Of Paul Terry and Terrytoons

We already talked a bit about Paul Terry (1887-1971) with respect to his studio’s creations Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes; this brief post will fill out the rest of the portrait.

Terry had been a newspaper comic strip artist for about a decade when he was inspired by Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914, inspired him to take up animation. He started with a couple of shorts that were released by Thanhouser Studios, then spent about a year at Bray Productions (the same studio that launched the Fleischer Brothers). Throughout the ’20s he was paired Amedee Van Beuren, and finally launched Terrytoons in 1929, which was distributed first by Educational Pictures, then by 20th Century Fox, which had acquired Educational.

Terry’s first popular character, starting as early as 1915, was Farmer Al Falfa, a grizzly old rural type in the stage and screen tradition of Andy Clyde and countless other rube comedians.

For roughly a dozen years (1921 to 1933) Terry produced a cartoon series based in Aesop’s Fables, taking enormous liberties, of course. Gandy Goose and Sourpuss, who spoke like Ed Wynn and Jimmy Durante, premiered in 1938. Mighty Mouse, which we wrote about here, came to life in 1942.

My particular favorites are Heckle and Jeckle, the Talking Magpies, who debuted in late 1946 (they’re essentially the entire raison d’etre for this post). They’re funny and they’re charming, but underneath it all is this really powerful twin archetype that’s always fascinated me. They’re kind of pivotal, it seems to me, in this regard. The more common archetype with duos is to differentiate the two members physically; either tall and short (Weber and Fields, Mutt and Jeff, Ham and Bud, Smith and Dale), or fat and skinnier (Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Gleason and Carney the Blues Brothers), or, in latter days, black and white (I Spy, Men in Black, Pulp Fiction). Far less common is to have both characters be identical. One precedent I can think of is the Katzenjammer Kids. And I know of a set of (virtual) triplets: the Ritz Brothers. So Heckle and Jeckle staked out turf, and to a certain degree, they’ve held on to it. Other than the fact that one of them has a British accent, and the other sounds like he comes from New York City, not only are they undifferentiated, but they do everything in a sort of diabolical concert. This is both bird behavior (flocking together) and twin behavior, as with those terrifying sets of identical twins who make up secret languages exclusive to themselves. Are they brothers, like the Ritzes? The accents imply otherwise. Are they homosexual as well as homogenous? They seem like a couple, closer than pals. They’re often presented as limp wristed, like a couple of house wives gossiping across a back fence (yeah, I know they have wings, not wrists. Nevertheless!). As implied by their names, much like Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker they are mischief makers but the fact that they do everything in stereo reminds me of, oh, Leopold and Loeb, or the characters of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from Diamond Are Forever. Spy vs. Spy reminds me of Heckle and Jeckle visually, though they are not united, but at war with each other. And there have been occasions on the TV series M*A*S*H where I feel the writers have given Trapper and Hawkeye some Heckle and Jeckle business to do, just as they often draw from the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy. Some well known actors provided the voices of one or the other of the characters over the years, among them Ned Sparks and Dayton Allen.

I find the characters so powerful that I once wrote them into a one-act play, which essentially merged them with Vladimir and Estragon of Waiting for Godot, which I presented at HERE Arts Center in 1997. I’d cooked that one up when I was in my 20s, and it was only a few months ago when I was a playreader for a playwriting contest that I learned how truly unoriginal the impulse was, haha! (Though I continue to contend that I can write in the style of Beckett better than anyone I’ve ever come up against).

Several other series were tried throughout the ’40s but none were as popular as these.

In the ’50s, Terrytoons came to television, and not only were these series shown there, but some new ones were created, such as The Mighty Heroes, which I wrote about here. I am also a big fan of Deputy Dawg (1959-64), however. While very cheaply and simplistically animated, the writing and vocal characterizations on this show were very clever. The show was a kind of a cross between Pogo and The Andy Griffith Show (which it antedated.) The setting was a rural Southern town, with the jailhouse and a fishing hole as frequent locations. Dayton Allen voiced the title character to sound like Frankie Fontaine. Other characters included the inexplicably human Sheriff, Vincent Van Gopher, and Muskrat. There was also a recurring “Space varmint” who seems (in some ways) a precursor to The Great Gazoo on The Flintstones.

Various Terrytoons characters were revived for television through the end of the 1980s.