Friday, October 22, 2010

TV Needs Cartoons!

FEBRUARY 14, 2013: Updated version with additons/corrections:

Here's a relic from TV's Golden Age that survived well into the cable/satellite era:

In this digitally restored hi-def world, title cards from defunct TV film distribution firms are all but extinct. Ironically, the fact that they lived this long just demonstrates the apathy that subsequent owners held toward their animated property. Cartoons were so trivial, it mattered not they were heralded with company names that not only weren't yours but also long-since shuttered. In the case of Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.), it was bought by United Artists Television in 1958 (and actually became u.a.p. in trade ads). UA held the pre-'48 Warner Brothers and all theatrical Popeye cartoons, which had been a.a.p.'s most profitable prize, right through its 1981 merger with M.G.M., until Ted Turner acquired most of the library five years later. Even after Warners got their cartoons back in the '90's, the antiquated openings weren't excised until the studio's home video division started work on the Looney Tunes Golden Collections.

Associated Artists had acquired the cartoons on March 1, 1956, so the company was an ongoing concern for only two years after the titles were created. Yet the name lived on, year-after-year, decade-after-decade.

In truth, a.a.p.'s cartoon product was the summit of a long, hard climb for animation on TV. Theatrical 'toons of some nature were racing across home screens almost from the start. And they were, for a time, one of television's most desirable commodoties. In April 1953, The Billboard proclaimed: "Stations in general appear to be buying cartoons today at a faster clip than ever before. According to best estimates, there are about 650 cartoons in TV distribution altogether. It would seem that the market could comfortably support as many as 1,000 cartoons, if not more. But at the moment, there is not another foot of cartoon in the offing." In an in-depth article two months' later, Billboard would revise the figure upward to "about 800," but with a qualifyer: 90% of the total dated to the silent era.

When Official Films licensed the original Felix the Cat library in early 1953, it was big news: there were reportedly around 200 titles in the Cat's canon. The problem was, since the films were nearly all silent, not every title was in fit condition for release. Official was only able to scrape together 35 Felix cartoons, supplementing the package with 50 other titles from its existing library. Nevertheless, sales were brisk; Official booked $15,000 from six stations during its first week of marketing.

So which cartoons entertained the first television generation, and who provided them... and why?

To begin with, it's helpful to remember that, in the silent days through the first talkie decade, no major Hollywood production company had its own cartoon division. Animation was handled by contractors, most of whom hired established artists, then aligned with a studio. Felix the Cat was owned by producer Pat Sullivan, who released through Margaret Winkler (1923-25), then Educational Pictures (1926-28) and finally Copley Pictures (1928-30). Walt Disney, after leaving producer Charles Mintz, was aligned with Pat Powers (1928-30), then Columbia (1930-32), United Artists (1932-36) and R.K.O. Radio (1936-56). Mintz was aligned with Universal (1927-29), then Columbia (1929-40). Walter Lantz provided Universal with cartoons after Mintz was released. When Ubbe Iwerks left Disney in 1930 to try independent production, he went with Powers, who subcontracted some of Iwerks' product to M.G.M. and released the rest through his own Celebrity Productions. In 1930, Leon Schlesinger contracted with two other renegade Disneyites, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, then sold their cartoons in turn to Warner Brothers. Harman and Ising would leave Schlesinger in 1933 to release through M.G.M., who in turn dumped Iwerks, who ended up taking on contracted work for Mintz and Schlesinger before giving up and going back to Disney. Paramount Pictures aligned itself with Max (Out of the Inkwell) Fleischer around 1927, then took control of his studio fifteen years later. Amadee J. Van Beuren had been in the cartoon business since the early 1920's, handling the business aspects of Fables Studio, which was run by Paul Terry until 1929.  This studio's work was distributed by Pathe, which in 1928 merged with F.B.O. Pictures, RCA Photophone and the Keith-Orpheum theater circuit to become R.K.O. Radio.  When R.K.O. signed Disney, Van Beuren closed up shop. As an independent producer, Terry released his "Terrytoons" through Educational Pictures; when Educational bit the dust in '37, he went directly to their distributor, 20th Century-Fox.

