A real joy of having my columns on Cartoon Research has been getting calls out of the blue from families of animators I’ve written about. And one of those inquiries came recently from Judy Usik, a niece of La Verne Harding. This helped fill a gap in what’s known about Ms. Harding, an important figure from the Lantz studio who drove around Hollywood in style. In fact, her ’54 red Mercury may have zoomed through a classic cartoon. With my chance to meet Judy and her family, here are some colorful new anecdotes that I can share with you about their amazing Aunt Verne.
To give a quick recap of my earlier posts, Harding was the first female animator in Hollywood, the co-creator of the Cynical Susie comic strip, a pivotal advocate for Walter Lantz taking his studio independent, and she exerted a strong design influence on his characters, including Woody Woodpecker. After a career that spanned more than four decades, her peers honored her with the Winsor McCay Award in a ceremony that also saw the induction of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. She came out of the evening as a certified legend.
Harding’s talent and focus made her an indispensable animator for many years at Lantz. She was never a prankster like others, a role she gladly left to “the boys” all around her, but she was amused by the lengths they would go to pull off a gag. There was that time they bought several pairs of shoes in descending sizes. One of the animators liked to work with his shoes off, so naturally they replaced them when he wasn’t looking, taking them down by a half-size each day until he was distraught how tight they’d gotten, rubbing his sore feet as the others chuckled.
This was the freewheeling state of the midcentury studio, replete with spitballs, traps, and switcheroos. I’ve had the sense that La Verne was serious about being funny, that she channeled her mischief through characters and animation, but I learned she was a spark plug herself, a storyteller who could command an audience. That’s the Aunt Verne that her nieces remember. It’s an open secret in the family that she gave Tex Avery the idea for Crazy Mixed-Up Pup. She received top credit in that cartoon for her animation and it’s worth considering now if she gets a posthumous asterisk from film historians.
Harding liked to call herself the “happy spinster” and she had three little ones whom she doted on. These were her nieces and nephew, Judy, Marlene, and Jon, who all grew up around Los Angeles. Judy informs me that La Verne was “the coolest aunt in the world” and Marlene describes her as “even better than the best aunt ever.” The stories they shared with me give a more complete portrait of this trailblazing animator. She loved baseball, westerns, Hawaiian music, gadgets, and big vehicles. She was born Emily La Verne Harding in Shreveport, Louisiana and she was a Southern girl whose family moved West when she was young.
It did not strike her as historic when she became an animator in 1934 while working at Universal. After all, there were women on the other side of the partition, inking and painting cels, and she initially had worked on that side, too. One day she simply moved, having gotten the promotion that changed everything, but there was nothing glamorous about any part of Universal’s cartoon unit. It was all housed in the same ramshackle building.
In the early part of her career, Harding fraternized after hours and she didn’t mind drinking with the animators or tagging along to the racetrack and betting on horses. It was a fun, carefree time for her. It helped her get to know her boisterous colleagues and they readily accepted her as a peer. It was only through the disapproval of her mother that she slowly curtailed going out with them.
Then there was the tragedy of her brother Bill Harding, who was a Navy test pilot. He died in a plane crash in 1936 while trying to save another officer’s life. This threw a pall over the family. As Judy informed me, the death forever changed them, marking a turn toward religiosity to help deal with their grief, but La Verne never chose to forsake aircraft. It turns out Bill could draw cartoons and she dreamed about aviation. They were kindred spirits. Probably Bill had gotten her hooked on planes and this was a way to keep his memory alive.
In later years, she took her nephew to airports and instilled in him a knowledge of aircraft, right down to small details and model specs. She helped Jon be able to name any plane on sight, a skill they honed while sitting along the runway together. La Verne was also a bit of a gearhead. She liked the simple engines of Ford automobiles in the 30s and 40s. She could fix carburetors and spark plugs with only bobby pins as her tools.
Harding was a confident modern woman who knew what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like her clothes with too many ruffles, yet when she drew cartoons, her characters were cutesy and rounded. Her nieces recall that Aunt Verne always seemed to put a fluffy bow on the characters she made for them. At the studio, she was a dominant force in the trend toward cute characters driven by Disney cartoons.
As competitors tried desperately to emulate Disney, there were two animators at Lantz who could lead by their own example: La Verne Harding and Manuel Moreno. The first generation of New York animators, men like Bill Nolan, had grown irrelevant. Nolan was basically pushed out of Universal, yet in contrast, Harding’s value to Lantz was on the rise. His decision to hire her on to staff in 1932 looked prescient by the end of the decade.
Then at some point, perhaps through her circle of friends from Trinity Methodist Church, she made the acquaintance of a professor from UCLA. He proposed to her with a spectacular five-and-a-half carat sapphire ring and she accepted, but something happened. Even her close-knit family may not have known exactly what she wrestled with as she stared at her engagement ring.
There are examples in film history that illustrate what was at stake for a woman of her time. For instance, when the animation producer Margaret Winkler was still single, she had the freedom to finance and distribute Disney’s Alice Comedies. However, after she married Charles Mintz, he effectively controlled her production company and he turned on Disney. It seems likely that Winkler acquiesced because she had to, watching her husband alienate the talent she had cultivated.
