Chapter 14: The Terry-fying Challenge
But the creative benefits of the very wide screen were markedly diminished by the limitations. We could not even use the most fundamental dramatic camera moves, rotating angle shots. The moment we would rotate the camera, the wide edges of our animation field would swing out of camera range! We could only rotate the camera at very small field sizes where we would lose image sharpness. So basically, we could only handle straight-on shots.
Another limitation was the same as in live-action CinemaScope movies. The very wide screen favored long shots, and made close ups jarring. It drastically limited the most basic element of our craft: film editing. We had to stay with longer running shots, with action within the frame, and limit cuts and close-ups. So with all the conflicting demands of TV and distributors, CinemaScope was more a hindrance than a blessing.
In spite of all this, I did my best to fight it. I was determined to sneak as much benefit as I could from the CinemaScope format I was stuck with, and that was probably one of the things that soon led to my undoing at Terrytoons.
As I remember, there were just two films that gave me a chance to really exploit the wide screen format, the Dinky Duck film, "It's a Living," and the R.O. Blechman story, "The Juggler of Our Lady."
Dinky Duck was the only standard Terrytoons character that I ever used, and just that one time. With the story that Tommy Morrison, the story staff and I created, we had a chance to do a satire on the old Terrytoons shtick, and to call direct attention to the CinemaScope screen shape. I still think it was an effective satire.
When I first saw R.O. Blechman's little book, "The Juggler of Our Lady," with every word, including the title and copyright notice hand written in Bob's tiny and shaky style, I thought that here was the greatest opportunity I would ever have to really work the CinemaScope format, playing off those tiny timorous figures against the vast expanse of that very wide screen! But it was the toughest sell I ever had — not only to convince Bill Weiss of the value of such a film to the studio's image, but also to get Bob to let us do it.
Blechman was well aware of the Terrytoons product, and was terrified we would convert his little juggler into Mighty Mouse. I was literally on the phone with Bob every night for nearly a year before he finally relented. I assured him over and over again, that we would be absolutely true to his story and faithful to his graphic style. My ace card was Al Kouzel, one of the finest artists who ever worked with me. I knew that I could rely on Al to perfectly get Bob Blechman's images unscathed onto the big screen. Al was a talented and dedicated artist who worked with me for many years in many locations, even in Prague. He was able to get Bob's confidence.
It was a prodigious undertaking, and Bob himself came into the studio to work with Al on the layouts. I monitored and guided the visual staging development each day. I knew this had to work and bring us needed prestige, or I would be finished immediately.
Besides the graphic fidelity, there were the other filmic elements to co-ordinate — the music and the narration. I had to work with the long-time Terrytoons musical director, Phil Sheib, a fixture in the studio for many, many years, who had ground out hundreds of ossified and clichéd musical scores for the standard Terrytoons of old. I spent hours working with him and assuring him that I would allow him to break out of the Paul Terry restrictions he had been working with for so long. Paul had insisted that if he was paying for a 30-piece orchestra, he wanted every musician to be playing all the time! That forced those wacky, overblown arrangements you hear on the typical Terrytoons. Phil was a former piano player for silent movie theaters, and developed a heavy-handed cornball output. But he truly surprised me by showing that he was in fact a great musician who, being set free, could create spare, funny, and lovely film scores. I think his "Juggler" music is the best thing he ever did, and it was just a woodwind quintet!
I like to think that my greatest inspiration for the film was in the choice of Boris Karloff as the narrator. I was jeered at for choosing this typecast movie monster for such a delicate story as "The Juggler," but I had a hunch, from hearing him speak on the radio, and realizing that he was actually a gentle and cultured Englishman. I immediately felt that he was the one, and when I contacted him, he was eager to do it, and breakout of his stereotyped monster image.
These two films worked, but as I said, the successes were exceptions. I realized once again that all this CinemaScope stuff, or any other high tech gizmos, were merely superficial, and that the only thing that really counted would be strong stories and fresh characters, and that was my basic endeavor, and the only factors these cartoons could be judged by. Here are a few that I tried: