Turner Classic Movies’ The Jolly Frolics Collection just arrived, and my brain is buzzing from seeing these on my new Blu-Ray player. This will be another of my infrequent and extremely long posts, so please bear with me.
This TCM-exclusive set covers the entirety of UPA’s non-Mister Magoo output in the theatrical short arena, spanning the entire decade of the 1950s. I make no claims to be an expert on the UPA studio, but they strongly command my attention given their place in the history of animation and their employment of several former Warner, MGM, Disney, and Lantz artists and writers. Mark Mayerson has written a short post that perfectly sums up why the studio and its films were important here.
I still haven’t read Adam Abraham’s When Magoo Flew, but I have a copy on its way to me (and I should finish writing my own stupid book before I start reading others). For now, the chapter on UPA in Mike Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons is the most substantial piece written on the studio to date. Quite jarring actually, considering that the best passages in the book are where Barrier’s passion and interest are strongest (Walt Disney, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones), which is certainly not the case with UPA.
To sum up TCM’s actual presentation, it’s superb. The packaging is elegantly designed and decorated with UPA artwork and comes with a booklet to tell you where to find everything. The restorations are nothing short of brilliant, and easily the best I’ve seen done on a major release outside of the Walt Disney Treasures and Looney Tunes Golden Collections.
My only reservation is that I wish more care had been taken to seek out the original end titles to these things. Columbia was the most unpredictable and careless of all the studios when they reissued cartoons. Most of the Screen Gems cartoons had their front titles stripped off completely, whereas a few later ones retain the original opening but have a generic “Columbia Favorite” end title.
That generic end title is what we see on a great number of the cartoons on this set. In UPA’s case, the replacement cuts into actual animation, dialog, and action, so it’s quite a jarring transition to see the jump cut. Tis a shame, because a great many of them do exist with their original end logos. This is by no means a deal-breaker – everything else is intact, there are a few titles (Robin Hoodlum, The Tell-Tale Heart) I had never seen before, and they all look brilliant. I will gladly trade the end titles for the body of the film so lavishly remastered.
The reissue titles are quite amusing, as it’s a reminder of how Columbia lumped in these works with the reissues of the very different cartoons by Ben Harrison, Manny Gould, Charles Mintz, and others. It also reminds me that in order to fully appreciate UPA, you can’t watch them while they’re amongst themselves. Rather, you should play the very best of UPA along side of the very best of the other Golden Age studios. This exemplifies the individuality of UPA and the other studios, and also how wonderful a medium can be that allows so many different approaches to filmmaking.
To get a distribution deal with Columbia, UPA had to agree to use the former Screen Gems stars, Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow. This trio of shorts directed by Hubley are inseparable from the best of the ones Screen Gems did – uneven, but an endearing unevenness. The Fox and Crow in Hubley’s The Magic Fluke are no more clearly defined than the Fox and Crow in Alex Lovy’s Grape Nutty (a holdover from the Screen Gems studio, also released in 1949).
There’s nothing exactly ‘new’ about them either. They are strikingly similar to Jones’s experiments with stylization with relatively full animation. Take the exchange between Fauntleroy and the King in Punchy De Leon (animated by Bill Melendez). It pays succinct attention to lip sync and broad, funny movement. The only separation between this and the Jones cartoons is that the former is drawn marginally flatter. It’s an elegant and smart approach. Hubley is easing theatergoers and those picking up the dime for these cartoons into accepting bolder graphic statements by not disregarding what makes character animation so rich.The first Mr. Magoo cartoon, Ragtime Bear, is much in the same mold. It’s the only Magoo included, so Hubley’s real knack for characterization is not on full display. (For completeness’s sake, they should have also included the far funnier Spellbound Hound, the second Magoo released under the Jolly Frolics banner.) The character is a gem in these early shorts to be sure, walking around bantering ala Popeye, wreaking havoc all while being a charismatic asshole to the unfortunate folk who get in his way.
Magoo was well-recognized inside UPA as their sell-out series, for sure, but if they were inept at creating likable, humorous personalities, the character would never have caught on. With that in mind, be sure to get a copy of the Magoo set that’s forthcoming in June, so you’ll have the complete UPA library. (Though like with this set, almost all of the cartoons worth repeated viewings are confined to the first disc.)Bobe Cannon was one of animation’s most puzzling treasures. He came up through the ranks at Schlesinger’s and is said to have been critically involved with the concept of smear animation with Chuck Jones. He ultimately abandoned all of what was fun in his own animation in the cartoons he directed at UPA. There are still traces of it in The Miner’s Daughter and Georgie and the Dragon, and Cannon and Paul Julian (one of the studio’s real unsung heroes) also helmed Wonder Gloves, a vastly underrated cartoon with simple but highly pleasing design and animation.
