Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Masters of Animation: UPA

Preamble here.

United Productions of America was a semi-successful commercial and industrial film outlet that was pushed towards theatrical cartoons as much by their desire to create as by their sudden loss of all contracts after an FBI investigation of the company and its former communists (including John Hubley and Phil Eastman). Executive producer Stephen Bosustow, after breaking with co-founders Dave Hilberman and Zack Schwartz, had approached Columbia in 1948, whose failing Screen Gems animation division was practically begging to be put out of its mistery. Bosustow asked for a distribution deal. Uncertain, Columbia asked for a Fox and Crow short as a test run.

With UPA fully-formed and ready to forge ahead with a new kind of animation style, it may have been a small blow to get a deal for another Fox and Crow picture. John Hubley had already worked at Screen Gems on the Fox and Crow series, and having to go back seemed like an actual step back. He directed the 1948 short Robin Hoodlum, a cartoon featuring an design-heavy style that focused on character and wit instead of full backgrounds and details. The film was funny and sophisticated (some gags were donated by Chuck Jones, Mike Maltese, Tedd Pierce, and Friz Freleng), and Hubley had done the best he was willing to do, but Columbia didn't like it. They asked for another film, The Magic Fluke, which was also snappy and fast-paced, but it shows even more than in Robin Hoodlum that John Hubley pretty much considers Fox and Crow beneath him. There is no attention to detail or logic or story; Hubley seems to have just wanted to get the films finished. Whatever Columbia ended up thinking about Robin Hoodlum and The Magic Fluke, both films ended up getting Oscar nominations.

But UPA wanted to make a serious break from the animal characters, slapstick gags, fast pacing, and overbearing cuteness that had been mainstays of animation for years. Columbia was reluctant to let UPA break away from Fox and Crow, but agreed to let John Hubley create a human character. That character was Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted, obstinate old man. He was introduced in the 1949 cartoon The Ragtime Bear (which also featured the title bear, showing how nervous Columbia really was about breaking from the formula). The cartoon signaled an almost immediate change in the cartoon dynamic. Here, finally, was something fresh and different, but also a return to comedy based on character and not on gags (something that, arguably, only Chuck Jones was doing by 1949). The animation itself, some of it by Art Babbitt, is excellent and doesn't feel limited at all. Jim Backus was cast to play Magoo; during the recording, he was allowed to ad lib heavily, and his muttering became a key to making the character warm and funny. His obstinance was not off-putting or abrasive, but hilarious and inviting. The cartoon was good enough for Columbia; they signed UPA to a distribution deal and, after a third, ineffectual outing (Punchy de Leon), agreed to abandon Fox and Crow. The UPA cartoons would appear under the banner Jolly Frolics.

Hubley was reluctant to make Mr. Magoo a recurring character. He directed another Magoo short, Spellbound Hound, in 1950, before taking on his role as supervising director and getting assignments straight. He was fairly disorganized, and it took him some time. UPA was smart not to take on too much at once; they were limited to 7 cartoons a year, giving them time to make each one a real effort. But Hubley's Mr. Magoo cartoons were a breath of fresh air and became immediately popular; Columbia wanted more, and Steve Bosustow put Pete Burness in charge of the series (though Bungled Bungalow is my personal favorite of the non-Hubley cartoons, Trouble Indemnity was nominated for an Oscar). UPA went from not being able to pay its employees to a stable, prosperous studio.

Then, in 1950, UPA released the cartoon it is still best known for: Gerald McBoing Boing. It cemented the reputation of the studio with its brilliant simplicity. Based on a Dr. Seuss story about a boy who can only make sounds instead of speech, the film was hailed by critics as an animated film superior to all the other animation being produced. Critics tend to measure all animation against Disney, and many felt Gerald McBoing Boing had done the job of stripping away all of the Disney cuteness and artifice and pretension and getting at story and emotion the way no one else had. The cartoon is, in fact, one of the best American cartoons ever made. It is stylistic and unpretentious, with simplicity in its story, its editing, and its design. There is nothing there that is merely to produce an effect; it's design in service of a story, however slight it may be. Interestingly, there are no lines to define walls and floors; it's all suggested through the placement of objects. Best of all is a brilliant color scheme that reflects the emotions of the characters. There are flourishes, to be sure, but not in a showy way. Bobe Cannon directed the film; animators included Bill Melendez and former Disney animator Rudy Larriva.

The UPA cartoons, it could be argued, were as conventional as any other studio's in terms of storytelling. The difference was in the approach. The UPA artists eschewed the cuteness of Disney and the slapstick of Warners (in fact, they openly looked down on the cartoons of other studios). But rather than making cartoons that were earnest and sweet, they made cartoons that were funny and smart. They were critical darlings from here on out; Gerald McBoing Boing won an Oscar. From this point on, UPA would nominated for an Oscar almost every year (in 1956, all three nominated cartoons were from UPA).

