Primary Product: Theatrical Animation
Producing From: 1916-68
Noted For: Mighty Mouse, Heckle &, Tom Terrific, and other characters even more minor.
image: © Viacom.
Cartoons by Terrytoons
Paul Terry, founder of Terrytoons, became interested in animation in 1914 when, as a newspaper photographer in New York City, he attended one of cartoonist Winsor McCay's early showings of Gertie the Dinosaur. A year later, he'd produced an entire animated short, Little Hermann, single-handed — but had trouble selling it to distributors for as much as he'd spent on the film to make it.
He did manage to get an operation rolling, however, and signed on to produce a monthly short for John R. Bray's screen magazine, Paramount Pictograph (which also distributed the Fleischer Studio's series, "Out of the Inkwell"). Farmer Alfalfa, the character Terry used in these cartoons, served Terry for decades, remaining a star until the late 1930s and still being seen as a supporting character well into the '50s. Terry went through several financial backers and several distributors, finally settling, in 1938, on releasing his cartoons through 20th Century Fox.
Terry was an early user of the cel method of animation, which enabled animators to use richly textured backgrounds (since they didn't have to be redrawn for each frame). But the enhanced quality wasn't why he went for it — he was more interested in its labor-saving ability, and was a pioneer in animating different parts of the body on different cels, because it saved time and therefore money.
And saving money was what kept Terry's studio alive while others came and went. He had no artistic aspirations and little interest in innovation, but he was able to turn out cartoons reliably, on a regular basis, without exceeding his meager budgets. He adopted technological advances, such as sound and color, when it became necessary to do so for continued survival, but not one minute sooner. "Disney is the Tiffany's in this business," he was often heard to remark, "and I am the Woolworth's."
Terrytoons became a byword in the industry for bargain-basement animation, turning out cartoons like yard goods. And yet, some of the studio's output transcended its lowly origin. The Gandy Goose cartoons were often charmingly whimsical. Oil Can Harry, the villain in a series of opera-style "mellerdramas", is fondly recalled even today — tho more for his 1940s-50s association with Mighty Mouse than for the 1930s black-and-whites in which he originally appeared. The Heckle & Jeckle series was basically a good idea — incredibly obnoxious identical twins — and their cartoons were occasionally quite funny. Four Terrytoons were actually nominated for Academy Awards — All Out for V (1942), My Boy, Johnny (1944), Mighty Mouse in Gypsy Life (1945) and Sidney the Elephant in Sidney's Family Tree (1958). None, however, actually won the Oscar.
As cost-conscious as Terry was, it's surprising he didn't pursue the potential revenues of licensing his characters more assiduously than he did. Other than comic books (licensed first to Marvel Comics in 1942 and later to St. John, Pines, Dell and Gold Key before ending in the mid-'60s), there was very little marketing of Terrytoons properties outside of the cartoons themselves.
One thing Terrytoons had going for it was employee loyalty. Many talented animators and story men simply passed through on the way to something better, including Bill Tytla (who animated Tchernobog, the demon in Fantasia), Dan Gordon (later credited with creating The Flintstones), Joe Barbera (of Hanna-Barbera) … but those who stuck around, stuck around. Animators and directors like Connie Rasinski, Mannie Davis, Eddie Donnelly and many more spent their careers at Terrytoons, creating a kind of family atmosphere. This contributed to stagnation in the product — Terrytoons of the early 1950s looked very much like those of the late '30s, when they first went to color — but it also contributed to the blunting of unionization attempts in the 1940s.
Imagine the employees' surprise, then, when, in 1955, Terry suddenly sold the operation to CBS and retired with millions, leaving them flat. He lived another 16 years in luxurious indolence, while his formerly loyal former staff labored under a new regime that might well described as stressful.
CBS brought in Gene Deitch, late of UPA (where he'd worked on the Gerald McBoing-Boing TV show), to head the studio, and veterans with decades in the business, long set in their ways from working at the same place all that time, suddenly found themselves taking orders from a 31-year-old hotshot, loaded with new ideas.
Deitch brought in not just a new look, but also new characters. Clint Clobber, Gaston LeCrayon, John Doormat, et al. replaced Dinky Duck, The Terry Bears, Little Roquefort and their contemporaries. Also new venues — Tom Terrific, which many consider the best of the Deitch-era Terrytoons, was seen only on television.
And new budgets, too. If the old budgets were shoestring, the new ones were threadbare. Production values, already low, plummetted to new depths.
Deitch was gone after two years, but the new budgets remained — and so did most of the staff. But younger people also came aboard, most notably Ralph Bakshi, better known for his later work as an independent producer (it was he who brought R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat to the big screen). Bakshi became a Terrytoons animator in 1959, when he was 21, and a director in 1963. He worked on many series, for both theatrical release and TV, including Deputy Dawg and Sad Cat, but his best-known work there is a superhero spoof titled The Mighty Heroes.
It's hard to say exactly when Terrytoons ended. They more-or-less just petered out. Production of cartoons for theatrical release ended in 1968, but 20th Century Fox continued to release old ones, especially in overseas markets, until the 1980s. Bakshi left in 1966, to head up Famous Studios during its waning years. The old-time staffers stayed on, in one capacity or another, but by the 1970s, most had died. CBS continues to exploit its Terrytoons properties, but no longer uses the studio's name in doing so. The cartoons themselves stopped appearing on TV when, in the late 1980s, USA Network tied up all rights to them and has since let them languish, but they'd gradually been growing less prominent for some time before that.
Certainly, however, the Terrytoons studio is, by now, a thing of the past.