Voices of Experience

by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

Written histories inform us that the animated film has existed for roughly one hundred years; however, nearly one-third of animation's history is represented by rubbery, pie-eyed figures cavorting in silence. In lieu of voices, animated creations spoke through the lively tinkle of piano keys, bellowed their anger via the tuba's basso profundo, or danced to the trill of the piccolo. Their movements equaled those of the violin's measured bow, and the accidents that befell them resounded on the snare drum while the stars that floated above their heads drifted to the wavering tones of a dreamy harp. If these blandishments did not get the point across, animators could use an array of "surprise" lines, floating question marks, and tiny daggers traveling on pointed lines. These expressive devices were apparently contained within each and every painted little skull until cartoon evolution took its course and sent them the way of the whale's phalanges.

The animated film with sound effects and voices has existed for only seventy years. During that time, hundreds of men, women and children have given voices to the ink, paint and digital creations that we lovingly call cartoons. Voice artistry has evolved along with the animated film. The first voice artists were simply people who worked in the studio; whoever was available did voices. Later talents migrated over from vaudeville, radio and then television. Finally voice artists became specialists who geared their training toward the goal of becoming someone -- or something -- else's voice. When voice and character merge perfectly, the effect can be astounding; an unworldly synchronization kicks into place and the character can no longer be visualized without hearing the tones of the actor. To see the character and hear another voice would seem almost a violation of nature. If you doubt this, picture and then try to hear Droopy. Then Fred Flintstone. Now do so again while reversing their voices.

This, then, is the ability of the greatest voice artists: They do not merely complement an animated character, they complete that character and give it a life as real as our own. Over the past seventy years animation has been enriched many times over by these gifted folk, and this is a decade by decade review of the very best. As always, these choices represent my personal opinion and may prove controversial; so much the better. There are many exceptional names that will not receive mention (at least this time) due to space limitations, but all voice artists have my admiration; making it as a specialist in the performing arts is no easy endeavor.

Mae Questel. Courtesy of Leslie Cabarga.

The 1930s
Boop-oop-a-doop! Mae Questel was not the original voice of Betty Boop, but when she took over the job in 1931 Questel helped propel Fleischer's pouty flapper to international stardom. Questel shone again in 1933 as Popeye's object d'amour Olive Oyl. Questel turned Olive, a supporting character, into a vital component of the Popeye cartoons. Mae Questel was not the only strong voice on the Popeye series; the sailor himself was indelibly voiced by Jack Mercer, an in-betweener at the Fleischer studio who landed the job after two other "voice artists" were fired. Mercer's versatility was impressive; he was able to soften his voice over time without losing any of Popeye's comic tones, and one of the joys of watching old Popeye cartoons is catching Mercer's ad-libs and asides. Mercer and Questal would hold these jobs virtually for life. After Jackson Beck replaced Gus Wickie as the voice of Bluto, one of the first great voice ensembles was complete.

At Disney, two characters in need of distinctive voices found the best possible providers. It would be difficult to imagine Goofy without the rube-in-the-backwoods inflections of Pinto Colvig. The original master of the "duh...shucks!" school, Colvig (beginning in 1931) made Goofy endearing, naive, and quite lively despite the character's slow demeanor. Meanwhile, a newly created cartoon duck named Donald met up with a talented human named Clarence Nash. Nash's manic squawks left audiences guessing at what Donald said in his rages -- when they weren't rolling with laughter. And they would laugh for nearly fifty years. Finally, when Warners welcomed newcomer Mel Blanc to their studio, little did they know he would become the greatest voice artist of his time. Blanc's first major contribution was to lend his voice to a humble, stuttering pig named Porky; it would by no means be his last.

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