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Hugh Harman

An Interview by Michael Barrier

Many years ago, I wrote about Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising for Millimeter magazine: "Harman and Ising did not so much create characters as they created studios. The Warner Bros. and MGM studios owed their existence to Harman and Ising. In both cases, Harman and Ising produced cartoons on their own, for distribution by the parent company, but they set patterns that were perpetuated when the releasing companies established their own cartoon units." Throughout the 1930s, it was the Harman-Ising cartoons—first their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros., then their Happy Harmonies for MGM—that invited the most serious comparisons with Walt Disney's cartoons.

Harman in the early 1930sHarman and Ising had been at Disney's side in his earliest years, working for him at the Laugh-O-gram studio in Kansas City and then at his first Los Angeles studios. It was Harman who led the famous 1928 exodus from the Disney staff that resulted in Disney's loss of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and his creation of Mickey Mouse. Although Harman's departure from the staff has been painted by Disney loyalists as a sort of betrayal, Harman said he was motivated by his disappointment with Disney's abrasive behavior as a boss. Harman and Ising had, besides, been trying to establish their own studio for years, an ambition they finally realized in 1930.

I interviewed Hugh Harman for the first time on December 3, 1973, at the offices of Bob Clampett Productions in Hollywood. Harman was seventy then (he and Ising were both born in August 1903). He lived until 1982, and I had the great pleasure of interviewing Harman and Ising together in 1976. I remember thinking then what a privilege it was to know two men who had been so important in bringing Hollywood animation into being.

Joining me for the 1973 interview were Bob Clampett, who worked for Harman in the early 1930s on some of the earliest Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and the animator Mark Kausler, another close friend of Harman's. Excerpts from the interview, which was first published in slightly different form in the ASIFA Hollywood magazine Graffiti in 1984, follow.

To hear an audio excerpt from the interview, in which Harman talks about what it is was like to animate on the Laugh-O-gram cartoons in Kansas City, click here (MP3 player required).

Harman: It seems we wasted so many years—and this goes for Rudy [Ising], it goes for Disney; I would say it goes for all of us, if we analyze it. We had to learn the craft the slow way. If any of us had in the beginning, as Orson Welles had, the essence of the stage and motion picture mastered, then on top of that learned the craft of animation, we could have made worthy things.

I remember when we were taking these foolish photographs in 1926, at Disney's, Rudy and my brother Walker and Walt and Roy [Disney] and I. We stood there in the evening, the sun was going down, and it was very warm and nice and mild, and we were just talking generally. Walt said, "You know, I wish I had $10,000."

I said, "Why do you want $10,000?"

He said, "Do you know what I would do?"

"I haven't the least idea."

He said, "I would quit this business and go into the real-estate business. Think of the stuff up on Sunset Strip; that's going to be the most valuable property in the world."

I said, "That's all right for you, Walt, but that's not for me; I can see this cartoon thing developing to the point that we won't draw these silly characters, won't make silly stuff. Perhaps some day"—and I had no idea of sound—"we might, for instance, animate some of Shakespeare's plays, such as Macbeth."

He looked at me as if I had a hole in my head. I think he thought, "Well, Hugh means well."

Barrier: When you were animating back in Kansas City, you said that you were given sequences of so many feet and you had the freedom to do pretty much what you wanted to do.

Harman: Yes, it was all that way then. There was such freedom; in fact, invention was needed. It used to bewilder me that enough invention wasn't made in the story that we could go ahead and draw. It was so hard to sit there. It was easy to invent the little business, the little stuff, but to try to analyze certain actions at times seemed very, very difficult, because we had no reference to live action. Our only study was the Lutz book, plus Paul Terry's films. As Rudy has said, we used to get these at the exchange through a girl who worked there; and being that there was no sound, we could treat these things rather freely, and take scissors and clip out maybe 50 or 75 feet—they needed editing, anyway. They'd just run and run and run. If they had Farmer Al [Falfa] swimming, he would swim forever, and no stuff except to turn around and swim back the other way. We'd prune them pretty freely, and keep these strips of film as studies. That's the way we learned a lot from Terry. Of course, no one of us knew much at that time; we couldn't have, we had no instructors.

Kausler: I guess that's why there's such a similarity between the early Alice films and Paul Terry's stuff.

