January 13, 2016 posted by

Harman-Ising’s “Little Cheeser” (1936)


This week’s breakdown features Little Cheeser, a 1936 Happy Harmony directed by Rudy Ising!

The character’s name is a takeoff on Little Caesar (1930), one of Warner Bros.’ first sound gangster pictures, Little Cheeser is far from seedy. Harman and Ising wanted to develop a recurring character in their Happy Harmonies. The tough mouse from Alias St. Nick evolved into a more curious rodent, better suited for audience appeal. Cheeser’s voice was provided by Berniece Hansell, a “middle-aged bleached blonde with this pure child’s voice,” as Bob Clampett described her. She regularly portrayed similar squeaky-voiced characters for Warner Bros. and Lantz during the 1930s. Such endearing voices for animated characters during this period were often performed in a falsetto, patterned after Walt Disney’s own voice for Mickey Mouse. These voices were often interchangeable; Friz Freleng broke the mold when he depicted Porky Pig as a stutterer. Presumably to emulate this variation, Cheeser’s voice has a slight lisp.

little-cheese-title250Unlike the large number of animators credited in Alias St. Nick’s draft, Little Cheeser’s are divided in half, with about six animators. Jim Pabian and Bob Allen animate the first key sequences in the film: the little mouse’s pride, as he proudly combats a punching bag (resembling a cat’s head) and his being sent off to bed by his mother. Tired of being coddled and yearning to be ‘a tough guy” ─ and wanting to fight heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey – a devil mouse (also voiced by Hansell) encourages him to explore the human world upstairs. Jim Pabian draws Cheeser’s head with a more pinched design, and often protrudes out his cheeks; in comparison, Bob Allen’s scenes are less detailed, but aren’t constricted within the design, and allows for a much rounder head and more expressive eyes. Later in the cartoon, Cheeser becomes intoxicated, and in his stupor, challenges himself to confront a cat. These scenes are similar to Disney’s Silly Symphony The Country Cousin, which coincidentally, was released a few weeks before.

It’s surprising to see Jim Tyer’s name on the draft, credited in only two shots; one is an effects shot and the other contains a cuckoo clock gag. While subdued, it certainly displays his eccentric drawing style. Tyer’s animation career began on the East Coast, animating for Fables Pictures and Van Beuren in the ‘20s and ‘30s. He moved to the West, hoping to improve his skill at Disney’s around 1935 (Tyer is credited on two Silly Symphonies, Music Land and Cock O’ the Walk.) Tyer’s Disney stay was brief. He was mistreated at the studio, especially under supervisor Cy Young. Another factor was the prejudice against some of the East Coast animators, which led to Tyer’s departure.

The box art for the Little Cheezer (sic) 16mm home movie release

The box art for the Little Cheezer (sic) 16mm home movie release

According to animation writer Tom Minton, Paul Fennell (then a Warners animator) encountered Tyer at a Hollywood bar and suggested a job at MGM. Tyer replied: “Shit, momma, I can’t dance!” referring to their extravagant live-action musicals. He applied, and was hired as a story artist/animator in Ising’s unit. Tyer’s animation is more evident in 1937’s The Hound and the Rabbit (specifically, the fox in the football scrimmage), which is strikingly similar to his funny animal comics from the early ‘40s. Unfortunately, no draft exists (thus far) for that title.

Musical composer Scott Bradley scored MGM’s cartoons throughout their entire run (except for 1953’s The Missing Mouse). Bradley wasn’t particularly interested in composing a theme for the Happy Harmonies, since recurring characters rarely appeared. He recalled a new opportunity for their newest character in an interview conducted by the Pacific Coast Musician magazine on November 20, 1937. “I concluded to surround him with character themes in much the same fashion as [Engelbert] Humperdinck* did in ‘Hansel and Gretel.’” Bradley chose to use musical themes for Cheeser, for the devil (representing his bad inclinations) and the angel as his conscience. When the three are on-screen together, their themes are underscored in counterpoint, varying in accordance with the tone of each moment. Bradley explained, “Cheeser’s theme is a playful, active sort of thing, four bars long. The Devil’s, a sinister and menacing one, is three bars, and the Angel’s, a prayer-like affair of three bars.”

*Not to be confused by the British pop singer, born in 1936.

Enjoy this week’s breakdown video! Next week’s breakdown will be its sequel, Little Buck Cheeser


(Thanks to Michael Barrier, Tom Minton, Frank Young and Keith Scott for their help.)


  • Thanks Devon for these great breakdown posts, they are always entertaining.
    And Thanks for the information about the legendary Jim Tyer and his history on the west coast.
    Found MGM cartoon The Pygmy Hunt supervised by Friz Freleng at MGM that has some Tyer animated scenes
    And of course by the 1960’s his style is very evident
    Hope more information can be found about Mr Tyer down the road.
    Thanks again

  • I didn’t know Jim Tyler worked briefly at the west coast in the 1930’s. I wonder what parts he animated in the two Silly Symphonies.

  • One time Tom Minton told me to ask Larry Silverman if Jim Tyer ever said ” Shit momma I can’t dance”. Larry’s response was “Jim would never use that kind of language”.

  • damn! What a gorgeous film!!

  • As I never met Jim Tyer and was told by Paul Fennell in 1978 that Tyer quote from some 40 years previously, you need to contact someone still around who knew Tyer well. One person fitting that description would be Ralph Bakshi, who trained under Tyer at Terrytoons.

  • It is interesting to hear that Jim Tyer spent time, albeit uncomfortable time, at MGM, and this makes me wish that I had a photographic memory when it comes to these otherwise stunning cartoons. I would have thought that Tyer worked for Warner Brothers during the latter 1930’s just because there were wilder and more surreal takes at the studio at that time, certainly a more comfortable fit for Tyer’s brand of surprise reaction takes. I wonder if he worked on any BOSKO cartoons; I’m thinking, as I’ve been known to do, about the take in “THE OLD HOUSE”m, when Bosko is frightened by something and his feet, metaphorically glued to the wood floor, pulls up the planks as his hair stands on end and face turns a ghastly white, and he runs off, with the camera following every move instead of him just zipping out of the scene. If anyone has further information on how much Tyer worked on the HAPPY HARMONIES, I would like to know. The kind of BOSKO chaos, to my mind, would be a perfect place for Tyer’s kind of electro-kinetic takes. “LITTLE CHEEZER” uses the focus technique quite well–that of the camera following the character around, even as he falls from tabletops while intoxicated and is sent catapulting into the air on other situations. I’d only seen this cartoon on the small screen, which almost makes it more ominous because it cuts off some of the picture, as the face-off with the cat happens and Cheezer is chased back into his hole by the bumbling cat who seems to be pretty clumsy himself as I recall.

  • My response about Fennell and Toms story is more about Larry’s memory. Not a bust. Larry was a gentlemanly “cat” and wasn’t someone who uses sailor talk and was probably annoyed that a punk would interrupt his day with a question out of the blue like that while everyone is trying to get their footage up.

    • It would indeed be hard to imagine Larry Silverman ever having been a gagman. Of course he was an animator yet there exists home movie footage of him made at Terrytoons sporting a genuine smile on his face, albeit in middle age. He was elderly by the time he worked at Filmation, as was a good portion of their animation crew. In the late 1970s Jeff Etter and I were among the young punks who dared to exist in that atmosphere, defying popular reason.

  • I have a feeling the Fleischer brothers took the ideas from this cartoon, added some fish, added Bing Crosby’s song, and created the cartoon “Small Fry.”

  • My all time favorite cartoon!!!! Anyway I can share it?

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