From Hollywood Cartoons. American Animation in Its Golden Age by Michael Barrier (Oxford University Press, 1999)
By 1942, men from every Hollywood cartoon studio were entering the military. Most of those new soldiers, whether draftees or volunteers, did not go into combat units but were put to work instead on animated training films. The Army Signal Corps had established its first small animation unit in the middle thirties, and some World War II draftees from the animation industry went to Signal Corps studios in New York City and at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. The Signal Corps was, however, locked into a kind of animated filmmaking that relied heavily on instructional diagrams; the Hollywood draftees who wound up in New York or Dayton were simply absorbed into that system.
By October 1942, another branch of the army, the Army Air Force, was setting up its own movie studio, called the First Motion Picture Unit, on the Hal Roach Studios lot in Culver City, California, and building a staff dominated by industry veterans. Most of the FMPU was devoted to live-action filmmaking, but an animation wing began operating in some sense shortly after the unit as a whole was set up. By late in November, John Hubley from Screen Gems, Berny Wolf from MGM, and Norm McCabe from Schlesinger's were all in the army and at Culver City.
The new studio did not move into production rapidly: although Rudy Ising quit MGM in October to take charge of the animation unit, he did not leave for officer candidate school until the end of February 1943, and it was not until May, newly commissioned as a major, that he officially took command. Ising recalled that after that he ran into "an awful lot of opposition from the Signal Corps in New York.... We won out, and I went back and took over a complete unit at Wright Field and a unit in New York and brought the cream of them out here."
The Schlesinger artist Bob Givens said that by the time he joined the FMPU sometime early in 1944, "it was the old Disney tour ... low-footage stuff." The FMPU was, in fact, more Disneylike in the way it produced animated military films than was the Disney studio itself (the FMPU films were, after all, being made by animators who were getting low military salaries instead of union wages). Two former Disney animators, Wolf and Frank Thomas, headed subunits, both making films with character animation that embraced some comedy.
Around the time the FMPU opened its doors, the army established another Hollywood outpost at the old Fox studio on Western Avenue. It was there that the director Frank Capra made a series of propaganda films, mostly live action, under the umbrella title Why We Fight. Although the Capra unit, officially the 834th Signal Service Photographic Detachment, did not have its own animators, the Disney studio made animated maps and diagrams for Why We Fight. By late in 1942, Capra was ready to farm out a new series of short cartoons (around half the length of theatrical releases) to Disney, but Leon Schlesinger offered to do the job for less and so won the contract. Most of the new series, called Private Snafu, wound up being made at his studio; Snafu was a boob soldier who made every possible mistake. Starting in 1943, the Snafu cartoons and a companion series called A Few Quick Facts were shown to military audiences as part of a pseudo-newsreel, the Army-Navy Screen Magazine.
Theodor Seuss Geisel—much better known as the children's author Dr. Seuss—headed the Capra unit's animation and graphics section after he joined the unit as a major early in 1943, with Otto Englander, the former Disney writer, as his second in command. "Having been sent to Hollywood from the East," Geisel wrote in 1978, "I knew nothing about Hollywood animation talent at the time. But Otto did. And he brilliantly put our unit together by getting artist-draftees assigned to us." Gene Fleury and Phil Eastman, both former Disney artists, moved to the Capra unit from the Schlesinger studio in the spring of 1943. The Schlesinger directors made the cartoons from stories that Geisel and his colleagues wrote (Fleury said that Chuck Jones's unit, where he had
just worked, "was the most cooperative"). Geisel's involvement is evident in six early Snafu cartoons with rhyming dialogue, all written before Capra assigned him to other projects in March 1944.
In contrast to Capra's unit, the FMPU farmed out very few cartoons; Ising recalled sending one to MGM and another to Hugh Harman, who had responded to the new market for training films by opening a small studio in Beverly Hills. As much as they could, the studios used such military contracts to shield their best talent from the draft. Schlesinger "went all out to save the cream of the animators," Bob Clampett said, and the draft thus took mainly assistants.
The war not only sucked animators and other artists away from their studios and into special film units, but it also arranged the artists within those units in rather haphazard fashion. Before the war, Dave Hilberman pointed out, many Disney people were pigeonholed as layout artists (as in his case), story sketch artists, and so on. When they went into the military, he said, they often found themselves in new positions "and solving problems that called for solutions other than the Disney solutions. The war...provided them with an opportunity for discovering something about themselves and animation that they never would have found out at Disney." Gene Fleury remarked on the strange freedom that the military's otherwise strict requirements could bring:
The last question on the Army's list of things to really worry about was whether pictures done by the animation section should look just like regular cartoons or not. The question was at the bottom of our list, too. What mattered most of all was the information to be conveyed.
Some of the people working on the military films soon began thinking beyond them, to new kinds of films for civilian audiences. John Hubley, speaking at a writers' congress at the University of California, Los Angeles, in October 1943—that is, less than a year after the FMPU began producing animated training films—said that in making such films, "writers have been forced to deal with positive ideas, and there have been significant new developments in techniques as a result. But the material has been essentially technical.... The inherent human appeal of the medium and its application to all forms of cartoon production has just begun to be realized."
Measuring such statements against the films made by the
FMPU's animation studio is largely impossible; most of them were destroyed when they had lost their usefulness as training films. The surviving films produced by the military animation units, or commissioned by them, are almost all like the Snafu cartoons, that is, close kin to contemporaneous theatrical cartoons, or else diagrammatic cartoons, like those that the Disney studio made, whose animation solutions reflect more a desire to save money and time than a search for visual power. It seems certain, though, that some of the lost military cartoons employed graphic language similar to that in the cartoons that John McGrew and Gene Fleury began designing for Chuck Jones in early 1941 and that Hubley and Zack Schwartz began designing at Screen Gems about a year later. Those theatrical cartoons had revealed how difficult it was to use such language effectively in films rooted in Disney-derived character animation. In the military films, that problem did not exist to anything like the same extent; whatever their comic garnish, they were wholly in the service of information.
The critical nature of the difference is apparent in one of the few surviving wartime films consistent with statements like Hubley's and Hilberman's. The FMPU did not make that film; the Capra unit farmed it out as part of the Few Quick Facts series around the end of 1944 to a small Hollywood studio then called United Film Productions. Zack Schwartz, who had become one of United Film's principals, designed A Few Quick Facts About Fear. Schwartz and his colleagues wanted to put their ideas to work in films made for civilian audiences, too. Their underlying purpose, whether the intended audience was military or civilian, was to attack the aesthetic foundations of the Disney cartoons on which they had once worked.
One day in the fall of 1938, when the Disney studio was beginning work on Fantasia, Walt Disney entered the room where Zack Schwartz was drawing the background layouts for The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Schwartz recalled forty years later that Disney had just come from a story meeting on Cydalise, the segment later replaced by Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Disney expressed his worry about Cydalise, and Schwartz—who had, as he said many years later, "been feeling very restive about the fact that every film that we made looked like every other film"—seized the opportunity:
It happened that just the night before this meeting I had with Disney, I had bought a book of photographs of ancient art...from the Louvre museum collection.... I had also
bought a book on Persian miniature painting. I told him about the books I'd just bought, and I tried to describe to him the Greek vase paintings and the Persian miniatures. Just to make it more understandable, because I guessed he'd never seen any of these things, I said, "For example, in the story they're working on now...there's no reason why you can't have a god Pan who is emerald green, and all of his details are white line. You don't have to use realistic colors; you can design your characters and backgrounds so that the end result will be a picture unlike anything anyone has ever seen before."...At the end of this one-sided conversation, Walt got up to leave, and I said I would send the books up to his office.... I did that, and some weeks went by, and finally the books were returned to me—without a note, with no acknowledgment, and without even a thank you.
