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Maltese, Michael (“Mike”)

Posted in WB Cartoon Companion on March 22, 2004

(1908-1981)

    Along with Warren Foster and Tedd Pierce, one of the three mainstays of the writing staff at Warner Brothers from the 1930s until the 1960s.

    A native of the Lower East Side of New York City, Maltese began his career in animation in the early 1930s as an in-betweener at the Terrytoons studio. Maltese later moved on to the Fleischer studio and, in 1937, made his move to the Schlesinger studio, where he continued as an in-betweener.

    Maltese was transferred to the story department in August of 1939 -- rather against his will, judging from the way he describes the move in Adamson’s book on Tex Avery -- joining Jack Miller, J. B. “Bugs” Hardaway, Melvin “Tubby” Millar, Dave Monohan, Rich Hogan, Cal Howard, and Tedd Pierce in the story department. Maltese’s first screen credit for story came in The Haunted Mouse (Avery, 1941). Much of his earliest credited work was with Avery, including The Heckling Hare (1941) which featured a risqué ending, the deletion of which eventually triggered Avery’s departure from Warner’s for MGM in July of 1941. Maltese also did work for Friz Freleng in this period, including The Trial of Mr. Wolf and Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (both from 1941).

    While Maltese evidently had some contacts with MGM during this period, for the most part he stayed with Warner Brothers for the next twenty years. MGM cartoon producer Fred Quimby reportedly told Maltese in what is now an often-quoted phrase: “If you’re going to work with Avery, have this understood -- we will not stand for any of that Warner Brothers rowdyism in our cartoons!”

    It was, of course, precisely this “rowdyism” that Maltese was responsible for. Maltese worked often for Freleng during the war period, with credits for Daffy - The Commando (Freleng, 1943), Little Red Riding Rabbit (Freleng, 1944) and Herr Meets Hare (Freleng, 1945). After the war, he teamed up with Pierce for a number of notable Freleng-directed entries, including Rhapsody Rabbit (1946), A Hare Grows in Manhattan (1947), and Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948).

    Be that as it may, Maltese is probably best remembered for the remarkable string of cartoons he made with director Chuck Jones starting in the late 1940s. One could name numerous cartoons worthy of note: standouts would have to include For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), Bully for Bugs (1953), The Rabbit of Seville (1950), the three cartoons comprising the “Hunter’s Trilogy”, Long Haired Hare (1949), Duck Dodgers in the 24th1/2 Century (1953), One Froggy Evening (1955), and probably the most famous Jones-Maltese effort of all: What’s Opera, Doc (1957), for which Maltese also received credit for the lyrics “Return My Love”, his spoof of the Pilgrims’ theme from Tannhäuser. Maltese re-used and expanded on the Brünnhilde sequence that he had written for Herr Meets Hare (Freleng, 1944) in this cartoon. Maltese is also often given deserved credit as the co-creator of the Roadrunner/Coyote series of cartoons, as well as for the fractured “Franglais” of Pépe le Pew.

    Along with Foster, Maltese left Warners in the early 1960s for the Hanna-Barbera studio, where he contributed significantly to the development of such series as Snagglepuss and The Flintstones. Maltese would work with Jones again in the mid-1960s for the later MGM Tom and Jerry shorts, and again shortly before his death, for some made-for-TV shorts, though it does not appear that Jones took his suggestions for the sequel to Duck Dodgers. Maltese also worked on a part-time basis for Screen Gems in the 1940s, and with Tex Avery at the Lantz studio around 1954-55.

    Maltese plays the live-action studio cop in You Ought to Be in Pictures (Freleng, 1940), though his voice was dubbed by Mel Blanc. Maltese did do his own voice, to go with his caricature opposite the voice and caricature of Tedd Pierce in Wackiki Wabbit (Jones, 1943) -- the stubbier of the two castaways is Maltese. A ship called the “S. S. Michael Maltese” is the starting point of Punch Trunk (Jones, 1953). His name also shows up on the poster, along with “Eduardo Selzeri” (Eddie Selzer) and “Carlo Jonzi” (Chuck Jones) in Rabbit of Seville (Jones, 1950).

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