Jerry Beck became a cartoon expert the hard way–before the Internet existed, before there was such a thing as home video, and before studios really even cared about their large archives of ‘toons. In 1981, Beck co-wrote the very first reference book on Warner Brothers’ cartoons; a list of titles had never even been compiled before, which meant he had get his information mostly from trade publications from the 1930s and ‘40s. Today, cartoon history is well recorded, thanks in no small part to Beck’s efforts. He has written a series of books for animation fans, and edits the Animation Scoop and Cartoon Research websites.
Originally posted January 25, 2005
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How did you get interested in researching cartoon history?
I always kept my eyes on cartoons, but I didn’t take them seriously at all until I was in high school. I’d come home from school and Bugs Bunny would be on the moment I got in the door. I’d have them on in the background while I got something to eat – and these were funny! I noticed they were funny when I was 15 or 16, and I suddenly began to enjoy these cartoons more than I ever had. This was before the Internet and there were not even books about these things. I started to be more aware that I wanted more information on these cartoons: “Gee what was the name of that cartoon I saw yesterday?” But there was no information, so that’s what started me on being curious about them and researching them myself.
How did you go about it if there were no reference materials?
At one point I just started writing down the titles off the TV screen. There was one cartoon in particular that I just missed the title and I go, “I’m gonna find the name of that cartoon if it kills me, one way or another.” I had been inspired by Leonard Maltin, who had a book at that time called The Great Movie Shorts, which was all about The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, and Laurel and Hardy–all those kinds of short subjects that were shown on television. In this book, he told you about the shorts and he also had a listing of all the different episodes–this had never been done before. He had the title, a plot synopsis, and who was in it, and I thought, “We need this for cartoons.” I ended up meeting him; he taught at a night school back then before he was on television, and he was teaching a class about the history of animation. It was an expensive, college-level course, and I enrolled in it just to meet the guy and to talk to him. We ended up becoming very good friends, and we started talking about the idea of doing a book like The Great Movie Shorts on cartoons. That book ultimately happened; I was his research associate on it, and it was called Of Mice and Magic–it came out in 1980.
But how did we do the research? Luckily, in L.A. and New York there are great entertainment libraries. In New York there’s the Donnell Library Center at Lincoln Center and in L.A. it’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library. I asked Leonard how he researched the Three Stooges shorts, and he said one way is to go through these old Box Office and Motion Picture Exhibitor magazines from the 1930s that would list release charts in the back, and they’d have reviews of things. So I started a campaign of going every day to this library and I’d write down every studio: Terry Toons, Warner Brothers Cartoons, Fleischer Cartoons. From 1929, the beginning of sound, I started to document just by title what each cartoon was–and this is before video. In the late ’70s, my friends and I started to collect 16mm film because at that time that was the only way [to see them]–and that was underground. It was like today with illegal downloading; technically, you couldn’t buy films. You could rent them if you were a college or a theater, but a person couldn’t buy them…but there were ways. I still have my film collection, which has tons of cartoons. I literally know where every [cartoon] from the old days is because of film collectors.
Didn’t studios keep track of this kind of information themselves?
The only studio that really had any kind of sense of its history is Disney, and they still do. Disney was always reliant on its catalog. Warner Brothers was ultimately delighted for me to do a book like this because the publisher was going to pay me, so this was a way to get this wonderful work done without them having to spend a cent on it. They gave me complete access to everything they had, but they didn’t have anything. They had their films, but I had the map–the road map is the titles. They knew they had these films in their library but there was no real documentation. Forget about the other studios. MGM may have had some lists. Columbia was a complete mess, and Universal. None of these places really had any public documentation, and their inside documentation wasn’t even helpful.
Did you come across any “lost ‘toons” that surprised you?
My favorite thing at Warner Brothers was The Bugs Bunny Show, which we’ve just in the last two years have made progress on. The Bugs Bunny Show, which was made in 1960 on ABC, featured three or four minutes of brand-new animation by Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, and Robert McKimson with Mel Blanc doing the voices, where the characters would host old cartoons. That show was never syndicated, never telecast in color even though it was shot in color. A lot of people think they have seen it because they’ve seen cut-down versions of it on Saturday mornings years later. And the thing is, they cut up the original negatives to the original show to make those Saturday morning versions. To me, that was the most endangered piece of Warner Brothers history. They had actually chopped up this Bugs Bunny Show; it was never syndicated so there aren’t all these 16mm TV prints around–there never were any because it went right from ABC prime time to ABC Saturday morning, then it went to NBC and CBS. So it never left network.
I have been trying for years to convince them to see if there’s a way to find the negatives, put them back together, colorize the black and white parts, whatever – let’s reconstruct the show the way it was. That’s gone nowhere. But luckily I’ve been involved with the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs that have come out in the last two years and I insisted on the first one, as bonus material, to reconstruct one of the Bugs Bunny shows. It happened at the last second. They pulled the materials out, but they had black and white on certain parts of it, and color on other parts. So we put it together–it’s a Frankenstein, but boy did we get a lot of feedback on the Internet: “Thank you for doing that.” “Oh my god, where have these been?” So we did another one on the second volume, and we’ll probably do one on each one of these things. At least we’re doing it, even in its Frankenstein state. I hope to someday make sure they’re colorized, reconstitute it. I’ve always wondered why the Cartoon Network hasn’t run them as The Bugs Bunny Show; they’re so wonderfully put together.