Disney was in the late thirties expansive in his own thinking about where his films might go, in design and in every other way, but he may have sensed in Schwartz's enthusiasm a basic incompatibility. Even though Disney was at the time himself retreating in the face of character animation's demands, he was not shrugging them off, and that was essentially what Schwartz was proposing that he do.
As Disney's staff grew rapidly during work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and in the aftermath of that film's success, many new hires came fresh from art school or from unsuccessful careers as commercial artists or serious painters. Some of those people—Zack Schwartz among them—wound up designing and painting backgrounds or drawing story sketches or in similar jobs. Because these artists were a rung or two below the animators in prestige, in salaries, and in the interest that Disney himself took in their work—and because they were often the equals of the animators in general artistic skills—discontent was inevitable. One form it took was criticism of the design of the Disney films, that is, of the styling of the backgrounds and how the characters related to them.
In the Disney cartoons, and in other Hollywood cartoons of the thirties, the characters—composed of lines and flat, bright colors—typically stood out from the background paintings like actors performing in front of stage sets. The backgrounds were realistically modeled and painted in muted colors, and so the characters "read" against them as color accents. Schwartz and others like him were steeped not in stagecraft but in art, and in commercial art in particular (Schwartz studied at the Art Center school in Los Angeles in the thirties, preparing for a career in advertising; John Hubley was a classmate and friend). They inclined more and more to the idea that the boundary between characters and background paintings should be erased. If a character and its setting were cut from the same bolt, with movement alone separating them, the likeliest effect would be to elevate design—the overall "look" of a film—and thus the designers, at animation's expense.
Schwartz's ideas, and those of Disney staff members who thought like him, had little if any effect on the Disney films. Schwartz was a striker, as were Hilberman, Hubley, and others sympathetic to a stronger role for design; after the Disney strike and the layoffs that followed, most of those people scattered to other studios—as Schwartz, Hubley, and Hilberman did—and then, often, to the military. Sometimes the strikers set up shop on their own, trying to pick up crumbs from the booming new market for instructional films. As Bill Hurtz said, "Whoever had a job and got some money for it at the time was in business." Stephen Bosustow, who had shuttled from animation to story work and back to animation again on the early Disney features, and Cy Young, the effects animator, went into business together briefly, using their own savings to rent space. Bosustow remembered making the rounds in New York and Washington and finding no customers. By February 1942, he was working at Hughes Aircraft as a production illustrator. His eventual title was chief of project control and scheduling for Hughes's gigantic flying boat, his first management experience.
While Bosustow was at Hughes, Hilberman and Schwartz were both working for Screen Gems. They had become close friends while they were layout artists at Disney's. "I remember one night we had gone to a movie or something," Schwartz said,
and we were walking along and chatting, and we were both feeling unhappy about the fact that...we weren't doing anything for ourselves, as artists. The more we talked about it, the more we felt we ought to do something about it. So we decided that we would look around to see if we could find a little room somewhere that we could use as a studio, where we could come in the evening, when we felt like it, and draw and paint.
They rented "a very nice room with a big window, on the north side" in the Otto K. Olesen Building, the same building where Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising made their first Bosko film. Hilberman left Screen Gems after just a few months, around
the middle of 1942, and went to the Schlesinger studio; he worked there in layout for Norm McCabe and then Frank Tashlin. Around the end of 1942, Hilberman and other members of the Schlesinger staff—working at night and donating their time—made a five-minute, black-and-white film called Point Rationing of Foods for the federal government's Office of War Information. Chuck Jones directed the film, and Hilberman designed it. For all the traces it bears of Jones's Disney-like drawing style, Point Rationing does not look like a Schlesinger cartoon; it leans heavily on Hilberman's streamlined design, which is very much in keeping with the design of Zack Schwartz's black-and-white cartoons at Screen Gems, and includes very little animation. There is not much humor, either, but instead a very clear explanation of how food was going to be allocated under the rationing system. Point Rationing was, in other words, a civilian equivalent of the military films that Disney was already making, and that the FMPU was just starting to make.
As at the FMPU, making a film of this unusual kind stirred in some of the people working on it a desire to move further in that direction. Hilberman recalled "informal meetings," involving people like himself, Jones, John Hubley (by then at the FMPU), and Bill Pomerance, the cartoonists' union's business agent, "about some day forming a studio that we would run ourselves and do the kinds of films we wanted to do." Hilberman left Schlesinger early in 1943 and took a job with Les Novros, the former Disney animator, who had gone into business for himself two and a half years earlier. By 1943, as Graphic Films, Novros was making animated inserts for navy training films as well as filmstrips for clients like Union Oil. Hilberman was one of only two employees.
Steve Bosustow, still working at Hughes, began teaching a course in sketching for industrial purposes at the California Institute of Technology in February 1943. "One of the guys in one of the classes I had was from [Consolidated Shipyards]," Bosustow said thirty years later, "and he asked me if I'd do a filmstrip; I'd never even heard of what a filmstrip was. But I found out." Bosustow "approached Les about doing [the filmstrip] on a speculative basis," Hilberman recalled, "and Les wouldn't do it." Hilberman, working in Novros's studio and so privy to such conversations, "told Steve to come and see Zack and myself.... Zack and I decided to go ahead and do it...and meanwhile Steve said he could get some posters to do, so we could cover some of our
expenses." Hilberman left Novros around that time to take a job as a civilian employee in the Capra animation unit—there was no question yet of going into business full time.
The filmstrip, called Sparks and Chips Get the Blitz—safety instruction for welders—was, as Hilberman said, "the first bit of film we did, as Industrial Film." The new little company was a messy one at first, in keeping with its offhand origins. Technically there was probably a Hilberman-Schwartz partnership, with Bosustow associated with it as an independent contractor— although in one sense it was Bosustow who was really the company, dispensing work to the other two, especially since he left Hughes in September 1943 and began selling for Industrial Film and Poster Service, as it was then called, full time in November. The question of who was really in charge, hardly a burning issue at a tiny filmstrip company run by three part-time owners, began to grow more important soon after that as Industrial Film took on an exceptionally ambitious project for so untested a producer.
Point Rationing of Foods, the film made after hours at the Schlesinger studio, was a union project; its titles included the line "This production is a contribution of Screen Cartoonists' Local 852." Hilberman and Schwartz both remembered that Bill Pomerance wanted the union's members to make more "education and propaganda materials," as Schwartz said, that large unions would underwrite. Schwartz thought "it was during the time that I was just finishing up painting the scenes for Sparks and Chips that Dave and I were invited to go over to John Hubley's house...to see a big storyboard that he had been working on...that was planned as an animated-cartoon political propaganda film" for the United Auto Workers to use in the 1944 Roosevelt campaign.
The UAW, through its political director, had approached Hubley about making such an animated cartoon from a script by the screenwriter Robert Lees. Hubley and Bill Hurtz—both in the army by then—drew the storyboard and went AWOL with it to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where they showed it to the UAW's executive board. Once the UAW had approved it, the storyboard had to be translated into film—and quickly, if it was to serve its purpose. "Hubley and I discussed where it might go," Hurtz said. "Les [Novros] was mentioned, [Shamus] Culhane was
mentioned, and Chuck Jones was mentioned." Hubley's first thought was that Jones should make it. There was, after all, the successful example of Point Rationing, made just a year or so earlier, and Jones was politically liberal.
