Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just Released On DVD: UPA's Jolly Frolics by Paul F. Etcheverry

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies and animation expert Jerry Beck, the classic cartoons of the UPA studio have been released on DVD in a compilation titled The Jolly Frolics Collection.

UPA? Who? Well, UPA (a.k.a. United Productions Of America were the studio that was absolute the rage in animation in the 1950's.

UPA changed the look, feel, content and artistic mission of animation. In some respects, the studio's effect on animation could be compared to how Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk set the music world on its collective ear in the latter 1940's.

Celebrated in Amid Amidi's excellent book Cartoon Modern, the UPA studio was perennially in the Oscar hunt, and unlike anyone else in the business (other than Disney), actually received critical acclaim. UPA set the stage for the international explosion of indie animation in the decades that followed and would also be the only cartoon studio to darn near get shut down by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

UPA's films were distributed by Columbia Pictures, formerly associated with the Charles Mintz and Screen Gems studios - arguably the most maligned of all animation houses (even more than New York's Terrytoons, Van Beuren and Famous Studios), especially in comparison to Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM.

Although the talented animators at both Mintz and Screen Gems often blazed a creative, off-kilter and at times refreshingly original (and disturbing) path through Cartoonland, they were, without a doubt, B-studios.

The Charles Mintz Studio also had the ignominious fate of being the producer distributing new cartoons through Harry Cohn's organization, after the Walt Disney Studio had given Columbia Pictures the Silly Symphonies, as well as the beloved Mickey Mouse cartoons.

So Columbia Pictures went from Disney to the darker, Fleischer-like sensibility of the Mintz Studio's Krazy Kat and Scrappy.

As much as diehard cartoon aficionados enjoy Dick Huemer's way-out animation, Art Davis' top-notch draftsmanship, Sid Marcus' seriously bent sense of humor and the New York (as opposed to sunny California) vibe that permeates the early 1930's Scrappy cartoons, for Columbia Pictures, this change was tantamount to transitioning from MGM to Monogram or PRC.

So by the time UPA got its chance to produce cartoons for Columbia release, Harry Cohn's studio had to be dying for even the slightest, most miniscule hint of prestige when it came to animated short subjects.

On January 4, 1940, Charles Mintz died, and in 1941, the much maligned studio was shut down. Frank Tashlin took over as the new producer at the rechristened Screen Gems Studio and quite literally hired his staff off the picket line of the Disney Studio's 1941 strike.

Now the Screen Gems Studio was chock full of enthusiastic young ex-Disney artists, none interested in doing the same old crap. Among them were three movers and shakers: Dave Hilberman, Zack Schwartz and John Hubley.

Their goal: drastically change the look and content of animated cartoons. Which they did, emphatically, in a series of entertainingly strange, way out in left field Screen Gems cartoons filled with warped originality - the surreal Columbia Phantasy The Vitamin G-Man, the Color Rhapsody Professor Small And Mr. Tall and Milt Gross' anti-Hitler cartoon, He Can't Make It Stick.

The 2-dimensional, abstract graphics in Professor Small And Mr. Tall are the antithesis of Disney's 3-dimensionality, while the truly bizarre storyline is clearly an attempt to break with the slapstick/sight gag tradition.

Professor Small and Mr. Tall by Columbia-Pictures

In collaboration with innovative designers Gene Fleury, Bernice Polifka and John McGrew, the Warners cartoon crew led by Chuck Jones was also experimenting with bold new approaches to graphic design and humor in 1942-1943. Especially notable: the masterful and hilarious classic cartoon The Dover Boys At Pimento University.

John Hubley and his Screen Gems crew saw The Dover Boys and produced their own sendup of 1890's morality tales, the Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoon The Rocky Road To Ruin. While it isn't the flat-out brilliant piece of work that Jones' masterpiece is, I like this film's proto-UPA graphic design and snide, bilious, satiric point of view. The two cartoons only share an underlying premise and ultra-droll voice artist/storyman John McLeish, who wrote this and many other Screen Gems cartoons in 1943-1944. Otherwise, they're completely different in conception and execution.

Bear in mind, the last thing this Screen Gems crew wanted to do was to make something remotely resembling the comedy style and approach of a Disney, Tex Avery or Warner Bros. cartoon. The humor in The Rocky Road To Ruin has more in common what the Jay Ward Studio and especially Pantomime Pictures (producers of the very funny Roger Ramjet series) would develop in the 1950's and 1960's than anything made in the 1940's. Comparing this to a Warner Brothers cartoon, to a significant degree, is missing the point altogether.

Simultaneously with the crew making cartoons at Screen Gems, Jones continued to push the new approach even further towards what would become UPA's non-representational graphic style. The following 1943 Bugs Bunny opus, Waikiki Wabbit, like The Rocky Road To Ruin, has "cartoon modern" graphic design from start to finish.

