Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mike Maltese, a Dear Man

If I had to pick one person who has had an effect on my sense of humour, it’d be Mike Maltese. One of my quirks as a young cartoon viewer was staring at the credits at the start or finish of each cartoon. And pretty soon, I realised just about any cartoon with the name ‘Michael Maltese’ on it was going to be funny.

Maltese’s work was silly, corny, pun-filled and inventive. Who else would come up with the gag of Bugs Bunny baking a cake just so the Sheriff of Nottingham could land face first in it (Rabbit Hood, 1949)? Or a faux Guy Lombardo record that’s a square shape (Real Gone Woodpecker, 1954)? Or the simple premise of “the butler did it” and turn it into an escalating heap of accusations built on its own twist of logic (Daffy Dilly, 1948)? Or Snagglepuss’ pun-laden mock-theatric declamations (“Don’t foreclose the mortgage! Five-close, even”)? Or have characters call themselves by the way they might be described in a theatre’s playbill (ie. “typical helpless western rancher’s daughter”)? Maltese’s odd slant on things extended into his home life. He owned the head of a stuffed “jackalope” and a 1950 home photo shows him with a rooster that laid an egg.

A long time ago, I bought a copy of Joe Adamson’s Tex Avery, King of Cartoons and may have more excited to find it contained an interview with Mike Maltese than one with Avery himself. Maltese explained how he arrived at the Schlesinger studio on the Warner Bros. lot in 1937, more or less because of his wife, was hired at $20 a week as an in-betweener, and then moved into the story department in August 1939. Mike Barrier’s exhaustively-researched Hollywood Cartoons reveals Maltese wasn’t shy about looking out for his own career. He craftily overcame the BS thrown at him by the old boys’ network in the story department (story head Bugs Hardaway left the studio not long after losing the showdown). He didn’t wait for Warners to dump him when it announced in June 1953 it was closing the studio indefinitely. The same day, he was hired by the Walter Lantz studio; no doubt he put out feelers two months earlier when the studio laid off the McKimson unit. The closure lasted six months; Maltese came back 14 months later with a raise negotiated by Chuck Jones (what his union thought of that is anyone’s guess). And his departure from Warners a few years later seems equally sudden. Robert J. McKinnon wrote in his book Stepping into the Picture: Cartoon Designer Maurice Noble:

For the Jones unit, the departure of Michael Maltese was a particularly striking blow as his contributions had been integral to the team’s success for so many years. In late 1958, Maltese was hired by the Hanna-Barbera studio to write for their new limited animation television cartoons featuring characters like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones, all of which became highly successful. Noble recalled his arrival back at WB after his second stint at Sutherland: “I went into the studio and looked in Mike’s room, and found he was gone. When I asked Chuck about it, he told me Mike had left the studio, along with some others [such as writer Warren Foster]. There was no big farewell or anything like that. It was kind of sad.”
Maltese’s influence extended beyond the story room. He appeared on camera in You Ought to be in Pictures (1940). He lent his voice to several cartoons, apparently including the Snafu short Rumors (1943). And he appeared in caricature in Wackiki Wabbit (1943) and Rocket-Bye Baby (1956) as the immortal Captain Schmideo.

Just as Maltese flourished at Warners, especially in the Jones unit, he flourished in the early days at Hanna-Barbera. Jones himself noted in the book Conversations, with Maureen Furniss:

When Mike Maltese was my writer, he did one picture every five weeks. When he went to Hanna-Barbara, he was asked to do a half-hour show a week. I don’t know how you multiply things like that, but it’s murderous.
Maltese worked up stories for 78, seven-minute cartoons for The Quick Draw McGraw Show—and that was just for the first season. Despite that, the cartoons are still funny. Viewers got Quick Draw, who couldn’t figure out when to shoot and when to blow the smoke from his gun barrel, Snooper locating a Snow White who shouted about calla lilies in bloom and Doggie Daddy commenting on the cartoon in progress to the people at home.

The story department was a perfect place for Maltese. He was never noted for his adept drawing skills—Bob Givens once said he’d take Maltese’s raw drawings and work them up into something more usable to animators—but Noble told this story:

“Mike and I regularly went out to lunch together outdoors, sometimes browsing for antiques. During one of our lunch hours, I happened to have my paints with me and a small piece of black matting board. After he had eaten, Mike sat down and painted a charming abstract which he signed and later left on my desk. When I went in to thank him for it and tell him how interesting I thought it was, with that twinkle in his eye, he said ‘I had fun! I just wanted to show you I was an artist.’ I treasure that little painting.
Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna both praised Maltese in their autobiographies and in some media interviews at the time the cartoons was made. And one reporter actually interviewed him, a rarity considering the relative anonymity of people who worked on cartoons and the short shrift (and hostility, in some cases) non-Disney animation received from critics and reviewers until some time in the mid-‘70s. I posted this on the GAC forum three years ago but want to re-print it here. It’s from the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate for newspapers of January 3, 1960.

