The Terrytoons animation studio often does not get the same recognition that Disney, Fleischer, Warner Bros., Walter Lantz and MGM get when we look back at animation’s golden age, and there’s a reason for that. Their output was largely mediocre and comparing them to those other studios only highlighted how lackluster they were. But founder Paul Terry actually broke ground in a number of ways and his studio’s long life and lasting legacy is still impressive.
Born in San Mateo, California in 1887, Paul Terry started out by studying art in San Francisco but he dropped out of school to work for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1904 as a reporter, a photographer (Terry even snapped some of the first photos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) and a cartoonist. He hopped from paper to paper across the country all the while maintaining an interest in cartooning and even creating a comic strip for the San Francisco Call called Alonzo.
Reportedly Terry first became interested in the medium of animation in 1914 when he was an invited guest at a dinner hosted by Winsor McCay who screened Gertie the Dinosaur for his guests that day. Terry decided right there he wanted to be an animator, producing his first animated cartoon Little Herman (a spoof of the famed magician Herman the Great) in 1915. Terry sold the film’s distribution to Thanhouser Film Corp. and Terry was officially in the animation business. The only problem was that Terry used cel animation to make his cartoons and at the time Bray Studios owned the patent on cel animation, so Bray offered Terry the choice of either licensing the process or making cartoons directly for them. Terry chose the latter and he joined Bray in 1916, becoming one of that studio’s top animators.
Farmer Al Falfa, a character Terry actually created a year before joining Bray, became Bray’s biggest cartoon star, and Terry made Farmer Al Falfa cartoons for Bray until he left the company in 1917, but he continued making Farmer Al Falfa cartoons independently when he founded his own New York studio Paul Terry Productions in 1917 with animators Earl Hurd, Jerry Shields, Leighton Budd and his brother John Terry. In this period Paul Terry was making Farmer Al Falfa cartoons for Paramount until 1920, later forming Fables Pictures in 1921 with producer Amadee J. Van Beuren and distributor Pathé Pictures. Under this partnership Terry produced his longest-running and most successful film series at the time Aesop’s Fables. Terry was also becoming the first Hollywood animator to make big bucks.
With Van Beuren, Paul Terry even reached a milestone in film history by producing the first animated cartoon featuring sound Dinner Time (1928) starring Farmer Al Falfa. The sound was synchronized with the film in post-production and Terry was okay with that process, but Van Beuren urged him instead to make actual sound cartoons from start to finish to compete in the evolving post-sound era. Terry refused so Van Beuren fired him, leading Terry to form his own studio in 1929 called Terrytoons, with Terry bringing his Aesop’s Fables series with him. The cartoons at Terrytoons would be released by RKO Pathé Film Exchange from 1931 to 1933 and by 20th Century Fox after that.
Some of the characters in the Terrytoons cartoons include Fanny Zilch who starred in a series of musical melodrama spoofs from 1933 to 1937 and Gandy Goose a silly and annoying Ed Wynn-sounding goose who is often paired with an impatient Jimmy Durante-sounding feline named Sourpuss. The popular Gandy Goose appeared in Terrytoons from 1938 to 1955.
Most popular of all was Mighty Mouse, a character who originated from an idea by Terrytoons animator Isidore Klein who came up with the idea to parody Superman using a fly. Paul Terry changed the fly into a mouse but was otherwise fully on board with the concept. The character made his screen debut in the 1942 cartoon The Mouse of Tomorrow where he was first dubbed Super Mouse, but they changed the name to Mighty Mouse due to a comic book character with the same name. Like Fanny Zilch, the Mighty Mouse series often parodied melodramas, with the main character originally voiced by operatic tenor Roy Halee Sr. to humorously dramatic effect as he flew down from the heavens with seemingly limitless power often to defend fellow mice from evil cats and sometimes saving Pearl Pureheart in the process. The cartoons not only parodied Superman but also parodied monster movies like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and they were popular, leading Mighty Mouse to become a television star as well as a movie star, appearing in the anthology series Mighty Mouse Playhouse and later an amusing 1980s reboot helmed by Terrytoons alum Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, The Lord of the Rings) called Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.
Second in popularity only to Mighty Mouse were two identical magpies named Heckle and Jeckle who first originated as a husband and wife duo in the 1946 cartoon The Talking Magpies before they morphed into two wisecracking males in The Uninvited Pests (1946) alongside Farmer Al Falfa as Looney Tunes-like troublemaking moochers who try to steal Al Falfa’s food. Other Terrytoons film stars include Dinky Duck, Little Roquefort, Dimwit and The Terry Bears.
Paul Terry retired in 1955 and that year he sold the rights to Terrytoons to CBS, becoming the first major cartoon producer to package their films to television. 20th Century Fox continued distribution until 1956 when CBS took full ownership. That year CBS put UPA alum Gene Deitch in charge of managing Terrytoons where his most notable work was the Tom Terrific cartoon segments of Captain Kangaroo, but he also introduced new Terrytoons characters like Sidney the Elephant, Gaston Le Crayon, John Doormat and Clint Clobber, before getting fired in 1959. After which Bill Weiss took over, reviving the characters Heckle, Jeckle and Mighty Mouse and introducing characters like Deputy Dawg, Astronut and The Mighty Heroes.
Terrytoons has a reputation among the animation community and industry insiders as the cheapest and lowest-quality of all the major Golden Age animation studios, and thanks to Terry it was also the slowest to adapt to new technologies like sound and Technicolor, but ever the businessman, Terry took pride in quantity over quality as he produced a new cartoon almost every other week. He knew he wasn’t Walt Disney but he didn’t have the artistic ambition to want to be. Of course Terry’s inflexible business policies were a hindrance on the creativity of many of these cartoons. Despite that, Terrytoons managed to earn four Oscar nominations in total for All Out for V (1942), My Boy, Johnny (1944), Mighty Mouse in Gypsy Life (1945) and Sidney’s Family Tree (1958).