• Blogger
  • Facebook
  • You Tube
  • Amazon
  • LinkedIn
  • DeviantArt
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • Skype


by Abby Goldsmith

CalArts term paper | May 1999

The post-WWII era in the United States saw a fresh burst of animated films which attempted to both break into new styles and energize old methods. The studios competing against Disney at the time included Lantz Studios, Warner Brothers, Tex Avery working under MGM, and the newly founded U.P.A., or United Productions of America. Over the next few decades, similar themes and characters abounded as studios rivaled each other.

From the beginning, Lantz Studios outlasted every studio except for Disney, although the company was not above imitating the animation giant. Disney had Silly Symphonies, so Lantz Studios had Swing Symphonies. Disney had Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, so Lantz Studios created Andy Panda and other such talking animals, yet the only character created by Lantz Studios which managed to survive the years was Woody Woodpecker. Woody was conceived in 1940, based on an actual woodpecker, four years after Lantz Studios quit working at Universal Studios and began his own company. Woody’s design was crafted by Ben Hardaway, a disillusioned refugee from Warner Brothers.

Distraught, delirious, even dangerous, the very first Woody exhibited brutal features, feverish eyes, and two pendulous teeth in his beak. (Bendazzi, 87).

Over time, the woodpecker’s design and attitude softened, yet in the beginning he embodied the frenetic milieu typical of the early 1940’s in America. (Bendazzi, 87). The Barber of Seville was an example of the character’s early demeanor, featuring Woody savagely shaving an Italian man while singing the title opera song at the same time. It was directed in 1944 by Shamus Culhane, whose animation credits also include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fleischer’s feature Gulliver’s Travels.

Warner Brothers later produced a similar film starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, twisting their classic "wabbit hunting" story into a version of The Barber of Seville opera, performed at the Hollywood Bowl, where Bugs ends up dressed in a barber costume and shaving his already bald opponent.

MGM owed its animated creativity in the 1940’s and 50’s to Tex Avery, a director who favored the surreal and spontaneous. Rather than utilize stereotypes, he would take the commonplace and twist it, combine it, or generally play with it. With the exception of Droopy the dog, Avery’s characters were short-lived, yet memorable. A favorite was a voluptuous redhead, animated by Preston Blair, whose mere presence would excite a wolf character to the point of absurdity. (Bendazzi, 137). In 1949, she starred in Little Rural Red Riding Hood, inflaming the country wolf’s lust while his wealthy city wolf cousin unsuccessfully tries to calm him down. Yet when the city wolf drives his overexcited cousin back to his cabin, he falls in love with an inbred looking version of the redhead, named Rural Riding Hood. This was an example of Avery’s sense of irony.

An Avery character may skid off the edge of a film frame, or go to the movies and find a character he just left in another scene saying hello to him [from the screen]. (Maltin, 292).

Another cartoon which used a famous opera song was Magic Maestro, directed in 1952 by Tex Avery. Anthropomorphic dogs were the main characters, and the film featured the innovative literal treatment characteristic of its director. The premise begins when a bulldog opera star rejects a prospective employee, and the latter takes revenge by usurping the conductor’s place and using his magic wand to affect the unsuspecting star. Thus, the opera singer is forced to perform all sorts of worldly dances, wearing costumes other than his tuxedo. He switches from The Barber of Seville to country folk singing to Chinese chanting to hula dancing, with no warning of what will come next. At one point, a string appears in the lower left corner of the screen, apparently due to a damaged reel- until the singer simply plucks it away.

Operatic cartoon characters abounded, and Disney jumped on the bandwagon with Willie, the Operatic Whale, one of the ten short films from Make Mine Music. A Donald Duck short also carried the theme, which must have been tempting given the character’s trademark rasp. When Donald is accidentally hit on the head by a flower pot, he suddenly gains a melodious voice and as a result, fame and fortune as an opera singer follow. He also ends up ignoring Daisy as though she never existed, until she takes the drastic measure of hitting him over the head again, restoring his old voice and personality.

Competing with American contemporaries, George Pal separated himself by specializing in puppetry rather than in hand-drawn animation. The Hungarian-born artist ran a Dutch animation company until he moved to Los Angeles, where he directed Tubby the Tuba in 1947. Unlike the violent material of the time, Tubby was a gentle character in a gentle film, with music as the theme and a moral at the end. Driven by narration, the tuba had a very tangible personality, and Pal later went on to win five Oscars for special effects.