Cannon’s Oscar-winning triumph Gerald McBoing Boing is a real curiosity to me. The cartoon is among one of the best ever made, no doubt, but what did Ted Geisel think about it? There is clear disdain for Geisel’s own art style; the cartoon looks absolutely nothing like his work. Quite odd, given the great lengths UPA would go to preserving the art styles of far lesser draftsmen than Geisel later on. Clearly it has more in common with Disney’s adaptations of children’s stories that sacrificed the original’s earmarks in favor of what the filmmakers considered compelling filmmaking. Not to its detriment at all – as those are great Disney cartoons, Gerald is a great UPA cartoon. If it’s a great Dr. Seuss cartoon you want, watch Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Hawley Pratt, and even Ralph Bakshi’s adaptations.Rooty Toot Toot‘s significance needs no explanation. If you’ve put off seeing it, you have no excuse not to now. Foreshadowing certain thematic and story elements of Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, it’s an animated musical comedy with a murder at its centerpiece, with strong graphic design reinforced by equally powerful animation. As the comments on this post will likely prove, opinions on the individual UPA cartoons are very divided. If there’s one cartoon that everyone agrees is perfect, though, Rooty Toot Toot is it.
Not all is roses in the Hubley era. Art Babbitt may have been a catalyst for UPA with his role in the Disney strike, but his shorts Giddyap and The Popcorn Story are wholly mediocre and bear none of the earmarks in animation or design that UPA became deified for. Only a hallucination sequence in Babbitt’s Family Circus fits under the accepted house style; that short segment is drawn, colored, in a purposefully crude, stick-figure style, as if a child did. Such was considered revolutionary at the time. Such a thought, of course, is false.
This is probably why the pretension surrounding the celebration of UPA irks me most. Their snobbish attitude is condescending and obnoxious as hell, to be sure, but you’d be surprised how many of your favorite directors at Warner, Disney, etc. hated the competition’s cartoons. Smugness is not exclusive to any one artistic approach. Yet almost all of UPA’s innovations and triumphs had been done in some small form or another elsewhere in service to full humor and satire. You would never hear the UPA alumni admit that, because the non-UPA artists did not tailor their experiments to serve design; therefore their approach is invalid.
Avery’s stick-figure art in Porky’s Preview is one of many concepts that found its way into UPA. We all know Chuck Jones’s The Dover Boys probably inspired the whole movement of using more angles in animation. It may have been the most influential cartoon of the decade, so much so that Hubley and friends stole it and did it point-for-point (with none of the laughs) as The Rocky Road to Ruin at Screen Gems.
Jones continued his experimentation with non-traditional character designs and layouts throughout the decade with his various designers. So did Shamus Culhane and Art Heinemann at Lantz. All of Frank Tashlin’s cartoons have a bolder, more graphic look than the other Warner shorts, indicative of his work as a print cartoonist, yet retaining the principles of full character animation. At his third stay at the studio, Tashlin began making things so angular that if you thickened the outlines in a cartoon like Nasty Quacks or Hare Remover, they are essentially some of UPA’s earliest efforts in look. Certainly Rod Scribner and Jim Tyer’s use of distortion in the 1940s could also be viewed as a bit of graphic daring.Escaping the animal-violence-slapstick cognizance was not foreign to American animation either. Have the people who say that UPA was the first to break away from it not seen Fantasia? Surely they have, since most of UPA’s core crew worked on it. Not to mention sequences in Make Mine Music, Melody Time, and countless one-shots Disney did that are strictly mood pieces, done years before UPA’s invasion. This is not to mention the fresh, vibrant work of George Pal in stop-motion, which always steered away from the normal narratives in hand-drawn animation.
The 1960s saw all kinds of innovations in moviemaking in both Europe and America, and you’d be hard-pressed to hear the directors of those films claim they weren’t inspired by any films done beforehand, pompously stating their ideas fell out of the sky or from a ‘higher’ art form. What UPA ultimately did was not bring modern design and unconventional concepts to animation, but push things far enough to make us as viewers absolutely aware that we’re seeing modern design and unconventional concepts. That Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker might have been at the root of this, however, is still sacrilege.