Crosby's TV and Radio
The Man Behind McGraw

By John Crosby
Mike Maltese is a cartoonist who started in animation in Hollywood about 20 years ago. He’s never heard of Feiffer and probably never heard of Low or Mauldin either. He’s a West Coast boy who can mimic almost any voice he’s ever heard, can actually make a line drawing of himself by sheer will power and native acting talent, and is now a very successful cartoonist for television.
He draws three frames simultaneously for his cartoon strip “Quick Draw McGraw” which my kids rarely miss. This is a kiddie strip but it’s satiric and adult enough to make me laugh. “Quick Draw McGraw” is also fairly significant in that it is typical of cartoons that are drawn entirely for television. Most of the cartoons on television originally (and still) were drawn years and years ago for theatre audiences which, of course, are largely composed of adults.
Where the Money Is
MALTESE explains, “The reason so many cartoonists are now working for television is that that is where the money is from. Movie exhibitors couldn’t afford to pay enough for cartoons because of the double features and all. But working for theatrical cartoons I worked much less. I wrote eight cartoon features a year. Since I’ve been working for television, I’ve done in seven months about eight years worth of stories. This medium eats the stuff up.”
According to Maltese, animated cartoons began orignally as picturized nursery rhymes for the movie houses. When they came on, adults would excuse themselves and go out for a smoke. In order to keep the adults in their seats, the cartoonists started doing their own stories including satire, which would be over the kids’ heads without losing them.
A Long Way
“I’ve been in the cartoon business for 25 years and, I’ve been in every department. Animated cartoons arrived with Walt Disney and they’ve come a long way since that. Until recently the only cartoons on television were old ones done for the movie theatres.
“Hanna and Barbara, the outfit I’m with, were the first to come out with products which have all the crispness and technical finesse you’d find in theatrical cartoons despite the handicap of supplying so much more than theater use.
“In filling the schedule, they were forced to work out a technique of animation that would be faster, actually faster than that used in theatrical cartoons. In TV animation we have to do about 300 feet of animation a week, as opposed to about 25 feet for theatrical cartoons. Some are a little jerky but, on the whole, they’re expert jobs.
Learned from Chaplin“As a boy I was a great fan of the silent pictures. In 1913 I saw Chaplin and I came alive.” It still shows in his work.
“I went home and I made up as Chaplin. There isn't a film of his I haven’t seen over and over. He showed me how closely humor is to tragedy.
“And the original ‘Mark of Zorro’ with Douglas Fairbanks with its chases and its humor depended very much on the sort of action and pace cartoons use now. I’m going to draw Quick Draw as Zorro one day.”
An Exclusive Club
“In the cartoon business,” says Maltese, “no one can take the credit for the finished product. One hand washes the other. The beautiful part of animated cartoons is that, even though we may all hate each other, everyone is working for the same thing. You can’t tell where one animator leaves off and the other begins.
“No, I don’t mind the anonymity. We animators are a sort of exclusive club and none of us would want to do anything else.”
Then he sighs and adds: “Except—I might have been a comedian in pictures.”

Despite the workload, Maltese had time for side jobs. Of course, he had done comic book work while still at Warners. And, local newspapers published this announcement, dated March 3, 1961:
Michael Maltese and Florence Maltese, husband and wife, as joint tenants, are now conducting an animated cartoon writing business as co-partners at 6315 Ben Avenue, North Hollywood, California, under the fictitious firm name of FANFARE PRODUCTIONS.
Evidently, Mike and Florrie moved their business later that year. Their new abode made news in the Desert Sentinel of June 15, 1961:
Noted TV Writer Builds Home Here
Mr. and Mrs. Michael Maltese will soon occupy their new home at 66-938 Buena Vista which was designed and constructed by Lindley C. Richardson, local building contractor.
Mr. Maltese is a TV and screen writer and expects to do a great part of his work in the relaxing atmosphere of Desert Hot Springs.
Maltese managed to live long enough to see the beginning of research into—and appreciation of—the shorts he had worked on years earlier that had received the kind of exposure on television they never could get in theatres. The research manifested itself in fanzines and books, then exploded with the internet. Ed Benedict’s death several years ago never would have received the same amount of coverage had it happened in 1981, when Maltese passed away. But 1981 was long enough for Maltese to merit a separate on the Associated Press wire:

