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Generally considered the more artistic half of Harman-Ising (reads "harmonizing") Cartoons, a creative partnership ranking with the most influential forces in Hollywood animation history, Hugh Harman co-created (with Rudolf Ising) the "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" series at Warner Brothers. They set the stage for the golden era that would produce Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, et al. The duo also nurtured the careers of such future luminaries as Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, William Hanna and Joe Barbera. Harman-Ising also supervised the first MGM cartoons where they introduced the world to the archetypal cat-and-mouse pairing Tom and Jerry.
Harman entered the entertainment industry in 1922 working under the young Walt Disney at his first animation studio in Kansas City, MO. Ising had joined the company as an inker and painter shortly before. At that time, they worked on the "Newman Laugh-O-Grams", a series of silent theatrical cartoons that evolved from the animated commercials Disney had begun producing for local merchants to be shown in Kansas City's Newman Theater three years earlier. When Disney headed west to start a new studio to work on the live-action/animated "Alice in Cartoonland" series, Harman and Ising stayed behind to work on a sample film for a proposed cartoon series based on "Arabian Nights". When this venture failed, the pair followed Disney to Los Angeles where they worked on "Alice" and the subsequent "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" series. The latter proved particularly popular.
Harman, Ising and Friz Freleng were among the Disney workers hired away by Charles Mintz to work on cut-rate "Oswald" in his NYC animation studio under producer George Winkler. Within a year, they were all unemployed as Universal decided to set up its own in-house animation studio headed by Walter Lantz. Harman and Ising rebounded by forming their own musically named cartoon production company and started work on their first project--a three-minute "pilot" film that would mark the first instance of synchronized speech in a cartoon. Freleng was the head animator on "Bosko the Talk Ink Kid" (1929). The star was a humanoid inkblot, of sorts, that wore a derby, behaved like a little boy and interacted with the live-action Ising at his drawing board. (Disney's 1928 landmark, "Steamboat Willie", had synchronized music and sound effects but no dialogue.)
"Bosko the Talk Ink Kid" caught the eye of entrepreneur Leon Schlesinger who had previously invested in the sound era, so the legend goes, by helping the Warner Brothers finance their legendary 1927 live-action talkie "The Jazz Singer". Then head of Pacific Art and Title, a leading maker of silent movie title cards and artwork, Schlesinger saw a future in talking cartoons and sold a cartoon series to Warner Brothers. He proposed himself as the financial middleman between Harman-Ising, who would make the cartoons, and the studio that would distribute them. Schlesinger also played up the possibilities of using the cartoons to promote songs from the Warner Brothers film and several music publishing companies. The first series, "Looney Tunes", starred the happy-go-lucky Bosko, his girlfriend Honey and eventually their dog Bruno. The first Looney Tunes, "Sinking in the Bathtub", was released in 1930. Bosko starred in every installment until mid-1933.
Harman and Ising worked on the Looney Tunes together until 1931 when Warners commissioned a second cartoon series, "Merrie Melodies", which would generally feature "one-shot" characters and at least one chorus of a popular song. Ising generally directed this series while Harman concentrated on Looney Tunes. Though they continued to share credits, Harman and Ising worked separately from that point on.
In terms of gags and styling, the Warner Brothers films owed much to Disney with their emphasis on bouncy cute figures engaged in broad comical antics. As much of the Harman-Ising staff had previously worked for Disney, this was not surprising. Though these cartoons still have their champions, some, like film historian Leonard Maltin, fault their work for racing to keep up with the Disney product and plagiarizing them without offering sufficient innovation of their own. Nonetheless they were very popular in their day.
Throughout their association, Harman was very aggressive in his efforts to get more production money out of Schlesinger but the tough businessman refused to cut into his profits. Harman-Ising finally departed the Warner Brothers lot in 1933 over budget disputes. Having learned from Disney's painful experience with losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, they had retained their rights to Bosko and took the character and their personnel with them. (Many, including Freleng and Clampett, were subsequently rehired by Schlesinger). After a fleeting assignment at the Van Buren studio, Harman-Ising signed a generous contract with MGM in 1934 to produce a new series of cartoons at double their previous budgets. Technically on par with the Disney product, the "Happy Harmonies" displayed dazzling personality animation, lush colors and thoughtful design. However, while beautiful in form, these cartoons were generally undistinguished in content.
Whereas Ising favored cuddly Disney-esque characters, Harman came to specialize in stylized figures designed to a express a particular theme in a given cartoon. Harman was still the director of Bosko but the Warner Brothers star never really found comparable success at MGM. Bosko was temporarily retired after just two MGM outings only to return late in 1935 redesigned as a caricatured 'Negro' boy. In general, the Happy Harmonies were a great success with audiences. Still, MGM was displeased with the cost over-runs on the series.
MGM dismissed Harman and Ising in late 1937, hired most of their staff and attempted to start their own in-house studio with disastrous results. Harman-Ising were brought back to save the foundering studio in 1939. Ising won the studio an Oscar with "Milky Way" (1940) and fared well working on Barney Bear. Harman was a little more ambitious in subject matter.
The cartoon for which Harman may be best remembered is "Peace on Earth" (1940). Released during the Christmas season, after war had broken out in Europe, this acclaimed pacifist cartoon told a grim story about mankind's final days. Harman utilized realistic imagery of soldiers battling on gloom-shrouded, muddy battlefields until only two men are left. Once they kill each other, the cute Disney-esque furry animals inherit the Earth and live happily ever after. MGM realized they had something special and promoted it heavily. "Peace on Earth" garnered an Oscar nomination, a PARENTS magazine medal and a citation from the Nobel Prize jury. None of Harman's subsequent MGM outings attempted anything as heavy, but he continued to display a vivid sense of melodrama and powerhouse animation.
Harman-Ising left MGM in the early 40s. Though they left theatrical filmmaking, the talented duo continued their partnership and finished out their careers making instructional films and TV commercials.
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