Friday, August 11, 2006

UPA: Winning Awards is Fine Revenge. But It's Tough to Beat the HUAC

UPA animators in 1954, posing with their Oscar for "When Magoo Flew". Top row, left to right: Dick Shaw, Maury Fagin, Ed Friedman, Gil Turner, Barney Posner, Bob Dranko, Earl Bennett. Bottom row, left to right: Bob McIntosh, Al Wade, Pete Burness, Rudy Larriva, Bob Brown.
(Another entry from Tom Sito's Drawing the Line, this one about a little studio with a large impact...) United Productions of America was a studio formed in 1944 by renegade Disney and Warner Bros. union artists who wanted to explore new artistic styles... Through Columbia Studio, UPA distributed some brilliant cartoons. Every animator sick of cutesy cat-chases-the-rat cartoons flocked to UPA. Animators there talked about Søren Kierkegaard, the Bauhaus, and new trends in art like the work of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. Former Looney Tunes gagman Ted Pierce would thunder at story meetings, "Are we discussing anything funny? I do funny!" Art Babbitt took a background painter's cardboard palette with random multicolor drips and drabs and framed it on a wall. He invited the "arteests" to expound on the aesthetic virtues of the new work. Despite such clowning around, the revolutionary styles and subject matter of UPA broke new ground and affected animation done around the world. Arguably, no studio since Walt Disney exerted such a great influence on world animation. Director Gene Deitch wrote, "UPA was born at a time before cynicism set into our culture. We all really believed." Small wonder Warner Bros. director Friz Freleng joked, "When I die, I don't want to go to Heaven, I want to go to UPA." Yet the blacklist reached out to the UPA happy home as well. While the studio attracted the newest styles, it encourage the same politically progressive thinking seen in much of the rest of the community. Background painter Jay Rivkin wondered during her first week if there were any other politically-minded artists among her office mates. So she walked through the hallway singing "Spanish songs," meaning Spanish civil war songs from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: "Fly higher, and higher and hy-er! Our emblem is the Soviet Star!" In no time at all, many voices joined in with her from the other offices. Because the little Los Angeles River drifted by both UPA and Disney, Walk liked to refer to UPA as "the Commies down river." On July 29, 1946, Steve Bosustow, a former assistant who had walked the Disney picket line, bought out his UPA partners, Dave Hilberman and Zack Schwartz. Columbia chief Harry Cohn, who owned 20 percent of UPA's stock and their vital distribution deal, ordered Bosustow to enforce the blacklist. The alternative would be to lose all their contracts. Union activists and other suspected Reds like Hilberman, Schwartz, Bill Scott, Armen Schaeffer and Phil Eastman were hounded out of the studio... The staff saw Academy Award-winning director John Hubley's firing on May 31, 1952, as a particularly ominous sign. Bosustow reported all his actions to HUAC and then joined the conservative Hollywood Producers Association to allay any fears about his own political views. The Producers Association had an exclusive contract deal with the IATSE, so by signing with them Bosustowdisenfranchisedd the SCG (Screen Cartoonists Guild) from UPA. Bosustow's former leftist party affiliations were successfully covered up. UPA would survive, cartoons would continue to be made, but the dynamic spirit was gone... "After that episode I think I lost heart," Bosustow later confessed. "It was never the same after that."... In 1959, UPA lost its exclusive distribution contract with Columbia. Bosustow sold UPA to a businessman named Henry Saperstein, who turned the emphasis from theatrical shorts to making television shows like "Mr. Magoo" and "The Dick Tracy Show." Animator Carl Bell recalled: "One Friday we saw Steve and Mr. Saperstein having drinks on the veranda outside the studio overlooking the L.A. River. Afterwards they called a staff meeting and told us not to worry; our jobs were in no danger. The following Monday the pink slips were handed out." ... -- Tom Sito


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful and sad story. What the hell politics has to do with making cartoons I'll never know.

I had the opportunity to work with many of these talented guys. Wonder what they would think of today's administration?

I love those meetings where they tell you your job is not in danger. Time to start packing.

Steve Hulett said...

Ten years back, at Warner Bros. Animation, there was a standing joke among the artists: Your job was safe until management came by and said "We have plenty of work, there's nothing to worry about."

Then it was time to bring in the cardboard box and begin packing, for your pink slip would be arriving soon.

Anonymous said...

WB actually at one point(early 90s) knew they'd be laying off a huge number of the crew soon, after the shows currently being worked on had shipped. People were nervous, had heard rumors they might be let go...murmurs everywhere. Management started worrying that people might "prematurely" jump ship to find, um, WORK elsewhere, so they called a meeting specifically to tell everyone a deliberate lie: their jobs were secure, there was nothing to worry about, and hey! could everyone please continue to do OT and late nights and 7 days for the next few weeks? It was a very loyal, specialized and dedicated crew, I don't think anyone would dispute that for a second. They worked their butts off up til the last hour of shipping time, and sure enough WHAMMO! were summarily let go. Just as had been planned all along(and, btw, snarked about)by the non-artist supervisors. It was evil.

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