Here’s a friendly recommendation to passholders: Don’t miss the program of rare Hubley animation shorts showing in the multiplex this afternoon and hosted by Leonard Maltin! Previous TCM Classic Film Festivals have included fascinating programs of animated shorts, including a very rare showing of censored Warner Bros. cartoons at the first Fest in 2010, a collection of Walt Disney’s silent and rarely-screened Laugh-O-Grams in 2011 and last year’s assemblage of prime Bugs Bunny cartoons in honor of the rascally rabbit’s 75th birthday. This year passholders will be treated to a varied and eye-popping collection of animation produced by John and Faith Hubley, in a program called THE FAMILY BUSINESS: A TRIBUTE TO HUBLEY ANIMATION. The logical guide for this showcase is animation and film historian Leonard Maltin, who will give context to this assortment of commercial studio cartoons, independent shorts, government training films and television commercials.
John Hubley (1914-1977) was one of a group of artists who brought a new and radical Modern design sense to animation starting in the 1940s at the UPA (United Productions of America) studio. Hubley had come from Disney Studio, where he worked on some of their classic 1930s features; he was fired during the Disney animators’ strike in 1941. Before he began at UPA, he directed industrial and government shorts, including Flat Hatting (1946), featured in this program. At UPA, Hubley made an enormous impact, particularly with the two films being shown in this program, The Ragtime Bear (1949) and Rooty Toot Toot (1951).
Historically significant as the first Mr. Magoo cartoon, The Ragtime Bear (1949) is also one of UPA’s funniest releases. Magoo would soon become UPA’s signature character, going against the company policy to avoid repetition. The character was co-created by Hubley and feature-film screenwriter Millard Kaufman. Director Hubley would later say that he based the Magoo look and manner after his gruff uncle, and that the animators of the short looked to W. C. Fields for inspiration. Further, Magoo’s voice was provided by radio actor Jim Backus, who often mentioned that he based the character on his own father.
In his book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin quotes Jerry Hausner (Backus’ friend and the voice of Waldo) on the recording process of this first cartoon: “We went into the studio with two pages of dialogue. We read all of the speeches that had been written down. Then Hubley did something that no other animated cartoon director has ever done in my presence. He said, ‘Let’s do it again and ad-lib around the subject. Throw in any wild thoughts you might have.’ We did another version of it. Backus began to go crazy and have a good time…” The impromptu asides became a beloved trademark of the character, and of Jim Backus as an actor, in the years to come.
Rooty Toot Toot (1951) stands as one of the high points of UPA’s output and as one of the most highly-praised seven-minute cartoons ever made. It is in no way a children’s film; it deals with strictly adult characters and situations. Hubley took a larger budget allowance at UPA and ran with it, pulling out all the stops to make a thoroughly Modern and graphically exciting update on the old “Frankie and Johnny” story of jealousy and murder. Rooty Toot Toot would go over schedule and budget, but it earned nearly as much critical and press attention as Gerald.
Hubley brought in a number of interesting collaborators on Rooty Toot Toot. Dancer Olga Lunick was hired to choreograph the ballet-style dance moves. There was no rotoscoping involved; her moves were only referenced by the artists and animators, not slavishly traced. In addition, Hubley and the studio brought on jazz musician Phil Moore to write the score. Moore had done orchestrations for many MGM musicals in the 1940s, but uncredited–this would be a rare on-screen credit for the black musician.
Hubley was forced to leave UPA in 1952 during the witchhunts into Communist influence in the motion picture industry, so he moved to New York and founded Storyboard, Inc. to produce advertising work, including the famous Marky “I Want My” Maypo oatmeal commercials, which brought the stylized Modern look even further into the American mainstream. Hubley married fellow artist Faith Elliot (1924-2001) and the couple continued to produce independent animation for many years. The Adventures of an * (1957) was produced with the help of an $8000 Guggenheim Fellowship, and thereafter the Hubleys produced roughly one film a year in addition to their commercial accounts. Often former UPA director Bobe Cannon laid out much of the animation. From the modern look of the UPA cartoons the Hubleys shifted to an impressionistic approach, using a “scribble” coloring style and double exposures to avoid the solid lines most often seen in commercial animation.
Along the way the Hubleys won Oscars for Moonbird (1959) and The Hole (1962). These shorts will also be featured in today’s program along with The Adventures of an *, The Tender Game (1958), Of Men and Demons (1969) and more. Jazz fans take note: the soundtracks of the Hubley’s films are populated by such heavyweights as Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie! Also appearing on the soundtrack of many of these films are voices of the Hubley children; it truly was a family business.