Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising are virtual unknowns in the world of cartoon animation today, even among animation fans, yet this creative partnership was one of the most influential forces in animation history. They began as collaborators with Walt Disney in 1922 and it can be asserted both never really extricated themselves from all the mousetraps around them. Progress was initially slow in the early years since they had no previous references to live action animation and no instructors to teach them. Harman and Ising borrowed some early animation of Paul Terry through a film exchange and cut and edited Terry’s film, keeping part to study and returning the rest in a now edited and more polished form. Their first attempt to launch their own studio failed and they returned to Disney to produce the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series among other projects.
It was during this time that Harman and Ising refined a style of cartoon drawing that would become associated and synonymous with the Disney style. However, after leaving Disney again in 1928 their contribution would become progressively discredited. They had drawn some sketches of mice around a photo of Disney which was later appropriated and crystallized by Disney Studios as Mickey Mouse. Also their contribution on Oswald the Rabbit as producers showed that the animated rabbit bore striking similarities to the re-engineered and re-baptised version of Oswald as he morphed into the iconic and now luckier Mickey.
Harman and Ising created the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series for Warner Brothers. They also continued with the Bosko character (influenced by the minstrel theater of the time) which again showed a distinctive style easily distinguishable from their less accomplished peers. Granted, Bosko and Oswald went against the grain of any politically correct standard. These cartoons were absurdly violent, careening, raucous affairs but highly entertaining and energetic. Eventually,Bosko and other similar characters were censored off the air. In the early 30′s cartoons were seen as a form of escapism and have to be seen within the context of the cultural development of the U.S. Their career was marked by budget disputes with the large studios and in the case of Walt Disney, a jealous professional envy on the part of Disney bordering on the unethical.
Harman and Ising were artists who saw the animated medium as an art form but the studio owners wanted profit and production. MGM and Warner Brothers wanted to invest more in the cinematic advances of the time such as Technicolor and less on artistic salaries. The two- strip technology replaced the original black and white and was able to register variations of blue and orange and the ”process three” saw sound on film for the first time with more vivid and vibrant colors. This was followed by a process four which was three -strip technicolor providing even more saturated levels of color resulting in a more surrealistic effect on the film such as in Walt Disney’s ”Fantasia” and ”Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. However, the costs were exhorbitant for the time in terms of shooting, processing and often repairing the film.
They eventually worked as freelancers. Harman did win an Oscar in 1940 for Peace on Earth, a pacifist cartoon which received a citation from the Nobel Prize Jury. But the duo seemed to lack the funding necessary to tackle projects of their interest such as full length feature films.
It was naive and somewhat vulgar at the time to label Harman and Ising as Disney copycats. They were refined artists attempting to make quality, arty work of an enduring nature. If they did not exist we would never have known Walt Disney Studios . According to Harman, Disney’s greatest strength was as a promotor without equal who nonetheless lacked the ideas for stories and story telling that a Chaplin would have created. Harman felt Disney’s ability to market his work as ”Americana” and as a cultural export product, far overshadowed his other considerable accomplishments. Harman and Ising are credited with creating the first instance of synchronized speech in a cartoon in the late 1920′s.
Harman was especially influenced by Sergei Eisenstein and his theory of the juxtaposition of images . This theory was applied very deliberately to animated films like ”The Old Mill Pond” and ”Swing Wedding”. By juxtaposing the composition of the scenes relative to each other and relative to the music the filmmaker allows himself to tell multiple stories and this is the secret of ”Mill Pond”.
Harman was also working in partnership with Orson Welles on a juvenile film in 1944 that would have combined both animation and Welles in the lead role. The film, ”The Little Prince”, never was produced due to serious illness on the part of Welles while the joint project was only partially completed. Several years later Ingmar Bergman would insert some limited animation in his own work. However this Harman short,”The Blue Danube” shows some nice cinematic flourishes that went beyond standard cartoons of the day.It was one of Harman’s favorites.