"They again approached Schlesinger," Hilberman said, "to repeat what he had done with [Point Rationing]"—that is, permit the use of his studio's facilities at night—"but Schlesinger didn't want to get involved with a political film." Hubley then talked to Les Novros about making the UAW film, to be called Hell-bent for Election, and "we worked out a budget," Novros recalled. Hubley, Pomerance, and the actress Karen Morley—who was working full-time as a Hollywood liaison for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, to which the UAW belonged—followed through with visits to the Novros studio.
The assignment went instead to Industrial Film, which, unlike Graphic Films, had at that point made no films at all, much less anything as demanding as a thirteen-minute cartoon that had to be completed in a hurry. (By then, in Steve Bosustow's recollection, the time available had dwindled to something like ninety days.) Hilberman recalled that "the UAW and Bill Pomerance came to us at the Otto K. Olesen Building to see if we would undertake the doing of the film. We had no staff, just that small room. We decided to go for it."
The circumstances suggest strongly that Industrial Film won the job for political reasons. Novros had the strong artistic credentials that came with having animated on Fantasia, but he had left the Disney studio in August 1940, long before the strike; whatever Novros's political views were in 1944, Hilberman's leadership of the strike, and Bosustow's and Schwartz's participation in it, surely carried more weight, especially with Pomerance. Bosustow acknowledged the strike's importance when he saw Hilberman in the audience for a panel discussion in 1978: "I really got to know you, Dave, on the strike lines.... We all began to know each other, so when the UAW-CIO came out to Hollywood, to have a film made, we were there."
Because Hell-bent was, like Point Rationing, a one-shot film, it was made in the same way: at night, by people who held full-time jobs at other studios during the day. "In no time at all," Schwartz said, "we had recruited, with a lot of help from [Pomerance], people from Screen Gems and from Warner Bros. A lot of them were our close friends, many of them were just people we knew from union meetings." Chuck Jones was again the director; Robert "Bobe" Cannon and Ben Washam from the Jones unit animated on the film. As Schwartz said:
The overriding and basic problem was that work had to be prepared during the day so that the people who arrived in the evening would have something to do.... There was no way to handle this thing, except for me to quit my job at Screen Gems and just take over the function of the supervising art director. For me it represented a very big gamble. There was nothing stacked up ahead once Hell-bent for Election was completed.
Although Bosustow and Schwartz were now devoting their time to Industrial Film, Hilberman was still working for the Capra unit. "It was decided," he said, "that it would be unwise for me, a civil servant, to be working on this political film, so I continued to do the posters and other odd jobs." The work on Hell-bent that took place around him "was a fantastic thing," he said, "because people would come and work all night long. We started seeing ourselves as a studio that would work on political, union type films. The 'Industrial Film' name started being a handicap, and we started thinking in terms of Union Films, and out of Union Films came 'United.'"
The new company changed its name to United Film Productions on 1 May 1944. Work on Hell-bent for Election was probably winding down by then; the film was copyrighted as of 11 July 1944, in plenty of time for use in the general election campaign that pitted Roosevelt against Thomas E. Dewey. The cartoon depicts the campaign as a contest between two locomotives, the decrepit Republican "Defeatist Limited" and the Democratic "Win the War Special." It elaborates on the fundamental metaphor in detail: Joe, a worker loading war materiel at a train station, is told by a telegraph operator (Uncle Sam) that only one train can get to Washington on "track 44" and that he'll have to sidetrack the Defeatist Limited.
Even though the film credits Schwartz as its production designer, Hell-bent for Election looks very much like any other Jones cartoon of the early forties, with the same self-conscious use of both modern design and film techniques (matched dissolves, odd angles, and so on). The gulf between characters and backgrounds is even greater than it is in Warner cartoons like Wackiki Wabbit. In Dave Hilberman's words, "There's a terrible contrast...between the backgrounds, which are very designed and abstract, and the
characters, as directed by Chuck and animated by mostly Warner Bros, animators."
When they produced Hell-bent for Election, United Film's principals had to accept such compromises because they could not make so long and complex a film in any other way. But with Hellbent as its calling card, United Film was in an excellent position to establish itself as a real studio by winning contracts with government agencies and contractors—and it did, in fact, win a contract for a training film just as work on Hell-bent was ending. Commissions from the navy and the Capra unit followed. Hell-bent's political slant helped get the contracts for navy films, Bosustow said: "some of the guys in charge were pro-Roosevelt, and thought the film was great, and said, some day, if they had more pictures, they'd give them to us." Strike-born connections could be helpful, too: United Film landed a navy series on flight safety in part through the good offices of Aurelius Battaglia, a former Disney artist—and striker—who was then in the navy at Washington. As for the Capra unit, not only was Dave Hilberman working there, but so was Gene Fleury, and his wife, Bernyce Polifka, had painted backgrounds for Hell-bent.
The transition to continuing operation as a real film studio was not easy, even so. United Film had cash-flow problems in its early days, Schwartz recalled: "Though we had work in the studio, and contracts, we didn't have any money for paying weekly salaries." Their supplier of art materials guaranteed a bank loan to tide them over until they received payments on contracts. Because the military films were made on small budgets, Schwartz said, "we arrived at what we called 'limited animation'—it was limited by the money we could spend."
Schwartz had experienced an epiphany at Screen Gems, when he realized that "our camera is closer to being a printing press, in the way we use it, than it is to being a motion-picture camera"; he began preaching that doctrine to co-workers like Hubley and Hilberman. Someone who thought of animated films in those terms could not regard severely circumscribed movement as a handicap. For Schwartz, a great advantage of working with a limited budget, and usually in black and white, was that there was so little to distract him from making the kind of design-dominated film he had longed to make since his Disney days. He saw in A Few Quick Facts About Fear in particular "my dreamed-of opportunity to make a film that owed nothing to the traditions of animated cartooning or to live-action motion pictures. A film that
would be purely graphic design in every aspect and that would break away, totally, from everything that had been done before."
Fear is, in fact, a less attractive and less visually interesting film than the Willoughby Wren cartoons that Schwartz designed at Screen Gems. Its design is almost entirely subtractive, through a drastic simplification of drawing and design. Although in Fear Schwartz dispensed with such "traditions of animated cartooning" as individual characters (a knight is glimpsed as Private Snafu when he raises his visor, but there's otherwise no connection with the character in that series), Fear actually leans heavily on some of animation's hoariest devices—metamorphosis, for instance (in Fear, the liver transforms itself into a sugar bowl)—and it honors almost to a fault one of animation's fundamental rules, that figures should read clearly in silhouette.
There was, in short, a sort of artistic vacuum at the heart of United Film, even though that was probably not at all apparent to its founders. Hilberman could not do much to help fill it; even though he left the Capra unit to direct government films at United Film after production of Hell-bent for Election brought in new business, he was drafted near the end of the war, in 1945 (he blamed Bosustow for not filing the necessary papers with his draft board).
