Hugh Harman was an animator and producer. He is best known for co-creating the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series with Rudolf Ising for Leon Schlesinger and Warner Bros. and for producing cartoons at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio.
Hugh Harman first worked in animation in the early 1920s at Walt Disney's studio in Kansas City. When Disney moved operations to California, Harman, his co-worker Rudolf Ising, and fellow animator Carman Maxwell stayed behind to try to start their own studio. Their plans went nowhere, however, and the men soon rejoined Disney to work on his Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit films. It was during this time, that Harman and Ising developed a style of cartoon drawing that would later be closely associated with, and credited to, Disney. When producer Charles Mintz ended his association with Disney, Harman and Ising went to work for Mintz, whose brother-in-law, George Winkler, set up a new animation studio to make the Oswald cartoons. The Oswald cartoons which Harman and Ising produced in 1928 and 1929 already show their distinctive style, which would later characterize their work on the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series for Warner Bros. The Oswald cartoons that Harman and Ising worked on are completely different from the Oswald cartoons made before and after Disney and can easily be distinguished by anyone familiar with their work. Late in 1929, Universal Pictures, who owned the rights to Oswald, started its own animation studio headed by Walter Lantz, replacing Mintz and forcing Harman and Ising out of work.
Warner Bros./Van Beuren
Harman and Ising had long aspired to start their own studio, and had created and copyrighted the cartoon character Bosko in 1928. After losing their jobs at the Winkler studio, Harman and Ising financed a short Bosko demonstration film called Bosko, The Talk-Ink Kid. The cartoon featured Bosko at odds with his animator – portrayed in live-action by Rudy Ising; impressed Leon Schlesinger, who paired Harman and Ising with Warner Bros. Schlesinger wanted the Bosko character to star in a new series of cartoons he dubbed Looney Tunes (the title being a parody of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony cartoons). The pair made Sinkin' in the Bathtub in 1930, and the cartoon did well. Harman took over direction of the Looney Tunes starring the character, while Ising took a sister series called Merrie Melodies that consisted of one-shot stories and characters. The two animators broke off ties with Schlesinger later in 1933 over budget disputes with the producer, and went to the Van Beuren Studio, which was making cartoons for RKO Radio Pictures. There, they were offered a contract to produce the Cubby Bear cartoon series. Harman and Ising produced two released cartoons for this series, but were in the midst of making a third cartoon when a contractual dispute arose. The pair left Van Beuren, but kept the completed cartoon and finally released it in the 1940s.
Harman and Ising had maintained the rights to the Bosko character, and they signed a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to start a new series of Bosko shorts in 1934. The two maintained the same division of work they had used at Warner Bros.: Harman worked on Bosko shorts, and Ising directed one-shots. They also tried unsuccessfully to create new cartoon stars for their new distributors. Their cartoons, though technically superior to those they had made for Schlesinger at Warner's, were still music-driven shorts with little to no plot. When the new Happy Harmonies series ran significantly over-budget in 1937, MGM fired Harman and Ising and established its own in-house studio, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio, which was headed by Fred Quimby. Harman and Ising still found work at the time as animation freelancers. Harman and Ising lent their former ink-and-painters to Walt Disney while Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was behind schedule. Disney afterward commissioned Harman and Ising to produce a Silly Symphony cartoon, Merbabies, in return. Disney reneged on a deal he had made for two other Harman-Ising cartoons to be produced for the studio. Harman and Ising sold the cartoons to MGM, and Quimby later agreed to hire the animators back to the studio. In 1939, Harman created his masterpiece, Peace on Earth, a downbeat morality tale about two squirrels discovering the evils of humanity, which was nominated for an Oscar. Despite the success of these and later cartoons, MGM's production under Harman and Ising remained low. In 1941, Harman left MGM and formed a new studio with Disney veteran Mel Shaw. The two took over Ub Iwerks' old studio in Beverly Hills, California, where they created training films for the Army.