When Nellie Chouinard founded the Chouinard Art Institute in the 1920s, the school soon became the preeminent institution for training Hollywood animators, and one of its first students, La Verne Harding, went on to help quietly break down gender barriers in American studio animation. Harding was managing some freelance work as an illustrator—and was beginning a promising run as a newspaper cartoonist—when Mrs. Chouinard told her to go to Universal and speak with Walter Lantz about a job.
Harding wanted to be an animator, but had no specific training in the field. Her study at Chouinard, from 1930-32, was in the more general realm of commercial art. In fact, at that time there were no courses there specifically in animation, only in related topics such as figure drawing, design, and painting. Nellie Chouinard, a wealthy widow, professionally went by the name Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, which she purportedly invented. Her students all called her Mrs. Chouinard.
With her mentor’s encouragement to go see Mr. Lantz, Harding took a handful of sample drawings and embarked on an interview that changed her life. The Universal Cartoon Dept. was a bit of a makeshift operation in 1932, but it was certainly bustling with growth and activity. It was housed in a wooden building with a large open room where the animators all worked together on Oswald Rabbit and Pooch the Pup cartoons.
At that time, she knew little about Walter Lantz, but she found him to be nice on their first meeting. Lantz liked her work and he needed an additional animator. In fact, the available pool of talent in Hollywood remained sparse and the experienced animators from New York had mostly been taken. Harding thought that Lantz was intrigued and “curious” about having a female animator. A month later, he offered her a job, but first as an inker until she proved herself.
This new environment was perhaps more juvenile than she anticipated, but she managed to fit in, even if she never engaged in the pranks that happened all around her. She was a reserved person, having been born Emily La Verne Harding in Shreveport, Louisiana on October 10, 1905. After enduring a transition on account of her Southern manners, she got to witness some wild sights at the studio.
One that she particularly could recall, even years later, was Tex Avery flirting and teasing the women in the Ink and Paint department. He wrapped rubber bands around his head and then thrust his face over the partition, intending to scare one of the girls, but Walter Lantz had just come into the room and the place filled with laughter when Tex ended up giving the boss a scare instead.
Harding remembered that after she started in 1932 she inked for about three weeks and then “an in-betweener quit so Lantz tried me out.” She worked this position for some time, teaching herself the dynamics of motion. She learned on the job from the other animators. In fact, at the age of 27, she would have been considered somewhat older to be starting her career in animation.
Then in 1934, two opportunities came her way: Lantz promoted her to be an animator (this made her the first woman to hold this position in Hollywood) and she became a syndicated cartoonist on the Cynical Susie newspaper comic strip, written by Becky Sharp. Harding had been doing a one-panel version of this strip, starring the resourceful and mischievous little Susie, in the Los Angeles Daily News as early as 1931. It must surely have been a credential that impressed Lantz when he hired her.
Cynical Susie soon became too big a project for Harding, though. The United Features Syndicate demanded that she produce a different daily four-panel Susie strip other than the one she did for the Daily News, as well as a color Sunday strip, and the strain of drawing two dailies on top of a full-time job was immense. It appears from records that she quit the syndicate only a month after starting.
Harding must have felt compelled to make a choice. Although the syndicate took some initial legal action against Harding, she worked out a settlement and quit the comic. A letter to Harding dated April 26, 1935 from the law office of Chandler, Wright and Ward reveals two legal contracts: one from 1932 “between Helen Sharp, yourself [Harding], and O. Jean Brittan, creating an organization for the ownership, conduct and management of Cynical Susie during the terms of the lives of the parties,” and one from 1934 between the United Feature Syndicate, Inc., and Helen Sharp and La Verne Harding, “running for a ten year term ending June 30, 1940, relating to the marketing of said strip.”
She was informed in this letter that a breach of contract from her “non-performance” would make her liable for paying damages, but it was suggested that certain behavior on her part would likely avert a lawsuit: “Assuming…that the burdens of the contracts are too great for you to continue, and that you cannot obtain the consent of the others to withdraw, you should at least minimize the damages suffered by your associates by giving ample notice of your intention to withdraw, and by meanwhile training a substitute, and further, by payment of such additional expenses as may result from your withdrawal.”
An addendum to the letter, included at a later time, indicates that Harding accepted terms virtually as laid out in the above sentence, thereby terminating her stake in the ownership of Cynical Susie. There has been recent speculation that Becky Sharp may have been a pseudonym for Harding, but the existence of this legal contract, which is held in an archive at UCLA, instead suggests that Becky (or, sometimes Beckie) was the pseudonym of a woman named Helen Sharp. The strip continued with a new artist.
It was a widely held aspiration among a number of the Universal animators, including Avery, to be a newspaper cartoonist. This must have garnered her quite a bit of respect from the boys working at the desks all around her. Harding’s name appeared daily on this new comic strip that was growing in success, yet she gave this up to pursue her budding career as an animator instead. As a tribute, Cynical Susie was given cameo appearances in the Universal cartoons.