Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Great Maltese

Is there any doubt that Mike Maltese was the best cartoon writer of all? Not for me, there isn’t. Some of the funniest stories ever concocted at Warners Bros. were his, and he somehow managed to pump out 79 cartoons (all in the Quick Draw series and one Huckleberry Hound) in his first year after being hired at Hanna-Barbera. Variety announced on December 4, 1958 his arrival at H-B to be the head of its new story department.



From the collection of former H-B writer Tony Benedict comes this picture of Maltese with another of the greats of the cartoon writing business, Warren Foster. Both of them were native New Yorkers, both worked for the Fleischer studio in the 1930s and it was on Maltese’s recommendation (the story goes) that Foster was hired at Warner Bros.; Maltese was an assistant animator at the time. Foster was hired at Hanna-Barbera on April 14, 1959, so it seems likely Maltese hired him there, too. Foster had left Warners in November 1957 for John Sutherland Productions.

The insightful critic John Crosby interviewed Maltese toward the end of 1959 when the Quick Draw McGraw Show was on the air. We reprinted it some time ago but you can click HERE to read it.

Another indispensable interview with Maltese is in Joe Adamson’s essential book Tex Avery, King of Cartoons. We await the day when historian Michael Barrier publishes his in-depth interviews with Maltese, snippets of which appear in his book Hollywood Cartoons.

Hanna-Barbera was in the Kling Studios (the former Chaplin Studio at 1416 La Brea) when Maltese arrived but he apparently worked from home until the company opened its own building easily recognisable by fans at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd. in August 1963 (plans were announced in March 1962).

Maltese’s “The Flintstone Flyer” episode of The Flintstones, co-written with Joe Barbera and Dan Gordon, was the first to air in September 1960. His name can also be found on the first Yogi Bear Show to air in January 1961. Whether Maltese was freelancing for Chuck Jones at Warners at the time is unclear. His name can be found on “The Mouse on 57th Street,” released in 1961. It’s hard to believe the story was completed before Maltese left for Hanna-Barbera in 1958, but it is possible. Maltese was listed as a writer on “five new half-hour animation projects” for H-B (Variety, December 13, 1961). What they were is unknown. The trade paper the following September mentioned Maltese was assigned to work on The Flintstones and The Jetsons, but I don’t believe he worked on any Jetsons episodes.

It appears Maltese came and went from Hanna-Barbera several times. Variety of August 30, 1963 revealed that he would be working with Jones again, this time on the Tom and Jerry theatricals to be released by MGM. Two days earlier, the trade paper announced Norm Prescott was producing a four-part satire called “How The West Was Lost (Almost)” featuring characterisations of the Marx brothers with Maltese handling “pictorial layouts.” The project languished until February 1966 when Variety mentioned Prescott’s Filmation had found a distributor for the series, Groucho Marx would be a technical advisor, and Maltese was credited as a writer. It never did air.

Maltese was back at Hanna-Barbera in 1965, his name appears on screen as a co-writer on a Secret Squirrel/Atom Ant special, then on the Secret Squirrel Show itself. His last Tom and Jerry short for Jones was released in 1967 and his last project for Hanna-Barbera appears to have been in 1971 when he put together stories for the Funky Phantom, an unfortunate mixture of Snagglepuss and Scooby Doo. Toward the end of the decade, Maltese reunited with Jones for pale carbon copies of their Warner Bros. cartoons and, as the story goes, had his storyboard for the Duck Dodgers sequel tossed out by the director. Fortunately, Maltese lived into the era where old theatrical cartoons were written about and praised, and he was awarded by his peers before he died on February 22, 1981.

Picking a favourite Maltese cartoon, even a favourite Maltese moment, at Hanna-Barbera is pretty much impossible. El Kabong bashing a bad guy with an out-of-tune guitar, Snuffles’ self-love and leap into the sky after eating a dog biscuit (made by sponsor Kellogg’s) are things the most casual cartoon watchers of a certain age remember, even if they don’t know the writer responsible. And people still quote the line Maltese handed to Snagglepuss: “Exit, stage right.”



