Dr. Toon: One for those Long Gone
Rather than focus on the history of the studio, its artists, and its works (I'll leave you to the book and the DVD), I would like to share some thoughts on the UPA studio's intersection with American culture, since we all know that nothing happens in a vacuum. We also know that every piece of animation produced reflects the society and the times in which it was made. In this case, we will see that not only did UPA have to happen, it happened during the best and most appropriate time for such a studio to flourish.
It always seems to be a misconception that the post WWII years were characterized by blandness, conformity, consumerism (and cars with big tail fins). The era of the Gray Flannel Suit, the Company Man, and the Happy Housewife, all of them content in newfound suburban repose. The actual truth, as most historians know, was far different than nostalgic voices would have us remember. UPA existed roughly from 1947, although the groundwork for an independent studio was laid a few years earlier, until 1960, when Steve Bosustow sold out to Henry G. Saperstein. UPA continued, but hardly in the spirit of the original studio. UPA, in short, existed during all of the postwar years leading up to the Kennedy administration.
This was not a tranquil or even conformist time. It was a time of fear and paranoid suspicions, an arena of Cold War, where imaginary Communists hatched nefarious plans across the creative canvases of Hollywood. Indeed, no animation studio suffered more from scrutiny and unfounded accusation than UPA. John Hubley, the artist who might have best symbolized UPA and its artistic proclivities was defamed and exiled from the business by the relentless hounding of the House Un-American Activities Committee; he would not recover for another decade. Still, the same era was also responsible for upheavals in art, literature, music, and film that belied any ideas of staid conformity.
Pop Art first gained attention in 1952 through the actions of the Independent Group in Great Britain, a gathering of artists (that also included writers and architects) determined to fashion a statement on mass culture. Pop Art could include images found in advertising, graphic design, product design, and even comic books. By 1958, the form was well established and represented by such artists as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenburg, and Andy Warhol. It would not be a stretch to imagine any of them experimenting at UPA.
Poetry and literature were profoundly influenced by the Beats during the same era. Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac were perhaps the best-known Beat poets and writers. Both poetry and prose were made highly elastic under their influence, and some critics might have added incomprehensible. However, the Beats were kindred spirits to the game-changers at UPA.
Bop and improvisational jazz forms flourished, vastly different from previous permutations of popular music. Charlie Parker blew frantic flames of agony from his horn while Death applauded in the audience; John Coltrane led unforgettable forays into musical jungles of indefinable terrain. Miles Davis was experimenting with wild flights that resulted in the birth of fusion jazz decades later. In short, music mirrored modern art, an aural twin to the graphic experimentation taking place in UPA's animation.