More Than Just Magoo: The Classic Cartoons Of UPA

There was Disney. There was Warner Brothers. There was MGM. And then there was UPA.

The animation studio UPA was in the shadow of the other three. It was best known as the home of Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing.

But it carved out a niche of its own in the animated world, offering cartoons that were simply drawn, experimental in style and subject, and sometimes esoteric.

It rarely delved into feature projects like Disney. And in most cases, it steered clear of talking mice and excitable ducks, wascally wabbits and stammering pigs, and feuding cats and rodents.

Instead, UPA chose to focus on mostly people with memorable—sometimes unusual—characteristics.

UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection offers 38 of the studio’s most impressive and enjoyable animated shorts over the course of a three-disc boxed set. Included are critically acclaimed and award-winning works, often forgotten today.

Now available for the first time on DVD and remastered to boot, animation fans will be able to take a look at the first Magoo cartoon, 1949’s The Ragtime Bear. Then there’s Gerald McBoing Boing, actually created by beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), which shows you how a character that makes different sounds could delight audiences over the course of several shorts.

UPA was created by a group of former Disney animators, including the legendary John Hubley, during a strike in 1941. It began life as Industrial Film & Poster Service and started by cranking out shorts and animation for industry and the government during World War II.

Columbia, for its part, had nursed along animated product from the Mintz Studios, and subsequently Screen Gems, since the dawn of the talkies. In the early ‘40s, Frank Tashlin, later a cartoon director at Warner and of several classic live action comedies, created Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow for Screen Gems. Based on one of Aesop’s Fables, the ongoing game of one-upmanship between the two characters laid the groundwork for Warner Brothers’ later Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote battles royale.

As the WWII years progressed, Screen Gems’ product pretty much withered on the vine, creatively and commercially. The studio subsequently commissioned new Fox and the Crow shorts from Hubley, including Robin Hoodlum (1948), in which the Sheriff of Nottingham (the Crow) attempts to catch Robin Hood (the Fox),  and The Magic Fluke (1949), in which the feuding took place against the backdrop of jazz clubs. Both were nominated for Oscars and are available in this collection.

Mr. Magoo made his debut in 1949 in the aforementioned Ragtime Bear, which finds the visually-impaired codger mistaking a banjo-strumming bear for his banjo-strumming nephew Waldo. (Two Magoo cartoons that are absent from this collection went on to win Academy Awards: When Magoo Flew (1955) and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956).)

Magoo was introduced as part of UPA’s “Jolly Frolics” series, which are collected on this set.  The same was true of Gerald McBoing-Boing, who debuted in an eponymous short in 1951, supervised by Hubley and developed by Phil Eastman (known as P.D. Eastman for his children’s books) and Bill Scott, best known for writing, producing and providing voices for Jay Ward’s works like Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right.

Gerald McBoing-Boing concerns a young boy named Gerald McCloy who can only speak in sound effects. His nickname derived from his first words—“boing boing”—and he later developed “speech” like train whistles, car horns and alarms, much to the chagrin of his classmates and insensitive father. Eventually, he finds his place in the world providing his gift to a radio studio. The short won the Academy Award, and sent McBoing-Boing—a calculated attempt to break away from the realism of the popular Disney model at the time using limited but stylish animation—on its way to other to become a popular series, with his own short-lived TV show on CBS in 1956. (It also resurfaced in 2005 for the Cartoon Network).

Not all of UPA’s output, however, was on the comedic side, as evidenced by the other selections on UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection. For example, the studio’s version of The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) is an appropriately creepy, gothic examination of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, narrated by James Mason and receiving the first adults-only certificate for an animated film from Great Britain. Also included is A Unicorn in the Garden (1953). UPA adapted James Thurber’s 1939 tale with the hope of turning other Thurber stories into animated shorts. While the project never went any further, Unicorn is quite an accomplishment, an absurdist look at male and female behavior, mental illness and role reversals among the sexes, all done in a spare but expressive style.

Madeline (1952), based on Ludwig Bemelmans’ 1939 children’s book, also earned the studio an Oscar nomination for their efforts in bringing the adventures of a French girl in a Catholic boarding school to life. This, too, is part of the set.

During the hearings of the House Un-American Committee, some of UPA’s guiding forces were squeezed out by Columbia Pictures topper Harry Cohn for their politics. Among them were Hubley, (who, in fact, was a Communist, but refused to “name names” when asked), Eastman and Scott. By 1959, the studio was out of the “animation produced for movie theaters” business.

Instead, UPA turned to television as its main source of income, capitalizing on the popularity of Mr. Magoo and producing an animated version of Chester Gould’s comic strip crime-stopper Dick Tracy.

If UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection proves anything, it is that there was more to American animation than Mickey, Bugs and Tom and Jerry. And while the studio’s day in the sun was relatively short—from 1949 to 1959, really—it produced some of the most innovative animated shorts ever created that often delighted, dazzled and demonstrated intelligence, often at the same time.

Or as one their characters would say: “Boing boing.”