The Oscar was, however, a source of resentment, especially between Bobe Cannon and John Hubley. Cannon hated working with Hubley so much on Brotherhood of Man in 1946 that, when it was completed, Cannon went to work at Disney. After less than a year, he was working for Tex Avery. By 1948, he'd returned to UPA to work on Robin Hoodlum. Cannon was a man who, though quick to anger, avoided confrontation. Hubley was, according to some, an insensitive bully who thrived on conflict. He liked instability and it fed his cartoons. Cannon, on the other hand, wanted to make cartoons that were simple and quiet--he was much more interested in design and movement than character. Hubley was interested in good aesthetics and advocated full animation. There were still hurt feelings over Brotherhood of Man; though Cannon was given sole director credit, he felt Hubley had stolen too much credit for himself.

To make matters worse, Hubley as supervising director was arguing with Bosustow about money. Though UPA had an adventurous and free atomsphere, it did have a budget. Columbia was putting up $27,500 per short, and the cartoons always came in overbudget. Hubley and Cannon could go through an entire cartoon budget just designing and redesigning layouts. Everything else was overage; Bosustow was forced to sell UPA's ownership of its own cartoons to Columbia. UPA went broke quickly and more layoffs ensued; weekly paychecks became a thing of the past. They didn't show a profit until they resumed commercial work, making a deal with Ford Motors for a series of eight Seuss-written ads. Thanks to returns from the early Magoo cartoons and Gerald McBoing Boing, Columbia increased the budget per short to $35,000. But Hubley and Cannon couldn't work together, and Hubley was demoted to director. The two were given their own units independent of one another; T. Hee, the former Disney story man, worked with Cannon, while Paul Julian worked with Hubley. Julian felt Cannon's films were too cutesy.

Hubley was finally able to return to directing cartoons. In 1951 he returned to Mr. Magoo (now a series) to direct Fuddy Duddy Buddy, the cartoon where Magoo's personality began to soften. Hubley here moved into direct sentimentality; he never directed another Magoo and lost control of the series. Magoo, though popular with audiences, would become more mechanical and formulaic, with less comedy from the character's obstinance. The gags became all about Magoo's nearsightedness, and he became more loveable. He became cute and, as a result, less funny. Cannon, meanwhile, was making cartoons like Georgie and the Dragon, The Oompahs, Christopher Crumpet, and Madeline (from the famous Ludwig Bemelmann book), which emphasized charm and imagination over gags and stories.

Hubley's next film, Rooty Toot Toot, is one of his best achievements at UPA. The film was a sort of stylized jazz ballet of sex, violence, jealousy, nastiness, and revenge. It was rough and gritty, but entertaining and stylized. The stylization is one of the highlights of the film, as the characters are revealed through design and movement, and mood is revealed by color changes and dance styles. Hubley even used live action film of dancer Olga Lunick as a reference point, although there couldn't be any rotoscoping with the strange character design. Animators on the film included Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, and former Lantz animator Pat Matthews. The jazz score by Phil Moore uses music styles to further define character; it was also the first onscreen credit to a black composer. Hubley's film was chaotic and utilized every style device he could think of, but it also told a story with interesting characters and is a highlight of American cartoons. In coupling strong design with strong animation and a strong story, Hubley made a cartoon that was the apex of UPA animation. And he also made a cartoon that nearly bankrupted the studio. It was nominated for an Oscar and many expected it to win. It didn't.

Hubley next did animated inserts for a film called The Four Posters which heavily influenced the Yugoslavian studio Zagreb Film. He would never direct another film for UPA. In 1951 and 1952, the House Un-American Activities Committee was again heavily involved in Hollywood, and most of the communists identified in the animation industry worked at UPA. Columbia began to purge UPA of employees with any sort of communist reputation, firing former party member Phil Eastman and his writing partner Bill Scott. Scott was not a communist. To Bosustow's credit, he refused to participate in the blacklisting; rather than cause the studio any harm because of his association and his past party membership, John Hubley resigned. Many feel that Hubley took all of UPA's promise with him.

Some more experimentation (at least with the format) occured in 1953. First, Bill Hurtz directed A Unicorn in the Garden, an adaptation of a James Thurber story that was animated in the style of Thurber's illustrations. The cartoon is witty and clever, and one of UPA's best. But it isn't charming, and charm had become UPA's stock-in-trade (as an example, they produced three more Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons that were charming, yes, but pale repeats of the superior original). Bosustow was openly hostile towards the film and refused to submit it for Oscar consideration. Hurtz quit UPA and went on to work in television commercials.

Also in 1953, Ted Parmelee directed The Tell-Tale Heart, a unique cartoon that uses several artistic styles (especially German expressionism) to adapt Poe. The film depends on excellent narration of the tale by James Mason. It's a very serious, dark piece that showed a willingness on the part of some UPA artists to move past charm and keep experimenting with new styles. It's atmospheric and artistic. But it's also, perhaps, too fast-paced for an audience conditioned to expect gags at certain beats. It was test-screened twice; both times the audience laughed. A card was added to the film reminding the audience that this was serious business, but even today, The Tell-Tale Heart is often dismissed. It was, however, nominated for an Oscar.

