Obituary: Rudolf Ising
Wednesday 12 August 1992
RUDOLF ISING was the creator of the slumbrous, lumbering Barney Bear, star of one of the most perfectly animated cartoon series to come from Hollywood in its heyday.
Ising was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1903, and after graduating from high school the 18-year- old would-be cartoonist joined the locally based Kansas City Film Ad Company. This high-sounding outfit was not much more than a backroom affair, run by a young go-getter with a pencil named Walt Disney. Disney had the valuable knack of surrounding himself with cartoonists who could draw much better than he could, ranging from the first genius of American animation, Ubbe Iwerks, to the man who became Ising's partner, Hugh Harman. The keen team of youngsters made a series called Laugh-O-Grams, animated gags advertising local stores. When the ever-ambitious Disney moved his set-up to California, Harman and Ising went with him.
Ising and Harman, already close friends, formed a reliable animation team and worked full out on Disney's new project, Alice in Cartoonland, a series which combined a living child actress with moving cartoon characters. After a good run Disney set up a better deal, producing a new series starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When Disney was ousted by his producer, George Winkler, Ising and Harman took over, producing, directing, animating and scripting the cartoons right through to 1929, when Winkler lost the contract and Walter Lantz took on the series.
Stranded without a contract, Ising and Harman formed a formal production partnership, joining their surnames into Harman-Ising. Perceiving a future in the new talkie boom, they financed their own short film, calling it Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid. Ising appeared on screen as the cartoonist whose ink-blot character comes to life and capers synchronously with jazz music. The film was never released commercially, but a showing of it convinced Leon Schlesinger, the production chief at Pacific Art and Title, that here lay the future. Schlesinger showed it to the production bosses at Warner Brothers, pioneers of the talking film, and they came up with a contract. A condition was that every cartoon short should contain at least one Warner Brothers copyright song.
In May 1930 the world's first Looney Tune cartoon was released. Its title, Sinking in the Bath Tub, parodied a Warner hit-song from The Show of Shows. Ising and his partner packed their six minutes with songs, including 'Tip Toe Thru' the Tulips' and one swiped from Disney's original talkie cartoon, Steamboat Willie, entitled 'Turkey in the Straw'. The series was a huge hit, and soon Ising introduced a new hero, Foxy. He looked like Mickey Mouse with a fluffy brush, but answered the public's demand for funny animals. A second series was initiated and christened Merrie Melodies. The partnership was now divided, and Ising supervised these new titles while Harman took on the slightly zanier Looney Tunes.
Following a dispute with Schlesinger over money, they left Warners and moved to Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, setting up that company's first ever animation studio. Disney's Silly Symphonies became the target for their art, and, under the trade mark of Happy Harmonies, their first colour cartoon was released in September 1934. The title was The Discontented Canary, the sole director Ising, and the style is best described as fairy-tale storybook. Harman directed the more comic knockabouts, while Ising seemed to prefer whimsies which would bring forth sighs of 'Ahhhh]' from the audience.
Their first 13 cartoons were produced in a not terribly attractive two-colour system; Disney had exclusive rights to three-strip Technicolor. However, from Barnyard Babies (1935), all the MGM cartoons were filmed in Technicolor.
Ising created the lumpishly lovable Barney Bear, it is said, in his own sleepy image, and the hairy one first yawned his way through The Bear That Couldn't Sleep (1939). The absolutely perfect animation of the slow-moving hero is still a marvel, although the character was carried on by lesser hands after Ising left MGM. In 194O Ising achieved for MGM what many had thought impossible. Disney, who had taken the Academy Award for best cartoon film for seven years in a run, now lost out as Ising bagged the Oscar with his brilliant science-fiction cartoon The Milky Way.
Ising made 10 'Barney Bears' in all, finally leaving MGM in 1943 after directing The Uninvited Pest. He went to the Hal Roach Studio where he provided animated sequences for training films for the United States Air Force. After the war, Ising left the hard grind of animation for work in advertising, eventually retiring to Los Angeles not far from Harman.
Together and apart, Ising and Harman made some of the finest colour cartoons in the Golden Age of animation, as may be testified by any viewer who watches the reruns on BBC television.
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