Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bill Hanna's Christmas Mouse

You’re familiar with the animation career of Bill Hanna, I’m sure. You can see him in the centre of this photo of the management and some of the staff at the Harman-Ising studio published in the Motion Picture Herald on July 27, 1935; Rudy Ising is on the left and Hugh Harman on the right (photo courtesy of Devon Baxter). Hanna bolted from Harman-Ising for MGM in 1937 (for reasons he didn’t wish to discuss with animation historian Mike Barrier) and then opened his own studio with Joe Barbera and backing from director George Sidney and Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems division 20 years later.

While Barbera had at least one side project while at MGM—he and Harvey Eisenberg worked on comic books in the late ‘40s—Hanna did something outside the studio as well. He worked on a Christmas film-strip for a religious company.

Cathedral Films was set up in Los Angeles in 1938 by the Rev. James K. Friedrich, creating religious films of varying lengths. It was also in the film-strip business, with drawings on individual frames rolled through a projector. The company sold Christian-based stories on strips accompanied by a record with narration and other sounds. Stan Freberg even supplied animal voices for a series of Cathedral film-strips in 1955. These films and film-strips were designed for use by churches and Sunday schools, though the company sold its library of around 40 films to television in 1952.

Hanna was employed on only one of the strips that I can discover, a Christmas story called “Christopher Mouse.” Assisting him with the drawings was MGM layout artist Gene Hazelton, who later was in charge of the Yogi Bear and Flintstones comic strips which Hanna-Barbera had syndicated in newspapers.



The strip with 75 frames by Hazelton was apparently copyrighted in 1950 but several newspapers from 1949 reported churches showing it. The soundtrack, such as it was, ran 14 minutes and was available on two 78s or one 33 1/3 album. The film was printed on Eastman stock so it would likely have turned beet red over time. One catalogue on the internet sums up Hanna’s storyline:

CHRISTOPHER MOUSE is the story of a little mouse who goes with his grandfather to a nearby town where a Carnival was being held. He enjoys everything in the Carnival a ride on a merry-go-round, on the train, etc. In fact, he and his grandfather enjoy themselves so much they forget it is getting late and when they start to look for a place to sleep they can find none. Eventually the grandfather remembers Farmer Brown's barn and they trudge out to the barn and get ready to go to sleep in the hay loft. Christopher doesn't like the rough straw as it irritates him when he lies on it. His grandfather, seeing his plight, begins to tell him the story of a little mouse many, many years ago who used to live in the hay loft of a barn and had a wonderful straw bed. One night some strangers came to the barn, a little baby was born, and there was no clean straw on the ground. The mouse's mother gathered all the straw she could to keep the ground dry and in order to get enough the little mouse had to give his own bed of straw. Then a little baby was born who was the Christ Child. The Wise Men came from the East to see the babe and after the telling of the story to Christopher, he went sound to sleep without another murmur.
How Hanna hooked up with Cathedral is a little mystery. It could have been through his reputation winning Oscars with Tom and Jerry. There was a tenuous connection with MGM; in 1940, Cathedral Films moved into the old Metro building at 6260 Romaine Street.

In the mid-1980s, Hanna-Barbera jumped into the religious film business with a series of home videos of stories based on Biblical events. One of the cartoons was entitled “The Nativity.” Joe Barbera was particularly enthusiastic about the series. But it was Bill Hanna who, almost 40 years earlier, explored the subject through charming little characters using technology that’s pretty quaint today.

6 comments:

  1. While the classic film strips were a big part of my life in public school, I never saw the Cathedral Films series in Sunday School. I do remember seeing the H-B " Greatest Adventures " series at a church I attended a few years back. Vincent Price, James Whitmore, James Earl Jones and others.......quite a roster.

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  2. Wow... That's the first picture of Bill Hanna in which he doesn't have white hair that I've ever seen! I had no idea about his Cathedral Films short. Is there any chance any watchable copies of this film survive? I would love to see it. Where did you get the screenshots?

    Merry Christmas, Yowp.

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    1. It's not a film, but a filmstrip - more like a slide show than a movie, with individual frames shown one at a time, used mainly in schools and churches.

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    2. Oh... I see. Well, that answers my questions, then. Of course, upon rereading Yowp's post, it is clear this was not an animated cartoon. I guess the first time I read it I didn't do so as carefully as I should have, and, not being familiar with filmstrips, didn't pick up on the distinction. Thanks for the clarification.

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    3. Sergio, yes, rnigma has it right. This was not a cartoon. It was a filmstrip. The two frames I've posted are the only ones I've found on line.

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  3. How did I miss this article last year?!?!? This is the missing puzzle piece I've been looking for all along! THANK YOU!!! This ties up the entire connection between "Peace On Earth" and "Good Will To Men" just as tidy as can be expected when dealing with animation from this era! I am forever in your debt!

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