In the DVD age, have studios started treating their cartoon archives better?
Shockingly, no. Disney, certainly, and Warner Brothers, now, have restored the cartoons from the original negatives. These cartoons on the Disney and Warner Brothers DVDs actually look like we’ve never seen them before–crystal clear and brand new. There’ve been horrible prints that have been on TV for years and years–they’ve just never upgraded them. This is an ultimate upgrade for DVD.
The other studios really don’t care. When you’re Paramount Home Video, you’re connected to Nickelodeon and your big thing is SpongeBob SquarePants–you don’t care that they happen to own Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle and these old characters I grew up with. They don’t care about that, they really don’t–that’s totally off the radar because the idea is that cartoons are a kids’ medium. That’s how they’re perceived by Hollywood, by everybody. There are some rare exceptions to that, but cartoons are considered just for kids. So the fact that the kids have grown up and really want to see their nostalgic favorites doesn’t mean anything. So if it isn’t SpongeBob or the PowerPuff Girls or whatever is the latest flavor of the month, they really don’t care about the library that much.
Now, I say that and you’ll quickly point to the fact that there are DVDs of the complete Underdog–there are some really obscure, wacko things out there. That happens to be by small companies that own all the Courageous Cat cartoons, so some of them do put that stuff out. So it’s both the best of times and the worst, in some ways. But I’m very optimistic that the other studios will fall in line on this.
What do you think of the current state of animation and the upsurge in computer graphics?
I think it’s really healthy right now. There was a big scare a few years ago because the feature end of it has practically gone completely CG. And the hundreds of employees that were working at Disney, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, and Fox doing these films five years ago–Anastasia, Prince of Egypt, all these films–are sort of out of work. A lot of them are training on the computer and they’re now working on the Robots, the Shreks, and the Madagascars that are coming up. There was a scare that everybody was going to lose their job, and a lot of people did. We have a complete duplicate of what happened 10 years ago. In 1994, The Lion King came out and was a mega- mega-blockbuster–it grossed over $300 million, it was the biggest hit of that year. And it caused all the studios to jump on the animation bandwagon. Animation movies are very profitable, but it soured a little bit. And now with Pixar emerging with Toy Story and the grosses of these CG films–plus the Academy having this new category of Best Animated Feature–this has reinvigorated Hollywood to get back involved, just as they did 10 years ago.
Now, this past year, Shrek 2 was the biggest film in Hollywood, period. We had a weekend in November where the top three films out of five were animated features: SpongeBob, The Incredibles, and Polar Express. So Hollywood is aware that animation in theaters is great box office, but it’s CG. Which is great. We’re going to see lots of different CG pictures in the next few years–different styles. I’m very excited by what I see. Obviously, things like The Incredibles are taking it in a new direction. Some of the designs and the characters that I see in the films coming up this year are exciting. I really didn’t like the look of Shrek, I didn’t like Antz–everything looked robotic and fakey. We’re going to look back at those films and laugh because that’s how primitive they are. But what I see coming up is a great sense of design. Art is coming back into these CG films.
Does traditional, hand-drawn animation have a future?
Two-D is still alive on television on the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and many others. There is still traditional, hand-drawn animation. SpongeBob is the biggest character right now–it’s so big, it’s threatening. And anime, which is 2D, is huge on video. So animation right now is really exciting. I just think that all the companies are going to “up” what they’re doing. I still remember the days 15 years ago or so before Nicktoons when animation was just He-Man, Smurfs, and that’s all it was. It was only on the three broadcast TV networks. Now we have made-for-video movies, made-for-Internet movies, we’ve got people doing cartoons on the Internet that become TV shows or movies. So it’s definitely the best possible time for animation because everybody’s doing it.
Has animation made inroads to more mature audiences with programs like the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim?
Despite what I said before about animation being perceived as a children’s medium–and it is–we obviously have more animation aimed at different segments today, like Adult Swim and what’s on Comedy Central. It’s not really aimed at kids; it’s aimed at teenagers and adults. And The Simpsons is accepted as an adult thing right now, and even when you go to the movies now, The Incredibles is something that works for the whole family. So we do have that, but it’s forgotten too quickly. Animation for adults is considered very “nichey,” if that’s the right word. It’s very much for a particular audience, not quite the mainstream. When The Simpsons first came on, and about 10 years later, all the networks decided, “Hey, The Simpsons is so big, let’s do lots of animated sit-coms.” And none of them stuck–maybe King of the Hill is about it. They all gave up.
Other countries like Japan and France don’t consider animation to be strictly a kids thing–it’s just a medium, and it’s how you tell stories. I keep telling people, I guarantee you that 20 years after The Simpsons goes off the air, it will be considered a kids’ show and it will be highly censored like Looney Tunes are today. People will have forgotten that it was on prime time because it will have been on at 6 o’clock every day for so long–that’s what happened to The Flintstones. The Flintstones was a prime time series. Obviously, from our point of view it looks like a kids’ show now, but it wasn’t meant to be–it was actually a sophisticated adult show in its first two seasons. Even the Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny were aimed at the whole theater audience, especially adults. A lot of people keep asking on my website, “Why do they keep editing Elmer Fudd’s gunshots and these explosion gags?” Because they don’t understand that these were not meant for kids. They think it’s for kids so they edit it for kids.