Happy holidays, dear readers! The first Christmas cartoon this month is one of the earlier Happy Harmonies produced by MGM!
Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising broke their contract with producer Leon Schlesinger early in 1933. They attempted to negotiate with Schlesinger to improve the black-and-white Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, but he resisted increasing the budget. From Schlesinger’s perspective, Warner Bros. altered their contract twice to reduce the purchase costs, from $10,000 to $6,000, by March 1933. Harman and Ising delivered their last cartoon in August, and took their Bosko character with them.
On February 14, 1934, the two signed a contract with MGM — after the studio resolved its involvement with Ub Iwerks — and received agreement for a budget of $12,500 for each cartoon, and to recompense the production costs up to that amount, starting in May. Harman and Ising could finally produce their new Happy Harmonies in color, which they beseeched Schlesinger to adopt earlier. They begun work on a cartoon based on The Nutcracker after their departure, originally planned as a two-reeler — the first of its kind before Max Fleischer’s Popeye — but production ultimately ceased after contractual difficulties.
The first few Happy Harmonies were processed in two-color Technicolor, and subsequent entries filmed in full three-strip Technicolor, after Disney’s exclusive contract for use of the process expired by September 1935. Ising’s cartoon Alias St. Nick, released November 1935 — premiering in conjunction with the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera — wouldn’t have captured the holiday essence in limited two-color Technicolor.
This cartoon features a tough, skeptical mouse that rebukes the notion of Santa Claus. This character would evolve into Little Cheeser, later a recurring character in the Happy Harmonies. There were not many in the series, besides Bosko and the Louis Armstrong-esque Fog Horn Frog. Alias St. Nick runs about 10 minutes due to its slower timing, more or less based around an overall pattern from the Silly Symphonies. Many animation studios in the thirties used a template in which innocent characters cavort amongst their surroundings until threatened by a menace. The good guys retaliate with their own ingenuity, often fitted to the situation itself. For instance, the toys brought along by the famished cat, dressed as Santa Claus, are used as weapons against him.
One perplexing footnote in the annals of animation history concerns the Pabian brothers. Both James Anthony Pabian (born April 14, 1909) and Anthony Albert Pabian (born March 3, 1914) referred to themselves as “Tony,” though James often adopted the name “Jim.” According to Rudy Ising, the two brothers often traded their namesake on a regular basis at Harman-Ising. In addition, Alias St. Nick’s draft credits an artist named “Tony” without any indication which brother worked on the cartoon. Based on the surviving evidence of comic book work by Jim Pabian, and stories purportedly drawn by Anthony Pabian, the superior draftsmanship of Jim’s panels clearly matches the drawing in Alias St. Nick; therefore, the proper credit is placed on the breakdown video.
It was fairly common for a Disney short cartoon to have a large amount of artists (1941’s The Little Whirlwind credits 27, including effects animators). In Alias St. Nick’s case, the draft lists 13 character animators. Since the cartoon centers around Christmas, it could be speculated that the occasion led to assigning scenes to a majority — or at least, the entirety — of the character animators Harman-Ising employed during this period. By comparison, other existing Ising drafts credit a lesser quantity of artists. Furthermore, animators Joe D’Igalo and Frank Tipper, are credited with only one shot in the draft.
Many artists credited on Alias St. Nick were associated with Harman-Ising during their time with Schlesinger. Larry Martin served as a mentor to his young assistant, Bob Clampett, who often drew caricatures of Martin as a villain, with his “hook nose, mustache, toothy grin and dirty laugh.” It later developed into Dishonest John for his animated Beany and Cecil television series. Bob Stokes, an instructor at the Chouinard School of Art, animated at Warners. In 1932, he conducted art classes, and continued to organize lessons at MGM with colleague Lee Blair in the mid-1930s. Mel Shaw (known as Melvin Schwartzman in the ‘30s) worked with Leon Schlesinger as a teenager, during a summer job of designing inter-titles at his Pacific Title and Art Studio. Shaw applied to work for Harman-Ising with tracings of newspaper comic strips when his fine arts portfolio failed to impress. He journeyed to MGM as well, serving as an animator and character designer. Tom McKimson animated for Harman-Ising at Warners, and shifted over with them to MGM while his brother Bob remained at Schlesinger’s.A few animators joined Warners after Harman and Ising left. Jim Pabian briefly animated at Schlesinger’s following the dissolution of their partnership around 1933, but migrated to MGM a few months later. George Grandpre became the head of the in-betweening pool at Warners and later animated for Bob McKimson in the late ‘50s. Tom McKimson returned to Warners as an animator/character designer for Bob Clampett and Art Davis in the ‘40s. Gil Turner served as an animator, starting in the Hardaway-Dalton unit in the mid-‘30s, and in Friz Freleng’s unit up until the early ‘40s. Frank Tipper animated at Schlesinger’s for a brief period, with credits spanning from 1933-35. Joe D’Igalo became a regular animator for Frank Tashlin’s black-and-white Looney Tunes in the mid-1930s.
Some of the credited artists also worked for Disney in the early ‘30s. George Grandpre, Frank Tipper and Joe D’Igalo each served as junior animators in Ben Sharpsteen’s crew. Gil Turner arrived at the studio by January 1933 after his previous occupation as an iceman. Tom McKimson received his start in animation as Norm Ferguson’s assistant before he moved to Romer Grey’s studio in the summer of 1930. Intriguingly, McKimson briefly came back to Disney around 1933, after Harman and Ising left Schlesinger, where he also animated under Sharpsteen. (He is credited on scenes in The Night Before Christmas and The Grasshopper and the Ants.)
Bob Stokes and Mel Shaw flourished at Disney after they left Harman-Ising in the mid-‘30s; Stokes’ specialty in the human figure led to his animation of key sequences of Snow White and the Evil Queen. Shaw became involved with Bambi in its entirety, and also contributed to Fantasia and The Wind in the Willows (later produced as a segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad). He left during the 1941 strike, but returned to the studio in the early ‘70s, and collaborated on such features as The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.Like Pabian, Tom McKimson and Gil Turner turned to comic book work. Both drew stories for Western Publishing’s Dell Comics outfit, specializing mostly on funny animal books. McKimson worked freelance for Dell in 1944, illustrating comics with the Warners characters. He left the studio and officially joined the company as their art director from 1947 to 1972. He also created a daily Roy Rogers strip with his brother Charles, under the pseudonym “Al McKimson.”
Turner worked for Benjamin Sangor’s comic shop in the ‘40s, drawing funny animal comics for Better Publications, American Comics Group and Dearfield Comics before moving to Dell. Turner was the writer/artist on the L’il Bad Wolf stories alongside Carl Barks’ Donald Duck in the top-selling monthly, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. Like McKimson, his work was not only limited to animated characters — he drew his own newspaper comic strips, Chico (1948-49) and Holly Wood in the early ‘50s.
The draft seen here (from photocopies made in early 1979) is hand-written, but most of the notes are very faint and hard to read. Upon close examination, and a slight tweak in picture contrast, the artist credits are now clarified on the breakdown video. Help yourself to a mug of hot cocoa (perhaps with tiny marshmallows) and enjoy.
(Thanks to Michael Barrier, J.B. Kaufman, Frank Young, Yowp, Dave Smith and Joakim Gunnarsson for their help.)