Saturday 28 October 2017

The Independent Cartoon Movement

Critics got tired of Walt Disney.

Uncle Walt and his cartoons were praised all through the ‘30s for one development after another —Flowers and Trees, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Fantasia—but now, writers about film wanted something different, something modern. And they got it when UPA came along with its flat characters, stylised settings and quirky music.

John McManus of PM Daily was one of the first to notice the upstart company in a column of April 10, 1946. You can read what he had to say in THIS post. The vast bulk of articles about the studio that I’ve found are dated after the release of Gerald McBoing Boing in late 1950. But here’s one from the British Film Institute magazine, Sight and Sound, with a cover date of January 1, 1950. After a paragraph about Ichabod And Mr. Toad, in which the writer regrets the “unshatterable egg-shaped forms...of the conventional cartoon,” he looks elsewhere in the field, and gives a neat little history of alternate forms of graphics in commercial/industrial American animation.
Splintered from Disney and staffed by some of his dissenting talent, the independent cartoon in Hollywood is a little explored segment of practically experimental work. Without pretending to the title—it would probably repudiate it—this little shreds-and-patches cartoon movement has the eagerness and gift for drastic invention which avant-garde favours—plus, one cannot help pointing out, the practised craftsmanship in the art so seldom met with in better publicised recent “art-in-cinema” in this country. The war, as with other film forms, offered cartoonists working in the Army and Navy instructional units the opportunity, seconded by need, for considerable flexibility in their work. The movement is roughly ten years old, with early scattered “incidents” taking place inside major cartoon studios and out. (Among these: the Chuck Jones-John McGleish [sic] The Dover Boys at Pimento U, and the several “Mina Bird” cartoons from the still interesting Chuck Jones unit at Warners; the John Hubley-John McGleish Rocky Road to Ruin, a bold, not wholly successful satire on the rags-to-riches theme, at Columbia.) The largest independent group to manage to consolidate itself is to-day known as U.P.A.—United Productions of America, and for it at one time or another during its first six years have worked nearly all of the new movement’s leading artists.
These rebels have upset the tyranny of the egg-shape by employing frank flatness and unreality in constantly refreshing and surprising ways, a rebellion too seldom noticed in the Disney fortress ever since the “Pink Elephant” sequence in Dumbo, the “Baby Weems” sequence in The Reluctant Dragon. The human animal has been brought back into a cartoon respectability that it has not enjoyed since silent cartoon series like “Colonel Heeza Liar”, “Farmer Alfalfa” and “Canimated Noos”. Nor is Disney’s ever-recurring (1) adorable (2) baby (3) animal a U.P.A. formula. Over all there is some recognition that the graphic and colour adventures of this century belong to animated cartoons as properly as to other media.
U.P.A.’s two most famous films have been Brotherhood Of Man (against racism) and Hell Bent For Election, a pro-Roosevelt campaign document—1944—sponsored along with Brotherhood by the United Automobile Worker, both of which gotLife spreads. And there have been others as good and better like Flat Hatting, one of a long and continuing series for the Navy’s Flight Safety Division; Swab Your Choppers, for the same arm’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery—a film of particular interest for its graphic simplification and stretches of non-animated action illusion. All of these films have been made for special, though not necessarily negligibly-sized audiences, but for one reason or another have by-passed the regular theatres. Last year, Columbia Pictures gave U.P.A. a five-year contract for sixty one-reel cartoons. The first of these, continuing an established Columbia series (“the Fox and Crow” series), were released in September and Dceember of last year. There have been two more delivered this year (with production tempo accelerating). The new series’ title, which will continue hereafter, is “Jolly Frolics”. The four cartoons available so far carry titles Robin Hoodlum, The Magic Fluke, The Ragtime Bear and Punchy de Lion.[sic]
The quality characterising the first three (I have not seen Punchy de Lion) is abundance. In a cartoon series where normally all is uniform, their individuality of plan and overall idea, non-repeating dramatis personae, and personal graphic styles, are unheard-of extravagances. Robin Hoodlum’s Gilbertian libretto is too intricate almost for comprehension in one viewing, with all the sight and sound distractions; without impeding movement a valid sound-speech effect is gotten in the dialogue take-off of British stage (film also?) accent excesses. In The Magic Fluke an unaccustomed pointing up of background is in the detail and colour richness (an antique gold) given tiers of baroque galleries up which, in one camera effect, we go endlessly climbing. The Ragtime Bear—the best so far—corrects Hoodlum’s diffuseness, is funnier than Magic Fluke. It has all kinds of style: drawing reminiscent of Flat Hatting’s—touchstone on graphics; a spareness in the music score to give in-the-room impact to the delightful sheerness of the unaccompanied banjo. Its introduction of human characters, notably the short-tempered, always almost catastrophically near-sighted Mr. Magoo—of human characters, that is, not grotesque-ified or single-traited only, like Popeye—will bear watching.

Unfortunately, Magoo’s shorts devolved into becoming dependent on the old man mistaking something for something else because of miserably poor vision. The one-shot cartoons wrapped uncharming characters and uninteresting stories in graphic styles that were becoming increasingly familiar, thanks to TV commercials by a host of studios. When Disney released Flowers and Trees in 1932, people cared about animated short films. By the time UPA’s The Jaywalker (1956) rolled around, the movie shorts business had been pretty much killed by television. The studio’s rise and fall had been pretty quick.

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