For those of us who grew up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and a host of other cartoons where characters mangled and belittled other characters in impossible ways, it’s hard to stomach the undisguised disdain they were held in by the animators at UPA. But perhaps it’s understandable.
Television and time changed things for cartoons. Today, Warners, Fleischer/Famous and MGM shorts are loved by adults the world over who saw them on TV as kids. Before television, they were considered family filler until the feature came on in the movie house, appealing generally to children (hence, special screenings of “Cartoon Carnivals” for kids at theatres).
Animators thought they were better than that. UPA gave them an opportunity to say so by creating cartoons that didn’t have the negative connotations they (and the audience) associated with children’s programming—animals (albeit behaving like humans) based on Disney designs, and endless assault and battery.
Their idealism—and air of superiority—can be detected in a story from the United Press about the UPA hit “Gerald McBoing Boing.” Their idealism was a purely artistic one. Not too far buried in Ted Geisel’s story is a tale of a triumph over discrimination. It’s a powerful message but, instead, all the UPAers did was chant in unison about their drawings and how they weren’t like those old-fashioned ones in those kids’ cartoons. The medium was the message. One wonders how Geisel felt about all that as his own drawing style was rejected in the process.
Here’s the story from February 22, 1951.
Hollywood’s New Hit Is Cartoon Hero
By Aline Mosby.
HOLLYWOOD (UP)—One apparent parent cinch Oscar winner among the Academy award hopefuls is an actor who was nominated for his first movie and will never be seen on the screen again.
This new thespian sprang to stardom after one seven-minute movie. He has been exalted by the press, fan mail has poured into his studio, movie theater managers are begging for more of his pictures.
But his bosses announced Thursday that Gerald McBoing-Boing has made his first, last and only movie.
Gerald, is a cartoon character who has stirred up the most fuss among animation addicts since Disney’s “The Three Little Pigs.” He’s a little boy who speaks only in sound effects such as train whistles, thundering hooves and “boing boings.”
But United Productions of America, a new live-wire cartoon outfit that created Gerald, say his debut that may win him an Oscar is also his retirement.
“When they have something good in Hollywood they always repeat and repeat,” said Robert Cannon, who directed the cartoon.
“There are so many things we’d rather do than stick to one subject. Gerald McBoing-Boing is a complete statement. We don’t want to make any sequels.”
Gerald was the brainchild of children’s book author Dr. Seuss. He sold the idea to UPA, which makes cartoons for armed forces trainees, television and Columbia Pictures in modern art style. UPA was formed by cartoonists who were “frustrated”, as one puts it, after years of drawing animals, curved lines, opaque forms, realistic details and violent action at Disney’s, Warners’ and MGM cartoon factories.
They decided to rebel, against traditional cartoon style when they created Gerald McBoing-Boing. So Gerald and his family are simple line drawing over abstract, unrealistic backgrounds.
The result was so artistic that the critics are turning handsprings, and so entertaining that the public is too.
“We made a cartoon that is frankly a drawing," Cannon explained. “You never think of Mickey Mouse as a drawing. To audiences he’s a real little character.”
Now UPA is busy on “The Oompahs”, a family of musical instruments that doesn’t own the usual faces and limbs, and “The Magic Boxing Gloves”.
Between cartoons the company’s now unfrustrated artists invite the public to view their after-hour paintings at their modernistic plant next door to Warners’.
“This shows that you can do good work in Hollywood,” UPA Artist Jules Engel says.
The McBoing-Boing cartoon showed on the re-issue program at the Iowa earlier this week. It may be returned later.
Idealism has a habit of withering away when money is concerned. Gerald McBoing-Boing did not go into retirement, despite what Bobe Cannon wanted. UPA needed cash. UPA could sell Gerald McBoing-Boing. So young Gerald found his way into several lesser theatrical cartoons and a nine-month television show which got critical acclaim but, as animation historian Leonard Maltin noted, needed Bill Scott to punch up that detestable comedy. UPA needed that, too.
It still wasn’t enough. By 1960, UPA was basically gone, with a new owner mainly interested in churning out awful television cartoons for children. Gerald McBoing-Boing had been silenced. His animators weren’t bragging now.