Harman: Oh, sure, that influence was predominantly there. That did not change until we came to California.

Barrier: To what extent did Harman-Ising have training classes for its artists, like the ones Disney had?

Harman: Same thing. About 1937, Bob Stokes and Lee Blair organized our own art classes. They wanted to do it on their own; they thought it would be a good thing, as Disney was doing it. I noticed, with amazement, the progression of these artists from that point on. We were trying to get finer drawing, to draw stuff that would look natural, instead of using the Bosko formula.

Looking back, I believe that from about 1935 up to the end of the war marked the greatest advancement of any period in cartoons. Not just with Disney, or with us, or with Warner Bros., but with all, it had moved ahead.

Barrier: Bob, I believe you mentioned that classes were held even during the Warner days.

Clampett: In 1932. Hugh hired Stokes and he conducted some classes.

Barrier: How long did these classes go on?

Clampett: It seems to me they only lasted like six months.

Barrier [to Harman]: When you were studying film on your own, did you apply any of this directly in your work at Harman-Ising, or was it something that you used as background?

Harman: No, I applied it; that was the whole purpose. I was particularly impressed by [Sergei] Eisenstein and his theory of juxtaposition of shots. I began applying this stuff particularly in those frog pictures, The Old Mill Pond and Swing Wedding. The composition of the scenes relative to their music, relative to each other—juxtaposition again; I applied the theory very definitely. I have done that in practically every picture I personally designed since. In anything that was theatrical, I always tried to apply these principles I absorbed from Eisenstein, particularly, and from [V.I.] Pudovkin, too.

Pudovkin makes a point—and it's a simple one—about films; if anybody starting to make films realized this one thing they'd know everything about films that's to be known. It is this: if you have a shot of a man walking down a rainy street, and on either side of him are houses, and he sees a light ahead of him, you immediately get the impression that this man is perhaps homeless, destitute and he's seeking comfort. He comes to a door and the light is very cheerful inside; he looks in and he sees a woman placing a bowl of soup on the table. Well, there's the essence of picture making—you know that the guy's hungry, that he wants soup. But suppose, on the other hand, we have the same introduction, but instead of seeing the bowl of soup on the table, he sees the woman first and she's in a state of incomplete dress, so much so that he stares at her avidly—immediately, it's another story. That second shot in juxtaposition with the first has told you one story, or it has told you the other. That's Pudovkin for you.

I've often wished that we had gotten Orson Welles into this business. What a find he would have been! What the business has needed is minds. With all respect for Walt and his vast achievements—he was the world's greatest promoter—to me he never had ideas for stories as, say, Chaplin did. I can imagine what Orson would have done. I had occasion to work with him for quite a few months at our studio. He and I went into partnership on a deal to make [Antoine de Saint Exupéry's] The Little Prince in 1943, '44. I developed the greatest respect and regard for that guy; he wasn't, as the film business had him, a temperamental type, he wasn't that way at all.

He was going to play the lead in it, the aviator, and we were going to get a boy for the Little Prince. Our sets would have been a combination of drawn and live. There would have been animated characters within the scope of the picture playing with these live people. We studied and studied and studied that book, and I'm eager now to see the picture that is now being made , to see whether they have viewed the thing as we would have. We didn't take it in its transparency; we took it for its deeper meanings. We read Wind, Sand and Stars, another one of the author's creations (it's a thing of such magnificent beauty) and after reading that I thought I knew what The Little Prince was about. It is juvenile fiction, and yet there is a depth to it that is amazing.

We had it all set and were ready to go when Orson became tremendously ill. We couldn't say a word about it, but he nearly died. He had a bad liver at the time; he went to Florida to recover and was gone for months. We didn't revive it after that and we lost the whole deal.

I think The Blue Danube is one of the few good pictures I ever made; I'd say that I made about three good pictures. I'm not kidding.

Kausler: What are your three favorites?

Harman: My three favorites are The Blue Danube, The Old Mill Pond, because it's an impressionistic thing, and Peace on Earth, which was seriously themed, it had nothing funny in it. They tried to stop me from making that.

Barrier: What was their argument?

Harman: That it was too serious. It made more money than any picture we ever made. Fred Quimby, who was sort of a business manager at MGM tried to stop it. Then when it was finished, I think he wanted to take all the awards for it himself.