It was at this point that John Hubley began to play a role in the new company, for the first time since he prepared the storyboard for Hell-bent for Election. "Hubley used to come to me after they had already started working on it to complain that they wouldn't let him into the studio," Les Novros said. "Despite the fact that he had done the storyboard, they still had discouraged him from coming in to see what was happening." That may have been because Schwartz and Bosustow didn't want to risk trouble with the army, or it may have been, as Novros thought, because "they just didn't want his ideas," which Hubley could express vigorously. In any event, Hubley's involvement with the studio picked up in 1945 when the UAW brought another film project to United Film: Brotherhood of Man, a cartoon intended to combat racial prejudice.
Ring Lardner, Jr., and Maurice Rapf, two live-action screenwriters, wrote "a kind of script," Hubley said, "and in effect we sort of boiled down the words...and visualized them." Hubley was still in the Army Air Force at the time—he was not discharged until November 1945—but he "took it into direction," and Bobe Cannon, who had left the Chuck Jones unit to work for United Film, animated it. "Bobe sort of directed, too," Hubley said, because Hubley could work on the film only at night and on weekends. "John would lay [scenes] out," Bill Hurtz said, "and sort of give a broad notion, and Bobe would work into the acting and the business. And above all, timing, which John felt very insecure about. That would be the area where he knew the least because he hadn't done frame-by-frame work."
Cannon, who was five years Hubley's senior (he was born in 1909, Hubley in 1914) was the more experienced not just as an animator but in animation generally; he entered the business at the Schlesinger studio several years before Hubley started work at the Disney studio in 1936. Cannon received screen credit as the sole director of Brotherhood of Man (Hubley shared credit with others for writing and designing the film), but there was, even so, "a little bit of feeling" between the two men after Brotherhood was completed, Hurtz said. "Bobe did express to me once that he felt he did more in that picture than John ever credited him for." Those hard feelings may have contributed to Cannon's leaving; he went to work at Disney in March 1946.
Only occasionally in the animation for Brotherhood are there suggestions of stylization of movement, of what Hilberman called "a different kind of animation that came out of the stylized characters." Cannon's animation, although by no means limited in Schwartz's sense, is instead pervasively bland—and is in its blandness subordinate to the film's design. Brotherhood was thus wholly in keeping with Schwartz's ideas. It was not designed by Schwartz, though, but by Hubley, and it is his design that distinguishes the film.
Hubley's design is not just flat and simple in the Schwartz manner but has in addition a sharp edge with no real precedent in Hollywood animation, including the films that Hubley himself designed at Screen Gems; there are strong echoes in Brotherhood of the work of Saul Steinberg, the magazine cartoonist. What the Disney animators tried to avoid, Hubley embraced. In 1936, for example, when Bill Tytla spoke to one of Don Graham's action-analysis classes, Tytla's assistant Bill Shull said: "This point has been stressed by Don—no parallel lines on jowls whenever we want form or depth because naturally that flattens them out." It was just such an effect that Hubley wanted. He called Brotherhood of Man "the major breakthrough from the Disney tradition because these characters were simpler, more expressive, not so cute."
"Not so cute," definitely; but "more expressive"? No, not in the way that Bill Tytla's Grumpy was expressive or Bob Clampett's Daffy Duck. As Dave Hilberman told John Canemaker, "the two-dimensional characters we were designing didn't lend themselves to a fully acted-out Disney emotion." Hubley's characters are more expressive only in the sense that his design is more assertive; because the characters, through their appearance, command attention more forcefully than those in Hell-bent or Fear, they are sturdier vessels for the ideas that are Brotherhood's reason for being. It is ideas alone that are being expressed, and the characters exist only as vehicles for those ideas. Hubley and Schwartz wrote in an article published in 1946: "Instead of an implied understanding resulting from the vicarious experience of a specific situation, animation"—of the Brotherhood kind—"represents the general idea directly. The audience experiences an understanding of the whole situation." To advance that general understanding, they were more than willing to sacrifice the sort of expressiveness that Tytla and Clampett had achieved.
In the eyes of Hubley and Schwartz and their colleagues, modern design was more than an effective tool for conveying information. What shaped Brotherhood of Man, even more than it shaped the earlier films—and what gave United Film itself so unusual a tenor compared with other cartoon studios—was a belief that modern design had a political, not to say moral, dimension.
While he was in the First Motion Picture Unit, Bill Hurtz recalled, "several of us" became very excited by Language of Vision, a book by Gyorgy Kepes "on design, really, as taught at the Bauhaus...a book of revelation" to Hurtz, who had "never had any formal graphics." Kepes, a Hungarian-born designer, had been living in the United States for ten years at the time his book was published in 1944. It's difficult to say how much Language of Vision influenced United Film's artists in the middle forties, but probably quite a lot, directly and indirectly. (When he left the army, Hurtz gave up animation and went to work for United Film as a layout artist, that is, a designer.) Dave Hilberman remembered that the book "did have an impact."
Language of Vision validated films of exactly the kind that United Film was starting to make. Kepes presented modern art as
not just different from earlier art—specifically, the art of the Renaissance—but superior to it. In modern works, he wrote, the image "became once more a dynamic space experience instead of a dead inventory of optical facts." Modern artists, as their work became more abstract, had been discovering "a visual language which would reduce to the lowest common denominator all experience, old and new," refining "the image to its most elementary structure." This progress in the visual arts should be an element in a broader social progress: "The task of the contemporary artist is to release and bring into social action the dynamic forces of visual energy." From images of the right kind "the nervous system can acquire the new discipline necessary to the dynamics of contemporary life." Better pictures would make better people.
For such pictures to have the desired effect, they would, of course, have to reach the whole of the population—"speaking simultaneously to many"—and so Kepes wrote in terms sure to appeal to people working in a medium like the animated cartoon: "The mass spectator demands the amplification of optical intensity and leveling down of the visual language toward common idioms." Such "leveling down" implied a blurring of the boundary between the fine arts and commercial art, and Kepes wrote of advertising as "art" that "could disseminate socially useful messages, and...train the eye, and thus the mind, with the necessary discipline of seeing beyond the surface of visible things, to recoggnize and enjoy values necessary for an integrated life." Flattering words, for people who were making sponsored films. (Phil Eastman, who joined United Film as a writer after the war, had spoken favorably at the 1943 Writers' Congress of magazine ads' use of ideas borrowed from modern art).
Language of Vision was, in its total effect, considerably more elevated than a mere call for functionality—the Bauhaus idea, reduced to its essentials, that every element of a design should have a job to do, without any extraneous ornament. The problem was that precious little of the work that United Film was doing lent itself to anything more than such functionality; Brotherhood of Man was an exception. When Hubley went to work for United Film full time after leaving the army, he worked on the navy training films and "a couple of filmstrips for the Auto Workers that I drew." Neither Hilberman nor Schwartz was "very excited about that Navy stuff," he said. "It sort of bored them, so they were happy to see me take them over."
The company changed its name to United Productions of America when it incorporated on 31 December 1945. It was perhaps as an antidote to boredom that by the spring of 1946, as Schwartz told an interviewer then, the newly renamed UPA was "getting away from specialization by rotating personnel" so that members of the staff changed roles from film to film. Paul Julian, who came to the new studio from Warner Bros., remembered that staff members did "what came handy"; Julian himself drew layouts and storyboards as well as his usual work, painting backgrounds.
