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Schlesinger, Leon

Posted in WB Cartoon Companion on March 22, 2004

    Head of cartoon production for Warner Brothers distribution between 1930 and 1944. His obituary in Variety indicates that at the age of 14, he was an usher in a Philadelphia theatre, eventally rising to become a song book agent, a bit player on the stage, a cashier, and a theatre manager. Before 1930, Schlesinger was head of Pacific Art & Title, a still-extant company which in silent movie days specialized in making title and dialogue cards.

    Russell Merrit and J.B. Kaufman’s Walt in Wonderland, a study of Disney in the silent era, discusses a business arrangement between Disney and Schlesinger. Schlesinger occasionally subcontracted to animation studios to produce titles, and at least one of these was for Disney. Nat Levine’s The Silent Flyer, a Universal serial from 1926, is one such known product.

    Legend has it that Schlesinger was a financial backer of the landmark Warner Brothers talkie The Jazz Singer, earning him Jack Warner’s gratitude. While this may or may not be true, it is certain that Jack Warner and Leon Schlesinger were on friendly terms. (The book Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story contains a comic photo of Warner and Schlesinger posing together in swimsuits.)

    Whatever the connection, Schlesinger was given the opportunity to manage production of cartoons for Warner Brothers, starting in 1930 with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who had split with Disney some time before. They brought Friz Freleng with them as their principal animator, and the Warner Brothers cartoon studio was born.

    Schlesigner survived Harman and Ising’s move to MGM in 1933, probably occasioned by Schlesigner’s refusal to increase production budgets. He gradually built the studio into the industry leader it became in the early 1940s, before selling it to Warner Brothers outright in 1944. (The 1944 Annual Report of Warner Brothers lists the sale price as $700,000.) Schlesinger continued to do work related to merchandising characters before passing away in 1949.

    Schlesinger’s directors and animators had mixed views on him. On the negative side, he has been remembered as a fifth-rate Harry Cohn (the tyrannical head of Columbia studios who was known as “White Fang”) who knew nothing about cartoon production, save for the money they made him, and who dressed like a vaudeville hoofer who had recently come into money. Schlesinger is said to have refused his directors the use of his yacht, on account of not wanting “poor people” on board. After the late 1930s, Schlesigner took to indulging his passtimes of horse racing and sailboats rather than actually supervising the production of cartoons. As with Disney, though, it was his name that appeared on his comic books as author, rather than the names of the artists responsible. Schlesinger was also notoriously tight-fisted when it came to budgeting.

    On the positive side, it was Schlesinger who selected the people that made Warner Brothers the cartoon studio that it was, mandating practically no restrictions on material, aside from the pronouncement to put “loth of joketh” in the cartoons -- which leads to his most enduring memorial. Schlesinger had a noticeable lisp, and the staffers creating Daffy Duck in the late 1930s -- Jones credits Cal Howard -- decided to base the duck’s voice on Schlesinger’s. Expecting the worst, the animators screened the short. Schlesigner’s reaction, far from being negative, was to declare enthusiastically “Jethuth Critht thath’s a funny voithe! Where’d ya get that voithe?”. Apparently it never even occurred to him that Daffy Duck’s voice might have a parody of his own. (See the account in Chuck Amuck, pp. 90-91).

    Carciatures of Schlesigner can be seen in Hollywood Steps Out (Avery, 1941) seated at a table with Henry Binder, and also in Russian Rhapsody (Clampett, 1944) as the gremlin hammering rivets, along with another who I believe to be Ray Katz. Schlesinger appears in live action, playing himself, in the noteworthy You Ought to Be in Pictures (Freleng, 1940). It is a matter of dispute whether the voice in the film was his own or performed by Mel Blanc.

    Schlesinger is also referred to in Have You Got Any Castles? (Tashlin, 1938) when the Good Earth is praying for Poppa Leon, as well as by the Cliff Nazarro penguin in The Penguin Parade (Avery, 1938). A Leon pigeon is listed on the blackboard in Plane Daffy (Tashlin, 1944), and one of the baby ducks in Booby Hatched (Tashlin, 1944) is called Leon. Leon Schlesinger Cartoons are referred to in Porky Pig’s Feat (Tashlin, 1943), and also in Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (Freleng, 1944) by the Japanese soldier.

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• The Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion is © (copyright) 1996 E. O. Costello. All rights reserved.

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