MGM cartoon studio

Also known as:

Formally Hugh Harman-Rudolf Ising Productions

Founded:

1929, 1937

Closed:

1957

Description


Active from 1929 to 1957, MGM produced some of the most well-known and well-liked cartoons syndicated all over the world, featuring characters such as Barney Bear, Droopy, and the now-iconic Tom and Jerry. MGM’s first foray into animation was through the purchase of Flip the Frog cartoon series, which featured a singing frog. This was produced by Ub Iwerks, who originally worked for Disney. 

In 1943, MGM signed the Harman-Ising team to work on a series of color cartoons. They released the Happy Harmonies cartoon series, included a handful of cartoons with Bosko, the “Inkspot” kid. The directors at this time strived to compete with the immensely popular Silly Symphonies which were produced by Disney. As Harman-Ising repeatedly went over budget for Happy Harmonies, MGM decided to retaliate by creating their own studio instead in February of 1937, hiring away much of their staff. In March 1937, MGM took on Fred Quimby who was a film sales executive to set up and run the MGM cartoon department. He raided other studios for talent, taking Friz Freleng from Schlesinger, as well as Joseph Barberra from Terrytoons. The official MGM cartoon studio on Overland and Montana Ave. opened its doors on August 23rd, 1937.

The first series produced was The Captain and the Kids, but the humor was difficult to translate into animation from its original comic strip by Rudolph Dirks, and folded after 15 episodes. In October 1938, Harman and Ising were hired by Quimby as the new creative heads again, and in charge of their employees, many who had defected from them a year before. Ising’s first star creation for MGM was Barney Bear, while Harman focused on one-shot cartoons, creating the serious animation Peace on Earth in 1939 which was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. Peace on Earth detailed the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world only populated by animals, and tells the story of their attempt to build a non-violent society after the fall of the human race.

Bill Hanna and Joseph Barberra started making cartoons together at the Fred Quimby’s instigation, a partnership that would last 60 years, as Harman and Ising were not able to make as many cartoons per year as MGM had wanted. After Freleng‘s departure to work for Warner Bros. Cartoons in 1939, Quimby wanted to find more people to make cartoons. Barberra first started working as a gag and story-sketch artist for Freleng at MGM, and both Hanna and Barberra were members of Rudy Ising’s unit. Under Ising’s unit, Barberra and Hanna began writing on May 8th 1939 a story pitting a large gray cat against a small brown mouse, an animation titled Puss Gets the Boot, which Ising later credited to Barberra as doing most of the story sketches and Hanna with most of the directing. This one-reel cartoon was the first Tom and Jerry short, though not credited as such at the time, and was produced by Ising, with music supervised by Scott Bradley.

MGM announced the creation of the Barberra and Hanna unit in 1939, taking the cat and mouse creation with them to their new unit. The Hanna-Barberra unit could produce much more gag-driven cartoons than Ising could, and made themselves valuable to Quimby. Gus Arriola began working for Hanna and Barberra, and remarked that Barberra came up with 75% of the gags, as well as drawing the character layouts. After Officer Pooch, Hanna and Barbera made almost exclusively Tom and Jerry cartoons, as the series was overwhelmingly popular, competing with other aggressive, gag-driven cartoons such as Woody Woodpecker. 

By 1942, the pace of Tom and Jerry was picking up, breaking free from the grid based musical timing inherited from Ising, and through Ising, Disney. Tom and Jerry cartoons of the mid 40′s manifested well the Terrytoons sensibility, and the MGM gloss hid well the base origins of violence and danger in the cartoon realities of Tom and Jerry, shifting from cute to brutal and back again. It was during this time of seeming aesthetic incompatibilities between Hanna and Barbera that they got their formula down, as Tom and Jerry were being nominated by the Academy Awards as regularly as Disney had in the previous decade, and was the first to defeat the 8 time streak held by Disney for best Animation. 

