Saturday 23 August 2014

Boing Boing, You're Dead

Note: Since I bashed UPA earlier in the week, here’s a post for those of you who are fans of the studio.

There’s a pretty good chance you haven’t seen the 1950s cartoons “Prehistoric Eohippus,” “Jittery Deer-Foot Dan” and “The Unenchanted Princess.” The last one sounds like a Fractured Fairy Tale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, and kind of looks like one (observe to your right) but these cartoons were all contained within a long-vanished TV programme called “The Boing-Boing Show.”

It starred Gerald McBoing-Boing (why it wasn’t called “The McBoing-Boing Show” isn’t clear) and was produced by UPA, the cartoon studio that bought the story rights to the character from Dr. Seuss, completely redesigned him in the flat UPA style, then won an Oscar. Like anything UPA, critics loved the show. Daily Variety’s review came in its December 17, 1956 edition.

A new television cult undoubtedly will spring up as a result of the arrival of Gerald McBoing-Boing on the video scene. And, as is the case with all cults, the vociferous supporters will meet with equally vociferous opposition. In the long run, however, “The Boing Boing Show” should settle down to enough of a following to more than justify its place on the television screens; it’s a light-hearted, humorous and frequently charming entry.
Initialler sets forth a format encompassing animated cartoon treatment of a pair of novel-tunes, “A Horse of Course” and "Miserable Pack of Wolves,” plus a pair of cartoon shorts. For the opener, one is the classic fable of the origination of Gerald and the other is fable based on the life of the French painter, Raoul Dufy. Latter packs some interesting art world information into its colorful and whimsical footage to provide an intriguing segment. The “McBoing-Boing” original, of course, still stands as solid fare.
Animation hews to the high UPA quality throughout, but there appeared to be some difficulty with the color on the original and some segments showed to better advantage on black-and-white screens. Show features an excellent original musical theme by Chico Hamilton. Bill Goodwin does an easy job as narrator. It is, for the time being, a CBS-house show.

The show ran for a half hour starting at 5:30 p.m. every other Sunday (2:30 on the West Coast). It was off the air by mid-March. Realistically, it didn’t have a chance. The reasons for the demise can be found in the syndicated TV Keynotes column of January 15, 1957:

Boing! Gerald's Comic But Expensive! $70,000 For 30 Minutes Viewing

Probably the brightest and most ingenious TV show to come out this winter is the Sunday afternoon half-hour cartoon series, the Boing-Boing Show. The title is taken from UPA's first big cartoon hit, Gerald McBoing-Boing, the little boy who only speaks in sound effects.
Gerald plays host, introducing four cartoon segments, running from three to six minutes, with musical backgrounds about such people as painter Raoul Dufy, The Average Giraffe, a Sad Lion, the Twirliger Twins, and a little girl who hits wolves on the nose.
The appeal of the cartoons comes from the UPA approach known on TV first in commercials—the Harry and Bert ones, the Mr. Magoo beer ads, etc. The UPA approach is simplicity, a light touch, stylized drawings, and a fresh use of color influenced by painters like Picasso, Matisse, Braque. The approach also differs in that artists create the show.
$70,000 Show
The big problem for UPA on the TV series is the high cost, said to be around $70,000 for 30 minutes of animation, which CBS is putting up while looking for a sponsor. So in conceiving a segment, producer Bob Cannon, and color expert and choreographer Jules Engel have to eliminate as much production value as possible.
"It's a good discipline," said Mr. Engel the other day at the small UPA studio in Burbank near the huge Warner Brothers lot. "We have to get to the point quicker."
Getting artists who can work in the UPA style is another problem. Training them takes time. "We had one talented young man who was here six or eight months before he suddenly saw what we were trying to do," said Engel. "We spend our time trying to take things out of pictures."
So Simple It's Difficult
It's been a long pull for UPA trying to put their style over. War training films and their early cartoons helped a bit, but not many backers jumped on their side. Producer Cannon remembers vividly telling his wife when he began the first Gerald McBoing-Boing show. "We're going to do it this way or it's the end." Most of the Hollywood criticism after the show was, "but it's too simple — looks like anybody can do it."
Mr. Cannon says his job now is "in getting out of the way of the guys who do the work." The trouble, for a while, was trying to pick the artists who could do the best job. He gives credit to the artists, the story men and the musicians for the conception of the segments. "That's what attracted the musicians like Shorty Rogers," said Mr. Cannon, "the fact everyone could speak up out here."
A story idea is tossed about between all groups and someone might take off with it. "In the beginning several were too costly and we've learned now we never should have considered them. There are others," Mr. Cannon continued, "like a series we had pegged on painters, but we never finished. We either couldn't get the right artist, or the story dwindled, or the cost became prohibitive."

