UPA Shorts, 1944-1950

In 1941, an animators’ strike at Disney emerged from discontent with Walt Disney’s business practices; although the company enjoyed the best pay and benefits in the American animation industry at the time, it suffered layoffs following the respective failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940 (which were affected by the war in Europe), and discrepancies existed among employee payroll (with some in the company receiving only $12 a week for their work). As a result, Disney animators joined the recently-formed Screen Cartoonist’s Guild, petitioning for better pay conditions; Art Babbitt, especially, spearheaded agitation for improvements, but Disney refused to allow unions within his studios. Friction between animators and Disney resulted in the latter personally firing 16 employees, including Art Babbitt, prompting the strike; many former Disney workers joined the strike, with many more leaving the company outright to pursue other ventures. While the strike was eventually resolved, it left a profound impact on Disney’s relationship with his employees, as well as on American animation in subsequent year – specifically, Disney grew resentful towards unionization, perceiving union members as ungrateful.

One of the key developments of the strike was the formation of UPA by former Disney workers (among them John Hubley); founded in 1943, the studio became famous for its postwar productions, which employed a looser, more stylized form of animation that distinguished it from its Disney roots. Hubley himself believed that animation did not have to adhere to the realistic approach established by Disney – he and a few colleagues demonstrated, through their UPA works, that the medium could work wonders through more novel forms of expression that emphasized emotional depth through experimentation of form. The company’s first productions, when they were initially called Industrial Film and Poster Service, appeared late in World War 2; one of them, 1944’s Hell-Bent for Election, promoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reelection campaign of that year. Within the short, Roosevelt is depicted as a powerful streamlined train, a contrast to the “defeatist” nature of his Republican rival Thomas E. Dewey (represented by a weak steam locomotive); United Auto Workers sponsored the short, as they supported Roosevelt and his New Deal campaign of earlier years. As the short progresses, a villainous man (unnamed in the short) threatens to derail Roosevelt’s reelection through various means; he first attempts to knock out the virtuous railroad worker with a hammer bearing “Smith-Connally,” a reference to a 1943 act that allowed for the government to seize industries affected by strikes. As a note, Roosevelt invoked the act himself to bring an end to the Philadelphia transit strike of 1944 – white workers went on strike when eight black employees were being trained as motormen, and the effort significantly affected war production at the time.

UPA would eventually establish a contract with Columbia in 1948, where Columbia served as distributor of UPA’s animated work; the first short released under this contract is Robin Hoodlum (1948), directed by John Hubley and the first of the UPA shorts to receive an Academy Award nomination. This would be an example of the Fox and Crow series of production, which originated in 1941, starring Fauntelroy Fox and Crawford Crow; the characters would appear in only three more subsequent shorts until 1950. Robin Hoodlum casts the fox in the Robin Hood role, as he steals from the greedy Sheriff; the crow stars as a subordinate to the Sheriff, ordered to capture Robin Hood and have him participate in an archery contest. The following year saw two releases, the first of which was The Magic Fluke (another Oscar nominee); the second UPA Fox and Crow short, this involves the Fox and Crow as a conductor and one-man band respectively. When the mayor invites the Fox to conduct for the city’s symphony orchestra, he decides to immediately end his relationship with the crow for greener pastures – now destitute, the Crow attempts to reunite with his former colleague by giving him a magic wand as a substitute for his conductor’s baton. This backfires for the Fox, as the wand performs various tricks while he conducts; the short concludes with the two characters ultimately reuniting, with the Crow approaching the stage clad in his instruments.

The other UPA short for 1949, The Ragtime Bear, introduced the now-iconic character Mr. Magoo and his nephew Waldo; Magoo’s near-sightedness was the source of his shorts’ humor, as he frequently got into various misadventures. His first outing involved him and Waldo traveling to a lodge for vacation, where the two encounter a bear who becomes fascinated with Waldo’s banjo; Magoo mistakes the bear for his nephew, thanks to his poor eyesight, and reprimands Waldo when the bear takes and plays the banjo. Mr. Magoo would have a pretty long career, lasting until the 1960s as one of UPA’s greatest animated stars – his initial appearance in Ragtime Bear (purportedly based both on John Hubley’s uncle and W. C. Fields) is rougher than his later design, which is more rounded. Disney attempted to revive Mr. Magoo in 1997 with a live-action film, starring Leslie Nielsen in the lead role; the film fared poorly, however, thanks partially to criticisms of jokes made about Magoo’s poor eyesight.

UPA released eight shorts in 1950, starting with their third Fox and Crow short Punchy De Leon; this casts the two central characters as Spanish explorers searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth to claim a reward offered by the king. Spellbound Hound, the second Mr. Magoo short, features Magoo vacationing at a lake while a hound searches for an escaped convict hiding in the lake lodge; the dog struggles to inform Magoo of the prisoner’s presence, but Magoo ultimately helps apprehend the criminal by the end of the short. The Miner’s Daughter follows a prospector and his daughter Clementine as they attempt to strike it rich with gold; Clementine falls in love with a passing Harvard student who resists her advances. When the Harvard student discovers gold, the prospector lures him away with the smell of Boston baked beans; this allows the prospector to abscond with the assorted gold. Giddyap, the fourth short released in 1950, features an ice cart driver and his daughter who struggle to deliver ice in a time when cars can do so more efficiently; they ultimately adapt by purchasing a helicopter, which defeats their car-driving rival.

Trouble Indemnity, another Mr. Magoo short, received UPA’s second Academy Award nomination – it revolves a round a pair of grifters who attempt to fleece Magoo by having him sign a phony life insurance contract. It reveals that Mr. Magoo is a Rutgers alumnus; according to his creators, they wanted Magoo to be a college alumnus to show him as the “old college tie” sort of character who still demonstrates his spirit. The Popcorn Story is a comedic short illustrating the invention of popcorn – its inventor, Wilbur Shucks, inadvertently creates it and impresses a businessman who initially felt frustrated by his earlier products. The next short, Bungled Bungalow, is another Magoo short; here, Magoo must deal with an intruder, Hot House Harry, who tries to steal Magoo’s house from under him. The final short of 1950 happens to be the most important of that year for UPA – it is Gerald McBoing-Boing, their first Academy Award winner and a short preserved by the Library of Congress for its historical significance. This short follows the story of the eponymous boy, who communicates through numerous noises rather than a traditional language – one of the most iconic American animated shorts of the 1950s, Gerald McBoing-Boing is based on a Dr. Seuss and directed by Robert Cannon. The work demonstrates an early example of limited animation – the technique involves reducing the amount of animation between frames by limiting the amount needed to animate. While a Disney feature-length work would animate a character’s entire body, a limited-animation short would only animate those parts considered the most important; a key example of this would be the classic Yogi Bear shorts, where only his legs or head would move (with the rest of his body remaining static). Works like Gerald McBoing-Boing became influential as they illustrate a method of reducing animation costs; subsequent television-based works (such as Hanna-Barbera’s production) took this approach to heart, as television typically didn’t have anywhere near the budget of a feature film.

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