Today, we look into one of Hugh Harman’s lavish MGM cartoons!
Harman’s body of work distributed by a major live-action film studio exemplified his desire to compete with Disney’s cartoons. Harman evidently resented the successful producer after working for him during the silent era. Like Disney, he shared a perfectionist tendency, dedicating more time on the stories and a definite assurance of elaborate animation. As an employee for MGM’s new animation studio (established after they terminated their agreement in producing solely for Harman and associate Rudy Ising on February 1937), he continued to vex producers with increasingly high budgets on his last few cartoons. Putting into perspective Harman’s need for precision, The Field Mouse’s budget nearly rose to $35,000 – whereas Paramount set a ceiling price of $30,000 on the Fleischer’s rising Superman series. Harman didn’t care, as long as MGM supplied the money.The “morality films” Harman produced and directed during the early ‘40s often have a solemn tone. An elderly squirrel, in the acclaimed but aggressive Peace on Earth (1939), tells his two grandchildren of a land once ravaged by trench warfare. The destruction leads to cute forest animals building and dwelling within their own village, repurposing the belongings of fallen soldiers. Harman’s belief in preserving childhood innocence, in cartoons such as this is endearing, but seem more instructive on the surface.
The near-sighted protagonist of The Little Mole believes a garbage dump is a “fairy palace” until a pair of glasses, given him by a con man, proves differently. When his glasses break, later in the film, and he comes close to drowning, he accepts the fantasy as it stands. The little rabbit willing to accept a vicious predator as a friend — though oblivious to his starvation — in The Hungry Wolf, offers another component of Harman’s penchant for poignancy.
The Field Mouse attempts to show the consequences of shirking responsibilities, but fails to redeem itself by the end. Herman, the main character, sleeps underneath a sunflower, and ignores his mother and grandfather’s insistence on working before he hears the impending approach of a wheat thresher. The film’s stated ethics are discarded to focus on the peril of Herman and his grandfather inside the hazardous machine. The grandfather’s personality takes a sporadic shift from tender to cantankerous when the family is forced to evacuate (with the line “You can’t do this to me!” repeated to annoyance).
Despite its narrative flaws, The Field Mouse abounds with detail, particularly in the elaborate inner workings of the wheat thresher, as designed by layout artist Joseph Smith. A Rainy Day with the Bear Family, released a year earlier, climaxes as Papa Bear faces ocean waves of roof shingles during a thunderstorm. Harman decided to return to this visual in The Field Mouse, as Herman and his grandfather swim against a waterfall of grain. This theme of diminutive characters risking their lives against large mechanisms is strikingly similar to little Swee’ Pea’s perils inside the factory in the 1937 Popeye cartoon Lost and Foundry. The theme was echoed in 2000, with the chicken pie machine in Nick Park’s stop-motion feature Chicken Run. These three examples use intricately detailed machinery to provide a threat for their characters, and each sequence reflects advances in technology.
Many of the key animators on Field Mouse are assigned large blocks of sequences. Don Williams animates up to three minutes of the cartoon, including the opening sequences and the key acting scenes with Herman and the two principal family members. His tendency to draw blocky-looking characters seen in his later work at Lantz and Warners, emerged at MGM. Leonard Sebring handles the scenes of the grandfather stubbornly remaining behind the family, along with their fight for survival against the waterfall of wheat. Sebring previously worked at Disney during the ‘30s, and would leave MGM (and animation) altogether. He returned to his Kansas hometown, where he worked on advertising projects for local companies.
Paul Sommer animates an extended sequence where Herman leaves his family behind to rescue his grandfather. It’s unclear if Sommer, or a specialized effects artist, handled the difficult animation of the thresher, but his credit remains on the video. Sommer animated for MGM when it established its own studio in 1937. He became a director for Screen Gems in the ‘40s. After a stint at Terrytoons, Sommer migrated back West to Hanna-Barbera, as a story director and layout artist.
Little is known about animator David Treffman, who is assigned a small amount of footage. He worked at the Mintz studio in the early ‘30s, as documented by a staff photo supplied by Mike Barrier. He is credited on the draft for The Flying Bear, a 1941 Barney Bear entry, with an available document that is unfortunately incomplete.
Irv Spence and Ray Abrams handle brief sequences. Spence’s broad animation/posing of the lazy Herman being scolded is wonderful. Ray Abrams animates an interesting low angle shot in scene 25, as the house shakes from the rumbling thresher in his usual rubbery fashion. You’ll notice that scenes 69-71, though listed on the draft for Field Mouse (the last two shots credited to Abrams) do not appear in the final cartoon. Quick cuts, designated by letters, were added to scene 64 (also animated by Abrams), presumably to strengthen the drama of the peril.
By the time this cartoon reached theaters on December 1941, Harman had been gone from MGM for eight months, and formed his own studio. The presumptuous Harman had ambitious plans for an animated feature based on the legend of King Arthur. Enthusiastic to launch this venture, surviving story treatments and planned song sequences would be completed within the same month.
According to Mark Kausler, a good friend of Harman’s, the director seemed uninterested in his cartoons in later years, except maybe Peace on Earth. See what you think of this cartoon with this week’s breakdown video.
(Thanks to Michael Barrier, Mark Kausler, Frank Young and Yowp for their help.)