Stories, cost and lack of sponsorship all contributed to the show’s demise, though it was brought back for a short rerun. Let’s face it. Who wants to watch a half hour of charm and whimsey, other than maybe Bobe Cannon? (Bill Scott, the future Rocky and Bullwinkle producer fired by the studio during the Communist scare, returned to try to make the stories funnier. I can only imagine Cannon’s reaction).

Life magazine evidently profiled the show and assigned photographer Ralph Crane to the story. He took pictures of cels or layout drawings that had been tacked up on a cork board. As the cartoons themselves have never been released on home video that I know, this will give you a bit of an idea of the graphic style.

This is from one of the cartoons starring the Twirliger Twins. They appeared in “Follow Me,” “Alphabet Song,” “Average Giraffe,” “The Violin Recital” and “The Ballet Lesson.”

“The Unenchanted Princess.” Besides Bill Scott’s presence as a writer on the series, there’s another Jay Ward connection as this short was narrated by Edward Everett Horton, the man who performed the same delectable task on Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales.

These are likely from “Martians Come Back.”

“The Historic Eohippus.”

Don’t know about the top frame but the second is from “Outlaw” (aka “Jittery Deer-Foot Dan”). Stan Freberg provides a voice.

I suspect the top drawing is from “The Painter.” The bottom may be from “The Merry-Go-Round in the Jungle.” I’m pretty certain I’ve seen that cartoon somewhere, perhaps it was one of those Jerry Beck rarities that was on line for awhile.

There are other photos from this shoot that you can see on line. Even if you’re not a UPA fan—and I’m not crazy about much of their stuff—the artwork is interesting and worth a look. Click HERE.

By the way, a number of cartoons on the Boing-Boing show featured inventors and other characters from history. I can’t help but think of the Mr. Peabody segment on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Many of the same artists and writers that toiled at UPA in its pretentious days toiled on Rocky, one of the least pretentious TV cartoon shows ever. From what I can gather about the “Boing Boing Show,” they tried to leave pretentiousness behind there, too.


  1. I don't find UPA as pretentious as some do, but I see that their approach was hampered by weak direction. Too many of their cartoons run too long, and lack strong storytelling to back up the design work. When it comes together, as with their brilliant Tell-Tale Heart or Gerald McBoing-Boing, it's a delight.
    Thanks for posting these. I have seen so little of the Boing Boing Show. It's really a buried treasure.

  2. I have copies of most of the cartoons from the Boing Boing Show, and the only thing that is predictable is it's unpredictability. The cartoons are all over the place, some great, some boring, some are just unusual experiments. The music on the show ranged from moody jazz music by Shorty Rogers, to Mel Leven singing and playing his ukulele.

    I've known, sometimes worked with, and interviewed many people from UPA, and I believe they were as concerned with making entertaining films as people from other studios. More so in many cases. Some of their pictures were klinkers, but what studio didn't have them? UPA seems to get a bum rep among fans because of all the dumb articles that the film critics wrote back when the pictures were new. I don't think that's fair. Take any cartoon from any studio for what it is worth, on it's own merits or lack of them. It's not necessary to take sides as if watching cartoons were a sporting event.

  3. The critics opinions -- which lasted well into the mid-1960s -- that UPA could do no wrong and everything other non-Disney studios of the time were putting out was mindless violent dreck not worthy of consideration in hindsight was a negative for the studio, because you had the arbiters of taste demanding you like this and hate that, which (whenever that phenomenon occurs) causes many people to recoil at being told what to do, especially if the hype far exceeds the product.

    A lot of the mid-50s' UPA material reminds me of the problem with the Chuck Jones cartoons Bobe Cannon worked on in the early 1940s -- they're sedate and with about 2-3 minutes less of material than the cartoon requires, as if charm and design alone are enough to put the cartoon over (which might be the case in a theatrical situation, where you were only expected to watch the short once. In the world of television, where repeated viewings are a given, a lack of depth or density of the materiel is just deadly for those being asked to enjoy the same thing multiple times).

  4. Likes and dislikes should be a matter of individual taste. "The wrong kind of people said we should like them (decades ago) so we should hate them" isn't a good enough reason to hate them.

  5. I certainly agree with Mike's statements about taking sides, but what I have seen of the Boing Boing Show ranges from occasionally charming to repeatedly dull, especially in half-hour doses. The show's failure was that the studio deluded itself that adults (not us geeks 50 years later) would watch it and how much it cost (Daily Variety reports it lost over a million dollars). If they were made twenty years later for Sesame Street, ALL of the Boing Boing cartoons would be considered "genius" because there'd be no misconception of the audience they aimed for.

  6. I've been looking for The Historic Eohippus for 25 years! You know if it's online somewhere to be viewed?

    1. Afraid not. I imagine it's in someone's private collection.