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.
UPA was founded in the wake of the Disney animators' strike
of 1941, which resulted in the exodus of a number of long-time Walt Disney
staff members. Among them was John Hubley
, a layout artist who was unhappy with the ultra-realistic style of animation that Disney had been advocating. Along with a number of his colleagues, Hubley believed that animation did not have to be a painstakingly realistic imitation of real life; they felt that the medium of animation had been constrained by efforts to depict cinematic reality. Chuck Jones
' 1942 cartoon The Dover Boys
had demonstrated that animation could freely experiment with character design, depth, and perspective to create a stylized artistic vision appropriate to the subject matter. Hubley, Bobe Cannon, and others at UPA, sought to produce animated films with sufficient freedom to express design ideas considered radical by other established studios.
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.
Columbia Pictures and success
UPA moved to the crowded field of theatrical cartoons to sustain itself, and won a contract with Columbia Pictures
. Columbia had historically been an also-ran in the field of animated shorts, and was not satisfied with the output of its Screen Gems
cartoon studio. The UPA animators applied their stylistic concepts and storytelling to Columbia's characters The Fox and the Crow
with the shorts Robin Hoodlum
(1948) and The Magic Fluke
(1949), both directed by Hubley. Both shorts were nominated for Academy Awards
and Columbia gave the studio permission to create its own new characters. UPA responded, not with another "funny animal," but the star was a human character, a crotchety, nearsighted old man. The Ragtime Bear
(1949), the first appearance of Mr. Magoo
, was a box-office hit, and UPA's star quickly rose as the 1950s dawned.
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 House Un-American Activities Committee
hearings took a toll on UPA. Columbia, fearful of the investigations, pressured UPA to dismiss anyone with even the slightest hint of communist association, including writers Phil Eastman
and Bill Scott
(who was not himself under suspicion but tainted by association as Eastman's writing partner). Hubley, a political activist with genuine communist ties, was dismissed in May, 1952. When he left, much of the innovation and creativity of UPA left with him. The studio continued under the management of Bosustow, but the energetic, innovative quality of UPA's cartoons was irreparably damaged. UPA stopped producing theatrical cartoon shorts in 1959.
Turning to television
In 1956, Steve Bosustow secured a CBS contract for UPA to produce a television series that brought new talent to the studio, and a brand new energy emerged under the supervision of Bobe Cannon. Talents such as Ernie Pintoff, Fred Crippen, Jimi Muricami, George Dunning, Mel Leven, Auri Batalia, Ozzie Evans, and many more, gave this short lived show a wide variety of new looks in animation. But, as the major Hollywood studios began cutting back and shutting down their animation studios in the early 1960s, UPA was in financial straits, and Steve Bosustow sold the studio to a new producer, Henry G. Saperstein
. Saperstein turned UPA's focus to television
to sustain itself. UPA expanded the Mr. Magoo
series and brought it to television, along with other animated series
, including an adaptation of the comic strip Dick Tracy
. The studio continued to operate, but the tight schedules and reduced budgets had devastating effects on the product. UPA was forced to churn out cartoons at a far greater quantity than the studio had done for theatrical releases or even the CBS television series; quality, particularly of the Mr. Magoo
series, sank to an embarrassing level.
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!.
UPA produced two full-length feature films in its tenure: a 1959 feature starring Mr. Magoo entitled 1001 Arabian Nights, directed by Jack Kinney; and Gay Purr-ee in 1962, directed by Abe Levitow.
Abandoning animation and Toho Studios
Saperstein kept UPA afloat in the 1960s and beyond by abandoning animation production completely after the animation studio closed permanently in 1964 and sold off UPA's library of cartoons, although the studio retained the licenses and copyrights on Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing-Boing and the other UPA characters. This led to UPA contracting with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises
studio to produce a new animated series called What's New Mr. Magoo?
in the 1970s. Columbia Pictures
retained ownership of UPA's theatrical cartoons. The studio's TV cartoon library was licensed by Classic Media in New York, and then in 2007 it was purchased by Entertainment Rights in London.
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.
Classic Media/Sony Wonder began issuing the Mr. Magoo cartoon series on DVD in 2001, beginning with Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.
The following is a complete listing of every UPA short released through Columbia Pictures from 1948 to 1959.
- Punchy DeLeon
- Spellbound Hound
- The Miner's Daughter
- Trouble Indemnity – Academy Award Nominee
- The Popcorn Story
- Bungled Bungalow
- Gerald McBoing Boing – Academy Award Winner
- The Family Circus
- Barefaced Flatfoot
- Georgie and the Dragon
- Fuddy Duddy Buddy
- Wonder Gloves
- Grizzly Golfer
- Bringing Up Mother
- Magoo Goes Skiing
- The Man on the Flying Trapeze
- Fudget's Budget
- Kangaroo Courting
- How Now Boing Boing
- Destination Magoo
- When Magoo Flew – Academy Award Winner
- Spare the Child
- Four Wheels and No Brake
- Magoo's Check-Up
- Baby Boogie
- Magoo's Express
- Madcap Magoo
- Christopher Crumpet's Playmate
- Stage Door Magoo
- Rise of Duton Lang
- Magoo Makes News
- Gerald McBoing Boing on Planet Moo – Academy Award Nominee
- Magoo's Canine Mutiny
- Magoo Goes West
- Calling Dr. Magoo
- The Jaywalker – Academy Award Nominee
- Magoo Beats the Heat
- Magoo's Puddle Jumper – Academy Award Winner
- Trailblazer Magoo
- Magoo's Problem Child
- Meet Mother Magoo
- Magoo Goes Overboard
- Matador Magoo
- Magoo Breaks Par
- Magoo's Glorious Fourth
- Magoo's Masquerade
- Magoo Saves the Bank
- Rockhound Magoo
- Magoo's Moose Hunt
- Magoo's Private War
- Trees and Jamaica Daddy – Academy Award Nominee
- Sailing and the Village Band
- Magoo's Young Manhood
- Scoutmaster Magoo
- The Explosive Mr. Magoo
- Magoo's Three-Point Landing
- Magoo's Cruise
- Love Comes to Magoo
- Spring and Saganaki
- Gumshoe Magoo
- Bwana Magoo
- Picnics Are Fun and Dino's Serenade
- Magoo's Homecoming
- Merry Minstrel Magoo
- Magoo's Lodge Brother
- Terror Faces Magoo
- 1001 Arabian Nights (1959)
- Gay Purr-ee (1962)
- Barrier, Michael (1999): Hollywood Cartoons. Oxford University Press.
- Maltin, Leonard (1987): Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Penguin Books.
- Solomon, Charles (1994): The History of Animation: Enchanted Drawings. Outlet Books Company.