Dr. Toon: One for those Long Gone
The sound you hear in the streets is that of thousands of animatophiles rejoicing: The United Productions of America studio, defunct these many years, has returned like a beloved and benevolent spirit in the form of a new book by Adam Abraham (see Fred Patten's review on this website). By happy coincidence, a DVD compilation of 38 fully restored UPA Jolly Frolics cartoon shorts has finally been made available through the courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. Due to this wonderful confluence of events, UPA has returned to the limelight it last owned in the mid-to-late 1950s.
These developments seem to be sheer serendipity rather than some deep-rooted, unconscious need for the public to recover the lost élan of UPA. After all, as even Abraham admits, UPA is "dimly remembered or completely forgotten today…" Many casual cartoon fans, if asked, may be hard-pressed to identify UPA as the cartoon studio that birthed Mr. Magoo. Even more reason to be excited about these new releases…and to look back at what UPA meant to American animation and America itself.
I have always balked at calling the UPA canon "revolutionary"; every ingredient that elevated the studio to acclaim was already in place. Free-form experimental animation, both European and American, had existed since the 1930s. The best-known exemplar is probably Oskar Fischinger. Theories of perception based on sparse graphic design were already in place. György Képes was applying them to modern art as early as 1947. "Limited" animation was not unknown either, although it was not yet a widespread practice at most Hollywood animation studios. It was the genius of UPA's creative personalities, many of whom originally came from the Disney studio, to combine these elements in mainstream theatrical animation.
Steven Bosustow, Dave Hilberman, Zachary Schwartz, Robert (Bobe) Cannon, John Hubley, and Bill Hurtz were not artistic renegades, at least in the sense of the Dadaists during the 1920s. They were gainfully employed animators, designers, and artists who lost faith (or jobs) at Disney in the wake of the infamous 1941 strike. The superstars that passed through the doors of UPA at one time or another -- Art Babbit, Bill Tytla, Grim Natwick, Bill Melendez, and Paul Julian among them -- were artists who had chafed against the confines of traditional theatrical animation and reached out to explore new possibilities that could not be realized under the existing studio system. While this is a great simplification of UPA's early history and ignores the fact that these men also needed jobs, it is fair to say that most of them thought alike and were willing to stretch the known boundaries of their profession.