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.
Unlike 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.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.)