Thursday, 21 August 2014

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Cartoon

What was with UPA and petulant children anyway?

First, they made a cartoon called “Family Circus” starring a little girl who’s jealous of the new baby in the family. Then there was “Bringing Up Mother” starring a little boy who’s jealous of the new baby in the family. Then there’s “Christopher Crumpet” about a screaming child who magically turns himself into a chicken because he doesn’t get his own way. Then we have “Spare the Child” (1955) about a little jerk who magically turns himself adult-sized, while shrinking, and then verbally abusing, his father (who didn’t do the same to him) because he doesn’t like being punished for not picking up after himself.

The cartoon features an uncredited Hal Peary who, in 1950, walked away from a starring role on “The Great Gildersleeve” radio show and into the waiting arms of Bill Paley, waving a seven-year, pay for play-or-no-play contract to jump from NBC to CBS. It was a bad move for both of them. Peary’s show, which critics noted was too much like Gildersleeve to be a mere coincidence, lasted a season. CBS couldn’t sell it and was forced to cut the rate card to try to swing a sponsorship. There was talk of Peary taking it to television, but that evaporated with his listening audience. NBC carried on with Peary sound-alike Willard Waterman as Gildersleeve and kept him in the role when the show went to TV, rejecting Peary in the process.

Peary went back to what he had been doing in San Francisco in 1927—spinning records, first at WMGM in New York, then on KABC in Los Angeles by May of 1954. He was handed the morning show (and read his own news) in early July and that’s what he was doing when UPA signed him to narrate this cartoon (Variety, Nov. 26, 1954). Peary couldn’t have been hurting for cash; Variety reported in August 8, 1957 he was living comfortably off his residuals in Manhattan Beach.

Anyway, back to the cartoon.

The designs were by Bob Dranko and they hewed to what was becoming a cliché at UPA—flat scenery and transparent furniture though, admittedly, not all the backgrounds are flat. Still, they’re attractive and Dranko’s colour selections are good, too. I can’t snip together all the pans of the drawings but here are a few examples.



And what’s he doing to his dad’s car?



Critics just doted over these cartoons. Fine, I suppose. But, at the same time, they sneered at some of the greatest cartoons in history. Witness this letter to the editor in the November 10, 1954 edition of Variety:

CARTOONS TOO CRUEL, FOR MAT KID TRADE?
Editor, Variety:
I notice in a recent Variety that Hollywood’s cartoon makers are meeting to honor Walter Lantz. I should like to suggest to them (excluding Disney and Bosustow) that they discuss ways and means of making cartoons attractive and entertaining once again instead of vulgar displays of violence and viciousness. Their creations these days are made up of crude and unrelated incidents in which ugly animals inflict the most painful and cruel acts upon each other.
In a recent Tom and Jerry the cat’s whiskers were torn out and its claws cut off; it was frozen, battered into different shapes, squashed and stripped of its fur. “Bugs Bunny” [shorts] are the same. This happens in cartoon-after-cartoon without relief; eyes are bloodshot, teeth fall out, ugly lumps rise on heads and dynamite is the climax to every scene. It’s enough to make sensitive people ill, and those who go to see intelligent pictures must sit through this so-called entertainment. And they are shown to children by the score on Saturday afternoons!
Do the makers of these cartoons not realize what harmful effects these horrors have on children and adults in their appreciation of films and attitude toward, and treatment of, animals? If it is not possible for them to use intelligent stories and artistic interpretation, as do the UPA and Disney studios, then the other producers should stop making cartoons, for they are debasing one of the most skillful and expressive forms of film making.
This much is certain: if producers do not cut out this violence there will soon be such as outcry from parent-teacher associations that they will bring stricter censorship upon themselves. All that is necessary is a little beauty, art and imagination. They cost no more than the ugliness we see at present.
(CBC Film Commentator)


Evidently Mr. or Ms. Canadian Taxpayer-Funded Movie Watcher and other critics hadn’t really been watching UPA cartoons all that carefully. Perhaps they had been mesmerised by the artwork style or the lack of talking human-like animals. What would PTA groups have thought if they stopped to realise this cartoon is about an abusive, self-centred child who didn’t learn his lesson (The kid walks out at the end of this cartoon with his fists clenched. He’s a candidate for anger management when he really becomes an adult). Or what about UPA’s bread-winning series that laughed at an old half-blind man. Why not a “cruel” label there?

On the other hand, at the end of 1953, the Motion Picture Herald’s annual poll of “Money-Making Stars” declared Bugs Bunny the winner in the shorts category for the ninth year in a row. He received more votes than Gary Cooper, winner in the feature category. Tom and Jerry (and the Tex Avery/Dick Lundy MGM cartoons) were number two. The Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes, separate from Bugs, came in eighth. What about Mr./Ms. CBC’s choices? Disney was third and Magoo was seventh. I’ll side with the exhibitors, thanks.

Note: some rare UPA art on the blog coming this weekend.

6 comments:

  1. The rotten kid in "Spare the Child" sorta looks like the rotten kid Sid Phillips in "Toy Story!"

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  2. It looks like a guy at Highlights for Kids trying to rip off Jones.

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  3. Yowp, thanks for saying all those kind things about the "disgustingly violent" Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons of yesteryear. It's a tonic to see UPA cartoons put in their place, after so much exultation for such a long time.

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  4. Also, in some memorable cartoons, we see Jerry Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny using good ol' fashioned corporal punishment on deserving juvenile delinquent funny animals and kids.

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  5. I'll be in the minority here, probably, and say that I really like the various stories that UPA did [and UPA influenced a lot of cartoons from all the studios. However, ONE particular Bugs/Elmer classic that's OPERA based from 1957 and owing a certain part to UPA flopped--hint...Chuck Jones directed it.,:) and Jones and Abe Levitow later went to work, along with Mel Blanc, for UPA!]. Still I agree with Mark that UPA got finally put in its place just as well..Steve

    [Though my username namesake Pokey is from a show that ALSO was pretty genteel and from THE SAME ERA!!!!]

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  6. Kinda odd that Hal Peary's name wasn't listed in the film at all unless he either asked not to use it or for some other reason. Of course other noted actors had gotten voice credits in UPA shorts during that time, though not always the case I noticed. Interesting though to see someone go from The Great Gildersleeve to this....
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQqyDj7RX6Y

    "What would PTA groups have thought if they stopped to realise this cartoon is about an abusive, self-centred child who didn’t learn his lesson (The kid walks out at the end of this cartoon with his fists clenched. He’s a candidate for anger management when he really becomes an adult)."

    Heck the look of that mother's face as she stands there at the doorway thinking "What is my purpose in life?" just seals it. Just not a good cartoon, and from what I understand, they wanted to suggestively write in a line about the kid going out with the mom that really flip the dad out.

    "Or what about UPA’s bread-winning series that laughed at an old half-blind man. Why not a “cruel” label there?"

    Apparently political correctness didn't happen yet.

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