Peace on Earth was a tough one to animate and to write. We shouldn't actually have made that as a one-reeler, we should have made it in about three to five reels. We cut it and cut it and cut it; we didn't cut footage that was animated—nobody in his right mind does that, unless it's bad. But cutting the storyboard and switching around. It has some flaws. I just got tired of it near the end. That's always been a weakness with me, that I get so fed up on it at the end of a picture that I would just as soon turn it over to the Girl Scouts to make. Unless it were a feature that would warrant going on with costs forever. I've observed that as a weakness in myself, that I often end up with a weak, insubstantial ending for a picture.

Barrier: How did Merbabies come about?

Harman: Roy Disney called me one day, just prior to the completion of Snow White, and he said, "Hugh, will you come down and talk to me about Snow White? We're in a real jam." I went down and talked to him and Walt. Roy said, "We have a Christmas release coming up and we've got all our money sunk in Snow White. We're broke, unless this thing makes it for Christmas." (It's within a few months of Christmas.) "We have to have the thing finished and we don't have enough people to finish it. Could you and Rudy let us have your entire inking department? We might want them for several months."

I said, "Sure, that'd benefit us, anyway, because we're keeping a staff and we'd like to slow down."

So we sent our inking and painting department over there. I've never seen people work so hard or long in this business. They'd work nights until those girls would drop. We had about 45 people at the time in our inking and painting department. These girls just slaved, along with their girls, to complete this thing. It must have gone on for three, four months.

In that time, I said to Walt, "Look, we're doing you a favor, you can do us a favor in return. You've got a lot of pictures to make and we're having a fight with Metro. I'd like to complete several pictures on a slow program until we wind up our fight with Metro and get a new contract. How about giving us, say, three pictures to make for your release? You have an open release for Silly Symphonies, for instance."

Walt said, "Sure, I'll do that. You're helping me. It's priceless."

The first picture was Merbabies, a thing Disney had on the fire for some time; he had a stack of inspirational sketches as they called them—just a lot of trash, actually. No story, no plot, no rhyme or reason to any of this stuff, except that it all took place underwater: pretty sketches of little starfish, half-human, and so on. That was the picture and we finished it.

Whereas Rudy and I had jointly worked on Merbabies, on the other two we thought we'd separate, he would make one and I'd make the other. We had those pictures well under way, with our own investment in them, when Walt called me and said, "Hugh, I' m going to have to cancel those pictures."

I said, "What are you trying to do, just wreck us suddenly?"

He said, "No, RKO has objected to any other studio than my own making the pictures."

"What reason do they have to object? That's none of their business, as long as they come out with your title on them?" But it turned out that the pictures were canceled

. At that time, a former RKO executive came into our studio wanting to see me. He said, "I understand that your company is looking for money to finance a program of pictures."

I said, "That's exactly right. Who do you represent?"

He said, "I cannot tell you who my principals are."

I said, "I don't want to do business with people I don't know. We might as well just forget about that in its entirety right now."

So he left. I met this guy several years later, but he had, just prior to my meeting him again, sent word to me that he was sent over by his principals who were—guess who?—Disney's. In other words, Walt tried to knock the props from under us, pulling those pictures away, and then sending a man in to buy us out. This may be confirmed by this: all the time we were working on Merbabies, Walt and Roy were talking to Rudy and me about quitting our own operation and joining them. They naturally wanted us out of the way, because the competition was too heavy.

Barrier: Did you suspect that if you had gone with Disney, he would have fired you after a short time?

Harman: No, he wouldn't have done that. He would have been very pleasant, been very fair. I used to rather envy Walt in this respect: he had Roy paving the way for him all the way. I kept wishing Roy was with me. A guy of such honesty and such toughness, too; Roy was a very tough man, but such a gentle and gently spoken man.

Barrier: Rudy mentioned that each of you had started one on speculation...

Harman:That's right. We finished those at MGM.

Barrier: Were these the two you had started for Disney?

Harman: Yes. One was my Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the other was Rudy's Little Goldfish.

We were trying to get something very fine at that point; not just because it was a Disney release, but it was just our incentive at the time, because we were looking to making features. I wanted to get out of the short business and make features.

[Posted January 10, 2006]