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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Harman and Ising Re-Examined

Kevin and I have a special place in our hearts for the characters of Bosko and Honey. And Bosko and Honey. Confused? Read on...

It was an almost Pavlovian reaction: from the time I first saw cartoons containing the names "Hugh Harman", "Rudolf Ising", or both, I would reflexively groan. In fact, it got so I would groan if I saw the MGM lion come up on the screen, and didn't immediately hear the jazzy Scott Bradley scores signaling that Tex Avery insanity was about to start.

I was twelve years old when I first saw their cartoons, and immediately pegged them as "kid stuff": slow, plodding, pseudo-Disney fairy-tale nonsense. Syrupy and sentimental--way beyond my "sophisticated" tastes. And they lasted foooreeeverrrr. Or at least seemed to.

When I discovered Harman and Ising had done the earliest Looney Tunes as well, my original assessment didn't change much. Pleasant little musical pieces, some of whom starring a little inkblot character (or blatant black stereotype, or blatant Mickey Mouse ripoff, depending on whom you talk to) called "Bosko." I was developing an interest in animation history by the time I first saw these cartoons, so they were an interesting historical curiosity, but nothing more. I couldn't get past the fact that Hugh and Rudy reused animation so blatantly--they couldn't show an action just once. It had to occur at least three times.

Kevin, however, has an unbounded enthusiasm for all things Harman and Ising. When he first told me this, I shook my head in stunned disbelief. "You like THEM?" I said. "Their cartoons couldn't move any slower if they ran the film backwards!" The nasty adjectives flew off the keyboard--it was my first opportunity to use the word "cloying" in a sentence. I was pleased.

Kevin was unmoved. As a way of saying, "I'll show YOU..." he sent me a tape that was essentially a "best of Bosko" collection. But not the Bosko I knew.

You see, there was another Bosko. When, in 1933, Harman and Ising left Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons for MGM, they took their "star" characters with them. Bosko and his girlfriend Honey could now be seen in color--of a sort. It was two-strip Cinecolor, which basically registered variations of blue and orange. But it was color, and looked more vibrant than anything they did at Warner's.

But in 1935, the old-fashioned "rubber hose" style was giving way to more realistic-looking characters, and Harman-Ising redesigned their characters accordingly. The first cartoon I saw came from this period, one called CIRCUS DAZE.

I had never seen this cartoon, and for good reason. This Bosko and Honey had been "reborn" as cute little black children, who spoke in "Amos and Andy"-style dialect. Consequently, it and cartoons like it were no longer welcome on TV. But Kevin remembered them, from a childhood spent staring at a grainy black-and-white screen. He'd never seen them in full color, and wanted my reaction. To put it mildly, a reaction he got.

It varied from pleasant surprise to admiration to mind-numbing amazement. Kevin's fuzzy descriptions, dimmed by the passing of several decades, hadn't quite prepared me for what I saw. His descriptions of non-stop action I originally dismissed as a mixture of nostalgia and selective memory. But what can I say? Kevin was right.

What I saw on-screen mroe closely resembled the breakneck action of a Tex Avery cartoon than anything by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. For the detailed descriptions Kevin wanted, I found myself having to go through certain sections frame-by-frame (thanks to my mother for giving me a top-of-the-line VCR).

From the first few seconds, I could tell what I was seeing was not "typical" Harman and Ising. CIRCUS DAZE starts with a montage of images: a close-up shot of a "test-your-strength" meter; the waving arm and nonstop patter of a side-show barker dissolves to a shot of a hot-dog vendor cheating customers (sticking his finger in a bun and slathering mustard on it, so unsuspecting patrons found themselves holding a weiner-less bun). An elephant charges straight toward the camera (a typical feature of Harman-Ising cartoons, in which an object --or a character's entire mouth--rushes toward the camera, filling the frame).

The plot is deceptively simple--Bosko, Honey, and their dog Bruno spend a day at the circus. But once Bruno goes off in pursuit of an elusive flea, and unwittingly crashes into an entire flea circus, chaos reigns. The swirling, tornado-like cloud of fleas take to poor Bruno like--well, fleas to a dog. He bites and writhes and scratches his way to the center ring. He hides in a cannon, only to be shot from it, inches ahead of the fleas. Landing on top of the band below, he and the fleas are ejected from a tuba with a resounding BLAAT--now the clowns, the band, the entire circus are in a writhing, itching frenzy. There's a jarring image of an almost photorealistic elephant rolling and scooting along, even standing on its hind legs and scratching with its forelegs, to fend off the biting insects. Jarring not simply because it looked painful, but because of its impossibility, particularly for such a naturalistic-looking elephant.

And much of this takes place in a span of less than a minute. *This* is Harman and Ising, whose idea of a "gag"--as Leonard Maltin says--is a character running into a door?

As you might expect, my view of Harman and Ising, and their cartoons, changed instantly. I even began to look at their more slowly-paced, Disneylike cartoons with new eyes. I was dazzled by the breathtaking palate of TO SPRING; by the beleaguered "Papa Bear" attempting to fix a roof in a driving rainstorm, the roofing tiles crashing like waves against the shore. I even began to wonder what the fuss over the "redesigned" Bosko and Honey was about. If one ignored the dialect, they seemed like real kids, not caricatures.

I can now honestly say I'm a "born-again" Harman-Ising fan, I might have been one far sooner, had nervous censors not prevented me from seeing the above-mentioned cartoon for years. But that's a subject for another day.

Kevin deserves a full, scene-by-scene review of CIRCUS DAZE, and he'll get one, when I can find it. Easier said than done if you know my "filing" system. For now, I'd like to express my newfound enthusiasm for Harman and Ising with another Bosko cartoon from about the same time, one you might still see on certain public-domain tapes: THE OLD HOUSE. Stay tuned...

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1 comment:

Fred Cline said...

Hi Rachel and Kevin,
I'm a Hugh Harman fan as well. Check out my blog
and see what I have about Hugh. I am researching him, so if you come across any rare info about Hugh or the partnership of Hugh and Rudy, please let me know.
Fred Cline