Whatever communal spirit may have been expressed through such a work arrangement was not proof against the clash of egos that UPA's lofty artistic ambitions all but guaranteed. Hilberman, after he got out of the army in 1946, "sort of felt he should run the place," Bosustow said, "and there was a conflict between us because I'd been running it then for three years." Hilberman, for his part, said that "Steve had not been very effective as a studio manager or a salesman—primarily as a salesman," the roles Bosustow had played since the studio came into existence. The conflict came to a head when Bosustow got a contract for a government-sponsored film—on labor unions, for the U.S. Information Agency—that Hilberman and Schwartz had told him they didn't want to make.
By that time, Hilberman said, he was anxious to accept an offer from the Soviet Union to set up animation studios throughout that country. "Zack felt that in that case, since some of his family's money was tied up in UPA, he would want to get out of UPA and pull his family's money out of it. So when we sat down with Steve...we simply told him that we were pulling out." Schwartz also remembered wanting to get out of what he thought was a shaky company, but other members of the staff spoke of a contest between Hilberman and Schwartz, on one side, and Bosustow, on the other, to raise the money to buy each other out—a contest that Bosustow won.
John Hubley said in 1976 that when "they got into this hassle" both sides "came to me and said, 'Which side do you want to be on?'" Bosustow made Hubley an offer that "was more concrete. He said, 'I'll give you a big piece of the stock.' The other guys were just talking about staying on as an employee. Also they had a kind of an attitude like I owed it to them somehow, which pissed me off.... I just weighed the two and I decided I would have an easier time being the creative head of the studio with Steve as the business head than I would with Zack and Dave, who were both creative guys.... And I really wasn't totally tuned in to them artistically."
Hilberman and Schwartz had been president and vice president, respectively. They resigned on 29 July 1946 and left UPA then or soon thereafter. Bosustow made himself president and Hubley vice president because, Bosustow said, "he was the most talented guy in the studio, to head up the creative end of things, with Zack gone." Not just Hubley but other members of the staff "bought some of this stock that Dave and Zack had dropped," Bosustow said. The Soviet deal fell through; by October, Hilberman and Schwartz were in New York and had formed a studio called Tempo. "The big sixteen-millimeter field that was going to blossom after the war was what interested us," Hilberman said, "getting into the whole area of educational and social films." In the event, they were soon making television commercials.
Few of the UPA films made in the months after Hilberman and Schwartz left are accessible now. Public Opinion Polls, copyrighted in February 1947 and made for the U.S. State Department, was directed by Hubley and designed by Bill Hurtz. It is a straightforward explanation of the subject matter, presented through very limited animation drawn in a Picasso-like style. The effect is like one of those high-school texts full of "visual aids," some of them simpleminded. (For example, a weighted question is depicted as a question mark with a weight attached.) It is hard to connect such a dull film, except through the modern cast of its styling, with the fervor its makers had been expressing for their medium.
Work even of that kind was starting to dry up before Hilberman and Schwartz left—thus the importance everyone attached to the commission that Bosustow brought back from Washington—but by late in 1947 the drought had struck in earnest. UPA's political connections, so useful a couple of years earlier, were now, in a more conservative climate, a growing problem. Even the auto workers had been lost as a client; a 1946 purge of the left wing in the UAW's education department had ended the union's commissions to UPA. An August 1947 list of twenty-six projects, in progress or completed—animated films, filmstrips, animated inserts, and main titles—includes only four titles that appear to be for clients other than the federal government. Most of the government titles were for branches of the military.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation first investigated UPA in the summer of 1947, interviewing Hubley and at least one other
person (probably Bosustow, although his name was concealed in the materials that the FBI would make public in the eighties). A report listed numerous communist connections, including Hubley's. He had been a member of the Communist Party in the early forties, as had Hilberman, Schwartz, Phil Eastman, and other members of the staff. For most of them, as for many others in the arts, party membership seems to have been no more than an incidental expression of an enthusiasm for radical change in general. In September the FBI's director, J. Edgar Hoover, advised military intelligence of the FBI's findings. UPA had only one military project in work in August—a navy film called Marginal Weather Accidents—and the studio's prospects for getting any more military films were cloudy at best.
Even before the FBI appeared, UPA had responded to its shrinking fortunes by moving in July 1947 from the Otto K. Olesen Building to an office building on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, sharing space with the producer of a sex-education film called Understanding Ourselves; UPA was making "Human Growth," an animated film-within-the-film that took up about half of the overall nineteen-minute length. By late in 1947, Bill Hurtz recalled, that was the only work UPA had left. Before Hurtz fell victim to one of a string of layoffs that had probably begun as early as late 1946, the staff had shrunk to a handful that included him, Hubley, and Eastman. Hurtz moved over to the John Sutherland studio for six months; Sutherland, a former Disney writer, headed an industrial-film studio that had the inestimable advantage in the late forties of a stoutly anticommunist political coloration.
While Hurtz was gone, though, Bosustow was able to parlay UPA's now suspect history into a theatrical release: "If I happened to be talking to a Democrat—which I did at Columbia—and he saw Hell-bent, I was in the front office." UPA also now had enough films to its credit that Hubley had directed, particularly navy films like Flat Hatting (a comic treatment of the dangers of show-off flying), to make itself credible as a producer of a theatrical series. By sometime early in 1948, Bosustow and Hubley had struck a deal with Columbia to make four cartoons on a trial basis. The first one, called Robin Hoodlum, was released on 23 December 1948.
He had made a tentative deal for a Columbia release in 1946, Bosustow said, but Schwartz and Hilberman didn't want to do that kind of work, and Bosustow grudgingly acceded to their wishes.
Hilberman remembered no such episode, but since Columbia was preparing to close down its Screen Gems studio, it is certainly possible that it was looking for someone else to produce its cartoons. If Hilberman and Schwartz did, in fact, turn down a deal with Columbia, that would have been consistent with their conception of UPA as distinct from the other producers of animated cartoons. Bosustow was, though, as Hubley said, not "a creative guy"; so far as his contributions to the cartoons were concerned, if by no means in his taste, he more nearly resembled Walter Lantz than Walt Disney. And now UPA, rather than making films that were groundbreaking in design and subject matter, was at Columbia's insistence going to make Fox and Crow cartoons.
When UPA, in its embryonic form as Industrial Film, was making Hell-bent for Election in 1944, a Warner Bros, connection proved useful. Such was the case again four years later when work began on Robin Hoodlum: Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and their writers, Mike Maltese and Ted Pierce, helped with gags for that cartoon. Paul Julian had by then returned to Freleng's unit from UPA, but he painted some of Robin Hoodlum's backgrounds, and their flatness and patterns recall Jones's cartoons of the early forties. In their fundamentals, though, UPA's earliest theatrical cartoons summoned up other Columbia cartoons, the ones John Hubley codirected in 1942.
For instance, there is in The Magic Fluke, UPA's second cartoon for Columbia, released in March 1949, a striking lack of precision: Hubley uses strongly accented poses, like Jones's, but they are emotionally vague, reflecting a confused story. The characters' relationship—this was another cartoon with the Fox and the Crow—is so ambiguous that it suggests one annoying question after another. (Is the Crow a patsy? Does he sabotage the Fox deliberately? When he walks across the prone Fox, what does that mean?) It was not as if Hubley deliberately introduced such ambiguities to contrast with the clear-cut conflicts in other studios' cartoons; the effect (as in Hubley's Screen Gems cartoons) was rather that Hubley thought it beneath him to clarify the muddle. He was, he seemed to say, too good to be making Fox and Crow cartoons; and so his Fox and Crow cartoons were no better than the ones that Screen Gems had made.
