Saturday, 4 March 2017

A Model King

For years, Hugh Harman dreamed dreams that never came to be. One of them was a feature-length film based on the King Arthur legend. He never made it. But he kept re-announcing it in the trade press for years.

Perhaps the most attention he got with it was in 1942, the year after he left MGM and opened his own studio. Harman came up with a gimmick. Technicolor film stock was in short supply because the elements were needed for military use. Harman found something else.

The story below was written in the October 3, 1942 edition of Showman’s Trade Review. That’s where the photo of Harman comes from. The other picture comes from the Motion Picture Herald published a week later.

Clay Models Replace Drawings, Save Film
Moulding clay has come to the rescue of Hollywood's movie cartoon makers today, pulling them out of a materials-shortage which eventually might put world-famous animated characters off the screen for the duration.
Producers of animated pictorial subjects so far have acquired large stocks of materials — most of it raw film — to perfect the myriad bits of pen-drawn action of their characters. This has been mainly a trial-and-error business in an attempt to smooth out life-like capers with thousands of separate drawings required in perfecting correct perspective of each movement. With a pinch on material, the animation chiefs have been busy figuring out a way to keep their characters on the screens of the world in the face of government pruning.
Hugh Harman, pioneer in the animation field and responsible for bringing the first sound voice to cartoon character, not only has solved the problem for the present batch of characters but has perfected a clay-moulding method that will make possible production of "King Arthur's Knights," full-length animated movie to be done in color.
Staff members of Harman's organization — Charles McGirl, Melvin Shaw and Max Ising — shaped in miniature all the characters of the new project: knights on horseback. Sir Lancelot, Guinevere, Sir Modred and all the other people of the famous story. These were completely "wardrobed" in colored paint, then photographed with a special camera from every possible angle.
These photographs are being used by the animation artists to get their perspective exactly and quickly instead of making thousands of trial drawings which would have to be photographed via the motion picture camera.
Experimental work with the new system already has shown a 50 per cent saving in film stock, Harman disclosed. First screening of the method will be embraced in the short subject, "We Can Lose," now under way at the Harman Beverly Hills Studio with the cooperation of the Academy and Office of War Information.
Ninety-eight clay models will be required for the King Arthur project. With the war subject and the longer knight story as proof of the method, Harman is certain that animation producers will be able to weather the materials shortage without curtailment of their instructive and entertainment output.

“We Can Lose” was the first in a series of 12 cartoons called “History in the Making” that was to be released by United Artists. I’ve found nothing to show it any of these cartoons appeared in theatres.

Harman’s glory days were behind him after leaving MGM. He reunited with Rudy Ising after the war to make industrials and commercials but Harman-Ising is never mentioned in trade stories about the studios racking up loads of business in animated TV ads. As for King Arthur, here is the trail of stories through the pages of Variety about his efforts to make the feature.

Dec. 10, 1941
Tennyson's old English sagas of chivalrous rough stuff will be fashioned into a Technicolor cartoon. "King Arthur Knights," to be filmed by Hugh Harman Productions, Inc. It is the first independent production by Harman, who recently left Metro to go out on his own.

Oct. 11, 1944
Hugh Harman Productions will discontinue all short subjects, and confine its activities to feature-length films in Technicolor. W. K. Shafer, general manager, announced. Policy switch takes, place upon the completion of the current program of shorts for the Government, and postwar plans call for stressing a new animation process.
Two stories are now in preparation, "King Arthur" and "Hollywood Merry-Go-Round," with the first slated for only 10% animation, and this in fantasy sequences.

Feb. 2, 1945
Hugh Harman will make no more 35mm. films after studio winds up its governmental films. He will shift to 16mm. for all others, with budgets to range from $1,500,000 to $2,000,000 for Animaction [stop-motion] features. This decision was reached yesterday at an executive meeting, studio announced. First feature in 16mm. will be "King Arthur," to start around July 1.