Meanwhile, the same time as the aforementioned Warner Brothers and Screen Gems studios were being made, the artists who made those cartoons were moonlighting to produce Hell-Bent For Election, a fascinating and graphically advanced (especially at 7:00 - 8:30) propaganda piece on behalf of FDR's 1944 bid for another White House term. Directed by Chuck Jones and designed by Schwartz, it was the first production of Industrial Films, a new company formed by Hilberman, Schwartz and Hubley, and represented the changing of the guard.

They followed this up with training films for the WW2 effort that strived for new and different approaches to graphic design and animation.

Industrial Films would be renamed UPA, director/animator Robert "Bobe" Cannon and designer Paul Julian came on board, and with animators Ben Washam and Ken Harris (from Chuck Jones' crew at WB), produced the following brilliant and forward-thinking film, Brotherhood Of Man, on the topic of race relations. The character designs are reminiscent of Saul Steinberg.

When the Screen Gems Studio closed after a record of increasingly bizarre and incoherent product in 1946, UPA received an opportunity to get into theatrical cartoons. Columbia demanded that they do three films with the studio's resident stars, originally created for Tashlin's 1941 Color Rhapsody cartoon, The Fox And The Grapes: the combative, yet often damn funny Fox & Crow.

Hubley grudgingly agreed and UPA produced the last three Fox & Crow cartoons: Robin Hoodlum, Magic Fluke and Punchy DeLeon.

Hubley was not at all pleased with the requirement to make three Fox & Crow extravaganzas, and it wasn't the complete break with the animation styles of Disney and Warner Brothers he desired, but the crew produced three excellent cartoons, all very different from anyone else's in the industry.

The Magic Fluke in particular features inventive staging by Hubley and adds new wrinkles in the cartoon team's ever-dysfunctional relationship.

What Hubley really wanted to do at UPA, besides change the world, was create new characters that were totally different from the "funny animal" tradition of animation and comic books. Hubley got his shot with the first Jolly Frolic, starring a certain cantankerous, bullheaded, near-blind old bastard named Magoo.

Magoo's debut, Ragtime Bear, hit it out of the park. Its blend of Hubley's directorial facility/UPA's graphic design with the comic genius of Jim Backus created something new, different, unlike both Disney and Warners - and hilarious.

While the Mr. Magoo cartoons were hugely successful, leading to a long-running series (most of them helmed by Pete Burness), the ascension of veteran animator Robert "Bobe" Cannon to director of the Jolly Frolics cartoons enabled UPA to complete the break from what studio writer Bill Scott termed "Disney cute" and "Warner Bros. rowdyism".

The breakthrough cartoon was Bobe's paean to the outsider, Gerald McBoingBoing. It's a brilliant piece of work with striking graphic design and a creative use of color (by Jules Engel) that tells the story very effectively. It is totally NOT 3-D in look, and yet you find yourself sympathizing with the plight of Gerald, the kid who can only speak in sound effects. Cannon plays the Dr. Seuss storyline straight - there are no "gags" per se - and with good reason: throughout his career directing for UPA, Bobe's m.o. was to steer clear of conflict and absolutely NOT aim for laughs.

John Hubley left UPA in a high design, high concept blaze of glory with his last tour-de-force, Rooty Toot Toot, the apogee and summation of everything I love about UPA cartoons, in humor, content, animation style and graphic design.

It was a brief blaze of glory. The House Un-American Activities Committee, seeking to destroy more lives and careers in their fervent search for unionists and any poor bastards who momentarily skimmed through The Daily Worker poolside at Malibu or Beverly Hills, targeted UPA. John Hubley and writer Phil Eastman got thrown to the wolves. While this eventually led to Hubley's successful rebirth as an independent producer outside the studio system and Eastman's as an award-winning author of children's books, the effect of losing two guys who were the heart of the studio proved devastating.

While Bobe Cannon continued making inventive Jolly Frolics cartoons in collaboration with designer Thornton Hee (a.k.a. T. Hee) and entertaining, funny entries in the Magoo series would be produced by directors Pete Burness and Bill Hurtz, the studio's time on the cutting edge had passed. The UPA cartoons were still consistently pretty wonderful, but no longer boldly innovative. That mantle passed from the theatrical cartoon production crews to UPA's New York wing, led by director Gene Deitch, which continued blazing new trails in animation via educational films and commercials.

Meanwhile, the guy who directed the first UPA theatrical cartoon, John Hubley, formed Storyboard Pictures with his wife Faith - and would continue pushing the envelope and inspiring independent animators around the world up to his death at 62 in 1977.

Since the 1950's, the UPA cartoons have dropped off the map, including the later films produced in the early 1960's (ironically by ex-WB icons Chuck Jones and Abe Levitow). Even the 1960's made-for-television cartoons by UPA have not aired in many years. It has been up to animation aficionados, film historians and private collectors to keep the interest in UPA alive.

Adam Abraham has gone a long way to carry that torch to young animation enthusiasts with his new book about the studio, When Magoo Flew: The Rise And Fall Of Animation Studio UPA.

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