The last couple of leftover cartoons from the Screen Gems studio followed The Magic Fluke into theaters in 1949, and it was not until September that another UPA cartoon, The Ragtime Bear, appeared. It was the only one of UPA's first four cartoons for Columbia without the Fox and the Crow; its star was instead a human character, Mister Magoo. Magoo is nearsighted, a characteristic brought out at the beginning of The Ragtime Bear when he is standing beside a sign for Hodge Podge Lodge and demands, "Which way to Hodge Podge Lodge?" Asked by an offstage voice, "Can't you read the sign?" Magoo replies indignantly (in a bombastic voice provided by the radio actor Jim Backus), "Certainly I can read the sign!" But, of course, he can't—in a subjective shot, from his point of view, the sign is merely a blur.
Virtual blindness is in itself merely a lamentable handicap; what made Magoo more than pitiable was the way his nearsightedness magnified his personality. Said John Hubley, who directed The Ragtime Bear: "A great deal in the original character, the strength of him, was the fact that he was so damn bull-headed. It wasn't just that he couldn't see very well; even if he had been able to see, he still would have made dumb mistakes, 'cause he was such a bull-headed, opinionated old guy."
It was apparently UPA's success with Magoo that persuaded Columbia to sign with UPA for the long term; as UPA's principals wished, the Fox and the Crow disappeared from theater screens after Punchy de Leon, the third UPA cartoon with those characters, came out in January 1950. Starting with The Ragtime Bear, UPA's cartoons appeared under the umbrella title (one not of UPA's choosing) Jolly Frolics—except for the Magoo cartoons, which began appearing as a separate series in September 1950 upon the release of the third cartoon with the character, Trouble Indemnity.
After The Ragtime Bear, the former MGM and Warner Bros, animator Pete Burness directed the Magoo cartoons, with Hubley as what the screen credits called the "supervising director." Hubley's original conception of the character was still very much in evidence: the Magoo of Bungled Bungalow (1950), the fourth cartoon with the character, is a ferocious old crank who simply charges ahead without acknowledging his affliction. His house is stolen by "Hot House Harry," a thief who carries houses away to another part of town, selling them there at bargain prices as if he were a burglar unloading jewelry or television sets. That Magoo should be able to overlook so obvious a theft is very much in keeping with his obstinacy. The disruptions caused by Harry's men goad Magoo into moving to a new home
in a quieter neighborhood—and, of course, the home he chooses is his own, in a new location.
Magoo was the first continuing character to emerge from UPA, a studio that had for five years disdained the studios that enjoyed great success with such characters. Directors and writers from Warner Bros. might be asked to help with a Fox and Crow cartoon, but that was like calling in the plumber or the electrician for help in an emergency. Bill Scott, the former Warner Bros, story man who began writing for UPA in time to get a screen credit on Trouble Indemnity, recalled that "at UPA any kind of slam-bang rowdy and raunchy slapstick was referred to—icily—as 'Warner Bros, humor.'" Magoo was a human character, to be sure, in contrast to the animals who dominated the other Hollywood studios' cartoons. But the gulf between the Magoo cartoons and those of UPA's rivals was not really all that wide; there was ample precedent in the Popeye series for the use of human characters in cartoons of the most conventional kind.
By the time Columbia released Trouble Indemnity, UPA was enjoying the new prosperity and stability that had come with its distribution agreement. It had moved in December 1948 into a new building in Burbank, near Warner Bros.' main lot, and the staff was growing to meet the expanding release schedule. Hubley was overseeing the work of three other directors: Burness, Art Babbitt, and Bobe Cannon, all of them experienced as animators, as Hubley was not. UPA's films now reflected Hubley's sensibility more perhaps than they did when he was actually directing them, because his limitations as a director were no longer so much in the way.
When Hubley was directing, "he was so damned disorganized," said Willis Pyle, who animated for him on the earliest Columbia releases. "He would hand out a scene to one animator and give him a drawing and say, 'This is the character.' He'd hand out a scene to another animator and say, 'This is the character,' and they're supposed to be the same character, but they didn't look anything alike. These were things you wouldn't discover until you saw the pencil tests." Bill Hurtz, who drew the layouts for those Hubley cartoons, described Hubley in terms that make him sound like a director of the Friz Freleng kind—but rather than animation, he would order layouts redone: "When the layouts were done, only then could John know what he wanted. So we had this famous scene, where you do it once, and now we start over.... By then, you'd used up your budget."
Hubley himself ascribed "the simplified nature of the UPA style...to the fact that we were working on lower budgets. We had to find ways of economizing and still get good results. So we cut down on animation and got into stylized ways of handling action." In fact, the budgets for UPA's Columbia cartoons appear to have been comparable to those for the Warner Bros, cartoons and higher than those for, among others, the Lantz cartoons. According to Adrian Woolery, the production manager at the start of the Columbia release, UPA initially agreed to provide six cartoons a year in return for $27,500 per cartoon, plus 25 percent ownership. "Unfortunately," he said, "we never were able to produce the shows for the agreed flat fee figure and were forced to have Columbia pick up the overage, for which they demanded part of our 25 percent ownership." Woolery attributed those overages to "working for quality"—insisting on retakes and other costly steps, "which is good, if you can afford it. But we couldn't." It was thus in all likelihood the way the cartoons were made, more than their budgets, that created pressures for a simpler sort of animation—a simplicity that sometimes rose to a certain elegance, to be sure.
Bosustow, Hubley said, "was always fighting us on money.... I was always going over budgets, and Steve was screaming." Hubley was in some ways a real-life equivalent of Mister Magoo, forcing his way impatiently past such obstacles as his own technical limitations. In the eyes of many of his collaborators, he was a strong and insensitive man, a brilliant but incomplete artist who often bullied the colleagues who had to make up for his shortcomings—"a miserable bastard to work for," in Bill Scott's words. UPA in 1950 was, in fact, an enlarged version of the UPA of 1945, when Hubley bruised Bobe Cannon's feelings during work on Brotherhood of Man.
Cannon worked for the Disney studio for less than a year after leaving UPA in 1946. He then worked for MGM, in the even less likely environment of the Tex Avery unit, before returning to UPA around the time work began on the first Columbia releases; he was credited as an animator on both Robin Hoodlum and The Magic Fluke. He was at a severe disadvantage as an adversary for Hubley. "He was sort of small and quiet and very gentle," Paul Julian said of Cannon, in words echoed by other members of the UPA staff, "and he very much disliked conflict." But somewhere around the beginning of 1950, Cannon enjoyed a wonderful piece of luck.
Steve Bosustow, who had first gotten to know Ted Geisel when Geisel was writing cartoons for the army, related in 1973 how a Geisel "Dr. Seuss" story fell into UPA's hands:
He came to the studio one day with a record and asked the girl at the front desk to see somebody, to talk to us about a picture. So they introduced him to the business manager [presumably Ed Gershman], and the business manager said, "We can't handle that, we're doing Magoos, we're doing specials, we just don't do this kind of stuff." So he got up, and as he was leaving, I came down the hall.... He said, "Goddamn your outfit, I've just been turned down on a story." I said, "You're kidding, come on." So we went to the office, and we played the record, and I said, "I'll take it."...We bought the record, the whole story rights, all of it; I've forgotten what we paid him for it, but it was a bargain.... We probably paid two hundred dollars, something like that.
