Looney Tunes animated shorts have insinuated into the collective consciousness of America to the point where nearly every person in this country under the age of 70 knows opera primarily on the basis of What’s Opera, Doc and The Rabbit of Seville, among others. The man who conducted the Warner Brothers animated shorts was Carl Stallings and his fame perhaps is less than that of legendary directors like Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, but then Stalling’s compositions for Bugs, Daffy and the gang have been performed by prestigious orchestras around the world. And who doesn’t know the name of the man who gave voice to so many of Warners’ famous cartoon characters, Mel Blanc? But what of Michael Maltese? It is said that every great movie begins with a script. Maybe so, but you never seen a writer’s name above the title…unless you’re talking about a British TV show. Those limeys are all right, I tell you.
Like the writers of the Simpsons, Michael Maltese never won an award despite writing the best shorts nearly every year he was active. If there was any justice in this world the Emmy for writing since 1989 would land in the hands of a writer for the Simpsons and Michael Maltese would have won more Oscars than Walt Disney, or least more than Hilary Swank. Our good friends at IMDB give credit to Michael Maltese as the writer or story originator of over 230 cartoons. He doubtlessly did not receive credit for at least that many more due to the strange bylaws of the Writer’s Guild.
Michael Maltese, like most writers in Hollywood, is overlooked because of the contributions of directors. (Did you even know that Quentin Tarantino shares his Best Screenplay Oscar for the infinitely somewhat overrated Pulp Fiction with Roger Avary?) The contributions of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Mel Blanc should not be downplayed, of course, as even Maltese was always quick to point. Although there are some who still insist on believing the ridiculous auteur theory is anything but a great joke perpetrated by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Maltese was painfully aware that filmmaking in all its aspects is a communal endeavor. To attribute the undeniable genius of the Warner Brothers cartoons to the writer alone would be to make the same mistake that those who believe the director is the author of a film makes. Still, it is one thing to give the bulk of the credit to the directors and Mel Blanc to the point that the name Michael Maltese has nearly been lost to history.
Remember the story of that crazy singing frog with really bad timing? That extraordinary and legendary appearance of Michigan J. Frog was written by Maltese. The story is simple on its surface, not completely original, and has been repeated many times since. But it is in the details that Maltese transforms these seven minutes into something worth of Swift or Twain.
One Froggy Night is, at heart, about the excruciation of knowing something to be true and trying to convince them. As someone who told everyone he came into contact with in 2003 that American troops would still be in Iraq ten years later, I can very much relate to the construction worker who knows the truth about the singing frog, but simply cannot convince people. The beautiful thing about One Froggy Evening is that it contains no an iota of dialogue apart from the singing of the frog. That is what cartoon writing is often about. The average script for a half hour animated series is twice as long as the script for a live action series because it looks more like a novel by Charles Dickens than Chuck Palahniuk.
In addition to One Froggy Evening, Michael Maltese also wrote such classic Warner Brothers cartoons as the aforementioned What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a Half Century. The man is just as legendary as Chuck Jones or Mel Blanc. The next time you chance to come across a Warner Brothers cartoon take notice to watch for the name of the writer. Chances are it will be Michael Maltese, the forgotten genius of Looney Tunes.