The social norms put newlywed women at a disadvantage, even if a husband were supportive. Employers might say, “Well, she’s married now” and find reasons to be dismissive. There was never a suggestion that Lantz was inclined this way and in fact he was becoming reliant on Harding. The point I make here is simply that society imposed a pernicious double-standard and a solution became evident to her.
La Verne was left to ponder whether she wanted to be Mrs. UCLA Professor. Her fiancé dazzled her with a stunning ring, but it wasn’t what she wanted for her life, not if it took her away from animation. The way Marlene described it is how the family recalls the dilemma, an event that recedes across eight decades and yet still hangs there with resonance. La Verne Harding felt she had to make a choice between being married or having a career. She called off the engagement.
Life would go on, as inevitably it does, and World War II came next. As an animator in Hollywood, she was fortunate to avoid the direct ravages of wartime. She had the opportunity to serve a role for the U.S. Navy, just like her brother Bill, but she did it from the safety of her desk at the Lantz studio. She animated the microbes that slosh around in a patient’s body for the military training film, The Enemy Bacteria. She also animated Andy Panda in Air Raid Warden and Homer Pigeon in Pigeon Patrol, among many others.
It was during the post-war Baby Boom that she became an aunt. She was excited when Judy and Marlene and then Jon were born. This became a very active part of her life, having them over on weekends, planning excursions with them, and making them feel special on birthdays and Christmas with her generous gifts. Judy wrote me that Aunt Verne “would entertain us and would draw little animals on napkins as she told us stories.”
In 1954, her Ford was getting on in years, so she asked Marlene what new car she should buy. Marlene was just a little girl and she answered, “A red car!” To her astonishment, Aunt Verne returned with a brand new, bright red Mercury Monterey Coupe. It was a two-door hardtop convertible with smooth-riding front suspension. I asked Marlene how this car made her feel and she said, “Very impressed.” For Harding, buying that red Mercury was a chance to make her niece glow with pride, but it must have also turned heads over at the studio.
She commuted to Walter Lantz Productions on 861 Seward Street. With negotiations soon to bring The Woody Woodpecker Show to television, Lantz was knocking on fortune’s door. His lean years as a producer were now in the rear-view mirror and Harding had been there for him as an ally. As requests go, hers were humble. She only wanted to give Judy, Jon, and Marlene the chance to see the studio.
There were three occasions when Aunt Verne brought them in for special visits. They were taken all around to each department and Walter was a gracious host to the little visitors. To this day, Marlene still has the artwork that Lantz drew for her as a keepsake. They capped off each visit with cartoons in the screening room. And as a treat, they saw a “premiere” of a forthcoming release.
Tex Avery worked briefly for Lantz on Seward Street, directing just four cartoons in a period from late 1954 to 1955. This served as a reunion for Tex and La Verne. They both came up as young animators together at Universal. The timeframe of these four cartoons makes it nearly certain that Avery was around to be envious of her ’54 Mercury coupe. He may have even been there to behold it on the day of its arrival.
With that in mind, it’s time to revisit Crazy Mixed-Up Pup for the conspicuous ‘easter egg’ that incites the cartoon. Since the family contends that Aunt Verne gave Tex the film idea, let’s recap: Sam takes his dog for a walk and then, when they both get hit by a car, a mix-up occurs during a plasma transfusion. Sam and his pup switch behaviors.
The ‘easter egg’ is the car. A red coupe streaks through and flattens the characters. Although red would be the obvious color to give a car that spends only a few frames on-screen (for emphasis, for impact, for BAM!), it’s intriguing to wonder if this was an homage. Harding was Avery’s old friend, she was his animator with top credit, and she deserved some form of acknowledgement if she inspired the film.
A frame-by-frame inspection does reveal the car’s driver for just a fleeting moment. It’s a man, not a woman, and so admittedly this theory takes a hit. I was deflated myself when I realized it wasn’t a mischievous caricature of La Verne behind the wheel. However, it also doesn’t quite debunk the idea. There could still be reasons why her red Mercury made the cut and she didn’t. So I leave that to you to dissect and debate. Please comment below, I’d love to know your thoughts.
For me, just the idea of her Mercury zipping through that cartoon and setting events in motion is a perfect metaphor. La Verne Harding still has not accrued the kind of rich legacy she deserves, at least in terms of name recognition from fans, but her quiet influence played a role in shaping Lantz cartoons for over three decades. We might not ever know if the cartoon Mercury was hers, but if not, it’s a crazy mixed-up puzzle.
With many thanks to Judy Usik, Katherine Usik, and Marlene Johnson for their assistance and for the personal history of Aunt Verne shared by Judy and Marlene. Photos and illustrations above are courtesy of the family archive, which includes over a thousand original production drawings and animation sequences from Harding’s work on classic films. Some collectibles and drawings are available for sale. For serious inquiries, contact Judy Usik at firstname.lastname@example.org. Efforts are presently under way to make a digital archive available to scholars through the library of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.