Cannon directed the film, which was titled, like the Geisel
record, Gerald McBoing Boing. "Hub dropped in occasionally" during work on Gerald, said Bill Hurtz, who designed the film, but otherwise left it alone. Cannon had completed work on Gerald by August 1950. Gerald is the story of a small boy who speaks in noises rather than words, and who is in consequence rejected by his playmates and even by his own father. At the film's climax, Gerald is leaving home because his handicap—his noise-making voice can be described as nothing else—has become too much of a burden on his parents. But before he can board a train, he is stopped by the owner of a radio station, who wants to hire him to provide the sound effects for his programs.
The same sort of story—of a handicapped child whose handicap turns out to be a blessing in disguise—had been told almost ten years before, as Dumbo. The two films differ, though, in much more than length. In Gerald, there is no animation remotely similar to Bill Tytla's of the elephants in Dumbo. Cannon and Hurtz manipulate colors and compositions skillfully to suggest Gerald's distress: when Gerald is running away from home at night, for instance, repeated diagonals create an uneasy atmosphere, most dramatically when Gerald tries to board a train. Ultimately, though, the film only demonstrates emotions; Gerald's unhappiness has no immediacy. Neither, in all likelihood, was Cannon seeking any. To have brought Gerald vividly to life would have meant depicting conflict of the kind that made Cannon uncomfortable, however far removed such conflict might have been, in tone and in the characters' behavior, from "Warner Bros, humor."
There is, to be sure, some inventive stylization of movement in Gerald McBoing Boing; it shows up, for instance, in the way a doctor's slightly gawky legs accent his rigid verticality. In general, though, animation is clearly subordinate to design. The animation is limited in many respects—when Gerald's mouth moves, the rest of his face doesn't—and posture is stylized even more than movement, as in the graceful curves that parents and doctor form as they bend anxiously over Gerald. Geisel's own rather knotty drawing style is nowhere in evidence in the very simply drawn characters. (Their appearance probably owes most to Phil Eastman, who collaborated with Bill Scott in adapting the Dr. Seuss story; Eastman, a member of Geisel's unit during World War II, evidently prompted Geisel to offer the Gerald McBoing Boing record to UPA in the first place.)
"At the time we did McBoing Boing," Bill Hurtz said, "we thought we were really boiling it down: What can we get rid of? We
frequently talked about that, Bobe and I, saying, 'Let's be sure we don't get too much of so and so." That drive toward simplicity turned up, for instance, in the very sparse settings: "We decided to dispense with all walls and floors and ground levels and skies and horizon lines."
Because Cannon and Hurtz clothed their story of childhood distress in harmonious colors, shapes, and movements—so that the film is soothing and even therapeutic in its total effect—Gerald echoed the ideas that had shaped UPA's films in the middle forties, the ideas that Gyorgy Kepes had advanced in Language of Vision. The difference was that Kepes envisioned design as a tool for changing the world; in Gerald, Cannon used it more as a tool for keeping the world out.
Gerald McBoing Boing was released nationally in January 1951, but it had played in Los Angeles long enough in 1950 to qualify for Academy Award consideration. In March 1951, Gerald won the Oscar for best cartoon (Trouble Indemnity was among the other nominees). That award triggered the most sustained and admiring attention from the press for a cartoon studio since Disney's heyday in the thirties. "The appearance of UPA's Jolly Frolics title card on the screen is beginning to produce that same pleased, anticipatory buzz through an audience that once greeted" the Disney cartoons, Arthur Knight wrote in Theatre Arts in the summer of 1951. "And these audiences are simply bearing out the basic conviction of the UPA people, that cartoons need not be all cuteness or all violence. That cartoons can be artistic and intelligent and still be popular."
UPA's commercial and even its government work grew in the wake of its new celebrity. In November 1951—according to an FBI report—30 percent of UPA's output was for "television and commercial users, 10 percent in training films for various governmental agencies." Although UPA remained smaller than most of its rivals, the staff had expanded greatly since the advent of the Columbia release; by 1951, it totaled about seventy-five.
The Oscar for Gerald "started a lot of internal trouble, like fights for power," Hubley said. In other words, Cannon's Oscar ignited the resentments that had been festering since Hubley and Cannon collaborated on Brotherhood of Man. Hubley explained away what happened next by saying that he was "getting spread too thin" as creative head of the whole studio; there was what he called "a joint decision of a split between Cannon and me, making two units, each independent." However much Cannon hated conflict, he hated working under Hubley even more.
Hubley's friend Paul Julian briefly became Cannon's designer—his layout artist—after Bill Hurtz began directing sponsored cartoons; but then Julian was shuffled out of Cannon's unit, and T. Hee, the former Disney story man, replaced him. Cannon and Hee first collaborated on The Oompahs (1952), Cannon's first cartoon after he got out from under Hubley's supervision. Julian moved over to work with Hubley.
"When the rug was slipped under me," Julian later wrote, "it immediately became apparent that Bobe was getting what he wanted—which was cutesy-poo. Tidy little shapes that stayed where they belonged." However spiteful that may sound, it is close to the truth: the "characters" in The Oompahs are paper cutouts of musical instruments, pasted to cels. (Hee wanted them to look even more like cutouts than they do by letting the edges of the cutouts curl up, but he couldn't persuade the cameraman to shoot the film without following the usual procedure and pressing a platen glass down over the cels.) Hee, far more than Julian, sympathized with Cannon's aims. "At UPA," he said, "we always talked about animated drawings, never animated cartoons.... We wanted the feeling that you were looking at drawings that moved"—not, that is, at characters who happened to be drawn.
With Cannon's ascendancy, Hubley's role in the studio changed as well as shrank. The two directors had undergone a subtle role reversal: Hubley had bent design to political purposes in the middle forties; now it was Cannon's films—through their Kepesian blandness, their conspicuous shunning of conflict and violence—that were advancing a social agenda, in however dilute a form. Hubley, once he began making films that did not have an overtly didactic purpose, was increasingly occupied with aesthetic questions.
Speaking of his work as Hubley's layout man on the early Columbia releases, Bill Hurtz said:
We were thinking in very live-action, cinematic terms and tried to translate them into graphics. That's why Hubley said that to flatten things out into a decorative pattern on the screen violates the dramatic possibilities of deep space—he
didn't say so in so many words, but it really got his teeth on edge when some of the UPA cartoons not directly under his control became what he thought were wallpaper designs.
Hubley himself spoke of character animation in terms wholly consistent with Hurtz's perception. "There's no substitute for full animation," he said, using a term applied to character animation that moves freely, without any conspicuous concern for the additional costs imposed by a large number of drawings. "What the character can do if you make use of full drawings is really irreplaceable." Cannon's films, by contrast, expressed ever more clearly a yearning for stillness and order that could best be fulfilled through "wallpaper designs" and limited animation. T. Hee said of Cannon that "Bobe liked quiet things," in particular stories that Hee could tell calmly as he went through a storyboard, without the display of enthusiasm that was expected in a Disney or Warner Bros, story meeting. But, Hee said, "inside he had an ulcer and he was all stirred up. When we'd go to lunch and somebody came too close to him [in another car], he'd start ... to go after him, and we'd have to grab him and say, 'No, no, slow down.'"