Roadrunner cartoonist dies at 73
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 23 (AP) — Michael Maltese, who created several cartoon characters and helped create the Roadrunner and the Coyote, has died at age 73 following a six-month bout with cancer.
Maltese, who died yesterday at Good Samaritan Hospital, shared several awards for his writing and animation, including Academy, Emmy and Annie awards.
He was the creator of the French skunk Pepe LaPue [sic] and while with Hanna Barbera Productions helped create and write for such cartoons as the Flintstones, Jetsons, Augie Doggie, Quick Draw McGraw and Tom and Jerry.
While with Warner Bros., he worked on Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam cartoons.
He worked with Chuck Jones to develop the Roadrunner and the Coyote.
Maltese began his career working on Betty Boop cartoons at Max Fleischer’s studio in New York City, where he was born. He moved to Hollywood in 1937.

Mike Maltese is even part of the social media he never could have dreamed of. Family members have set up a Facebook page for him. It’s HERE.

We’ll leave the final words on Mike Maltese—of course, you can post yours in the comment section—to Warners co-worker Maurice Noble’s biography:

“We were so fortunate to have Mike Maltese, who had a ‘pixie’ quality—by this I mean a twinkle in his eye, a wonderful sense of humor, and a zany slant on things. Full of ideas,” said Maurice. “There was never a written script at Warner Bros. The writers had to draw their ideas. Of course, Mike’s drawings were not as refined or beautiful to look at as Chuck’s or the animators.’ But that’s not what he was there for. His rough drawings were there to develop the story and, believe me, Mike’s storyboards were often very, very funny. And he’d write dialogue to go with the drawings, which Chuck would ultimately nail down. If Mike wanted to put over a gag, he had to lead up to it with the situations he created in his drawings, until there was a payoff.”...

Maurice would often look in on Mike at work on a story and say “So, you’re throwing another bomb,” challenging him to abandon a violent gag and come up with a more interesting solution to a situation. “I can still see Mike hiding his face in mock shame when I’d catch him using a violent gag, which we both knew was the ‘easy way out.’ Mike could make such a rich storyboard in terms of gags and special touches. Chuck sometimes couldn’t get it all in the picture. And he knew how important his contributions were to so many pictures, yet never had an inflated ego. He was a marvellous, talented individual, an indispensable part of the unit, and a dear man.”

15 comments:

  1. It was Mike, Warren and John (Dunn) who I greatly admire for their quality and quantity of work - and it was such a treat to find out more about Mike here. A true, inventive "super genius" in all =)

    Thanks for sharing, chap.

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  2. The If you look at the arc of Bugs Bunny cartoons over nearly 20 years at Warners, when you think which unit was driving the personality development of Bugs the most (as opposed to the visual development), it was always the unit Maltese was in, going from Avery to Freleng and then to Jones.

    Chuck said once he (and Foster) got to Hanna-Barbera "They used up the material pretty quickly,", though in Adamson's book Mike goes over the horrid problems of trying to be creative once people like Fred Silverman at CBS were dictating the story lines (it was probably a combination of H-B overstretching their creative talent pool, which began happening in 1961, along with the network interference that started a few years later that spelled the downfall for their quality level. Had they kept to just 2-3 shows in production at the same time and if the network suits had kept their noses out of things, H-B's Golden Era with Mike, Warren, Dan Gordon and Tony Benedict doing the stories might have lasted a little longer).

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  3. At first when I read the title I thought that it said "..a BEAR friend.." Yowp...the only ironic thing here is that Maltese never wrote any cartoons show you..! J.Lee, regarding that story about the network inerfeence. I have that [Joe] Adamson book ["Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons",1975] and Maltese cited "Moby Dick" [possibly what evolved into that serious 1967 whale of a cartoon [ahem] with two little boys, with realistic voices, unfortauntely neither of whose done either by Walter Tetley or Dick Beals, and who had a seal named....drumroll please..Scooby, voiced by...DON MESSICK. By the early 70s Maltese wrote for Funky Phantom, an odd show that seemed almost to be a semi-Scooby parody [no laugh track, odd variant with the ghost being part of the gang, and, oh, being an Australian co-production, misplaced music and sound effects!! (Chase music when there is no chase, for instance.)].

