Friday, March 18, 2011

Old Glory

"Old Glory" (1939) has always been unique in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies filmography. A straightforward U.S. history piece featuring Porky as a youngster learning historic milestones from Uncle Sam himself. This gag-free cartoon was directed by Chuck Jones and obvious it was intended to be a special entry. The commentary track with Jerry Beck and Martha Sigall on Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 2 is a good starting point to learn some of the behind-the-scenes history of this short. Beck recalls reading a press clipping saying how they made many more prints of this short than the typical Schlesinger short (150 prints) and Sigall mentioned how the ink-and-paint department was told that this was going to be a special picture with many different colors being used (they also used all-new cels for this, instead of reusing washed-off cels from previous cartoons).

The picture was announced in April of 1939 (below is a quote from an article titled "Even Porky Pig Goes Patriotic in New Cartoon" from The Milwaukee Journal - Apr 5, 1939):

"Nearly all Schlesinger films are satirical, but "Old Glory" will be played as straight as is consistent with the whimsical notion of Porky sitting on Uncle Sam's knee and listening to stories about Paul Revere, the bill of rights and Yorktown."

While the above article says, "In fact just about the whole cavalcade of American history is being put into a seven minute color cartoon.", a brief blurb in the Theater Gossip section from the May 27, 1939 edition of The Evening Independent seems to suggest that "Old Glory" was going to run longer than that, stating it would be "in two reels and will be a history lesson for children of primary school age." The final cartoon was only one reel, but ran approx. 9 minutes.

However, the longest and most interesting article was a syndicated United Press piece which is excerpted below. Granted I have no idea how much of the following is true and how much is PR hype , but it sounds like Leon Schlesinger himself played the key role in spearheading this short, thinking up the idea for the short in March, 1939. The article claims "Old Glory" was finished in a mere 10 weeks (while the typical cartoon short of the day took 10 months to complete).

First Patriotic Cartoon In Hollywood's History Set for July 4 Release
200 Artists Work 10 Weeks at Full Blast Turning Out "Old Glory"
by Frederick C. Othman
United Press Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD, June 16 --- Leon Schlesinger, the cartoon producer who couldn't draw a picture if his life depended on it, completed today Hollywood's first patriotic cartoon for July 4 release by the brothers Warner, flag-wavers extraordinary.

This is important news for a number of reasons:

1. Schlesinger set an all-time record for speed by producing and photographing 20,000 separate drawings in 10 weeks flat; the average cartoon of the same length takes 10 months to complete.

2. The picture marks an extraordinary turnabout of the old phrase, "From the sublime to the ridiculous." Schlesinger's cartoon went from Porky Pig to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

3. It was an excellent production and included more American history in one reel than ever has been packed together before.
Schlesinger said live actors would have taken a full-length feature picture to tell the same story.

The business of producting a cartoon in 10 weeks, with drawings in full color being made at the rate of 2,000 a week, turned the Schlesinger headquarters inside out. When he thought of the idea in bed one night in March, the boss told his scenarists to write a patriotic story and then he set all his 209 artists working on it. For a full 10 weeks they didn't do a lick of work a merrie melodie or a looney tune, the Schlesinger specialties which he turns out at the rate of 42 a year.

"And it costs me 25 percent more than any other cartoon," he said, "and I'm bound to lose money on it. Only return I'll get is the satisfaction of having made it."

The full story was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Jun 17, 1939, but I also wanted to include one more quote from Leon from the end of that piece:

"I always figured that I was a business man and that art and business didn't mix. I never saw an artist who could handle his own bank account. And I never saw a business man who was any ready hand with a paint brush. So I merely hired the best artists and writers I could get and let them go to it. It seems to have worked out all right."


Thad said...

I asked Michael Barrier about this Old Glory press and here's what he wrote:

"I do have several 1939 clips about Old Glory, including a shorter version of this UPI story, published in early July. But nothing else to support the notion that the cartoon was rushed through with the whole studio involved. I did talk with Chuck about Old Glory once, specifically about the rotoscoping and McKimson’s role, and he said nothing about any such special effort. So this is probably an example of press-agent hype."

Jon Cooke said...

Thanks, Thad. Like I said in the post, I was a bit suspicious, since you'd think such a feat (rushing through production so quickly) would have been mentioned elsewhere through the years by someone involved (Jones, Sigall). Still makes for some interesting reading, though.

Trish said...

Wonderful post! I've always been very curious about "Old Glory". It's one of the most deeply strange and fascinating early WB cartoon shorts and I'm glad to see it get some attention.

rnigma said...

Years ago I watched TNT (when it was Ted's old-movie channel before TCM) and they showed the old WB American-history shorts, including "Give Me Liberty" with John Litel as Patrick Henry, and recognized, at the end, the scene that was roto-traced for "Old Glory," complete with Henry drawing his sword.
Which films were the other rotoscoped scenes taken from?

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