Freeway to UPA

Freeway by Mark Kalesniko (Fantagraphics)

UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection (TCM)

The eponymous metaphor of Matt Kalesniko's Freeway is almost too easy: A transportation network that once granted free and effortless mobility that's become a morass of stagnation and frustration to symbolize an animation business that promised personal expression amid camaraderie but delivers forced mediocrity in an atmosphere of Machiavellian backbiting.  Condemned to a purgatorial traffic jam, Kalesniko's dog-headed alter ego Alex grinds his teeth to reminiscences about his thwarted career, potentially idyllic but presently in-law plagued romance, and his abortive first expedition into Los Angeles, intermixed with idealized visions of animation's golden age and premonitions of violent highway death.  A spoilsport might point out that these vehicular calamities, including the drive-by shooting that provides the book's punch line, require speeds of something more than the glacial pace of a traffic jam, but as all of Alex's troubles arise from his dreams coming true, a violent death at the hands of forces beyond his control becomes a way of escape.

The Internet Movie Database, an authority some dispute, places Kalesniko smack dab at Disney for the re-birth and re-death of its animated feature division, from The Great Mouse Detective to Atlantis: The Lost Empire, in the role of assistant layout artist or layout assistant throughout, if those are different things.  I'm assuming he finally concluded it was better to reign in comics than serve in animation.  For his fictional Babbitt Jones Productions he takes the setting from the industrial Siberia Disney feature animation was exiled to during the early part of that period and the internal zeitgeist from the what-were-they-thinking/ were-they-thinking-at-all aimlessness of its end.  No one who's seen the internal strife on the macro level portrayed in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty would doubt the verisimilitude of the fictional office politics on the micro level of Freeway.  Kalesniko never quite puts his finger on the factor that made for the difference between in animation from the 1930s through the 1950s and of today, and that is the phenomenon of seven minute theatrical animated short subject.  The contemporary animated feature is a massive undertaking along the lines of an aircraft carrier or a cathedral.  Each individual picture is a do or die effort costing in the hundreds of millions and needing to rake in hundreds of millions more to pay out, and a failure can crush the career of the people in charge.  Even the vaunted Pixar will pull a project out of the hands of the director who instigated it if the investment appears threatened.  Feature length requires characters who engage the emotions of the audience in a way that throttles the anarchic spirits of the form.

The commercial circumstances of the animated short on the other hand created the environment for the art form to thrive in a way it may never do again.  The business of animated shorts was lucrative enough to support enough accomplished artists to produce it at the highest level.  At the same time the investment in each individual short was modest enough to experiment and take chances.  Sentiment could be courted or disdained as the animator pleased; all that mattered was the laugh.  Feature films of the studio era were created under the iron hand of supervising producers charged with keeping the artists on a tight rein.  Of the great animation studios, Looney Tunes and MGM were supervised by playboy types whose main concern was getting to the racetrack as early in the day as possible, leaving their employees to do their work in peace, while Disney and Fleischer were run by men who were artists themselves, dedicated to developing and expanding the form.  Even a studio as single-mindedly dedicated to mediocrity as Walter Lantz Productions would, in its Swing Symphonies series, give its functionaries a chance to be inspired.

It would be hard to overestimate the salutary effect Disney had on the medium as a whole.  While his artistic achievement would always be circumscribed by his commitment to Babbitry and harmless humor, he created a standard of excellence in animation the other studios were obliged to pursue in order to compete.  Secondly, because Disney so thoroughly dominated the middle ground he staked out, the other studios were driven to what he left on the table:  Violence, sex, urbanity, anarchy and irreverence.  The contrast was never underlined so explicitly as in the opening of Tex Avery's Screwball Squirrel, which was practically a declaration of war:


And then, just as the Avery unit at MGM and Looney Tunes were reaching their respective peaks, the lunatics got their own asylum: United Productions of America, better known as UPA.  What UPA was seeking asylum from was Disney, formed as it was by Disney union activists who found Walt to be a sore loser.  They would become the first animation studio since the advent of sound that Disney would be driven to imitate.  It was a revolution driven by necessity.  The animated cartoon as defined by Disney sought to convince the audience it was watching living creatures in a living world.  Even if it had been inclined to fall in line, UPA simply lacked the means.  Just as the International Style in architecture refused to disguise its materials to resemble natural forms, UPA resolved not to disguise the fact that animated cartoons were composed of lines but to revel in it.  The UPA ideal, achieved inconsistently but repeatedly, was to reinvent the cartoon with every new release.  Of all the studios UPA is the one where a layout artist (if not an assistant layout artist) could be at the heart of the creative process.

In 1950 the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, which had started out as an award for the best Walt Disney cartoon until MGM got its block voting organized, after which it became an award for the best Tom and Jerry, fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks:

For most of the 50s the Best Animated Short Award would be a contest between the UPA cartoon (or cartoons), the other studios' version of a UPA cartoon, and Tom and Jerry, whose faction remained well organized despite the fashion.  In 1956 the nominees were nothing but UPA cartoons.