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  4. Yowp, I also must admit, Maltese also helped mold my bent sense of humor. It is the cartoons that had his influence that I probably laughed at, and still laugh at the hardest. " Jumpin' Jupiter ", " Deduce, You Say ", " What's Opera, Doc ?", and of course the one that still leaves me in tears... " One Froggy Evening ".

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  5. I recall reading somewhere that on "Wackiki Wabbit" (1943) the caricatures of the castaways are of Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese and that they each did the voices of their characters, unlike Mel Blanc dubbing over Mike's live action scenes in "You Ought To Be In Pictures" (1940).

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  6. That's right. Mel only does Bugs in that cartoon. Pierce did a number of cartoons going back into the '30s. I think that was the first cartoon Maltese voiced.

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  7. In the mid-to-late 1960s Maltese was able to bring H-B cartoons up to bronze level. The 1966 Secret Squirrel episode "Hi Spy" has touches of his style -- a spectator notes, "It's just swamp gas" and the Chief reacts as if the rodent had shouted "Beep Beep!" "Wacky Races" uses so many gags Maltese first devised at Warner's that one almost expects Dick Dastardly to pull off his mask and reveal a long-eared canid.

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  8. Yowp:

    When you wrote the following:
    “If I had to pick one person who has had an effect on my sense of humour, it’d be Mike Maltese. One of my quirks as a young cartoon viewer was staring at the credits at the start or finish of each cartoon. And pretty soon, I realised just about any cartoon with the name ‘Michael Maltese’ on it was going to be funny.”

    …The words might as well have been my own!

    My two heroes are Carl Barks and Michael Maltese, and I try to honor them in every Disney comic book script I write!

    If only I could approach the merest fraction of what they did so routinely! ...It’ll never happen!

    Thank you SO VERY MUCH for shedding all this deserved light on the great Michael Maltese!

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  9. If doing a Violence gag is concidered the "Easy way out", then Tedd Pierce must have been the laziest cartoon writer around!

    I hope you plan on doing a post like this for Warren Foster, too.

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  10. Considering how many shorts Maltese wrote for H-B during the 1959-62 period, it is amazing to see how fresh and funny his scripts generally were.

    Some signs of fatigue could be seen in the Snagglepuss series, largely because there was no sidekick/partner (other than the recurring Major Minor) to provide byplay and reaction as exhibited in other series. Quick Draw and Snooper & Blabber had each other and a wide variety of villians to deal with.

    Maltese did seem to rely heavily on the kind of comic violence that raises the hackles of parent groups, as anyone watching a Roadrunner, Loopy or Quick Draw cartoon will attest. But it's often done with a sly self-consciousness, often via a character commenting on the frequency and/or severity of the mayhem. After Doggie Daddy is blasted by what Augie erroneously believes to be a water pistol, he says to the audience "I think we all knew what was gonna happen."

    There was even some occasional warmth and sentiment in his work, usually under Chuck Jones (FEED THE KITTY, ROCKET-BYE BABY, SNOWBODY LOVES ME), but also in the Augie cartoons and one of the few FLINTSTONES he penned, "Hot Piano".

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  11. ... you have a sense of humor?

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  12. Michael Maltese is one of the only mans who give me taste to watch cartoons again. His stories are attractive and you will don't always know what will happen in the next scene. Most of his Quick Draw episodes will don't have the same flavor without him. And the same with the Chuck Jones cartoons we know now. I wish more recognisitons for this artists in shadow and you show it with this beautiful post. Thanks again Yowp!

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  13. Here is a man who made me laugh for so many years as a child. I had always wanted to meet him as we share the same name.I am also a "Michael Maltese" only I have lived on the east coast all my life. When I grew older I began to research Mike to see if we were related. Ilearned that our families were both from Italy, but that we were not related to my dismay. I recently had the good fortune to make friends with his grand daughter, Lisa Guyette through Facebook and through many converstions decided that we would consider ourselves "Facebook Cousins"! Thank you to the "other" Michael Maltese for so many laughs throughout my lifetime. I wish we could have met!

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  14. This is a great blog! I wish you had an rss feed on it!

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  15. Back when I had the time to do so, I watched hundreds of Warner Bros cartoons, on broadcast, cable, VHS, and DVD, and rapidly came to the conclusion that my early admiration for Chuck Jones was misplaced: while the writer of a Jones cartoon mattered critically (only the Malteses were really funny), the director of a Maltese didn't really matter: they were ALL really funny! Today I went looking for a biography of Mr Maltese; this was the first I found. Thanks!

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