a ghostly hand reaching up out of a grave. Open-mouthed, she gasped at the sight of it. I cartooned a heart coming up between her tonsils. For a moment it shimmied on her tongue and then she swallowed it. By an added process we made the heart appear blood red. Anything for a gag!
In a scare sequence for a Harold Lloyd picture, they asked me to help them put over the idea of the weird sound caused by pulling a nail through a packing case. They gave me the film showing the hammer pulling out the nail. It would have been an odd sight to the layman if he had seen the group of us trying to determine phonetically how a rusty nail pulled from a box should sound. We finally agreed that the "sound" which I was to animate should spring from the nail socket and jiggle, letter for letter, the following word: 'SQUEEEeeeEE--arrrRRRK!"
By the same method, in many other pictures, I tricked "oinks" coming from a pig's snout, "buzzes" from bees and "yelps" and "howls" from hound dogs.
When SOUND hit pictures, all Hollywood went nuts. As a whole, the film industry acted like a selfish baby with a new toy. Everyone had "secrets" on how best to do this and that. On nearly every street corner, one was likely to meet a former thirty-dollar-a-week "juicer" or film technician who would buttonhole you, look about cautiously and then tell you that all he needed was "fifty bucks to help him over the hump" while he worked out the final imperfections of a new disc or sound-on-film process which would soon net him a million dollars. For the loan of fifty dollars he would cut you in on half of the profits.
"Can't use it!" they all frowned. "If we did the Russian government (if they've got one) would sue us for all we've got." I shuddered for the moment, but calmly collected myself back to normalcy when it dawned upon me that "Bolivar" had already squawked his last squawk. The last I had heard of him, the Japanese rights to the film had been sold for ninety dollars. I lost everything but my shirt, but I collected a world of practical experience and, incidentally, the first installment on what some people refer to as a "nervous breakdown."
But let us continue with the pioneer days of sound. At that time I had heard that [the] Disneys were working on a sound cartoon, as were many others. I had first met Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, in 1922 in their little studio off Vermont Avenue. Walt and a cartoonist named Ub Iwerks were producing a series of cartoon shorts called "Alice Comedies." I remember, too, my first introduction to Roy Disney. He was dressed in overalls, working atop a camera stand on some carpentry mending, with a chisel in one hand and a hammer in the other. I stuck out my hand for a shake, but he excused his soiled hands and grinned. It was a far different picture a few years later when I signed my first contract with him and Walt over a big mahogany desk in their now-pretentious studios. He was the same old Roy, only minus the overalls and grease-stained hands. Yes, and minus the "chisel" too! But I'm drifting again! Where was I? Oh yes, something pertaining to the first sound cartoons.
Walt went to New York with the first three Mickey Mouses to try to get a bona fide release. Most of the distributors met him with a cold eye. "Cartoons are passé," they said. "We couldn't even give them away!" Walt, I understand, was about to toss these first Mickeys into the East River, when he met a pioneer film financier named Pat Powers. Powers and Walt soon arranged to have the films previewed in (I believe) the Roxy Theatre. Mickey and Minnie's antics convulsed the audience and "rolled 'em in th' aisles."
"It's the PUBLIC and NOT the distributors who are to be pleased," said Walt . . . and with that remark and some of Pat Powers' money, the public soon began to get more and more of Disney's "pleasure" as time went on.
"Build a better mouse than the next person and the film distributors will beat a path to your door!"
At that time I was waiting for word from the East as to whether or not I would continue as a "producer" or whether "Bolivar, the Ostrich" was "laying an egg." I called on some former coworkers with whom I had been associated on the last few of the silent "Oswald" cartoons. In a small apartment, I found eight young bachelors; among them were a couple of animators named Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising. They also had ideas of creating a character of their own and were working on it day and night. Almost daily I dropped in on the boys for our usual discussion on "What Might Be the Future of the Sound Cartoon?"
Pickings were slim for the bunch of us, but we had ideas. Jobs were plentiful in our line, but because of so many secrets in the trade, and with everyone knowing we were waiting to start any day as producers, naturally the other cartoon producers didn't want us learning anything about their fast-developing methods and sound tricks unless we would sign a long-term contract and pioneer along with them on their own product.
Everything I had was tied up in "Bolivar," and everything this group of energetic bachelors had was tied up in their subject. Besides, I had a wife, a flock of small boys and an Airedale pup to support.
Nevertheless, fate was very kind. The Depression had just started, but as yet no one had thought of a name for it; therefore, we knew nothing about it.
One day I received a call from an independent studio to do some special work. A group of men had bought up a pile of stock film of an African lion hunt. With this they formed a small producing unit, hired a number of colored folks from Central Avenue, shaved their heads, and among some willows in a dry river bottom within the city limits of Los Angeles, they photographed a lot of additional scenes. (One of them showed a man dressed in a gorilla suit, stealing a naked woman and carrying her off to his lair!)
The rest of the patched-in shots of jungle animals were photographed out at Selig Zoo. These were used to match up with other animal shots, which they had purchased from various film stock libraries.
When completed, the picture surprisingly turned out to be a box-office record-breaker--the first jungle super-sound special, "INGAGI." It was destined to make millions, but because of the fact that they exploited it as having been authentically photographed in Africa, the big combines and powers-that-be prevented further showing of the picture!
