When LaVerne Harding sat for this photo portrait, she was among the very few female animators in Hollywood, and the only woman animating at the studios on short cartoons. Her talent had paved the way for what, at that point, was proving to be an enduring career with producer Walter Lantz, and she was proud of her standing as one of his key artists. It is all the more amazing, as I covered in my last post, that she earned her stripes at Universal while also serving as the cartoonist of a daily newspaper strip, Cynical Susie.
This Depression-era comic landed in the funny pages at a time when about a quarter of American women were working, according to the 1930 census. To understand Harding’s experience breaking into cartoons then, it is insightful to look at the trends of this turbulent decade. Overall, the Great Depression led to both gains and setbacks for progressive causes. And not coincidentally, marriages were rocked by the financial upheavals, with waves of engagements broken off when the man was deemed no longer wealthy enough to provide for his bride-to-be.
For a woman with a good job, however, the independence she was afforded was heady compared to societal constraints she might face being married, as this excerpt from the website of the Gale Group makes clear: “In the 1920s and the 1930s some women, especially college-educated women, chose to remain single… often part of a commitment to a career in social reform, academic life, or a profession. In spite of the discrimination women faced in the tight labor market, the Depression provided opportunities for these young women to become self-reliant.”
This was the case with LaVerne Harding. She came to realize how fortunate she was working for Lantz. She was likely averse to some of the risks that her male peers could more easily take, such as an offer to follow Tex Avery over to the Schlesinger studio in 1935, which Virgil Ross accepted and she declined. The majority of Universal animators zigzagged in and out of employment with Lantz during this decade, often maneuvering to work at Disney, but she stayed.
One aspect of being a self-reliant woman in the Thirties was the necessity of prudent decision-making, even extending to one’s personal life. As with other trailblazing career women of her generation, an offer of marriage was a loaded proposition that could undermine workplace ambitions—either from the husband, employer, or from the pressures of the norms of society. And like others, Harding simply chose never to marry.
Her private life was anchored by her faith. She was a devout Christian who regularly attended Sunday services at Trinity Methodist Church. She dedicated her work-life to her craft, becoming an accomplished animator who remained with Lantz for decades, smoothly fitting in with the men. Harding always contributed well-animated scenes to the cartoons she was assigned, but she lived at a time when a woman’s hard-won gains could easily be taken away.
With Lantz as her benefactor, she had a boss she could trust. Naturally, his investment in picking Harding had lots of upside for him, too. She was one of his staunchest allies, even continuing to work in 1940 when Lantz ran out of finances and credit during a critical period when he might have lost the studio. I’ll tell that story in more detail in just a moment.
First, let’s circle back to Cynical Susie, Harding’s comic creation. The beauty of this strip is the casual assertiveness of Susie, a girl who may have embarrassed easily—her audacity and her pep led her to misconstrue things—yet she can just as easily be seen adventuring around with ease. In this daily strip above, we find her soaring up in the clouds with an aviator.
It is possible there was additional fulfillment for Harding to draw Susie contending with the world in this fearless manner. Harding, a reserved Louisiana Southerner by her upbringing, nonetheless had this opportunity to vicariously live by a different temperament through Susie. And that’s to say nothing of the character at Lantz she said was her favorite to animate in later years: Woody Woodpecker.
Harding was commonly referred to as quiet, with the understanding that she was a consistent force in the animators’ room. In that light, notice this description of her from a Times Syndicate promotional mailer, used to increase placements of the comic strip, which was sent to newspapers around the country in the early 30s:
“Susie’s secret is perhaps LaVerne Harding, whose agile pen just can’t picture anything in repose, having conceived Susie out of experience as a motion picture cartoon animator. And Becky Sharp can think of more trouble for Susie to stick her nose into. We really never thought it of Becky—otherwise she is a most charming person—you can never tell about those quiet girls.”
Yes, it’s those “quiet girls,” as the insinuation goes, for whom “you can never tell.” Was there any truth to that with Harding? Did she maintain a guarded shell, holding back secrets or concerns? Whether or not her status as the only woman animating among men ever had an emotional toll, we probably will never now know. By the eyewitness accounts of her peers, and in her own words, she found contentment and professional satisfaction in her role at the Lantz studio.
She was always a strong contributor to the cartoons, and she was easy-going and resourceful. She never took part in the pranks that happened all around her, and when she later shared recollections of them in interviews, it was usually with a chuckle. She seemed to fondly remember the boyish atmosphere of working at the Lantz studio from 1932 to 1960, quite a remarkable long stretch.
There were some animators who were with Lantz in the 30s and returned in the 50s. Examples were Paul J. Smith, Alex Lovy, and Avery. However, only Harding remained there for the entirety of the Golden Age of cartoons. The only asterisk to assign here is to understand that there were some periods of stoppage while the studio worked out financial shortfalls.
During one of these, in 1940, she certainly demonstrated her incalculable personal value to Walter Lantz. The long shadow of the Depression had been roiling Universal Pictures for the better part of the decade, and staff had grown used to low budgets and dire forecasts. There had been gallows humor within the ranks during the late 1930s as they wondered about the studio’s solvency, yet somehow Lantz always managed a patchwork financial deal to keep things going.
Then in 1940, the fiscal troubles finally led to an empty-handed payday. Universal extended no money. Although the animators were informed by Lantz that regretfully he had to lay them off, Harding and others continued to meet on the studio lot, mostly to socialize and because there was no work at the other studios. (Yes, this seems quite a contrast to a modern-day layoff where a fob or keycard immediately stops working!)
According to Harding, from a 1980 interview by Joe Adamson, she suggested to others that if they were going to gather at the studio anyway, they might as well make another cartoon. It was a selfless, gracious gesture, and it ultimately was a turning point in Walter Lantz’s life that allowed him to realize his dream of becoming a truly independent producer, something he was striving for since 1936.
Lantz was working furiously behind the scenes to have more credit extended, and so to have Harding’s initiative and support in this effort was crucial. Bolstered by the implications of her suggestion, he told the animation staff that if they made a cartoon, he could use that as collateral to get a loan from a bank to found his own studio, one that was formally separated from Universal.
The staff worked for weeks without pay, and within five months Universal was releasing its cartoons, this time under a new business relationship as Walter Lantz Productions. Harding and many others returned, and Lantz finally achieved on his own what eluded him at Universal. His third cartoon featured a character that became a star, a rambunctious bird named Woody Woodpecker.
From 1940 to 1960, LaVerne Harding is credited as an animator on about half of all Lantz cartoons produced. She rightfully earned herself a place as a legend of the animation industry and was honored with a 1980 Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement. In the playbill printed for that ceremony, there is a drawing of Harding contending with a bird flapping its wings in front of her. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she says, “I have to animate you flying, you know.”
Considering her role during that breakthrough moment when Lantz finally became an independent producer—and was then rewarded with the wild-eyed success of Woody, a character he 100% owned—this drawing of LaVerne with a bird evokes the understated manner in which she made a big difference. It’s as if she drew those wings on Woody too, helping him fly up there among the pantheon of Golden Age cartoon characters.