Nov. 6, 1946
New system of establishing a "beat" by means of discs to assist film cartoonists in working motion and rhythm into drawings has been devised by Eccles Recorders. It's being tested by three producers on forthcoming cartoon shorts and features. Idea is a time saving device that eliminates metronomes and assists in "acting out" usually necessary of artists before sketching to get feeling of action wanted in drawings.
Eccles has recorded "beats" that run entire gamut employed in cartoon studios. Platters are being made that run even numbers on one side and odd numbers on reverse sides, taking in eight, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 24 frame beats, and nine, 11, 13, 15 and half beats or other multiples of 24th of a second on reverse sides.
Special platters containing musical beats such as waltz, rhumba, samba, etc., also are being cut. "Beats" help artists accent action without resorting to mechanical or other on-spot means. The step standardizes means for all artists. Discs will eliminate recalibrating of metronomes sometimes used and replace constant running-off of accompanying sound tracks to get overall timing desired. It will end practice of perforating old film for purposes of creating a timed reel by means of holes punched setting up spaced clicking as reels are run.
Idea is an offshoot of Eccles recently tested plan to assist animators in catching mood and feel of action by dubbing dialogue from film to discs. Instead of running sound tracks over and over on movieolas, artists are better able to synchronize action with sound by listening to recording whose playing is less complicated, saves time and wear and tear on film.
John Sutherland is testing "beat" platters on "Fatal Kiss" he's making for United Artists release. Harmonizing Productions (Hugh Harmon) will use it on feature length color cartoon, "King Arthur and Knights of Round Table," and on "Little Prince." Deal is also being talked to producer Herb Lamb.

July 10, 1947
H-I also have releasing deal with UA, and currently are busy on "Little Prince." Company expects to get going on another feature this year, but property isn't definite. Followup to "Prince" may be "King Arthur."

May 21, 1958
Harman-Ising Pictures, vet Hollywood animation outfit, has closed deal with Toei Motion Picture Co. Ltd., of Tokyo and Kyoto, in first East-West co-production deal for a program of feature-length cartoons. Toei, one of the largest film companies of the Orient, will provide major financing as well as artistic talent, including animation...
Initial films will be "King Arthur," "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" and "Joy to the World." Actual production is expected to start in Japan around September. Budgets look to be between $1,500,000 and $1,800,000, according to Hugh Harman, prexy of H-I.

November 3, 1959
Warner Bros, will release "King Arthur," first of Harman-Ising Pictures' animated features to be made in Japan in coproduction with Toei Motion Picture Co. Ltd. of Tokyo and Kyoto.
H-I is also planning other animated productions—among them "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" and "Joy to the World"—to be created by Japanese animators under American supervision at Toei.

Harman did eventually work on a film that included King Arthur—part of an educational short made in the early 1960s for Coronet, known more behavioural films for children and teenagers. It was a big comedown, and a tacky-looking cartoon as well, especially for someone who fiercely pushed to be better than Disney in the late ‘30s.

He was fortunate enough to be alive when a huge adult fan-base for old cartoons rose up, appreciating and historically examining his work with Disney in the ‘20s and for Leon Schlesinger in the early ‘30s. Variety gave him more than a passing mention when he died in 1982. Bob Clampett told the Associated Press: “He was one of the truly great pioneers of animation.” Perhaps that’s the best way to remember him, instead of the man who dreamed dreams of animation that never quite came to pass.


  1. Seeing those clay models makes me wonder of the lost potential of Harman and Ising doing their Claymation or "Puppetoon"-like films..

  2. I'm assuming the main reason Harman allowed his dream project to fade is because four years after that last press release, it was Disney who eventually completed a King Arthur animated feature, The Sword and the Stone

    1. I honestly don't know what Harman was doing by then, TCJ. You never hear his name mentioned in connection with animation or even industrial production in the 1960s.
      I've always been under the impression he kept talking about King Arthur until the day he died.

    2. I'm not certain when Sword began production, but it couldn't have been very long past that final news story - and Disney almost certainly would have attempted to block a competing King Arthur feature cartoon from being released, as he did with the French "Alice in Wonderland" film. One would imagine that would be a deal-breaker for distributor Warner Brothers.

  3. I have forgotten, why did Hugh and Rudy break up the team they had? I know both of them had hated Walt which is why they created bosko but what made them leave the paternership they had?

    1. Ising went into the military.

  4. Was "Little Prince" planned as an adaptation of the Saint-Exupery story? (Or was that story published after 1946?) Too bad Harman's deal with Toei - who had their own Little (Norse) Prince - fell through.