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MGM Before Tom and Jerry

Formed in 1924 by the merger of Loew's Incorporated with Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions, by the end of the 1920s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer employed some of the most remarkable directors of the time:  Victor Sjöström (alias Seastrom), King Vidor, Tod Browning, Rex Ingram, Clarence Brown, Erich von Stroheim.  Its prestigious group of contract players included Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Marion Davies, Buster Keaton and Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore.
Within a few years, the company had an exceptional list of masterworks:  Greed, The Crowd, The Cameraman, The Big Parade, La Bohème, The Unholy Three, The Merry Widow, Flesh and the Devil, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, The Unknown, The Trail of ‘98, The Wind, He Who Get Slapped.
Although briefly supplanted by Warner Brothers, MGM weathered the transition to talking pictures triumphantly.  The long-underdeveloped department of animated film emerged in 1934 with the Happy Harmonies series produced by Hugh Harman and Rodolf Ising.
Hugh Harman (1903-1982), the brother of Fred H. Harman, the creator of Red Ryer, met Rudolf Ising, also born in 1903, while they were both working for the Kansas City Film Agency.
Harman and Ising, together with Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, shared in the venture into animated produced by Laugh-O-Gram Films.  Both men left Disney -- Ising in 1927 and Harman in 1928 -- to form Harman-Ising the following year.  In 1930 they produced the first Looney Tunes for Leon Schlesinger, distributed by Warner Brothers.  Then, in 1931, they created the Merrie Melodies series.  In 1933, when budgetary problems arose with Schlesinger, Harman and Ising accepted an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at twice their previous salaries.
They went to MGM and produced the Happy Harmonies series in the Silly Symphonies style that brought fame to Disney in 1928.  Four years after their arrival they signed a production contract with Metro for the seven years to follow.
At the same time, MGM put Fred Quimby in charge of the company's animated department, which achieved brilliance with the arrival of and Tom and Jerry series.
Fred C. Quimby, born in Minneapolis in 1896, worked in journalism before taking over the management of a film theatre in Missoula, Montana, in 1907.  In 1913, he joined Pathé, where he soon rose through the ranks to positions of important responsibility in their Salt Lake City and Denver offices.  He became senior sales manager for Pathé and was put in charge of East Coast business.  He became a member of its board of directors as well.  Settling in New York, he stayed with Pathé until 1921, then went into production and distribution on his own.  In 1924, he went to Fox and completely reorganized its short films department, especially supervising the production of animated films.
Wanting to hire a real cartoonist (Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising were not yet under contract at that time), Fred Quimby called on Friz Freleng, one of Warner's veteran crew.  He offered him the chance to supervise production and create a character that could compete with the winners from the other studios -- Mickey, Bugs Bunny, Popeye, etc.  "Quimby painted an idyllic picture, telling me I could hire anyone I wanted," said Freleng.  He accepted and soon discovered that MGM had bought the rights to his comic strip, "The Captain and the Kids".  He thought this was a mistake.  The series of cartoons drawn from it was actually a failure, and Freleng returned to work with Leon Schlesinger at Warner, thus leaving the field free for Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, and for those hired by Quimby:  William Hanna, Bob Allen, Joseph Barbera, Jack Zander, Dan Gordon, Ray Kelly, Paul Sommer.
Under Fred Quimby's direction Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising contributed to the creation of quality cartoons whose importance should not be overlooked.  Mark Meyerson wrote, "Harman and Ising had the only studio in the thirties that could compete with Disney in the beauty and opulence of their animated films.  Each of these films, individually considered, displays a captivating animation technique, and fascinating decor and effects.  Seen as a series they grow repetitive, but the beauty of these films is undeniable, and some of them remain real jewels."  Mike Barrier has added, "Even their best films are incomplete, like flowers that have never fully bloomed."
These reservations cannot diminish one's admiration of the quality and the care lavished on these productions, which include "The Old Plantation" (1935), in which Simon Legree makes his first appearance; "Bottles" (1936); "The Wayward Pups" (1037), in which a cat and wo puppies confront a huge, nasty dog; "Pipe Dreams" (1938); with its orchestra of pipes and cigarette butts that sing and dance; "Art Gallery" (1939), a very curious film in which Nero sets fire to a picture representing Rome, with a cast of characters including Cleopatra, Beethoven, and Dr. Jekyll; "Peace on Earth" (1939), praised for its pacifism and nominated for an Oscar; "The Homeless Flea" (1940), with a red-nosed insect for a star.
These cartoons by Harman and Ising, although remarkably accomplished, suffer from their length, which sometimes creates and impression of slow pacing.  Above all, they lack the presence of regular heroes capable of being developed into a series and into a real product of appeal to the viewer.  At Warner Brothers, conversely, the cartoons were so popular that they were advertised in large type, like the big films.  We should not forget that in 1937 Warner Brothers released thirty-six animated films made by directors such as Frank Tashlin, Fred "Tex" Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett.  One can see the sizeable gap separating MGM from its competitor.
It was in 1940 that Metro produced "Puss Get the Boot", the first of a series of 114 films that would enable to company to create two unforgettable characters:  Tom, the cat and Jerry, the mouse.


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