Cannon kept his films—and through them, perhaps, his own emotions—on a tight leash. Willis Pyle, who animated for Cannon on his first two Columbia cartoons, The Miner's Daughter (1950) and Gerald McBoing Boing, remembered that Cannon gave his animators a great many detailed drawings, "and they were animation drawings, as compared with layout drawings," that is, they could be used as extremes. Unlike the poses that Chuck Jones was giving his animators at the time, Cannon's poses did not define the characters' emotions so much as they defined their movements—a far more limiting approach.
Cannon's influence extended to the Magoo cartoons, through a deadly softening of Magoo's pugnacious personality. Hubley was not altogether blameless for this decline—he let Magoo slip into sentimentality in Fuddy Duddy Buddy (1951), one of the first cartoons he made after returning to direction—but it was Burness who gave Magoo what Hubley called a "warmer side." Hubley retained a credit on two of Burness's Magoo cartoons, Grizzly Golfer and Sloppy Jalopy, after he lost it on Cannon's, but the Magoo series was rapidly slipping out of his grasp. Hubley told Howard Rieder: "I felt that as the series developed the formula became somewhat mechanical. There were too many nearsighted gags, not enough situation comedy and character conflict."
Character conflict was of course the last thing that Cannon wanted in his own cartoons. All of the UPA directors eschewed violence of the Warner Bros. kind, but in Hubley's case, he was making a stylistic or aesthetic choice rather than expressing the deep aversion to such comedy that Cannon felt; that was why some of the early Magoo cartoons that Hubley directed or supervised had so much vitality. Paul Julian recalled that Hubley admired the work of David Stone Martin, an illustrator whose work owed a great deal to Ben Shahn, the openly political American painter of the thirties, and beyond Shahn to Picasso, who was, of course, an openly political painter, too. But what Hubley admired in Martin's work, Julian wrote, was that it "almost always had an asymmetric inventiveness about it that John found related to his own sense of exploration at the expense of order and/or inertia." Cannon, by contrast, "loved symmetry and even inertia," as Julian said; he avoided the instability that Hubley found stimulating.
Hubley's task, when he began directing again, was to find some way to fuse the interests and concerns that had never quite coalesced in any of his earlier films, even the best of the Magoos. The vehicle he found was a retelling of the story of Frankie and Johnny: a story steeped in sex, jealousy, and violent death, and thus inconceivable as a Cannon film, as Hubley surely noticed. Rooty Toot Toot, as the film came to be called, lent itself to a visual treatment that was just as emphatically non-Cannon. Paul Julian recalled that "I happened to find a gelatin proof-roller that had become sort of withered and pitted, and made some remarkable paint textures that just happened to fall into a style that was quite definitely not Bobe-and-T. in quality: the scaly and moldy nastiness appealed to John and me for the same reason." Those textures are clearly visible in the cartoon's backgrounds.
When Rooty Toot Toot was ready for release, W. R. Wilkerson, the editor and publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, wrote about it this way: "It's a gem, something completely new, wonderfully entertaining, with a beautiful background handling that brought applause from the big theater audience." Hubley deserved such praise. The film is by no means wholly successful; Phil Moore's music is particularly weak (UPA, unlike the other studios, had no staff composer but hired a musician for each film). Hubley showed in Rooty Toot Toot, though, that he was well on his way to
harmonizing strong modern design with a kind of animation whose kinetic vitality depended on the illusion of depth that the motion-picture screen could offer.
The design element is stronger in Rooty Toot Toot than in any of Hubley's earlier UPA cartoons, resting in part on a very free and inventive use of color. For instance, the cels for a bartender, depicted in line as a squatty, blank little man, are not painted; they are instead superimposed over a brown oval. Like John McGrew in Chuck Jones's Fox Pop ten years earlier, Hubley changes his color scheme to correspond to changes in mood: there's a switch from brown to green as Frankie and her lawyer sit at their table after the bartender has testified, a signal that Nellie Bly, the vamp who seduced Johnny, is arriving. The color changes extend to the characters themselves: the lawyer is solid white after Frankie (jealous of his attentions to the vamp) shoots him. Color is used sparingly in any given scene, but thanks to the great variety of colors and textures over the course of the film, the total effect is one of visual abundance. This rich design never calls undue attention to itself, though, because the colors and textures always speak of the characters and their moods. The bartender is a dull brown oval—by separating the line drawing and the color, Hubley permits seeing the character from two different angles simultaneously.
Most important, though, the eye is drawn to the characters by the way they move. Each one moves differently, and none of them move at all realistically; the animation is as thoughtfully stylized as everything else, even though Olga Lunick, who choreographed Frankie's dancing, was filmed as a guide for that animation. True to Hubley's preferences, all the animation is full animation, most of it by such veterans of the Hollywood studios as Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick, and Pat Matthews, a former Lantz animator. The stylization through movement came easier in Rooty Toot Toot, surely, because it is a musical, treated almost as a pop ballet, but the link to design is even clearer: the vamp, as cool and remote as a woman in a Modigliani painting, does not preen in dance poses, as the lawyer does, but she is defined just as clearly by her sinuousness (her arms braid together like two snakes). Here, finally, was a clear break with the kind of thinking that had given birth to UPA and had always dominated its films: in Rooty Toot Toot, strong design is not animation's haughty rival, but rather its graceful partner.
Hubley described Norman McLaren, the Canadian animator who made extraordinarily inventive abstract films in the forties and fifties, as "a great inspiration to me at a certain point in my career.... He came out to visit us at UPA, and he brought a new print called Begone Dull Care.... It was very stimulating to me to see that a film artist can take the path of making his own film and expressing himself." That would have been in 1949, probably, when the UPA studio was just picking up speed. McLaren made Begone Dull Care, as he wrote in 1961, by "taking absolutely clear, 35mm motion picture celluloid and painting on it, frequently on both sides with celluloid dyes, inks and transparent [paints]." Such methods could not have been more remote from those that Hubley and other Hollywood animated filmmakers used, but Rooty Toot Toot was as intensely personal as McLaren's film. In it, for the first time, Hubley seemed wholly accepting of the need to work through others—strong animators, in particular—to put his ideas on the screen. McLaren's methods were closed to him; but, on the other hand, the results he got on the screen were closed to McLaren. Hubley, as a film artist, had clearly decided by the time of Rooty Toot Toot what kind of results he most wanted.
Hubley moved on from Rooty Toot Toot to designing black-and-white inserts for a live-action feature film, The Four Poster, that represents stages in a married couple's life. Working again with Paul Julian, he produced inserts that were attractive in their spidery lightness, but that otherwise were—inevitably, given the nature of the work—a step or two down from Rooty Toot Toot. Hubley needed a whole seven-minute cartoon as his canvas; but he never directed another one for UPA.
UPA and Columbia expected that Rooty Toot Toot would win UPA its second Academy Award; other people, like Wilkerson of the Hollywood Reporter, thought so, too. Hubley had completed the film by 21 November 1951, and it qualified for Oscar consideration as a 1951 release; it was not released nationally until 27 March 1952, exactly a week after the Oscar ceremonies. But although Rooty Toot Toot was nominated, it lost the Oscar to a routine Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Two Mouseketeers.
Politics on a larger scale as well as the usual studio politics may have played a part in that outcome. Not that there was anything political about Rooty Toot Toot; quite the reverse. When Hubley reconciled animation and design in that cartoon, he simultaneously severed the always tenuous link between design and politics—there is no way to interpret Rooty Toot Toot as a socially ameliorative film. By that spring, though, UPA's political origins, and John Hubley's own youthful political choices, were combining to end his career at UPA and threaten the
existence of the studio itself.