Characters were often imitated by competing studios, as shown by the similarities between Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, Hanna-Barbera’s Tom and Jerry, and the echoing Sylvester and Tweety from Warner Brothers. The one company which broke free from these repetitive styles and characters was United Productions of America (U.P.A.), which grew under the guidance of some of the most talented animators in the country.

Founded in 1944, U.P.A. focused primarily on educational and political material, until Stephen Bosustow took control in 1946. One of the company’s first non-educational or political films was Robin Hoodlum, which was rejected by Columbia Pictures due to the unique style and content. Despite this fact, Robin Hoodlum was nominated for an Academy Award, and was the inspiration for Disney’s later animated feature Robin Hood. U.P.A. used the fox and crow characters from Robin Hoodlum in its 1949 film The Magic Fluke; a more serious take on the opera theme. The setting of The Magic Fluke is dark and gritty, with black patterned backgrounds and muted, heavy colors. (Maltin, p.328). The characters are presented as struggling musicians, and the crow’s narration comes across as somber and depressing. When the animal band is offered a big time contract, the fox takes all the credit for himself, leaving the crow cold and bankrupt. Interestingly, the fox is never given any cliché evil features or attitudes; he simply ignores the crow and smiles graciously at the audience, both in and outside the film. Much like the Donald Duck short, fame and fortune destroys the friendship until the crow reasserts himself by interrupting the fox’s one-man-band gig.

Although U.P.A. faded within a few decades, it left behind an unmistakably distinctive style--and one star who has survived the test of time, Mister Magoo.

Gerald McBoing Boing and Mister Magoo were forerunners of a comic spirit which broke with the tradition of the pie-in- the-face and breakneck chases. ...To cinema they were what Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was to comic strips in the same period, the expression of a restless, somewhat neurotic sensitivity. (Bendazzi, 132).

Gerald McBoing Boing premiered in 1951, directed by Oscar winner Bobe Cannon. Unable to speak like a normal child, Gerald is able to produce perfect sound effects, and eventually meets with success working for a radio show. This kind of humor involved making light of ordinary situations, and portrays recognizable humans rather than anthropomorphic animals or the same reworked characters. U.P.A. films were more elegant and less violent than contemporary material, and the flat stylistic design and limited animation also differed from Disney and the rest of the competition. In fact, the comedy aspect of U.P.A. would swing from dry to mature to nonexistent at times. The first taste America had of an animated horror movie came from U.P.A. in 1953, as an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart. Directed by Ted Parmelee, the backgrounds were dark and twisted, and the narrating voice disturbingly intimate.

Other notable U.P.A. films include Rooty Toot Toot (1952), A Unicorn in the Garden (1953), and The Jaywalker (1956). All three exhibit a sophisticated humor which does not rely on violence or visual gags. Directed by Bill Hurtz, A Unicorn in the Garden is based on a tale by novelist James Thurber about a man whose life is changed when he sees the impossible. The film begins by showing his unhappy marriage (the husband has to fix his own breakfast, a rare thing in the 1950’s), and his wife is obviously a lazy nag. Then he looks out the window to see a unicorn grazing the roses in the yard. To his delight, it chomps a rose right out his hand, and he runs upstairs to tell his wife, who jumps to the conclusion that he is insane and calls a psychiatrist. Her hysterical manner, combined with the preposterous story, land her in a straightjacket. The doctor then asks the husband if he really did see a unicorn. Rather than look a gift horse in the mouth, the man frees himself from his wife with a simple “No.” Such a story could not have been as well done in live action, because the flat style of the mythical unicorn fit very naturally with the rest of the film’s setting, making it seem a perfectly plausible event. Details were minimal, but the acting kept it alive.

The lack of visual details, two dimensional characters, patterned backgrounds, and overlapping color and lines became the U.P.A. trademark look, a style recognizable today even after the studio’s eventual disintegration. The characters created by many of these studios are still very much alive in today’s animation, and the humor of Tex Avery, Lantz Studios, Bobe Cannon, and their animators can still be appreciated years later.