The year 2017 marks the eightieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s ending of its distribution arrangement with animation producers Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising – a deed done in 1937. One immediate effect of the termination was the closing of the “Happy Harmonies” cartoon series, which laid to rest several regularly-appearing African American characters in one fell swoop. At the time Harman and Ising produced cartoons starring human figure versions of Bosko and Honey, but the studio also made films starring caricatures of jazz musicians as frogs. In addition, Harman and Ising made three films with both the people and the frogs starring together just before MGM’s fateful decision.
The end of “Happy Harmonies” also stopped an interesting marketing experiment in the era of segregation. Besa Short had already made a reputation as a champion of marketing short films, especially cartoons, for theaters across Texas by 1936, when MGM released the first “frog” cartoon The Old Mill Pond. Short had so much power in Hollywood that she arranged for Walt Disney to have the world premiere of the first Technicolor “Mickey Mouse” episode–The Band Concert–at the “whites only” Palace Theatre in Dallas in 1935. She decided to book The Old Mill Pond at Dallas’s Majestic Theater–the city’s only theater that allowed African American patrons, and MGM made the most of that decision.
According to John Rosenfeld, Jr.’s “The Passing Show” column for the May 30, 1936 edition of the Dallas Morning News, Short pulled out an unusually high amount of stops for The Old Mill Pond. She arranged for the Majestic’s management to hold a luncheon with representatives from each of Dallas’s newspapers before screening the cartoon for them. The press was also shown original drawings of the characters from the studio. In addition, Harman himself had requested that cels and drawings from the episode be exhibited by the theater. The Majestic obliged, and the art appeared on display in the lobby there until the film’s run ended.
The cartoon was a hit and received an Academy Award nomination. The studio capitalized on the success by making follow-ups Swing Wedding, starring just the frogs, and the three aforementioned pairings of the frogs with Bosko. The first of the team-ups was Bosko and the Pirates, and the press and managers of theaters gave favorable reviews. The latter two–Bosko and the Cannibals and Bosko in Bagdad–repeated significantly from the first, and reviewers offered negative critiques. Nevertheless, the Majestic faithfully played most of these episodes, thus giving African Americans in Dallas an opportunity to see first-run animation of caricatures of popular African American entertainers. The Majestic played the cartoons that featured jazz-singing, presumably because African Americans liked the music; however, the city’s other, “whites only” theaters played all the other cartoons featuring African American images–including Bosko’s Easter Eggs (without the frogs) at the Palace.
Because so few African Americans reviewed films for the trade journals like Motion Picture Herald, it is difficult to gauge how much African Americans liked the “Happy Harmonies” films in their own theaters or in the balconies of Jim Crow venues. However, one brief letter about a cartoon made later in the “Happy Harmonies” style reveals how much the episodes meant to at least one community. John W. Warner of the Plaza Theatre in Greenville, North Carolina told Motion Picture Herald that MGM’s post-”Harmonies” jazz cartoon, Swing Social, with African Americans as jazzy fish was a “Very good cartoon,” according to the October 5, 1940 issue. But he then added, “I hope Harman-Ising will get back into the stride of two years ago and imitate more colored characters as they are entertaining and help the colored houses.” But, alas, Swing Social was a fluke, for its directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera hit paydirt that year with “Tom and Jerry” and focused almost exclusively on that for the next seventeen years. No other similar jazz cartoons with African American characters appeared regularly after the frogs’ swansong Bosko in Bagdad, and the experiment of Harman-Ising, the Majestic, and African American marketing came to an end.