Avery came to work for MGM in the early 40′s, leaving WB behind, and had no roots to the Studio’s “normal” way of doing things. He was known for his extreme characters placed in hilarious and wild situations, and for the precise timing of his gags. On Avery’s unit included writers such as Heck Allen, Bob Allen’s brother who had been writing for Ising for many years, who returned to MGM in 1942, as well as people who had left Disney in the midst of the ’41 strike. In 1943, Avery and his team worked on Red Hot Riding Hood, featuring a sexy nightclub singer drawn in a realistic, humanoid style, by the team of animators in Avery’s unit that had previously worked at Disney. The cartoon took on an immensely sexual nature, and the howls of arrousal as exhibited by Wolfie had to be censored as it was deemed too explicit. 

Avery’s style took on a level of self-awareness not present in cartoons before, as his animations yearned for a type of subtlety that the comedy and gags scorned, delivering many ‘mock-apologies’ on screen for the gags pulled. In 1944, Avery created a star character for MGM, the Screwy Squirrel who appeared in Screwball Squirrel, as well as Avery’s next three cartoons, and modelled his character on Walter Lantz‘ Woody Woodpecker. In his third year at MGM in 1944, Avery began to find his footing, as he had with Schlesinger in the past at Warner Brothers, and created the mock western Wild and Woolfy in 1945. For the most part during this period the Avery unit’s cartoons released had no close connection with the Hanna-Barbera unit, seeming to come from two separate studios. Avery created his best-known MGM character in 1943, Droopy, an anthropomorphic dog.

The third unit at MGM which was formerly headed by Ising became head by George Gordon in 1942 after Ising’s leaving to head the Army Air Force’s Animation unit. Gordon whom was a former Terrytoons animator had a similar sensibility to the Hanna-Barbera team. After Gordon left a year later in 1943, there was a small hiatus for about three years, and a third team was put together briefly with Preston Blair and Mike Lah to continue the Barney Bear cartoons.

By the mid 40′s, Tom and Jerry cartoons had a successful formula down, and was consistently doing well at the Academy Awards as well as being very popular in theatres. A high level of expertise manifested itself in the Tom and Jerry cartoons from the mid-40′s onwards, as the collaboration between the animators and supervisors was slick and set, and Scott Bradley‘s musical accompaniment perfectly mirrored the rapid, deranged atmosphere of the cartoons themselves. Bradley’s musical accompaniment style was much more opportunistic in style than his counterpart Stalling at Warner Brothers, and he took the score into his own hands and tried to create excitement onscreen even when the cartoons were not the greatest, unlike Stalling’s scores which seem to emphasize it when he recognized a bad cartoon.

 In the 50′s, MGM felt the loss of Avery due to overwork in May 1950, and Dick Lundy who had previously worked for Walter Lantz was brought in to replace Avery. Avery returned in October, 1951 and directed many more cartoons for MGM. In 1953, MGM decided to shut down the cartoon unit due to the introduction and growing popularity of 3-D that they feared would overtake the market, but Avery as well as Hanna-Barbera staff stayed at the studio despite the closure, working on commercial animations.

The studio reopened in 1954, but due to the budget constraints in place the quality of Hanna-Barbera’s Tom and Jerry was undermined, and directed Pet Peeve, the first CinemaScope cartoon by MGM. A number of sporadic Tom and Jerry CinemaScope features were also released within the decade.

After Quimby’s retirement in 1955, Hanna and Barbera took over the studio, and Mike Lah returned as well to supervise some Droopy and Tom and Jerry cartoons. MGM found that they could make money off of the reissuing of past cartoons, and decided it could save six hundred thousand dollars per year by ending new productions. The studio close in May 1957, and Hanna-Barbera formed their own production company, Hanna-Barbera Productions. They sold their cartoons for television to distribute through Columbia Pictures, which became one of the most successful television animation companies in the world, distributing shows such as Huckleberry Hound Show, Yogi Bear and The Jetsons. 

References:


  • Barrier, J M. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

     

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