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Christopher Crumpet

Christopher Crumpet(1953)

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Originally distributed by Columbia Pictures, the cartoon shorts produced by UPA (United Productions of America) from 1949 to 1959 were revolutionary, adopting the contemporary graphics of Modern design and offering non-traditional, provocative storytelling. The cartoons were popular with the public and the leading critics of the day praised them to the skies. Giving the animators at Disney, MGM and Warner Bros. a run for their money, UPA earned fifteen Oscar® nominations and three Academy Awards®.

The UPA studio founders had all been involved in the 1941 strike at Walt Disney Studio, and by the time of the 1948 contract with Columbia, UPA had produced several government, propaganda and industrial films. Studio head Stephen Bosustow had gathered a large staff of innovative artists to direct and design the work; several staffers were also former Disney artists. Part of the UPA philosophy was to emphasize the design element over actual animation. UPA cartoons featured a credit for artists who worked only on color design, for example.

Columbia Pictures insisted that the first few UPA cartoons include their long-running talking animal characters, the Fox and the Crow. UPA complied, even though they really wanted to break away from talking animal cartoons completely. When the first UPA cartoon, a Fox and Crow called Robin Hoodlum (1949), earned an Academy Award® nomination, Columbia executives gave the studio free reign. Aside from talking animals, the artists and story men at UPA also wanted to get away from traditional cartoon violence, or what they called "hurt gags." One of their first cartoons, made during the probation period with Columbia, was The Ragtime Bear, with a story by feature-film writer Millard Kaufman and artist John Hubley. It featured a Funny Animal to appease Columbia (the title character), but introduced a human character that reflected the direction that the studio wanted to go. Ironically, that character--the nearsighted Mr. Magoo--proved to be so popular with the public, that Columbia insisted that UPA produce many more Magoo cartoons. The studio artists would have been happier avoiding repetition; they preferred that every cartoon be different in style and subject matter from the last.

For almost a decade, until the beginning of the demise of the theatrical short subject as a desirable element of the exhibitor's nightly program, UPA turned out an amazingly varied slate of creative, innovative cartoon shorts. They challenged convention and influenced both popular culture and art and design for years to come.

The Ragtime Bear

Historically significant as the first Mr. Magoo cartoon, The Ragtime Bear (1949) is also one of UPA's funniest releases. Magoo would soon become UPA's signature character, going against the company policy to avoid repetition. The origins of the character are quite muddled, but the majority of the credit must go to screenwriter Millard Kaufman. Kaufman had gotten early writing assignments on industrial films at UPA before going on to pen such live-action features as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Raintree County (1957). In addition to Kaufman, director John Hubley would later say that he based the Magoo look and manner after his gruff uncle, and that the animators of the short looked to W. C. Fields for inspiration.

Magoo's voice was provided by radio actor Jim Backus, who often mentioned that he based the character on his own father. In his book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin quotes Jerry Hausner (Backus' friend and the voice of Waldo) on the recording process of this first cartoon: "We went into the studio with two pages of dialogue. We read all of the speeches that had been written down. Then Hubley did something that no other animated cartoon director has ever done in my presence. He said, 'Let's do it again and ad-lib around the subject. Throw in any wild thoughts you might have.' We did another version of it. Backus began to go crazy and have a good time..." The impromptu asides became a beloved trademark of the character, and of Jim Backus as an actor, in the years to come.

In his essential history of UPA, When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA (Wesleyan, 2012), Adam Abraham quotes studio founder Bosustow, who later recalled, "I sent Ragtime Bear back to Columbia Pictures [in New York], and they said, 'Great, where's the next six or eight a year?'" The reluctant studio embarked on a series of cartoons featuring their breakout star.