1953 was the year that Columbia renewed its contract with UPA. After strange cartoons like A Unicorn in the Garden and The Tell-Tale Heart, Columbia agreed to re-up with UPA only for Mr. Magoo cartoons. Any non-Magoo films would have to be approved. After 1956, UPA would make only Mr. Magoo cartoons. There were occasional bright spots (such as the two Oscar winners, When Magoo Flew--the first in Cinemascope--and Mr. Magoo's Puddle Jumper), but for the most part the series had become routine and soft and, sadly, just like anyone else's.

1956 was the year UPA made the move into television, commissioned by CBS to do the first weekly animated series made directly for a network: The Gerald McBoing Boing Show. By that time, Steve Bosustow and Jules Engel were the only original staffers left--John Hubley, Phil Eastman, Bill Scott, Bill Hurtz, Ted Parmelee, and Bill Melendez were all gone. UPA expanded and recruited more talent to meet the demands of a weekly series. One of the new animators was George Dunning, who went on to direct Yellow Submarine (and nearly The Lord of the Rings). It was a collection of cartoons that was very popular with TV critics and PTA groups, but not with kids. It only lasted two years. UPA also expanded to open a New York studio specifically for commercial films and advertisements. Gene Deitch worked there as a director. Mr. Magoo appeared in Stag Beer ads; UPA was also behind the original Bert and Harry Piel campaign, which featured the voices of Bob and Ray. Grim Natwick moved over to the New York staff.

By the end of the 1950s, UPA was a style unto itself, as Disney had been. And, like Disney, the creative spark had left it and gone elsewhere. It had become a reference point which other studios measured itself against or simply tried to emulate. Even Disney aped the flat animation style in cartoons like Pigs Is Pigs and Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. It influenced so much cartoon work so quickly, especially in television, but it also cheapened itself and became a factory. Perhaps that's inevitable everywhere. Besides the blacklist and the financial problems, Steve Bosustow was hard to work with. Many colleagues felt he was quick to claim all the credit for UPA, and staffers dropped away quickly to pursue work elsewhere.

Columbia was pressing UPA to do a feature. Several stories were considered, including a Gilbert and Sullivan mini-opera and a collection of James Thurber stories which were actually optioned. But Columbia had been adamant in its demand of Magoo only and, with the exception of an attempted series of Ham and Hattie cartoons, they'd gotten Magoo only. They wanted a Magoo movie. Pete Burness wanted to do Don Quixote with Magoo as Quixote; Aldous Huxley wrote a treatment. But Columbia opted for a different story, and UPA ceased production of the shorts in order to concentrate on Mr. Magoo's feature debut, 1001 Arabian Nights. Burness, long the main Magoo director, got into a fight with Bosustow and walked out of the studio. He was replaced by Disney vet Jack Kinney, the best of the Goofy directors. The film, unfortunately, is dull. Magoo wanders in and out of a story he's not connected to at all, while dull heroes and villains go on with heroics and villainy that are a snooze to watch. The film, released in 1959, was hardly a box office sensation, and signaled the end of UPA.

Jules Engel finally left the company. The New York office closed because of the competition, and an attempted London office was never opened (but still cost the studio a lot of money). Animated theatrical shorts were rapidly becoming a thing of the past; most of the animation talent was moving to TV. Scott, Hurtz, Melendez, Burness, Parmelee, and Lew Keller were doing excellent work on Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle. Steve Bosustow finally sold out to producer Henry G. Saperstein, who immediately took UPA to television, doing 130 Mr. Magoo cartoons and 130 Dick Tracy cartoons that are uniformly awful. Abe Levitow directed a second UPA feature, Gay Purr-ee, a terrible vehicle for Judy Garland and Robert Goulet as cats falling in love in Paris (with a Harold Arlen score). Newsweek, feeling the film was both too sophisticated and too dumb to find an audience, quipped that it must have been made for "the fey four-year-old of recherche taste."

UPA's reputation was now diminished. But the studio had expanded the horizons of animation and influenced the medium in a way that only Walt Disney had done before. It's hard now convincing people that Mr. Magoo was ever funny, but he certainly was. And for a small, brief period of time, UPA was the finest animation studio around.


g4rg4ntu4 said...

Another great post on the history of animation. If I was you (i.e. an immensely talented writer / historian) I would consider assembling, and publishing, all of them, collected in a beautiful hardbound volume. And why not send me a copy for suggesting the idea.

Thanks a lot old bean.


SamuraiFrog said...

Thanks for enjoying the animation posts, and especially for calling me "immensely talented." I think I'm far away from having a book, but if I had my way...