BOOTLEG FILES 346: “Heckle and Jeckle” (1944-1966 series of animated shorts).
LAST SEEN: Individual cartoons can be seen on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Briefly available on VHS video in the early 1980s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The cartoons have been out of circulation for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Wouldn’t that be nice?
Way back in my childhood days, I was addicted to cartoons. I absorbed everything that flashed across the television screen, watching reruns to the point where I knew every line of dialogue and every crash of musical or sound effect. But if I had to pick a favorite from that giddy viewing selection, I would need to praise Terrytoons’ Heckle and Jeckle series as being the closest to my heart.
The Heckle and Jeckle cartoons have been out of official circulation for many years, and I suspect that their absence from viewing has kept them from being reconsidered by film scholars. And at this point, you may be asking: Why would film scholars want to look at Heckle and Jeckle cartoons? That is simple: the represent some of the most brilliantly funny cartoons ever made.
Yes, I freely admit that this Terrytoons series did not represent the classiest animation. Indeed, the artwork was often one level above slapdash. But veteran animator Paul Terry made no bones about his lack of artistic style, and he even went so far as to boast, “If Disney is the Tiffany’s of animation, I’m the Woolworth’s.”
But if the Heckle and Jeckle series lacked aesthetic panache, then it more than compensated with pure, undiluted malevolent energy. The best entries in the series represent a gold standard of slapstick speed and subversive fury. And while many film critics go overboard praising the best of Tex Avery or Chuck Jones for taking animation to hitherto unknown extremes, the Terrytoons geniuses took the genre even further with the madcap Heckle and Jeckle knockabout.
The genesis for Heckle and Jeckle was a 1946 cartoon called “The Talking Magpies.” The title characters had no names – they were a quarreling married avian couple that decided to take up an unwelcome residence on Farmer Al Falfa’s land. It wasn’t particularly amusing – Farmer Al Falfa had been a cartoon character since 1916 and he had long since worn out his welcome with his crotchety antics. However, the notion of two talking magpies creating roughhouse mischief must have appealed to someone, because Terrytoons reconfigured the birds into a pair of mischievous feathered guys named Heckle and Jeckle.
However, the Terrytoons writers never bothered to invest Heckle and Jeckle with any deep personality traits – unlike the legendary characters from Warner Bros., the Fleischer studio and UPA, the Terrytoons magpies had one-dimensional personalities. Indeed, the only way they could be differentiated was through their accents – Heckle spoke with a nasally New York working class voice while Jeckle rolled his vowels in a posh British accent. But it really didn’t matter – Heckle and Jeckle existed strictly for over-the-top slapstick and crazy chases.
The Heckle and Jeckle series got off to a slow start with “The Uninvited Pests” (1946), which brought back grumpy old Farmer Al Falfa. The plot involved the magpies disrupting the crotchety old farmer’s picnic, and much of the comedy – dynamite sticks inserted into hot dogs, oversized mallets pounded into craniums – was fairly standard issue.
But as the series progressed, the comedy abruptly became more vibrant and more daring. Often, it veered into Dadaist territory. “The Lion Hunt” (1949) puts the birds on an African safari, and Jeckle’s rifle shots into the sky brings down unlikely quarry: an elephant, a giraffe, an upright piano and a bathtub fall out of the sky and land with a thud. Later in the cartoon, Heckle is pursued by a lion – and he escapes by pulling out a large paintbrush, painting a giant blue door in thin air, and hiding behind this suddenly solid object.
“Pill Peddlers” (1953) went to crazier depths: an escape in a skyscraper elevator finds the pair watching as the lights on the elevator control panel fall to lobby level. But, abruptly, the lights descend from the control panel and go to the floor. The magpies open the elevator door and find a smiling Satan (leaning on his pitchfork) welcoming them to Hell.
“The Power of Thought” (1948) finds Heckle and Jeckle recognizing that they are cartoon characters – a status that gives them the power to achieve the impossible. Thus, they can turn their bed into a bathtub, where they can start to swim at leisure while the bathtub extends into a full-length pool. More surreal sight gags follow in a rapid animation skein.
At their peak, the Heckle and Jeckle cartoons were rich with extravagant sight gags that were churned out at killer speed. Within each six-minute segment, a world of mayhem would be presented in an astonishing force. Bombs would be deposited in pants, adversaries were flattened with steamrollers, fingers were glued into bowling balls, vacuums were turned into omnivorous vehicles that devoured everything and everyone in sight – for sheer visceral power, these cartoons were slapstick masterworks.
For the most part, Heckle and Jeckle crashed through their cartoons in the guise of smart aleck troublemakers – either they are peddling dubious wares without a license or they are on the run from law enforcement. They took genuine pleasure in their pranks, and they were merciless in their assault on good taste and decorum. But unlike other sassy cartoon characters, the magpies often wound up getting a harsh comeuppance for their mischief – various punishments included being caged, defeathered, pilloried, pummeled, chased by an army of mechanical shoes, and fatally blown up (their souls went to Heaven).
Between 1946 and 1954, Terrytoons turned out 42 Heckle and Jeckle cartoons for theatrical release by 20th Century Fox. In 1955, Paul Terry sold his production company and film library to CBS, which created a cartoon show “hosted” by Heckle and Jeckle. The popularity of the series was supported by comic books and board games featuring the characters, and CBS was encouraged to produce additional cartoons featuring the magpies for theatrical release. But these later efforts were not as special – the violence was toned down considerably and much more dialogue was added, further slowing the fun. The new output sputtered along until 1966. New Heckle and Jeckle cartoons were created again in 1979 when Filmation launched a TV series called “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle,” but these efforts were tiresome and miles removed from the old-time fun.
The Heckle and Jeckle cartoons turned up on VHS video in the early 1980s on the Magnetic label, but they never saw a re-release on VHS or DVD. “The Talking Magpies” became a public domain title and has been duped into many cartoon anthology collections, but the best of Heckle and Jeckle remains off-label. Fortunately, many of the cartoons can be found (albeit in a variety of quality levels) on YouTube – but, hey, bootlegged Heckle and Jeckle is better than none!
Still, I hope that Heckle and Jeckle can make a comeback on DVD and Blu-ray – a new generation needs to be exposed to these wonderfully wacky characters, and film scholars need to take a second look at the chaotic fun of their cartoon series.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!