Now, if you thought that was confusing, let's discuss what happened to the cartoons!
Two batches - the substantial Van Beuren backlog, which included Terry's work for the company, and the less-sizable Iwerks canon - had passed through various hands after those companies folded in the 1930's. Commonwealth Film and Television Inc. got the Iwerks films, as well as the final 13 of Van Beuren's Rainbow Parade series, and essentially all surviving silent Aesop's Fables. The remaining Van Beuren titles (earlier Rainbow Parades, Cubby Bear, The Little King and [the human] Tom & Jerry), all sound, went to Walter O. Gutlohn, Inc., a non-theatrical distributor who evidently sub-leased them to Unity Television Corporation, as well as Official Films for their home movie division (although this didn't stop the latter company from also offering them to TV).  Official changed Tom & Jerry to Dick & Larry, and Rainbow Parades to Merry Tunes. Sterling Television got ahold of the most ancient silent 'toons - the Mutt & Jeffs and Bobby Bumps' and Out of the Inkwells that had been sold to theaters on a state rights basis back in the late teens/early twenties, and signed a distribution deal with the granddaddy of cartoon production, John R. Bray (first employer of Fleischer, Terry and Lantz, among others), who'd discontinued theatrical animation by 1927!

The earliest batch of post-1940 cartoons to reach the air were the Superman shorts produced by Fleischer and Paramount's Famous Studios between 1941-43. Superman's parent company, National Comics, had acquired the shorts contractually, then sold them to Flamingo Films in May 1951, when the latter company licensed the distribution rights for a forthcoming Adventures of Superman TV series. When the live action series got a nationwide sponsor, Kellogg's cereals, Flamingo had to pull the cartoons from TV until a suitable sponsorship arrangement could be made (see article), lest the character become exclusive to two competing products.

For roughly seven years - from 1948 through '54 - that was the state of the cartoon on TV. There were a couple of primitive made-for-TV animated shows, namely Crusader Rabbit and Jim & Judy in Teleland, but no one was in any hurry to invest in TV cartoon production on a grand scale, not when puppet shows like Howdy Doody and Rootie Kazootie were doing just fine. Although one New York area station was making a strong case to the contrary.

Robert Paskow was the film programmer for WATV, Channel 13 in Newark, NJ. WATV usually ran seventh of the seven NYC-area VHF stations in ratings, a poor signal being the least of its problems. But one Channel 13 show was outpulling everyone else, even NBC's Howdy Doody: Junior Frolics, a cartoon program. Paskow began buying up all the cartoons he could get his hands on months before WATV made its May 1948 debut. By '53, he held about 650 titles; no other station in the U.S. had more. Paskow was such a good customer, he received permission from the distributors to edit their negatives, removing racial gags and adult imagery, which helps explain why so many silent cartoons that survive today are incomplete.

Film industry titans, poised for a theatrical exhibitor backlash, watched closely in the fall of 1954, when Disney dipped his toes into TV with a weekly series on the ABC network, Disneyland. Of course, Uncle Walt turned to his cartoon library from time-to-time in order to fill that hour. Disney suffered naught from his TV excursion, and studio execs quickly discovered that widescreen had lessened the demand for pictures filmed in the standard aperture ratio; in short, theater owners couldn't care less if TV bought up the old films. That December, there came a break in the animation dry spell. In separate deals, Columbia and Universal parted with some of their black & white material. Hygo Television bought Charles Mintz's Krazy Kat and Scrappy cartoons from Columbia, which totaled 156 titles, and Motion Pictures for Television got 179 Walter Lantz cartoons, mainly Oswald the Rabbit, but also Pooch the Pup, Willie the Mouse and Meeny, Miney & Moe. Paskow snapped up the Hygo package for Junior Frolics before the ink on the press release had dried.