Here’s another shot of Maltese outside the concrete brick bunker studio at 3501 Cahuenga, where Hanna-Barbera was housed by August 1960. On the left are layout artist Dick Bickenbach and production supervisor Howard Hanson. On the right of Maltese is someone whose picture I don’t recall seeing before. He’s Paul Sommer, who was a story director at the studio. He would have been about 50 at the time this photo was taken and died in 2011 at the age of 99. The photo was provided by Tony Benedict, who was writing at Hanna-Barbera at the time.

Mike’s daughter Brenda told the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “He was always funny . . . he had charisma . . . He would walk in a room and take over . . . He took a lot of [his ideas] from our animals. We had dogs and cats, and he would pick up on anything . . . I was that obnoxious girl [in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Little Red Riding Rabbit].” (Brenda used to shout “Ta have!” as a girl. Mike put it in the story).

Wherever he got his ideas, they were brilliant at times. And he somehow coped with the huge workload at Hanna-Barbera. He really was the greatest of them all.

9 comments:

  1. [His] name can be found on “The Mouse on 57th Street,” released in 1961. It’s hard to believe the story was completed before Maltese left for Hanna-Barbera in 1958, but it is possible.

    Allow me to present another enigmatic head-scratcher involving this cartoon - the two New York cops have at least a superficial resemblance (sans the mustache) to the New York cop lead characters in Car 54, Where Are You?, which premiered the same year. The large oafish officer ("Oh boy! Da diamond!") is actually referred to as "Muldoon"' which was the name of Fred Gwynne's character.

    I'm sure its all a coincidence...or is it? (cue spooky music)

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    1. Mike's name's on it, but the cartoon does suffer a bit from Chuck's post-Maltese regression into his pre-1942 obsession for cute poses. So it may have been something Jones finished up on his own and was released in '61, at a time when the restrictions on credits were a little more relaxed (unless J.L. caught you moonlighting for UPA).

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  2. In this day and age, it sounds corny to have “heroes”, but Michael Maltese and Carl Barks (of Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck fame) are mine! Indeed, I “mentally dedicate” each and every one of my current Disney comic book scripts to both of them – because it *is* due to them that I wanted to be a writer.

    As a child, the name of Michael Maltese was the first name of a “writer” that I ever noticed – and I noticed it because his name was associated with the very best of the things I liked… Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera cartoons! From there, I “noticed” Warren Foster, Tony Benedict, Tedd Pierce, Bob Ogle, Heck Allen, John Dunn, and many more… but Mike Maltese was the first!

    One aspect of Maltese’s career that is rarely explored or acknowledged is his writing for comic books. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he wrote for Western Publishing (Dell, and later Gold Key, Comics) most often on characters he had prior theatrical or television experience with, such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Beep-Beep the Road Runner (which differed somewhat from the “Jones / Maltese Road Runner”), Woody Woodpecker, and various Hanna-Barbera characters. His Snagglepuss was naturally easy to pick out, and when Top Cat met J. Evil Scientist (in TOP CAT # 12, 1964), there’s little doubt as to who “arranged that meeting”!

    Alas, he wrote relatively little of the Quick Draw McGraw comic – much of which seemed to be written by Vic Lockman – but, when he got an opportunity, it read like an unproduced Quick Draw cartoon. Consider “Stagecoach Magic” in Dell’s QDMG # 4 (1960), reprinted in Gold Key’s QDMG # 15 (1969) – and drawn by Harvey Eisenberg. A little stagecoach-robbing magical wizard-bad guy, just shouts “Mike Maltese”, particularly in the story’s ending gag. Dell’s QDMG # 3 (1960) leads off with (“El Kabong Bongs Again” which, by the gags seen therein, is also clearly written by Maltese.

    When his TV cartoon career appeared to be over in the ‘70s, Mike Maltese returned to write Gold Key comics for a while. He and the great writer (and Blogger) Mark Evanier considerably raised the level of writing at ‘70s Gold Key at the time.

    Maltese returned to the familiar Warner and Lantz characters. Unfortunately, no H-B properties were included, because that license had “gone down the path or horror” to Charlton Comics in 1970.

