Obituary: Leo Salkin

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The Independent Online
Leo Salkin, animator: born 1913; died Burbank, California 13 October 1993.

LEO SALKIN spent a lifetime in animated cartoons without much public acknowledgement, but with continuing admiration and respect from his fellows. It was not the custom to give name credits at any great length in six-minute cartoon films before the Forties, and even today, with the multitude of cartoons being made for television, one needs a video with a freeze-frame to read the reams of credits that flash by one's eyes at a rate of knots. However, enough milestones in Salkin's life point the way to an adequate appreciation of his undoubted talents.

Born in 1913, Salkin joined the animation department of Universal Studios straight from school. It was one of the busiest cartoons centres in the United States, turning out virtually one film a week under its genial young boss, Walter Lantz. Their top star was 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit', a character originally created by Walt Disney and his expert team in 1927. Disney made the cartoons for Winkler Productions, a New York house headed by Margaret Winkler and her new husband, Charles Mintz. Mintz's contract, however, gave him full rights to Oswald and when he tried to cut Disney's fee from dollars 2,200 per reel to dollars 1,800, Disney quit, leaving Oswald behind him. It was the best thing Disney ever did: he promptly created Mickey Mouse and never looked back.

Mintz then tried to hike his fee per reel from Universal, his distributor. His boss, Carl Laemmle, promptly cancelled Mintz's contract, opened his own animation studio, and took over Oswald: a 'Lucky Rabbit' indeed. The Universal cartoon factory was run by two teams of animators, and Salkin joined the one headed by Bill Nolan, a veteran in the art. He worked alongside an enthusiastic zany from Texas, Fred Avery, who soon became known worldwide as 'Tex'. Avery brought his personal inspiration to animation, allowing gags to grow one into another while letting the story go hang.

This freewheeling spontaneity went against Lantz's personal preference for clear storylines, but when Lantz went to a preview of King Kong (1933) he was inspired. Next day he described the film of the giant gorilla and its climb up the Empire State Building with such humour that the animators fell about laughing. 'He made it sound so fascinating,' Salkin said, 'that we all went to see the movie that night. And then we were debating, should we try to do a knock-off of it in a cartoon?' The result was a famous burlesque, King Klunk (1933), at which America wept with laughter while the British Board of Film Censors just wept: they gave it an 'H' for Horrific certificate, the first cartoon to win an adult-only ticket.

Salkin left Lantz for Columbia's cartoon subsidiary, Screen Gems, where Mintz had set up an inexpensive but fairly inspired studio. Here Salkin worked as animator and story-man on the main two series, Krazy Kat, adapted quite a long way from George Herriman's brilliant comic-strip original, and Scrappy, about a rather cute little kid. Then his old chum called, and he joined Avery at the far more sumptuous MGM Studio. Here he worked on the totally zany Avery efforts, which formed a contrast to the speedy but formulaic Tom and Jerry series by Hanna-Barbera.

After war service in the US Navy, Salkin joined the Disney Studio for a while, but saw the future beckoning in the embryonic world of black-and-white television. He went to New York and worked as a gag man for the ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his cheeky dummy, Jerry Mahoney. He also achieved his only major screen credit by directing and animating the short film The Two Thousand Year Old Man (1974). This brilliant visualisation of a popular Mel Brooks sketch was one of the first adult cartoons made in the United States, a pacesetter in every way.

Salkin returned once again to Disney, where he animated the famous Siamese cat sequence for The Lady and the Tramp (1955), a well-remembered piece set to a song sung by Peggy Lee. Then it was back to New York for a two-year haul on The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show (1956). Commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System, this is credited as the first animated series produced specifically for television, although it included previous cartoons made by the studio, United Productions of America.

UPA, the successor to Mintz's Screen Gems at Columbia, had been set up to introduce a more adult style in animation, together with a new economical system of drawing called 'limited animation'. A great success, the Oscar-winning company now ventured into television, although losing much of its special wit in the process. It also lost several of its top creators, but in turn made new discoveries, such as Ernest Pintoff, who progressed through the series to become a power in the land of modern animated cartoons.

Salkin, happier under the UPA production system, said at the time: 'The difference between Disney's approach and the UPA approach is that the Disney studio is by and large an extension of Walt's thinking, whereas UPA allows its directors to work pretty much as they see a subject.'