Producer: Ed Gershman
Director: John Hubley
Story: Millard Kaufman
Design: William Hurtz
Color: Herb Klynn, Jules Engel
Music: Del Castillo
Animation: Art Babbitt, Pat Matthews, Rudy Larriva, Willy Pyle
Cast: Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo (voice, uncredited); Jerry Hausner (Waldo (voice, uncredited)

Gerald McBoing Boing

Now considered one of the greatest cartoon shorts ever made, Gerald McBoing Boing (1951) also put UPA and their revolutionary design sensibilities on the mainstream map. The story came from an unusual source for an animated film: a children's record. Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was friends with UPA story man Phil Eastman and was invited to pitch a story idea. Geisel brought the Gerald McBoing Boing record to Steve Bosustow, who he had known in the days when they both worked on propaganda films for the Signal Corps during World war II. Bosustow bought the film rights to the story for five hundred dollars. The story was adapted by Eastman and Bill Scott with some clever character-building additions.

The story is clever, but what made Gerald McBoing Boing so fresh and new was the way the story was dramatized visually, with a bold approach to color, character design, backgrounds, and the very language of animation. Adam Abraham quotes designer Bill Hurtz, who recalled the thought process behind the modern designs he worked up with director Robert (Bobe) Cannon: "We thought we were really boiling it down: what can we get rid of? How elemental could it get?" Abraham describes some of the many visual innovations that are packed into the seven-minute cartoon: "In some instances, one scene does not cut to the next, as in typical motion-picture continuity; rather, Gerald remains still, and the setting changes around him. The most striking example of Cannon and Hurtz's linear pattern occurs near the end. In an image inspired by Carol Reed's 1948 feature The Fallen Idol, Gerald climbs a crooked staircase that leads nowhere. The scene dissolves, and Gerald continues his diagonal motion into his little bedroom. Completing this arc, he climbs out the window, into the blackness of night." Color styling is also experimental. Gerald's "flesh" tone always matches the background he is on, for example, and colors are sometimes splashed impressionistically, with little regard for staying "in the line."

Gerald McBoing Boing was released in December, 1950, and was a smash hit, reportedly playing simultaneously in three major New York City theaters. Soon, the cartoon became a major topic of discussion in both highbrow journals and the mainstream press. In March, 1951 the cartoon won the Academy Award® for best animated short subject, beating out MGM's Jerry's Cousin starring Tom and Jerry, and UPA's own Trouble Indemnity, the third Mr. Magoo.

Producer: Stephen Bosustow
Director: Robert Cannon
Story: Bill Scott, Phil Eastman (adaptation); Dr. Seuss (story)
Design: Bill Hurtz
Music: Gail Kubik
Color: Herb Klynn, Jules Engel
Animation: Bill Melendez, Rudy Larriva, Pet Matthews, Willis Pyle, Frank Smith
Cast: Marvin Miller (Narrator, voice)

Rooty Toot Toot

Rooty Toot Toot (1951) stands as one of the high points of UPA's output and as one of the most highly-praised seven-minute cartoons ever made. It is in no way a children's film; it deals with strictly adult characters and situations. Gerald McBoing Boing and The Ragtime Bear had performed very well at the box office, so Columbia approved a larger budget for UPA cartoons--they would now be budgeted at nearly $35,000 each. Meanwhile, John Hubley was anxious to make his own definitive statement at UPA (he directed the first Magoo cartoon but would soon hand the character over to others). Hubley took the new budget allowance and ran with it, pulling out all the stops to make a thoroughly Modern and graphically exciting update on the old "Frankie and Johnny" story of jealousy and murder. Rooty Toot Toot would go over schedule and budget, but it earned nearly as much critical and press attention as Gerald.