    A rare, perhaps singular, Maltese effort for Gold Key’s Disney comics occurred in “Blank Deposit” in SUPER GOOF # 23 (1972). The humor is clearly “his”, and is unlike that in any of the surrounding issues, including his trotting-out the “Beanstalk Giant Steals a Bank Building to Keep his Gold Safe” plot that he used in Snooper and Blabber, and likely revisited with Ricochet Rabbit. Lots of his now-standard fairy tale character references are in that story – including the sarcastic “Three Little Pigs” that are NOT the usual Disney version.

    On a purely personal note, it’s really cool to think that Mike Maltese, Mark Evanier, and I have all worked on Disney’s Super Goof! It’s surely the only thing I have ever had in common with those talented writers… beyond eating, sleeping, breathing, and paying taxes.

    After that, as you note, he would “[reunite] with Jones for pale carbon copies of their Warner Bros. cartoons”. He should really have gone out better!

    Thank you for this fine tribute to the greatest animation writer of all time!

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  3. Bravo, Yowp it is a fine job you have done on one of the masters of animation and comic- book writers. Yes, Joe I feel the same, as both of the aforementioned people are heroes of mine. Like many of my idols I like how he infused a lot of fun in the cartoons he storyboarded. If possible I try to weave his love of word play into my work to get a chuckle.

    Did you know he wrote three episode of "TOP CAT"? I had suspected he wrote "The Missing Heir" as the butler using dog foot prints to frame the dog reminded me of Daffy using rabbit prints to mislead Elmer in "Rabbit Fire" (1951). His daughter donated his work to the University of Wyoming. If you scroll down there is a listing of the storyboards that exist.

    Glad you mentioned his foot in the world of comic books Joe.I trust your judgment in which stories that Maltese wrote for the comics. I find it difficult to identify what stories he may have scripted. Maltese was known for pairing his secondary characters (Mr. and Mrs. J Evil Scientist) with a primary character (Snaglepuss, Top Cat). The aforementioned story with the two characters is one of my favorites.

    One way I deduce his stories are in the titles. He included references to something a character may have uttered in the cartoons. For example, “Hasty Pudding” (Four Color #918) Snagglepuss mentioned this in “Remember Your Lions”.

    Last year I purchased "Quick Draw McGraw” #11 hoping that it would have had a story by him, but unfortunately there were no traces of Maltese. Thanks for recommending that issue, I will be on the look out for that.

    I was surprised that he did not write a "JETSONS" episode as he enjoyed the sci-fi genre. The characters travelling through the pneumatic tubes remind me of a similar gag, he contributed to "Duck Dodgers In The 24½th Century". I hypothesize that he may have written "Elroy's Pal" as the plot is entirely the same as the Augie cartoon "Fan Clubbed". Walter Black is credited for the script. Tony Benedict mentioned that the credits were not accurate, as he was credited for writing episodes he had no involvement on. During that era he wrote three episodes for the third season of "THE FLINTSTONES".

    According to Greg Duffel when he returned to work with Jones, their relationship was not the same as what it once was. I enjoyed the linking footage he may have contributed to "THE BUGS BUNNY ROAD RUNNER MOVIE" (1979).

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    1. That is a wonderful link to Mr. Maltese and his work, Adel!

      While certainly not complete – and I suspect comprised of only items of his ACTUALLY FOUND AND CATALOGUED, as opposed to the many things which likely did not survive the years – it’s nice to at least have some definitive attribution to specific comic books that Mike Maltese wrote.

      And, sure enough, it verifies that early-mid 1970s period and Warner and Lantz character work that I mentioned above. I’ll be revisiting some of these issues, now that I have that information.

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    2. You're welcome Joe. As a comic-book fancier I knew it would be of great interest to you! Once I saw the dates the issues were around the time frame you mentioned on the Gold Key 25th Anniversary.

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  4. Thanks, Adel. I should have touched on the U of Wyoming.
    I understand from a non-cartoon researcher that the University got a large sum from someone years ago with the idea that it would be used to pay for works of writers and others to give them an archival home. One would think a university or archive in Los Angeles would be interested but there's only so much money and space available to house material.

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    1. You're welcome, Yowp! Glad it exists for all of us Maltese fans. There are many interesting items in there. Were you surprised that he written on "TOP CAT".

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  5. Michael Maltese:
    May his memory be eternal!

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