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 cartoonsfirst
their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros., then their
Happy Harmonies for MGMthat invited the most serious comparisons
with Walt Disney's cartoons.
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
Harman: It seems we wasted so many yearsand 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 feetthey 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
Barrier: How long did these classes go on?
Clampett: It seems to me they only lasted like six
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 otherjuxtaposition 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 pointand it's a simple oneabout 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 makingyou
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
avidlyimmediately, 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 achievementshe
was the world's greatest promoterto 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
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
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 animatednobody
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,
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 themjust 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
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 wereguess 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
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]