It was in "Ingagi" that I made the first use of my old slide trombone. At Selig Zoo one of the trainers had been trying all
About then things in the animated cartoon field were beginning to happen fast. Mickey Mouse was getting out into the theaters, "Oswald, the Rabbit" was sopping up sound and gaining new recognition from Universal Pictures Corporation, when one day my phone rang and Hugh Harman said,
"Rudy Ising and the gang and I have just finished a cartoon called 'Bosco,' and we'd like you to help us with some sound effects, music and dialogue. We don't know much about those things and you've had experience. What do you say?"
"Are you fellows still flirting with coffee an' donuts or have you got a release?" I came back.
"Yeah," laughed Hugh, enthusiastically, "we're going to call the series 'Looney Tunes." A fellow by the name of Leon Schlesinger is backing us and getting a Warner Brothers release."
"That's all I want to know," I yelled. "I'll be right down!"
I had done a lot of commercial work for Schlesinger up through the years when he had owned a film title company. Also, I had tried to interest him in getting me a Warner Brothers release on "Bolivar, the Ostrich." I had the film completed, but the music, dialogue and sound effects had not yet been put into it.
Schlesinger was interested, all right. He even made arrangements for Jack Warner to see the picture, with me on hand to explain the sounds and music that were needed.
I shall never forget the day when the three of us sat inside of that small projection room on the Warner lot. While the pictures of "Bolivar" and me cavorted about on the screen, I sat there watching and supplying all of the dialogue, sounds and music. I played my clarinet, kicked film cans and chairs, spoke my own lines of dialogue and squawked in a guttural voice for "Bolivar." Schlesinger and Warner seemed to get a "kick" out of it. I could hear them laughing and it made me feel mighty good. Not until some time afterwards did I learn that during the showing of the film they had kept their eyes on me, watching my wild antics while supplying the sounds. They had forgotten to look at the cartoon! Anyway, it was encouraging to have had such a representative audience and it proves now (or does it?) that maybe I had something to do with getting them "cartoon minded." Schlesinger is still producing animated cartoons and with a Warner Brothers release.
I helped put the noises and vocals into Harman-Ising's "Bosco" Looney Tune and had a pleasant visit with Schlesinger. Recently, while reminiscing, Schlesinger and I rehashed the time I "put on a show" for him and Jack Warner during the running of poor old "Bolivar" and also when I helped him on the first "Looney Tune."
"By the way," I asked him, "whatever happened to that little girl who worked with me on that cartoon--the one who did the vocals for 'Bosco's' gal?"
"Oh, that girl," answered Schlesinger. "Today's she's known as the movie star, ROCHELLE HUDSON." Hmmph! That's Hollywood.
* * * * * * * *
The day after we recorded the first "Looney Tune," I was called to Universal Studios, where I worked for several months on the first series of "Oswald Rabbit" cartoons-in-sound.
The stork was fluttering around "the old homestead" again to deposit our fifth and last boy. The country had by now found a name for "The Depression," and to expect a raise in salary at Universal at that time was out of the question. I looked over the list of the world's successful enterprises and discovered that "Scarface" Capone and Mickey Mouse were the only ones who were making any money, so I got a release from Universal and joined forces with Disney. That was in September 1931. I remember some of the things Walt and I discussed that day in his office. Walt has a funny way of drooping one eyebrow while talking, pointing a pencil at you and jabbing it on the accents of his words.
"Everyone tells us that Mickey Mouse has reached his peak," he said to me. "They've been telling us that for years," but I say we haven't even scratched the surface. Who knows," he went on, "where it's all going to end?" He slapped his fist down on the desk. "Dammit!" he lifted his voice, "why, someday," he looked thoughtfully out of the window, and then back to me. "Someday we might even go into COLOR! Yes, and that isn't all," he added, "who knows but what we'll be making FEATURES!"
"You mean--with--with HUMAN BEINGS?" I asked.
"Hell no!" yelled Walt, slapping down his pencil. "Feature CARTOONS! . . . Why not?"
"Search me!" I answered, blinking. I still remembered what a time I had stretching "Bolivar Ostrich" into five hundred feet of black and white film, let alone seven thousand feet in color.
Little did Walt dream at the time that a few years later his organization would spend a million and a half dollars on a story called "Snow White" that the Grimm boys (Jake and Bill) had compiled back in the early 1800s. Little, too, did the Grimm boys know that in this 20th Century, their simple tale was destined to find its way into a new medium of entertainment to bring joy to millions--and pour into the box offices a "take" of over ten millions of dollars before its final return to the darkened vaults of a studio laboratory.
And here is what eventually happens to such a glorious picture after it has had its run. Moe, the junk man, comes along and picks up the seven reels of old negative film for approximately four cents per pound. This he peddles to a chemical company which, after soaking it in a solution of lye, will salvage the silver therefrom, which will be used for the fillings of decayed teeth. The celluloid emulsion will be used in the manufacture of lacquer paints for kitchen sinks, bathrooms and potty chairs. Thus "Snow White" will probably wind up . . . Disney's one and a half million bucks, the public's ten millions of dollars, plus the three and a half years' labor of over eight hundred and fifty writers, actors, musicians, technicians, cartoonists and sound effects men.
During my six years at Disney's I did almost everything but sweep off the stage. Incidentally, I met a number of interesting people. Everyone who comes to Hollywood wants to do at least five things--to meet Charlie Chaplin, watch Garbo emote, guzzle a highball at The Trocadero, have lunch at the Brown Derby and visit the Mickey Mouse Studios.
MS804, Box 1, Southern Oregon Historical Society
Last revised September 27, 2013