The Terrytoons Studio: The 1930 Shorts

Go West Big Boy 1Go West Big Boy 2Go West Big Boy 3


Walt Disney’s emergence in the late 1920s and 1930s as the head of the most prominent (and popular) animation studio in the United States developed as the result of various shrewd business decisions, including the employment of various animators (such as those who became known as the “Nine Old Men”) who could produce high-quality animation for his company’s productions and the incorporation of new techniques, such as synchronized sound, that would distinguish the studio’s work from rival companies; the Disney company itself would nearly go bankrupt several times in the following decades (most notably in the immediate postwar years leading to Cinderella‘s release in 1950, as well as the narrow avoidance of a takeover by Saul Steinberg in the 1980s) but it survived each individual difficulty with resurgences in its popularity. Such is the fame of Disney that the company that bears his name remains the biggest individual studio in the United States, although numerous other companies such as DreamWorks produce their own animated fare to draw audiences; however, Disney was not the only studio active in the early days of American animation. In fact, various rival studios existed at the time and even before – John Randolph Bray supervised the first major American animation studio (which he founded in New York in 1914), and through this implemented the assembly line process that eventually became standard practice for many years. One of Bray’s employees, Paul Terry, will be a focus for this post – Terry began his career in animation at Bray’s studio, before establishing his own studio in 1917 (which eventually closed when the United States entered World War 1). His greatest success came with his Terrytoons studio, which he founded in 1929 after being fired by Amadee J. Van Beuren for refusing to adapt synchronized sound into his films; through Terrytoons, Terry introduced the character of Mighty Mouse, as well as the crows Heckle and Jeckle (perhaps the studio’s most enduring legacies).


However, Terrytoons never enjoyed the same level of popularity seen with Disney – there’s no doubt that Walt Disney established himself as the primary force in animation, and even Terry seemed to recognize that (he once described himself and Disney in the following terms: “Disney is the Tiffany’s in this business, and I am the Woolworth’s”). The company was prolific, however – it released a new animated short approximately every two weeks, starting with the 1930 short Caviar. This short is unique – directed by Frank Moser, it opens with the silhouette of an orchestra performing the film’s score, composed by Philip A. Scheib. Scheib would go on to provide the scores for hundreds of shorts produced by Terrytoons, as Paul Terry refused to spend money on obtaining the rights to popular songs – many contemporaneous cartoons of the decade featured recognizable music adapted for the short as well as original music (to give an example, Disney’s iconic 1929 short The Skeleton Dance contains a score provided by Carl Stalling, with an adaptation of Grieg’s “March of the Trolls” included among the music), and said cartoons were intended to sell sheet music at the time. Those shorts produced by Terrytoons also referenced popular and famous compositions – Caviar, for example, contains a segment from “Trepak” (the “Russian dance” found within the Nutcracker Suite) as well as the familiar motif from “Vo sadu li, v ogorode” (a traditional Russian song, the title translated as “In the Garden,” that also featured in various other cartoons such as the 1945 Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd short Hare Tonic). Caviar features the antics of a mouse who ultimately saves another mouse from voracious wolves – this set-up is fairly typical of animation in the early 1930s, when audio recording technology had begun in earnest with live-action works such as The Jazz Singer (electrical methods were recently introduced and adopted for music, and cinema also recently adopted sound-on-film techniques that allowed movies to “talk” for the first time) and cartoons of the time had little, if any real dialogue. Only the female mouse has any discernible speech in Caviar, when she yells for help after being cornered in a tree by the wolves, who bark incessantly – the short concludes with the male mouse pushing the wolves off a cliff, defeating them forthwith.


CaviarPretzelsSpanish Onions


The first three Terrytoons shorts (Caviar, Pretzels, Spanish Onions) are similar in that they present two mice in a relationship – they also feature the mice in different locations (Russia, Germany and Spain, respectively) and are named after relevant foods. Like other shorts of the period, Terrytoons productions in general have no overarching relation to each other narrative-wise; they may include similar characters, but they have self-contained stories that do no get referenced in future shorts. This applies to Disney as well – Mickey Mouse frequently appeared in stand-alone cartoons that simply provided a background for his routines, depicting him as a versatile character whose personality changed through the years (he initially appeared as a mischievous rodent before developing into the kindly character we see today). The mice who appear in the first three Terrytoons releases share that common element in their personality and behavior – they are adaptable figures who hardly speak at all (Spanish Onions, for examples, has only one notable piece of dialogue, a brief verse provided by the male mouse as he sings to his mate) and encounter a brief struggle with an antagonist, in this case a recurring cat, before resolving the issue quickly. Indian Pudding continues that formula, complete with a musical interlude featuring dancing cows; instead of a single feline, the short includes a group of cats, all bearing stereotypical Native American clothing. This representation of Native Americans was unfortunately common in American cinema of the era – even later works such as Pow Wow the Indian Boy portrayed indigenous groups as rather homogeneous in nature, speaking in broken English and antagonizing the white man. The short Indian Pudding represents a typical entry in Native American portrayals of the time – white settlers in the Old West (as shown in popular images of the 1930s and 1940s) frequently clashed with the natives, who seemingly had nothing better to do than fight their neighbors (with the male mouse dispersing them, thereby acting as the savior who defeated the belligerent indigenous people).


