If ever there were an argument for the full restoration of the Harman-Ising MGM cartoons, it can be found not only in that favorite of Kevin and mine, Circus Daze, but in the two cartoons we’ll be discussing this week: The Field Mouse (1941) and A Rainy Day (1940). The grainy images I’ve included here hardly do them justice; I can’t begin to image how they must have appeared on movie-theater screens.
The cartoons are not without their problems; The Field Mouse, for instance, forgets its story after the first two minutes. It opens by focusing on the one little field mouse, Herman, who’s not as diligent as the other mice. He’s spanked and scolded by his mama for sleeping while his brothers are out in the fields working. He resolves to run away, but is persuaded otherwise by his lovable but cantankerous old grandpa, who reminds him of the cookies he’d be missing out on. (Grandpa himself doesn’t seem to be a devotee of hard work, despite his song “Can’t get cheese from trees, you know/ so sow what you reap and reap what you sow….”)
If The Field Mouse is a cautionary tale on the virtues of hard work, that message isn’t clear, and gets cast aside rather quickly as we’re thrown into the cartoon’s second plotline: Herman and Grandpa’s valiant fight to escape the blades of a menacing thresher.
Herman does continue to disobey his mother by trying to catch a nap on a nearby flower, but the thresher interrupts his efforts. It would have come anyway–and placed him in every bit as much danger–even if he had been working. So what’s the moral?
Problems with logic aside, it’s the thresher scenes that make this cartoon memorable. Animated by Paul Sommer and former Disney animator Leonard Sebring (thanks to Mark Kausler for the information) this sequence is an eye-popping example of animation at its best.
A Rainy Day has a more coherent, and far simpler, storyline: grumpy, lethargic Papa Bear attempts to fix a tiny hole in his roof, which thanks to his bumbling and a sudden violent storm, becomes series of cavernous ones, then a virtual maelstrom of shingles; like Herman and his grandpa, poor Papa Bear has to struggle against an ever-rising tide which laps against the edge of the little house like waves on the shore. (And looks, at certain points, about twice as large as it logically should have been). It manages to be both funny and immensely frightening, not an easy trick with such a realistically-animated cartoon. (Kausler tells me the roofing-tile scenes were the work of Bill Littlejohn, a man as capable of stylized, UPA-like design and animation as of the traditional Disney style).
I liked these scenes long before I liked Harman and Ising in general; at the age of twelve, when the sight of a Harman-Ising cartoon would normally drive me from the room, I’d stay put when I heard the opening music for A Rainy Day. I would endure Mama Bear’s syrupy song (I’m guessing, but Mama Bear’s fluttery, scatterbrained mannerisms must have been inspired by the equally fluttery, scatterbrained Billie Burke) and what I then felt to be the dead-slow timing of the first few minutes to see Papa Bear swim against the tiles just one more time; my attention would perk up the moment the thresher in The Field Mouse approached (would that I had a VCR in 1974….)
Finding information on Leonard Sebring proved as challenging as Papa Bear’s struggle with the roof: his career in animation was surprisingly brief. Tiring of life in California, he would leave MGM shortly after the release of The Field Mouse to return to his native Gardner, Kansas. There he’d work on advertising projects for local companies and regale the locals with stories of his days at Disney. From all indications, he was every bit as much of a character in his later years as Grandpa Mouse had been; according to this article, one of his more eccentric accomplishments was the remodeling of his late mother’s house to resemble Snow White’s cottage. (The link is to a PDF file, so a reader like Adobe Acrobat is required in order to view it).
Paul Sommer’s career is far more extensive; on viewing his resumé, it’s obvious he had a long and varied career (ranging from the aforementioned The Field Mouse to Tom and Jerry Kids, if the IMDB is to be believed) but at times he seems better known for who he worked with than for what he’d done. He was at Columbia-Screen Gems during its “mini-renaissance” of the early forties (the period under Frank Tashlin and Dave Fleischer). The cartoons he co-directed with Tashlin, such as Professor Small and Mr. Tall (1942), resemble an embryonic form of the UPA style. Though the cartoons themselves are uneven (Professor Small and Mr. Tall, however, is just strange enough for “cult classic” status) he and Tashlin deserve credit for trying to take the art of animation in a new direction.
I’ve included here a little surprise, generously provided by Mark Kausler: the original assignment sheets–or “drafts”–from The Field Mouse, indicating which animator was to handle a given scene (though I’m told this wasn’t strictly followed). As luck would have it, I’m also able to supplement it with a scene-by-scene animator breakdown courtesy of YouTube. Enjoy–I certainly did. (The scene shown at the top of this post–animated by Sebring–is mentioned on the third page).