Hubley brought in a number of interesting collaborators on Rooty Toot Toot. Dancer Olga Lunick was hired to choreograph the ballet-style dance moves. There was no rotoscoping involved; her moves were only referenced by the artists and animators, not slavishly traced. Paul Julian designed the backgrounds and utilized some non-typical techniques; in his essential history of UPA, When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA (Wesleyan, 2012), Adam Abraham quotes Julian on one of them: "'I found a kind of oddly corroded gelatin roller - an ordinary print roller that had been pitted and pocked in some way, chemically.' With this device, he produced distressed-looking backgrounds that suited the sordid tale." In addition, Hubley and the studio brought on jazz musician Phil Moore to write the score. Moore had done orchestrations for many MGM musicals in the 1940s, but uncredited--this would be a rare on-screen credit for the black musician. Legendary animator Grim Natwick also joined the crew. Natwick had been active since the silent era and had designed and animated Betty Boop for the Fleischer Studios. He went on to work on such key films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Gulliver's Travels (1939). For Rooty Toot Toot Natwick animated the memorable shots of Nellie Bly on the witness stand.

Producer: John Hubley
Director: John Hubley
Story: John Hubley, Bill Scott
Color and Design: Paul Julian
Music: Phil Moore
Lyrics: Allen Alch
Choreography: Olga Lunick
Animation: Art Babbitt, Pat Matthews, Tom McDonald, Grim Natwick
Cast: Thurl Ravenscroft (Jonathan Bailey, Honest John the Crook, voice), Annette Warren (Frankie/Nelly Bly, voice)

The Unicorn in the Garden

The Unicorn in the Garden (1953) is one of the most fondly remembered cartoons of the UPA output, and it is one of the rare examples that was adapted from another artist's style. The Unicorn in the Garden is also the only completed bit of evidence of a long-held but unfulfilled dream at UPA to produce an entire feature film based on the works of noted humorist James Thurber.

As detailed by Adam Abraham, Steve Bosustow and UPA considered several properties for feature-length treatment, including Finian's Rainbow and Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip, but the idea for a Thurber feature went the furthest; it was even announced to the press under titles like The Thurber Carnival and Men, Women and Dogs. The film would have included a mixture of several short stories done in a variety of styles, including live-action as well as animation. Producer John Houseman was attached to the project, but the team could not get major studio backing after Columbia passed on the idea.

The seven-minute The Unicorn in the Garden was then produced as a "pilot" of sorts for a larger feature. UPA bought the story rights for one thousand dollars and Bill Hurtz directed with an eye to replicating Thurber's loose, untrained pen-and-ink style of drawing. As with so many other famed UPA shorts, the humor is decidedly adult, dealing with husbands, wives, and "battle of the sexes" themes.

Producer: Stephen Bosustow
Director: William T. Hurtz
Story: James Thurber
Design and Color: Robert Dranko
Music: David Raksin
Animation: Phil Monroe, Rudy Larriva, Tom McDonald

Christopher Crumpet

The cartoons helmed by UPA director Robert (Bobe) Cannon often featured children in the lead parts; others who worked with Cannon would later say that the subject matter reflected the gentle nature of the man himself. In studio dealings he avoided conflict and he shied away from conflict in his cartoons as well. Christopher Crumpet (1953) was a popular entry concerning a boy turns into a chicken whenever he doesn't get his way. In his book Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Wings Books, 1994), Charles Solomon writes that Cannon's sensitive approach to material is most often charming, "but the aversion to conflict sometimes becomes a weakness. When Christopher Crumpet refuses to demonstrate his metamorphic abilities before a witness, his father whines and begs and pleads, but never loses his temper. The audience tires of the intractable child and begins to root for the parent."

The UPA penchant for stylized design and bold color was an ideal playground for visualizing the "imaginary friend" world of children. As Adam Abraham writes in When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA (Wesleyan, 2012), "Here each background is reduced to a single shade. Whereas earlier cartoon characters may have been painted in eight or more different colors, Christopher appears all in yellow, with forelock of brazen red. The limited animation is daring as well: the Crumpets move in zigzag motion to imply depth, and Christopher's transformations are expressed not literally, but as a jumble of jagged lines."

The "imaginary friend" theme was one that the studio would return to often, including a direct sequel to this cartoon called Christopher Crumpet's Playmate (1955).

