Sometimes designated as the idea man of Harman-Ising (reads "harmonizing") Cartoons, a creative partnership ranking among the most influential forces in Hollywood animation history, Rudolf Ising co-created (with Hugh Harman) 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 as well as supervising the first cartoons made for MGM, in which they introduced the immensely popular cat-and-mouse team Tom and Jerry.
In 1922, Ising answered a newspaper advertisement and became an inker and painter for Walt Disney's first cartoon studio in Kansas City, Missouri. Here he worked on "Newman Laugh-O-Grams", silent theatrical cartoons evolved from the short animated commercials Disney had produced for local merchants (to be shown in Kansas City's Newman Theater). Harman came aboard shortly thereafter. After Disney headed west to start a new studio, Harman and Ising teamed to work on their own sample film for a proposed theatrical cartoon series based on "Arabian Nights". When they failed to find a buyer, the pair followed Disney to Los Angeles to work on the "Alice in Cartoonland" series. Harman and Ising continued their association with Disney for his subsequent "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" series of theatrical cartoons.
Ising, Harman and Friz Freleng were among the Disney employees hired away in 1928 to produce cut-rate Oswald cartoons for the Charles Mintz animation unit in NYC under producer George Winkler. This gig lasted for less than a year before Universal decided to produce the cartoons in-house through its own new studio (headed by a young Walter Lantz). Suddenly unemployed, Harman and Ising started their own production company in 1929. The Harman-Ising cartoon was "Bosko the Talk Ink Kid", a three-minute "pilot" film that boasted the first instance of synchronized speech in a cartoon. Bosko was a humanoid inkblot that wore a derby, acted like a little boy and interacted with the live-action Ising at his drawing board. (Disney's earlier epochal "Steamboat Willie" had music and sound effects, but no dialogue).
The sample cartoon caught the interest of entrepreneur Leon Schlesinger who, according to legend, had helped the Warner Brothers finance their risky live-action talkie "The Jazz Singer" (1927). As the head of Pacific Art and Title, a leading maker of silent movie title cards and artwork, he feared that the advent of sound would make his business obsolete. Sensing a good investment, Schlesinger sold a cartoon series to Warner Brothers, proposing himself as producer and the studio as distributor. He played up the possibility of promoting pop songs from Warner films and music publishing companies through the cartoons. Harman-Ising would make the shorts and he would deal with the studio. The first series, "Looney Tunes", starred Bosko whose sign-off, "That's all, folks!", would later become Porky Pig's stammering trademark. The first, "Sinking in the Bathtub", was released in 1930.
In 1931, the studio commissioned "Merrie Melodies", a second series of monthly sound cartoons featuring "one-shot" characters and at least one full chorus of a contemporary popular song. The first Merrie Melodies, "Lady Play Your Mandolin" (1931), marked the first appearance of Foxy (a blatant Mickey Mouse clone with pointed ears and a bushy tail) and the professional animating debut of Bob Clampett who worked on some secondary characters. As they developed, Merrie Melodies became distinctive for their surprisingly accurate Depression-era settings. Exotic travelogues ("Pagan Moon" 1931) and stories of inanimate objects and fictional characters coming to life (beginning with 1931's "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile") became popular mainstays for the series. Ising supervised Merrie Melodies while Harman concentrated on Looney Tunes. Though the cartoons continued to be signed by both men, they worked separately from this point on.
In terms of gags and styling, the early Warner Brothers cartoons with their emphasis on bouncy cute figures engaged in broad comical antics owed much to Disney. This was not surprising as much of the Harman-Ising staff were former employees of the Disney studio. Though these cartoons still have their champions, some, like film historian Leonard Maltin, fault their work for basically tracking and plagiarizing Disney without offering sufficient innovation of their own. Nonetheless they were very popular in their day.
Harman-Ising departed Warner Bros. in 1933 over budget disputes with the tight-fisted Schlesinger. Having learned from Disney's painful experience with losing Oswald, they had retained their rights to Bosko and took the character and several key staff with them. After a brief assignment at the Van Buren studio, Harman-Ising signed a contract with MGM to produce a new series of color 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.
Not much of a gag man, Ising gravitated toward cute, cuddly Disneyesque characters while Harman preferred more stylized characters designed to express a particular theme. Their original decision to continue with Bosko was reconsidered after just two cartoons. The new cartoons focused on one-shot stories. Bosko did eventually reappear, redesigned as a caricatured 'Negro' boy.
Displeased with the cost over-runs on the Harman-Ising cartoons, MGM dismissed them in late 1937, hired most of their staff and attempted to start their own in-house studio with executive Fred Quimby in charge. The results were disastrous and Harman-Ising were brought back in 1939. Ising introduced his first notable MGM character, Barney Bear, that year in "The Bear That Couldn't Sleep". A beautifully designed and animated ancestor (forebear?) of Hanna-Barbera's Yogi Bear, Barney's personality was based on Ising's own lethargic nature. Ising continued to direct Barney Bear's unremarkable adventures throughout the early 1940s.
Ising also continued making one-shot films including the 1940 Oscar-winning "Milky Way", a story about cute little animals in space, which broke Disney's seven-year winning streak. The Ising unit hit pay dirt with "Puss Gets the Boot" (1940) which introduced the cat-and-mouse team Tom and Jerry, the stars who changed the studio's fortunes. Although Ising received the sole animation credit, the short was primarily directed by the fledgling team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. An enormous hit, "Puss Gets the Boot" received an Oscar nomination. (Hanna and Barbera spent the next 15 years working exclusively on the new characters).
In 1941, Ising became the head of the animation department for the US Army Air Forces and produced training films. After departing MGM in the early 40s, Harman-Ising continued their partnership and spent the rest of their careers making government films and TV commercials.