An early Bosko model sheet.

BOSKO

Medium: Theatrical Animation
First Appeared: 1929
Creators: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
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Bosko starred in the very first of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, Sinking in the Bathtub (1930). And not only that — he was also the first star at the rival MGM animation studio, appearing in …

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… their fourth release, Bosko's Parlor Pranks (1934). But in fact, he goes back farther than either studio.

Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising were working at Disney when they first designed and copyrighted Bosko — who, in conception at least, actually predates Mickey Mouse himself. This earliest known version is taller, less bulbous and rubbery than the one that kicked off two major studios — but still quite recognizably Bosko.

In 1929, Harman and Ising were working on Oswald the Rabbit for the George Winkler Studio. When Universal Studios pulled the series from that studio and gave it to Walter Lantz, the two found themselves out of work. They started their own studio, Harman-Ising. Their first project was a four-minute film called The Talk-Ink Kid, and Bosko was its star. This cartoon was never released theatrically, but circulated through the industry as a sample of the studio's capability, particularly in the area of making the character appear to speak (hence the title), as the art of animated lip-synching was still in its infancy. (And by the way, the voices of Bosko and his girlfriend, Honey, were done by Carmen Maxwell and Rochelle Hudson, respectively. Neither is known for any other voice work.)

They quickly found a buyer for their services. Leon Schlesinger had contracted to produce cartoons for Warner Bros., and he sub-contracted the work to Harman-Ising. Their sample reel character became their mainstay, as they geared up to produce Bosko cartoons at a rate of about one per month.

There was a certain sameness about cartoon characters of that time. Replace Felix the Cat's pointy ears with floppy rabbit ears, and you have Oswald. Replace those with round mouse ears, and you have Mickey. Replace those with no external ears at all, and you have Bosko — but if Mickey was a mouse and Felix was a cat, what was Bosko?

"We never knew what he was," Ising claimed in an interview, years later. Actually, despite his little black animal nose, audiences could easily see that he was a caricatured black boy — unacceptably stereotyped by today's standards, but not mean-spirited, nor considered insulting by the standards of the time.

In 1933, the Schlesinger and Harman-Ising studios parted company. Schlesinger kept his contract with Warner Bros., where he tried to interest audiences in a bland replacement called Buddy, and Harman-Ising kept their main character. When they contracted to head the new MGM studio, they used him there.

But the day of the bulbous character with rubber-hose limbs was drawing to a close. In 1935, Bosko was re-designed as a realistic human character, with relatively little of the stereotype. But this new version was so far removed from the original, there seemed little point in calling it by the same name. It soon sputtered to a halt. The last Bosko cartoon, Bosko in Bagdad, was released on January 1, 1938.

The early Bosko cartoons were part of the cartoon packages sold to television from the 1940s to the '60s. Eventually, black and white cartoons became unsalable in that venue, and Bosko faded from view. But he turned up again on Nickelodeon as recently as 1988-92, when the old monochromes were a regular part of their Looney Tunes mix; and Honey made an appearance with Babs Bunny in an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. So who knows? There may be life in him yet.

— DDM

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Text ©2000-06 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Harman-Ising.