I: A Writer’s Progress (part one)–
Michael Maltese, like so many other giants of early animation, spent the first part of his life in New York City. Born in February of 1908, he was raised — primarily by his mother — on the Lower East Side. His upbringing was tenement-based and poor, so his prospects for a future were limited. He spent part of his teen years apprenticed to a plumber who installed pipes in new apartment buildings. One January morning, Maltese arrived at a job site to discover the coveralls he’d left there the night before had frozen solid. He vowed right then and there that whatever his life’s work ended up being it could not involve thawing out his clothing each and every day.
Information on the early lives of many cartoon pioneers is sketchy and sometimes contradictory. In his book Hollywood Cartoons, author Michael Barrier tells us that Maltese’s first job in animation (at the comparatively ripe old age of twenty-seven) was at the Fleischer Studio. Meanwhile, in his book Chuck Amuck, director Chuck Jones says that Maltese entered into cartoons via Terrytoons, another New York City outfit. Jones claims that Maltese secured the job after commenting that the rickety Terrytoons elevator should bear a plaque reading “Good to the Last Drop”. Despite the fact that Jones knew Maltese very well, Barrier makes a better accounting of Maltese’s early career so his version is probably the more accurate. According to Hollywood Cartoons, Maltese began at Fleischer as a cel painter and, during his year of employment, he rose to the position of inbetweener. Maltese was eventually fired for asking to be promoted to assistant animator — a no-no in the rigid caste system of the early animation industry. Following his dismissal from Fleischer’s, Maltese moved to Detroit where — for a scant two months — he worked at the Jam Handy industrial film company. Finally, in 1937, the former New Yorker relocated to Hollywood and took a job with the Schlesinger Studio — a company which produced cartoons for Warner Brothers and would eventually be assimilated into that organization. After two years as an inbetweener with Schlesinger, Maltese was able to address a problem which had probably dogged him throughout his entire career up to that point: he was not a particularly good artist. After publishing a few humorous essays in The Exposure Sheet, the Schlesinger internal newsletter, Maltese’s gift for comedy was noticed and he was moved into the Story Department.
In the early days of the Warners/Schlesinger studio, the writing department was run like a secretarial pool. The writers were assigned to directors — singly or in groups — depending on their availability. Initially, Maltese found it difficult to assimilate into this environment since the established writers — no doubt fearful of competition — attempted to blackball him. All of his suggestions were either mocked or ignored, and Maltese eventually decided to shut up and mind his own business....