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.
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.
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.