It's hard to recapture the feeling of newness the UPA style had at the time, simply because the strategies the studio developed for making cartoons economically are practiced to this day.  Also like architecture's International Style, if the hands it's in are less than inspired the UPA style easily descends into dullness.  When UPA itself tried to do an ordinary cartoon the results tended to be mediocre, as in their early attempts to utilize the existing Fox and Crow characters, or most of the Mister Magoos.  When UPA was inspired the result was like nothing anyone had ever seen, as in their high point, Rooty Toot Toot:

As you can see, UPA was doing something that practically no Hollywood film of any kind was doing, much less an animated cartoon:  Flattering the audience for its sophistication.  In this they were exploiting a heretofore unexploited privilege of the animated short.  While traditional animated cartoons might have worked on a number of levels, one of those levels was almost always Something For The Kiddies.  UPA understood that because the animated cartoon was not the main thing the audience was buying a ticket to see, and because it would be over in seven minutes, it potentially had the luxury of appealing to sophistication, a quality that is normally the hardest sell in mass entertainment.  At their best they made uncompromising cartoons about adult concerns for an adult sensibility.  They were also fortunate in almost immediately coming up with an enduring meal ticket in the form of Mister Magoo, a character who proved that no one ever went broke finding a socially acceptable way to make fun of cripples.

I had feared that the flush times of the DVD boom had, in passing, passed UPA by.  Fortunately Turner Classic Movies has come to the rescue with The Jolly Frolics Collection, a beautifully restored and packaged three-disc collection of every non-Magoo UPA theatrical short (aside from a token appearance of his first cartoon, Ragtime Bear, Magoo is being reserved for another collection coming out later this year from Shout Factory).  At the risk of ingratitude, I would emphasize that the You Tube clips I so shamelessly embed here are not the prints that appear on the DVDs.  It's something every animation enthusiast ought to have not just for its intrinsic value but because the better it does the more likely TCM is to give Tex Avery and early Fleischer the same treatment.

I can't tell you that Jolly Frolics is three discs of unalloyed brilliance.  It's more akin to the box set of a talented musician who dies young, making every false start and partial success precious.  UPA arrived late, their output was somewhat spotty from the start, and the studio suffered a devastating blow when John Hubley, their leading creative light, was forced to leave for the thought crime of having been a communist.  Michael Barrier, a notoriously tough grader, has written that UPA only produced a dozen first rate cartoons.  In the Jolly Frolics Collection I myself only count about ten cartoons that fully live up to the studio's promise, but I think Barrier's count included Magoos.  The voice talent was not always stellar.  Their musical scores, though jazz, were not so much bop or even swing as moldy fig, and often feel more off the rack than custom tailored.  For all their stylistic innovation, they wound up proving by negative example the value of Disney imitation-of-life character animation:  Aside from Magoo UPA seldom acquire a life of their own, and even that exception is due more to the performance of Jim Backus than anything the animators did.

Of all the varieties of short subjects that once accompanied the main feature none would survive as long as the animated cartoon.  While the newsreels, travelogues, filmed variety acts, Larry, Moe and Curly Joe all one by one abandoned the silver screen for the glowing box, you could still expect to see a cartoon before the feature until the end of the 1960s.  But surviving wasn't necessarily thriving.  As rentals and budgets decreased the other studios could follow the cost-cutting strategies of UPA and be on the cutting edge as well.  Every studio would ultimately do its own take on UPA methods.  Here, for example, is From A to Z-Z-Z-Z from Chuck Jones:


SH-H-H-H-H, The last theatrical cartoon Tex Avery ever directed, at Walter Lantz Productions:

Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, from Walt Disney:


The first thing you will notice from these examples is how much more animation the other studios could do than UPA, even in the years of their decline.  The other thing is why, despite their inconsistency and limited output at the peak of their form, UPA is uniquely valuable.  What the other studios sought when they followed UPA was the appearance of sophistication.  UPA would deliver the thing itself.  Like the governor system on an engine, Hollywood film normally had a limit on how sophisticated it could be.  A Hollywood film could be as sophisticated as Ernst Lubitsch, but it couldn't be as sophisticated as Jean Renoir.  UPA was a rare instance where the governor system was off.  Among the five great animation studios it might not in retrospect rank higher than fifth, but it was in the category of the greats.

No studio followed UPA as sedulously as Disney.  As can be seen in the examples above, other studios would apply UPA methods to their normal cartoons.  Disney seemed to view UPA as a challenge to their supremacy, and tried to do battle on UPA's terms, and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom would indeed be the first Disney short to win an Academy Award in ten years.  Disney's most notable ventures into UPA territory are collected on Disney Rarities:  Celebrated Shorts 1920s to 1960s, an installment in the Walt Disney Treasures series that's still in circulation.  (To those who are looking for Walt Disney Treasures DVDs that are out of circulation here's a hint:  A Region 2 player and Amazon Italy.)  The end result most of the time is that they would fail to be UPA but cease to be Disney in the process.

In the era of diminishing returns UPA itself would be like the peasant who already has the flu when the plague hits.  By the end of the 1950s it had degenerated into little more than a Magoo factory, and the last theatrical shorts on the Jolly Frolics collection are barely animated at all.  By then the principals of the UPA revolution were fomenting a new one.  In 1959 the Academy Award went to Moonbird, directed by John and Faith Hubley (then credited as Faith Elliot) with Robert Cannon as animator:


Moonbird symbolized a shift from big studio cartoons shown in commercial theaters would give way to personal animation shown at festivals, a trend that would dominate the world of animated shorts for the next 30 years.  It could be said that this was an era where being a communist became an advantage in animated shorts, where the magic name was not Hollywood but Zagreb.