The remaining shorts from 1930 (the studio released 23 total that year) all have titles derived from foods (aside from the final one, Pigskin Capers) and prominently featured musical segments – the rodent protagonists became the first recurring characters in the Terrytoons library, and they found themselves (similarly to their contemporaries) in numerous unrelated situations throughout their career as cartoon stars. Animated shorts of the era, as mentioned, were effectively self-contained pieces independent of each other, despite the common element of the protagonists; no overlapping story can be found throughout, and they served primarily as small outings for the featured stars. Each short from the Terrytoons’ initial year of production featured a new location for the characters to interact in, sometimes with little or no conflict to speak of – Hawaiian Pineapple, for example, shows the primary protagonist (a mouse, like the previous shorts) participating in a flying exercise and crashing into a volcano. The conflict of Hawaiian Pineapple would be extinguishing the flames; this is in contrast to the earlier Indian Pudding, which had the central conflict of the native warriors attacking the homestead. Another short from 1930, Hot Turkey, takes place in an indeterminate Persian/Indian setting – this depiction of Asia and its people echoes the theme of Orientalism, a term promoted by Edward Said in 1978 to refer to the West’s patronizing attitude towards the East in its popular media. By 1930, American cinema had presented the East and North Africa in a romantic, exotic light – films such as the 1921 work The Sheik (starring Rudolph Valentino) contrasted Western and Eastern cultures, the latter being something exotic and appealing, but altogether inferior to the former. Codfish Balls presents a moment in the life of sailors, a contrast to the exotic nature of Hot Turkey; the music, appropriately, evokes nautical tunes (such as the sailors singing “Blow the Man Down” at the beginning, along with incidental music reminiscent of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe”). Unlike the previous shorts, Codfish Balls does not include a romantic interest for the mouse – he appears as a member of a ship’s crew, forced to walk the ship’s plank (which he avoids) after antagonizing other crew members.


Hungarian GoulashBully Beef


The mice and their relationship return for Hungarian Goulash and Bully Beef, as does their antagonism with the cat; the former features the cat attempt to abduct the female mouse while disguised as a Romani fortune-teller, while the latter involves the cat and male mouse participating in a battle between fellow cats and mice. The mice ultimately reunited at the end of both shorts, after the cat is defeated; the narrative set-up in Bully Beef (two men declare their love for a woman, with only one succeeding in winning the woman’s hand) can be compared to other shorts at the time, such as the popular Popeye series that depicts Popeye emerging victorious over Bluto to earn the affections of Olive Oyl. One of the first shorts to diverge from the “two mice” formula in Terrytoons is Monkey Meat, like the Silly Symphonies that debuted in 1929, Monkey Meat focuses entirely on the performance of a musical routine, with the simians and other animals acting as the orchestra in the short. Chop Suey unfortunately emphasizes stereotypical portrayals of Asians so common at the time; two of the characters in this short even smoke what appears to be opium from a pipe, and a laundromat exists as a prominent location. The next short, Dutch Treat, takes place in Holland; like the other shorts present here, Dutch Treats provides images that would be considered typical for the featured country, in this case objects such as clogs, windmills and tulips. Jumping Beans features Mexico – the mice return for this short (dogs featured in Dutch Treat) and it culminates in the two once again defeating their nemesis the cat at the Hot Tamale Inn. A fairly standard short, Scotch Highball features a horse race; Art Babbitt (who would later work for Walt Disney) had been assigned work for this short, during his tenure with Terrytoons. One of the final three Terrytoons shorts of 1930, Salt Water Taffy shows a return to a nautical theme; the song that opens the short comprises almost the entirely of the production’s spoken like, as most of the characters (like in older shorts released that year) remain silent throughout. Golf Nuts features the character Farmer Al Falfa, whom Terry created during his work for Bray in the 1910s – however, Al Falfa only briefly appears to cast judgement on the mouse protagonist for lying about his golf score, sending him to hell (the mouse died in a car accident following his golf game).


All these shorts illustrate the inaugural year of Terrytoons – Paul Terry had now established himself as the head of his own independent studio, away from Van Beuren and rivaling Disney for audiences. He adopted the application of cel animation, but he did so to help produce cartoons as cheaply as possible; he did not have quite the industry clout as Disney did (Disney took greater risks, as can be seen with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first American feature-length animated films), but nevertheless, Terry remained active until the 1950s, when CBS purchased his studio (making Terrytoons the first major animation studio to provide material for the incipient television industry). The studio’s work tends to be seen as of rather poor quality – regardless of their perceive quality, however, the shorts produced by the studio remain a part of animation history.

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