Barrier writes that Hubley’s “ghost” sort of haunted the studio, yet his influence is scant in the films made at UPA after he left. The exceptional post-Hubley UPA cartoons are few and far between. Cannon’s Christopher Crumpet has grown on me over the years, having once thoroughly despised it.The height of UPA’s pretension may be Unicorn in the Garden. Like the far worse Madeline, UPA did not add anything to this animated adaptation. If there is any charm or humor to the cartoon, it comes from an outside source, in this case, the actual words and art in one of James Thurber’s least inspired short stories. It’s hard to believe that a film and story so predictable and juvenilely misogynistic can be hailed as sophisticated by liberal artistes. Tex Avery and Famous Studios always had nagging housewives blown up and received no accolades. If they really wanted to be bold, UPA should have adapted Thurber’s “The Owl Who Was God” to animation. But that, of course, would have involved talking animals and baiting HUAC further.
Accepted as one of the best, of course, is The Tell-Tale Heart, a film I wish I liked more than I did, considering that the elements for perfection are all in place (especially James Mason’s narration). It’s a short that could have benefited from a longer length. Edgar Allen Poe is one literary master whose work should not be compressed when adapted to film. The film spends most of its time building up to the murder, shoehorning the madman’s psychological trauma into the remaining time. It’s at least a respectful adaptation of Poe, if not an ideal one.No other UPA cartoons after The Tell-Tale Heart dare go into uncharted territories. What you begin to see in almost all of the cartoons past the first disc is pure design, with all other elements subservient to it. Bobe Cannon admitted as much after Gerald McBoing Boing won an Oscar. “We made a cartoon that is frankly a drawing,” Cannon said. “You never think of Mickey Mouse as a drawing. To audiences he’s a real little character.”
That is, of course, untrue, considering that if Gerald wasn’t an engaging character, nobody would have liked the cartoon. There is something more going on in Gerald and Rooty Toot Toot, and that is real character animation, however different in look and approach from Mickey Mouse it is.
UPA quickly went into a decline with this “drawings” philosophy in mind. Like the studios they influenced, character animation was completely abandoned in favor of bad animation, plain and simple. Intellectuals be damned, it is far easier and cheaper to fake the modern design that UPA championed than the traditional, “nineteenth century” look of a Warner cartoon or Disney feature. There was no mistaking a 1945 Terrytoon for someone else’s, but would the non-initiated be able to differentiate Tom Terrific or Sick Sidney from UPA?In spite of what critics and peculiar cliques want people to believe, there was absolutely nothing groundbreaking about the UPA style and brand in its later years, and nothing to recommend their individual cartoons either.
The other studios had quickly caught up in updating their designs and layouts to match the UPA style, often times doing it better than UPA themselves. As this happened, UPA found itself falling into the very cliches they openly reviled. Their sneering at conflict produced cartoons as boring and vapid as anyone’s. What is The Emperor’s New Clothes other than a trussed up Jack Hannah/Charles Nichols Disney cartoon, done just as lamely? Is The Rise of Duton Lang really a higher being than the dozens of other cartoons with a pointless story told by a charlatan narrator? As much as I like The Man on the Flying Trapeze, it’s nothing more than The Dover Boys with a facelift and on valium.
UPA became derivative of not just other studios, but of themselves. Christopher Crumpet’s Playmate is nothing on the original, nor are the three later McBoing Boings Cannon promised the public they would never see. Magoo became just another reoccurring character whose cartoons stretched one joke to the point of no return, and more or less became dreary monologues for Jim Backus. UPA was now just another bland cartoon outfit, inseparable from the rest except in name.
As history stands, UPA was another “new kid” in town, enjoying the same perks and fate the other American studios did. Like with Disney and Warners before, like Spumco and Pixar after it, what UPA got right was inspirational and in some ways unsurpassed. They became not an influence, but an industry standard. That standard turned to formula, which predictably involves some studios “getting it” better than the original with their imitations. Most other studios just parroted the original’s bad traits, and soon those faults permeated the genuine article. Ad nauseam.
If there is a sadder, more cyclic artform than the animated cartoon, I know not of it. Perhaps since I’m so adverse and skeptical to UPA on principle that these viewings made me more aware of this pattern whereas lesser classic studios just fill me with joy. But there is quite a bit of real joy on TCM’s Jolly Frolics Collection, the kind that makes you fully aware that the animated cartoon can also be the most satisfying use and celebration of the arts and sciences. I urge anyone with a serious interest in animation’s history and potential to purchase the set.