Dr. Toon: One for those Long Gone
This is not to say that UPA was completely congruent with all of these changes. For example, if any studio on Earth could have produced an animated version of Ginsburg's epic poem Howl, UPA would have been the best choice, but Bobe Cannon would certainly have balked at such an undertaking. Although jazz music was morphing into new styles during the 1950s, the least interesting components of UPA cartoons are typically the musical scores. UPA had no house musician on the order of, say, Carl Stalling at Warner or Scott Bradley at MGM. While it might have been interesting to have Miles Davis hook up with the UPA crew, nothing that exciting ever came to pass. Not all conventions of Pop Art found their way to UPA even though the studio did a fair number of TV commercials.
It is fairer to postulate that UPA was to animation what the Bops, Beats, and Pop Artists were to their endeavors. UPA, in retrospect, was a product of 1950s cultural zeitgeist in which new forms of artistic creativity found unprecedented expression: A transformative studio during transformative times. Just as no one could confuse Charlie Parker with Paul Whiteman, no one would mistake John Hubley's Rooty Toot Toot for a Donald Duck or Goofy short. UPA was a new voice in an old medium, and was thus a studio whose time had come.
Then why, as Abraham noted earlier, is UPA largely forgotten today? Many of the musicians, artists, and writers mentioned above are immortal. It's a good bet that more people can correctly identify John Coltrane and Andy Warhol than Bill Hurtz or Pete Burness. Michael Barrier succinctly stated the probable reason for this in his definitive work Hollywood Cartoons (1999, p.536-7):
"UPA left an extraordinarily small legacy of first-rate cartoons – fewer than a dozen, even at a generous estimate, all of them made in a two-or-three year span in the early fifties, and most of them owing their stature to Hubley's contribution… There was at the heart of most of the UPA films only a catalogue of prohibitions (against talking animals, against violence) and what amounted to a sample book of very tasteful decorative patterns."
In one sense, this is somewhat unfair. Not every work bespeaks of genius. There were certainly canvases that Rauschenburg regretted, poetic efforts by Ferlinghetti that he felt should have fed the circular file, and recorded jam sessions that Art Blakely probably thought, in retrospect, were a waste of his time. Genius on a constant basis is impossible. It is also noted that UPA was above all a commercial studio that had to make a profit, and if that meant more Magoo and less Unicorn in the Garden, that was simply economic reality. However, Barrier does have a cogent point: UPA cartoons evidenced little emotional fire, generated no controversies (apart from the Red Scare folderol), and tended to produce passionless exercises in charm and style, hardly the stuff that jolts one's eyes open and invites controversy. UPA was doomed never to blaze trails, only carve them silently.
The influence of UPA far outlived the studio. The UPA style inspired tremendous movement in Czechoslovakia with the advent of the Zagreb studio. UPA impacted modern advertising, and left a lasting influence on American animation. Countless cartoons today owe their distinctive look to ideas that went from storyboard to animation fifty years ago. Now that their story and their films have resurfaced in 2012, it's time to appreciate what this singular studio accomplished by flattening the world, dousing it in color, and gracing it with gentle, honest wit.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.