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John McGrew

From Chapter 11 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age:

In Conrad the Sailor, a Daffy Duck cartoon released in February 1942, [Chuck] Jones for the first time resorted to the cinematic device called matched cuts. "We used a lot of overlapping graphics on that particular cartoon," Jones told Greg Ford and Richard Thompson, "so that one scene would have the same graphic shape as an earlier scene, even though it would be a different object: first we'd show a gun pointing up in the air, then in the next shot, there'd be a cloud in exactly the same shape. It gave a certain stability which we used in many of the cartoons."

In fact, Jones used such "overlapping graphics" prominently in only one more cartoon (Hold the Lion, Please, a 1942 Bugs Bunny, in which the laughing faces of jungle animals cross-dissolve into foliage shaped like the faces), and his invocation of "stability" has a strong ex post facto ring to it. From all appearances, Jones introduced matched cuts and dissolves not because they would solve a problem or add some strength to a particular cartoon, but as an intellectual exercise. What was really new about Conrad, at least for the Schlesinger cartoons, was the attitude embodied in it: that each cartoon could be a small laboratory where any idea could be tried for its own sake.

John McGrew was Jones's layout man in the early forties, but his influence extended beyond designing the backgrounds for the cartoons: Jones described McGrew as "a great student of film techniques" who "had very interesting ideas that I was willing to try." McGrew no doubt suggested to Jones the matched cuts in Conrad, as well as the Art Deco look given to the backgrounds. The stimulus may have been the advent of a new background painter: Eugene Fleury, formerly an instructor in the Disney training program, who in February 1941 took Paul Julian's place.

McGrew controlled what Julian and then Fleury painted by making, as Julian said, "small color sketches that I would turn into backgrounds." As long as Julian was the background painter, McGrew did not exercise that control to give the Jones cartoons a design that departed significantly from the Schlesinger norm. It was only in early 1942, around the time Fleury's backgrounds began appearing on the screen in cartoons like Conrad the Sailor, that the Jones cartoons started to look different. "Gene and I fitted together perfectly in what we were looking for," McGrew said in 1995.

Warners released the most striking of the Jones-McGrew-Fleury collaborations in September 1942. This was The Dover Boys at Pimento University, a parody of turn-of-the-century boys' fiction and melodramas. The three Dover brothers—"fun-loving," square-jawed, and athletic Tom; small, dark, and studious Dick; and rotund, red-headed Larry—are the most popular students at "good old PU." They rescue "their" fiancee, dainty Dora Standpipe, from the clutches of Dan Backslide, "coward bully cad and thief." Those words were spoken—with no trace of punctuation—by John McLeish, a former Disney artist who was also the pompous narrator of Jack Kinney's Goofy sports cartoons. McLeish spent a little time at the Schlesinger studio after the Disney strike, providing an appropriately ripe voice-over for The Dover Boys and contributing to the design of the characters. Of the Dover characters, only the overwrought Dan Backslide looks like an individual (he is a caricature of Ken Harris, one of Jones's animators); the Dover Boys and Dora Standpipe are exaggerated types, with faces and bodies too rigid to admit emotion easily. They are notably more astringent-looking than the Disney-like characters of the earlier Jones cartoons, with their yielding curves and eager faces.

Similarly, the Disney-like animation of Jones's earlier cartoons gave way in The Dover Boys to a different kind of movement. Jones burlesqued the stiffness of nineteenth-century photographs by throwing his characters into ludicrously theatrical poses—bulging arms folded ostentatiously across a manly chest here, maidenly arms raised in demure horror there—and calling attention to those poses by holding them on the screen for much longer than normal. The characters often shoot from one pose to another with only a few frames of film in between. The drawings in those few frames are stretched and even smeared as much as any drawings in a [Bob] Clampett cartoon (in fact, The Dover Boys was released two months before A Tale of Two Kitties, the first Clampett cartoon with [Rod] Scribner's "Lichty" animation), but the effect is completely different. Clampett calls attention to the distortions—or, more to the point, the enormous energy released through them—whereas Jones calls attention to the poses.

The background designs for The Dover Boys are likewise stylized—unusually simplified for the Schlesinger cartoons, but softened and rounded by airbrush, as if seen through a mist of sentiment. They echo the work of painters like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. The Dover Boys pulled together successfully elements that were foreign to most of the short cartoons of the early forties: human characters, an unmistakably parodistic story, stylized movement and design. The cartoon was quickly recognized as something out of the ordinary, both by those people who found it heartening and by those who found it alarming.

John Hubley—recently transplanted from Screen Gems to the Army—spoke approvingly in 1943 of how Jones had adapted "new animation techniques and new background treatment to a story material that deals with a parody on human behavior," as opposed to the "pure comedy" of the Disney cartoons. But "New York was shocked," Jones said. "I don't think they would have released it at all except that they had to have a picture." According to Gene Fleury, Leon Schlesinger did not care for The Dover Boys: "I suppose what really upset him was the fact that the characters were human—not just one or two, but all of them." Jones remembered no Schlesinger edict against using human characters, "but that's quite possible. It would have bothered [Fleury] more than it bothered me, because I was used to Leon being bothered by things. He hated any picture he'd never seen before. But it had no effect on me." Perhaps. But Jones did not confront Schlesinger with an all-human cast or such openly subversive animation again.

Whatever the restrictions Jones may have imposed on himself, his first few cartoons that followed The Dover Boys do not suggest that he imposed any on McGrew and Fleury. In that early phase, however, their designs were still mild enough that even Schlesinger could sometimes respond to them with surprising warmth. Fleury recalled that for The Case of the Missing Hare, a 1942 Bugs Bunny cartoon released about three months after The Dover Boys, "John McGrew and I reduced most of the backgrounds to patterns—stripes, zig-zags, and the like—or to colored cards. Still, after the studio preview, Schlesinger came over and congratulated us on these rather outlandish backgrounds. We never did figure out why."

The Case of the Missing Hare takes place mainly in a theater, where Bugs confronts an arrogant magician named Ala Bahma, and contrived-looking backgrounds could thus be rationalized as representing stage flats. A few months later, though, in The Aristo-Cat and The Unbearable Bear (both 1943), the backgrounds were much flatter, even starker, than those of earlier cartoons, with few reminders of the ripe color, plentiful detail, and, especially, illusion of depth that had once been standard in all the cartoons. At the same time, Jones's editing and his simulated camera angles had changed, in ways that reflected the thinking of McGrew and Fleury. In Jones's earliest cartoons, he was, in keeping with his Disney bent, a mise-en-scène director, whose camera was more often a casual observer than intensely interested and highly selective; the camera often panned languidly until it noticed something worth paying attention to. By the time of The Aristo-Cat and The Unbearable Bear, though, Jones was cutting much more rapidly and expressively, and often presenting the action from unexpected points of view.

McGrew's last work for Jones was on such 1943 releases; he entered the Navy in September 1942.

[Footnotes omitted]

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