Two months later, Guild Films acquired 191 Looney Tunes from Warners. These were the black & white Schlesinger titles from 1930-43, mainly featuring Porky Pig, Bosko, Buddy and a handful of Daffy Duck. Warners' asking price was $1.2 million dollars (half up-front, half due in two years) plus 40% thereafter. Guild, which netted over a million in sales after the first year, didn't suffer on their end. More importantly, the deal marked Warner's entry into television.

Finally, in December 1955, the dam burst. U.M.& M. - which was a combine of two movie advertising sales forces (United Film Service and Motion Picture Advertiser Service) and one TV film distributor (Minot TV) - bought Paramount's pre-'48 backlog of short subjects, which included 614 Fleischer and Famous cartoons; all except Popeye the Sailor, which was withdrawn pending further negotiations with King Features Syndicate, who owned the character (the same battle as was fought over home video rights, except that dispute took a quarter-century to resolve). Within a single year, the cartoon marketplace had doubled... but the best was yet to come.

Associated Artists Productions got Warner's pre-'48 color cartoon library as of March 1, 1956, along with what was then considered the prize: the pre-'48 WB features. The company also got the live action shorts, but never saw a need to distribute them, so profitable were the first two packages. Moneys earned by a.a.p. in the first half of the year enabled them to sew up the Popeye rights during the second. Bugs Bunny was cool, but the Sailor Man took TV by storm. Suddenly the highest-rated local kid's shows were those that included Popeye. In effect, a.a.p. had doomed everybody else's cartoon libraries, for only they had the stars. Nobody cared much about U.M.& M.'s Screen Songs, Color Classics or Noveltoons, and their only true "celebrity" - Betty Boop - was 99.9% black-and-white (and the best of her work was too risque for most kiddie shows). The monochrome issue eventually caught up with all the other distributors, although Popeye's star power carried his b&w output well into the '80s.

By the late 1950's, the writing was on the wall. As major studio features killed the haphazard movie packages of TV's first decade, so too did big cartoon stars doom the animated shorts of ancient days. M.G.M. put their backlog into syndication. CBS bought Terrytoons outright. Kellogg's picked up Woody Woodpecker and other Lantz stars for nationwide saturation over ABC in '57, and two years' hence, Mattel got the post-1949 Famous cartoons that had been sold to the Harvey comic book company, also placed on ABC. The final bell tolled in 1958, when M.G.M.'s former producer-director tandem of Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna contracted with Columbia's TV unit, Screen Gems (which had introduced its own cartoon backlog the year before, with relatively few takers) for a made-for-TV cartoon show, Huckleberry Hound. That led to a plethora of spin-offs and successors, including made-for-prime time cartoon sitcoms: revolutionary then, commonplace today.

But with this bounty came complacency, then neglect. Cartoons were moneymakers, sure, but hardly worth the kind of tender care that classic feature films were getting. Stories circulate about 16mm prints gathering dust in station closets because the 200 or so titles that were making the on-air rounds were good enough; no need to overtax the film guy. And the only signficance that the "a.a.p." intro held was the likelihood of seeing the zany Bugs and Daffy, not the suave rabbit or greedy, scheming duck of Saturday mornings.

As for all those other cartoons - the ones animation historians like Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck and Michael Barrier grew up with - most of them vanished into the mist of memory, waiting only for budget-line home video to bring them back to the marketplace, mainly in worn, choppy, faded prints that had once held the rapt attention of Junior Frolics viewers... and many, many others.
UPDATE: Many thanks to those of you who shared this site on Facebook and elsewhere... never have I had an essay read by so many in so short a time. Also, I was remiss in not adding the following: To those cartoon enthusiasts that want to see what those old films looked like when they were entertaining theater audiences back in the day, these two resources are essential: Inkwell Images and Thunderbean Animation. Both have done outstanding work in restoring long-neglected titles and come highly recommended.