Saturday, 18 October 2014

Early Plaudits For UPA

In the 1950s, UPA was the darling of film critics and movie columnists who were wont to write about animated cartoons, thanks to a little boy named McBoing-Boing that the studio purchased from Dr. Seuss. But the studio received some compliments for what it was trying to accomplish some years before that, and from a not unexpected source.

PM Daily was a literate newspaper with a deliberate leftist slant. It should be no surprise, then, that it would support a film studio founded by former unionised strikers, who won contracts with the United Auto Workers, and created a sales pitch film to re-elect Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president in 1944.

It would appear someone at UPA, which was just getting off the ground and dealing with cash-flow difficulties, felt some free publicity was in order, and who better to give it than the politically like-minded PM? At least, that’s a safe assumption as the newspaper’s film critic was invited to a special screening of some of the company’s work. UPA had just finished The Brotherhood of Man, and its theme of racial equality in the post-war era was, no doubt, appealing to the editors at PM.

The paper’s movie critic was John T. McManus, later a two-time candidate for governor of New York and one of the founders of The National Guardian, another publication devoted to left-of-centre causes. Here’s McManus’ take on the early UPA studio. The photos accompanied the column from April 10, 1946; it’s a shame these copies are not very clear. It’s less than shocking that McManus takes a shot at Walt Disney but a pleasant revelation that he’s a fan of Bugs Bunny, though it’s easy to read the war-time version of the rabbit as a fighter against The Big Guy (and, therefore, Corporate America).

Speaking of MOVIES
Fun and Function

The most fun and the most enlightenment I have had out of films this year I enjoyed this week at a preview of some of the works of a promising young animated film company called United Productions of America.
UPA, as the outfit will be referred to hereinafter, may best be introduced as the organization which made the Vote-for-FDR cartoon featurette, Hell-Bent for Election, for the United Automotive Workers, CIO, in 1944. When the company undertook this project, its first, it called itself United Film Productions, but actually it was merely a group of fugitive artists from the Walt Disney studios who got tired of Mickey Mousing and cut loose for themselves to devote their animated artistry to useful purpose.
The result of their success with Hell-Bent for Election was a flock of instructional work for the Army and Navy. How they got their stuff past the brass hats who insist that entertainment and learning mustn’t mix is probably a military secret, but I can't recall when I had so much fun learning things as in watching a couple of films called Fear and Japan, each about five minutes long.
Fear let the GIs in on the biological fact that everybody experiences fear and then proceeded to show, in terms of St. George and his fabled dragon fight, how to turn fear into fearlessness. What interested me particularly, aside from the irresistible humor of the treatment, was the new departure in animation design evidenced in the silhouette-style settings of knights and castles.

Japan introduced the gentlemen in the illustrations at the top of the page, Sato-San or Messrs. Average Japanese and the way Japanese thought-control police operate to keep Sato-San thinking straight. The film ends with a regular atomic punch but up to then it is as delightful a rib of Japanese custom and formality as a scene from The Mikado, and a lot more meaningful.
What brings UPA into the news of movies at this moment is the fact that the company has just completed and is preparing for general release a 15-minute cartoon subject based on the Races of Mankind pamphlet bv Ruth Benedict and Dr. Gene Weltfish. The film is called The Brotherhood of Man, sponsored by the UAW-CIO. It is in full color and will be available in 16-mm, as well as theater-size prints.
We will report more fully on The Brotherhood of Man when stills from it are available for reproduction in these pages but in the meantime my advice to all organizations, church groups, unions and others who may be listening is to get your order in now for a booking of this film, because it is a real lulu, as funny as a Bugs Bunny and as urgent as the Atlantic Charter.
The eastern address of United Productions of America is 1 E. 57th St., the western headquarters are at 1558 North Vine St., Hollywood 28. Releasing plans are not yet complete for The Brotherhood of Man, but I believe it may tour the country coupled with The Open City in addition to being made available for the 16-mm. non-theatrical circuit. It will probably be booked locally in 16-mm. through Brandon Films, 1600 Broadway, which also furnishes projection equipment for groups not owning their own apparatus.
Another film innovation in which UPA specializes for classroom and organizational use is the “slide-film” or filmstrip. This is a series of scenes printed on a strip of film about a yard long and projected like lantern slides through a stereopticon machine, usually in conjunction with a disk recording of the accompanying commentary, sound effects etc. The record signals the operator, by musical note, when to change the slide.
I saw three of these—one called The Man in the Cage, an ingratiating and convincing argument for a permanent FEPC; another called Permanent Health Plan, made to help Henry Kaiser have the last laugh on reactionary medical authorities who opposed installation of health plans at Kaiser plants; and one called Svensons Seniority, which is a riotous exposition of how a shop grievance is handled by the UAW-CIO at the Ford Plant. I can't go into more detail about these today, but let's consider this an agenda for the near future, when we'll go into the problem of Svenson's Seniority et al with full illustration and advice on how to book slide-film lectures and have fun with functional films.

1 comment:

  1. Ted Geisel was also PM's editorial cartoonist in the early 1940s, so there's also that connection between UPA, the newspaper and Dr. Seuss.