Producer: Stephen Bosustow
Director: Robert Cannon
Story: T. Hee, Robert Cannon
Design: T. Hee
Color: Jules Engel
Music: George Bruns
Animation: Bill Melendez, Frank Smith, Tom McDonald
Cast: Marvin Miller (Various, voice); Marian Richman (Various, voice)

Fudget's Budget

Household finance is the subject of Fudget's Budget (1954), directed by Robert Cannon. It is not a very likely topic for a one-reel cartoon short, but is by all odds one of the most abstract and visually stunning of the UPA cartoons. George and Irene Fudget bicker constantly over budgetary concerns, and eventually find themselves "underwater." Designer T. Hee depicts the pair, their kids, and all other characters and background elements as literal lines on a graph. That is, the mostly unchanging background is black graph paper, over which move the decidedly two-dimensional figures--when they turn sideways, they are single vertical lines!

The music (by George Bruns) is equally elemental, consisting only of a jaunty piano score. The colors are almost all primary; they must have absolutely popped on the big screen in 35mm. The result, narrated by Marvin Miller, is one of UPA's most accessible and enjoyable shorts.

T. Hee was another Disney veteran. Known for his caricatures, he first worked on Looney Tunes at Warner Bros., on cartoons such as The CooCoo Nut Grove (1936) which featured movie star parodies. At Disney he directed the "Dance of the Hours" segment in Fantasia (1940) and was a story man on The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and Make Mine Music (1946). At UPA he was most often paired with director Cannon as designer and/or story man--among their other collaborations were such superior cartoons as Ballet-Oop (1954), How Now Boing Boing (1954) and The Jaywalker (1956).

Producer: Stephen Bosustow
Director: Robert Cannon
Story: Tedd Pierce, T. Hee, Robt. Cannon
Design: T. Hee
Music: George Bruns
Animation: Frank Smith, Alan Zoslove, Gerald Rolf
Cast: Marvin Miller (Fudget/Narrator, voice)

The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) is one of the most unusual and memorable animated shorts produced by a major studio during the Golden Age of theatrical animation. The daring and expressive short begins with a rare text disclaimer: "The film that you are about to see is based on a story told a hundred years ago by America's greatest master of drama and suspense... This story is told through the eyes of a madman... who, like all of us, believed that he was sane." This spoiler both explains the point-of-view of the story for the dull-witted members of the audience as well as acting as an alert that the content was to be taken seriously, not humorously. In 1953 a dramatic cartoon was a rarity indeed.

The Tell-Tale Heart contains very little animation. It was designed by Paul Julian as a series of detailed, manic paintings and visually tells the story from the subjective view of the crazed man who murders an old man because of his "evil eye." The first-person narration is delivered by James Mason--an inspired choice--and writer Bill Scott does not take a single line directly from the story, though the language is very much in the Poe vein. The visuals are brought to life with sweeping camera moves and eerie light and shadows that are constantly in play.

When the short was near completion, it was decided that the studio should create a 3-D version. Stereoscopic films were at their height of popularity that year, as every major studio rushed to release features and shorts in the format. Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. had produced cartoons in 3-D and Steve Bosustow decided this subject would be ideal and that the process would add to the eerie effect. Extra work was required, of course; as Adam Abraham writes in When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA (Wesleyan, 2012), "Paul Julian had to paint more backgrounds. 'I stayed up all night on a couple of occasions working out the parallaxes.'" The 3-D version of the film was shown in the UPA screening room, as many employees and family members later recalled, but unfortunately Columbia did not release The Tell-Tale Heart in Stereo and no 3-D elements have been discovered as of this writing.

The short received enormous press attention--it was written up in both Life and Time magazines in September of 1953.

Producer: Stephen Bosustow
Director: Ted Parmelee
Story: Edgar Allan Poe (story); Bill Scott, Fred Grable (story adaptation)
Design and Color: Paul Julian
Music: Boris Kremenliev
Animation: Pat Matthews
Cast: James Mason (Narrator, voice)

by John M. Miller

When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA, Adam Abraham, 2012, Wesleyan.
Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin, 1987, Plume.
Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, Charles Solomon, 1994, Wings Books.

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