Saturday, 29 April 2017

UPA Acclaim

In the world of film, there’s room for comedy, drama, adventure, mystery—unless it’s an animated cartoon. In that case, critics (for the most part) decided there was no room for comedy or, if there was, it must be subtle and underplayed.

So it was that critics fell over themselves to expound on the “realistic art” of Walt Disney and then later the “adultness” of UPA.

The UPA story has been told in many places, the tale of a studio that was deliberately anti-Disney, anti-Warners, anti-funny animal, where graphics were important and, perhaps to some of its artists, the only thing that mattered.

I’m afraid I can take or leave pretty much all of UPA’s theatrical output. Mostly leave. The artists seem to be trying too hard to be different, trying too hard to be droll instead of funny. To be honest, the most enjoyable UPA cartoons I’ve seen are the studio’s TV commercials. They are droll, if not funny, and the drawing style is different without clobbering the viewer over the head about it. Mind you, UPA wasn’t the only studio experimenting with character (and background) design and movement in TV ads at the time.

The New York Herald Tribune published this little primer on the UPA studio on November 23, 1953, skipping its pre-history and starting with the Columbia release contract. It’s not an out-and-out rave but shows its appreciation. As you likely know, the Thurber feature talked about was never made. Columbia didn’t think Thurber was box office enough; the same logic that resulted in Mr. Magoo being plunked into the studio’s eventual Arabian Knights feature. And if Rooty Toot Toot was a “tremendous success with children,” it had nothing do with the story. Children soon showed CBS what they wanted—bargain-basement Terrytoons instead of the coy Boing-Boing Show.

The Animated Cartoon Becomes a Full-Fledged Art
Poe, Thurber Stories Made Into Films

HOLLYWOOD, Nov. 22.—Four years ago a group of young animated-cartoon experts banded together for the express purpose of taking their product out of the pictures-for-kids or “cat and mouse” stage. They called their company UPA, for United Productions of America, and in the short time they have been active they have completely revolutionized the animated cartoon.
While their break with tradition was not clean—their first releasing contract called for three “Fox and Crow” cartoons—their initial effort, “Robin Hoodlum,” was so original and mature that it was given an exclusive run in the so-called “art circuit.”
Since then, UPA has ticked off many a cartoon milestone and won a gross of awards here and abroad. In 1950, for instance, three of its nearsighted Mr. Magoo films were selected for exhibitions at Edinburgh.
That same year the company won its first Academy Award for “Gerald McBoing Boing,” a highly imaginative cartoon about a little boy who spoke sound effects rather than words. And last year it received an Oscar nomination for “Rooty Toot Too,” a lusty interpretation of the famous legend of Frankie and Johnny, but was beaten in the award by a “Tom and Jerry” picture.
“Rooty Toot Toot” is regarded around the company’s tiny studio in Burbank as the turning point in its history. The subject matter, which is concerned largely with sex, lust and murder, was a distinct departure from anything ever dealt with in animated cartoons. Its tremendous success, both with grown-ups and children, paved the way for further explorations into uncharted fields.
One example of UPA’s new adventures is a cartoon translation of a contemporary literary classic, Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline” (recently shown in New York). This is the story of twelve little schoolgirls in Paris who do everything in unison like brushing their teeth, smiling at good deeds and frowning at bad ones. They live such identical lives that when one gets appendicitis, the others all want it, too.
This unusual project has been approached with great reverence. Bemelmans’ unique art style has been faithfully followed throughout. Some of the colors have been intensified here and there, perhaps, but the end result is as typically Bemelmans as if the artist-author had animated it himself.
Soon UPA will release two other animated cartoons which also are visual counterparts of famous stories—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe, and a fable of our time, “The Unicorn in the Garden,” by James Thurber.
The art approach in each instance has been set by the tone of the original. Poe’s story is ghoulish and somber, so the characters and the settings take on some of the atmosphere of a Charles Addams’ drawing. This film has been a labor of love in this respect, for the artists at UPA are extremely fond of Addams’ work, and some day they hope to bring some of his sinister people to the screen.
Light, Gay Fable
As for the Thurber fable, it is light and gay, like his drawings, and the animators have simply assimilated his style. Some minor liberties have been taken with the colors, though, because there is no evidence that Thurber ever worked in anything but black and white. But if he had, the UPA artists feel certain that he would have used colors as sparingly as they have. Similarly, they have applied sloppy washes to the backgrounds on the simple theory that if Thurber had ever attempted to fill in his backgrounds, he’d have been sloppy about it.
UPA is pinning great hopes on its Thurber picture, by the way, because if it is successful, the company hopes to follow it up with a full-length feature based on his famous “Battle of the Sexes.” Some time ago, they took an option on this work but haven’t yet been able to raise the necessary backing, which is estimated at $500,000.
Despite the acclaim which greets its work, UPA has not yet broken down the distributors’ resistance to full-length animated cartoons of a non-“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” character, but the company doesn’t intend to give up trying.

1 comment:

  1. The praise for UPA as a concept by the critical set continued well into the 1960s, after UPA wasn't even UPA anymore. The praise was baffling to me in real-time as a 7-year-old, and seemed to simply be a reflexive thing among the critics -- the praise for the groundbreaking visual efforts and stories of the early 1950s might be justified, but they simply kept praising UPA, even after movie-goers had helped Columbia decide by the end of the decade all those laurels weren't enough to keep the studio from losing its support in favor of the dreary Loopy de Loop series.

    (And the critical acclaim may have blinded the UPA staff to the powers of the wider market and the need to respond to it, and not a few supportive reviewers. When the Gerald McBoing Boing show's quirky segments failed to make a hit with TV viewers, instead of adjusting their films' content, UPA simply repackaged the concept into their theatrical "Ham and Hattie" series with the same result -- critical huzzahs; audience indifference. Cue Hoyt Curtain's Loopy de Loop music...)