United Productions of America, better known as UPA, was an American animation studio of the 1940s through present day, beginning with industrial films and World War II training films. In the late 1940s, UPA produced theatrical shorts for Columbia Pictures, most notably the Mr. Magoo series. In the late 1950s UPA produced a television series for CBS hosted by Gerald McBoing Boing. In the 1960s UPA produced several Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy series and specials, the most popular of which was Magoo's Christmas Carol. UPA also produced two features, 1001 Arabian Nights and Gay Puree, and a distributed Japanese films from Toho Studios in the 1970s and 1980s. The latest animated series is with Gerald McBoing Boing for Cartoon Network.
UPA Pictures' legacy in the history of animation has largely been overshadowed by the commercial success of the vast cartoon libraries of Warner Brothers and Disney. Nonetheless, UPA had a significant impact on animation style, content, and technique, and its innovations were recognized and adopted by the other major animation studios and independent filmmakers all over the world. UPA pioneered the technique of limited animation, and though this style of animation came to be widely abused during the 1960s and 1970s as a cost-cutting measure, it was originally intended as a stylistic alternative to the growing trend (particularly at Disney) of recreating cinematic realism in animated films.
In 1943, Zack Schwartz, Dave Hilberman and Stephen Bosustow formed a studio called first Industrial Film & Poster Service and later United Productions of America, where they were free to apply their concepts. Finding work (and income) in the then-booming field of wartime work for the government, the small studio produced a cartoon sponsored by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1944. This Chuck Jones directed cartoon was entitled Hell-Bent for Election, and was produced for the (third) reelection campaign of FDR. The film was a theatrical success, leading to another cartoon entitled Brotherhood of Man (1945), also sponsored by the UAW. The film, directed by Bobe Cannon, advocated tolerance of all people. The short was groundbreaking not only in its message but in its very flat, stylized design, in complete defiance of the Disney approach. With its new-found fame, the studio renamed itself UPA Pictures (UPA).
Initially UPA contracted with the government to produce animation, but the government contracts began to evaporate as the FBI began investigating Communist activities in Hollywood in the late 1940s. No formal charges were filed against anyone at UPA in the beginnings of the so-called "Red Scare", but the government contracts were lost as Washington severed its ties with Hollywood.
With a unique, sparse drawing style that contrasted greatly with other cartoons of the day, not to mention the novelty of a human character in a field crowded with talking mice, rabbits, and bears, the Mr. Magoo series won accolades for UPA. Two Magoo cartoons won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons): When Magoo Flew in 1953 and Magoo's Puddle Jumper in 1955.
In 1951, UPA scored another hit with Gerald McBoing-Boing, based on a story by Dr. Seuss. Gerald McBoing-Boing won UPA another Academy Award, and several UPA cartoons would receive Oscar nominations in the next few years, fifteen between 1949 and 1959. Also in 1951, UPA announced plans for a feature-length film based on the work of cartoonist and humorist James Thurber, to be titled Men, Women and Dogs. (Just one of the Thurber pieces intended for this feature, The Unicorn in the Garden, was eventually released as a short subject.) Shorts such as The Tell-Tale Heart and Rooty Toot Toot featured striking, sophisticated designs unlike anything offered by competing studios. The "UPA style" began to influence significant changes at the other major animation studios, including Warner Bros., MGM, and even Disney, ushering in a new era of experimentation in animation.
The UPA style of limited animation was adopted by other animation studios, and especially by TV cartoon studios such as Hanna-Barbera Productions. However, it was implemented as a cost-cutting measure rather than an artistic choice. A plethora of low-budget, cheaply made cartoons over the next twenty years effectively reduced television animation to a commodity, despite UPA's original goal to expand the boundaries of animation and create a new form of art.
One bright moment in the UPA television era came with Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1963), which became the first episode of an animated TV series entitled The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. Christmas Carol captured the spirit of Charles Dickens' tale in a manner that few of the many re-tellings of the story would, and it is considered to be a holiday classic of the 1960s, ranking alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.
In 1970, Saperstein led UPA into a contract with Toho Studios of Japan to distribute its "giant monster" (see kaiju and tokusatsu) movies in America. Theatrical releases, and especially TV syndication, of the Toho monster movies created a new cult movie market for Japanese monster movies, and such long-running television movie syndication packages such as Creature Double Feature exposed the Toho movie monsters to young American audiences, who embraced them and helped them maintain their popularity throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When Toho began producing a new generation of monster movies in the late 1980s, beginning with Godzilla 1985, UPA capitalized on its Toho contract and helped introduce the new kaiju features to the Western world.
Because of its long association with Toho, UPA is better known to cult-movie fans today as Toho's American distributor rather than a pioneer of animated cartoons. But the legacy of UPA is an important chapter in the history of American animation.
UPA continues to license the American library of Godzilla movies, even today. UPA's contract with Toho also resulted in Saperstein producing Woody Allen's first feature film, What's Up Tiger Lily?. Although Classic Media and its parent company, Entertainment Rights, now owns the ancillary rights to most of the UPA library, UPA itself continues to hold the licensing rights to Mr. Magoo, and Saperstein was executive producer to Disney's unsuccessful live-action feature Mr. Magoo in 1997.
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