Karl Cohen reviews Keith Scott's new book that not only discusses everyone's favorite flying squirrel and moose, but also provides an accurate historical look at the early days of television animation.
Well-researched books about animation are rarely published, but fortunately two outstanding volumes have come out recently. Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999) is an exceptional contribution to our understanding of the development of theatrical animation, and now Keith Scott's The Moose That Roared honors people who pioneered limited animation made for television. Fortunately J. Ward's studio produced some of the funniest TV cartoons ever made, so the book is not only an authoritative account, it is also a delight to read.
Scott's book bears almost no resemblance to a coffee table book about Rocky and Bullwinkle that was published in 1996. The first book barely mentioned some of Jay Ward's productions and omitted others completely. It filled up the pages with illustrations, trivia and plot details. It only mentioned Bill Scott (not related to Keith Scott, the author of the book) three or four times even though he was Ward's co-producer, head writer, the voices of Bullwinkle and other characters, and did a thousand other things for the studio. It also failed to explain that much of the show was produced in Mexico, making it the first animated "run-away" production. The show was made outside the U.S. to reduce labor costs and that resulted in numerous mistakes, headaches and other problems.
The 1996 book was simplistic and focused on Ward and his most famous show. It never mentioned Alex Anderson, the man who created Rocky, Bullwinkle, Crusader Rabbit, Dudley Do-Right and other characters. Ward was a producer with a business degree from Harvard. It was Anderson, Ward's partner and life-long friend, who conceived and developed a form of animation that could be made within the financial constraints of television. Working together they pioneered limited animation. In 1950, Crusader Rabbit became their first show to be broadcast on a regular basis. I consider the development of limited animation a major development, yet the author of the 1996 book saw no reason to mention it.
Newer is Better
The new publication is a concise history. After a brief overview and introduction, the book provides a detailed chronological account of the life and times of J. Ward, his associates, their work, fun, follies and a few major blunders. While it is lovingly written by a life-long fan who became the world's foremost scholar on the studio, it is honest, insightful and sometimes unflattering. It is so thorough, it not only provides detailed information about the studio's major accomplishments, it also covers unsold pilots, the production of commercials, wacky publicity stunts, biographical information about everybody involved with the production, problems with contracts, networks, agencies, labor and censors, plus a great deal more that you probably didn't expect to find in a book about people making humorous cartoons.
The book provides the longest and best account of the Ward-Anderson collaborations including some of the problems they faced trying to get Crusader Rabbit aired. NBC approved the proposal for the project in 1948, but in 1949 they decided not to go ahead with their plans to make it a network show. Jerry Fairbanks, who had a 5-year exclusive distribution deal with NBC, decided to release the 5-minute program on a station-by-station basis. It took another year before Crusader Rabbit aired anywhere on a regular basis. Production stopped after 195 episodes (1951) and the studio eventually closed.
In 1957 William Hanna (without Joe Barbera) joined Mike Lah, Don Driscoll and Don MacNamara to form a company to continue production of the show. They were not told that there was an ongoing legal battle over the rights to it. The rights had become available when Jerry Fairbanks went bankrupt. Hanna and his associates had started production when they were informed Ward did not own all the rights to the show. The litigation not only ended the project, it resulted in Ward and Anderson being forced to sell their interests in the show to Shull Bonsall who had purchased Fairbanks' rights.
The story of Ward's next project, one that starred a moose and squirrel, is just as carefully recounted. It covers everything from the development of the show's concept to the almost instant success of the show when it first aired November 19, 1959. There is also excellent coverage of other parts of the program including Peabody's Improbable History and Fractured Fairy Tales (Aesops and Son replaced Fractured Fairy Tales for one season).
Details, Details, Details
Anyone fascinated with the industry should enjoy the account of how Rocky and his Friends ended up being animated in Mexico (the original plan called for the production to go to Japan). The show's first production budget was miniscule compared to the cost of a Hanna-Barbera production from the same time. Keith Scott interviewed the Americans who oversaw the production in Mexico and their accounts explain the numerous problems that resulted. His detailed account even hints at an under-the-table deal that resulted in the show going to Mexico in the first place. (Apparently people with the show's ad agency and/or sponsor owned shares in the Mexican facility.)
The text also covers Ward's later productions including George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, Dudley Do-Right, Hoppity Hopper, Tom Slick, Fractured Flickers, numerous commercials and much more. As the story unfolds you also get a delightful picture of the good times at Jay Ward Productions. There are accounts of zany parties and publicity stunts, surprise company outings to unusual places and other unexpected moments. Anderson, who had gone into advertising, occasionally re-appears as do several other life-long friends of Ward.
Trivia fans will enjoy much of the information in the text. My favorite "stupid" fact is that when Action for Children's Television (ACT) pressured TV into adopting politically correct guidelines/censorship in 1977, Cap'n Crunch, a 500-year-old pirate, could no longer wear a sword. One fact overlooked by the author is: who sang the George of the Jungle song? He gives us the names of the composer and song writer, but not Donnie Brooks, who sang, "George, George, George of the Jungle, watch out for that tree." (I saw him sing it at a county fair in the 1980s.) The book also explains why several non-Ward productions were once included with Rocky and Bullwinkle episodes on TV. This led fans to believe Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo, King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Go Go Gophers, Commander McBrag, etc., were produced by J. Ward Productions. They were actually made by Total Television, a company owned by Peter Piech. Piech also had an interest in the distribution of Ward products on TV.
As I read the text I kept noticing that the book didn't give a clear picture as to what Ward was like as a person. Scott saved this complex subject for the next to the last chapter. His account of who Ward was is an excellent piece of research. He quotes extensively from those who best knew the man and he reveals uncomfortable incidents that help explain this man's unusual psyche. The statements sometimes contradict each other, but the confusion helps explain who this wonderful man was.
Proof is in the Pudding
When I finished reading the book I wondered how accurate it was so I called two people who worked closely with Ward. Alex Anderson said, "It was pretty much the way I remembered it." Lucille Bliss, the voice of Crusader Rabbit, enjoyed the book and said Scott came close to guessing her age when he writes "circa 1927." Bliss said the date is wrong, "but I can live with it." (June Foray, the voice of Rocky, like Bliss never reveals her age. Scott made no attempt to guess it.) Bliss felt Scott simplified the complex history of Crusader and that he didn't fully capture the negative personality of the man who ended up with the rights to the show. She was also surprised at how much he knew about her, yet they had never met or talked on the phone.
My only negative criticism of the book is minor. It would have been better had there been a few well-placed footnotes. Scott was not present when most of the events in the book took place, so footnotes would have been useful. Scott identifies in the text the person he is quoting, but he does not say how he obtained information not in quotes. Had there been footnotes, Bliss would have known from where the information about her came.
We are fortunate that St. Martin's press was willing to publish Scott's account of the studio. It is an exceptional contribution to our knowledge of early TV animation, a subject ignored by most authors. Fortunately Scott got to interview almost everyone connected with the studio (several of the key figures are no longer alive) and is an excellent writer.
The Moose That Roared: The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, A Flying Squirrel and a Talking Moose, by Keith Scott. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Approximately 460 pages with 35 or 40 black and white illustrations. ISBN: 0312199228 (hardbound $27.95).
Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.