by Adam Abraham

author of the definitive book on UPA, When Magoo Flew, the ultimate written history of UPA, written in 2005, amended slightly since then.

“When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven … I want to go to UPA”
… Friz Freleng

In its day, UPA was the animation studio against which all others were measured.

UPA (United Productions of America) was more than a cartoon studio — it was an attitude, a point of view, a new way of thinking about what an animated film could — and should — be.

The artists of UPA consciously moved beyond the rounded realism of the Walt Disney Studio and the crash-bang anarchy of Warner Bros. and M-G-M to create films that were innovative and graphically bold — the cartoon equivalent to modern art. During the 1950s, UPA’s films were nominated for twelve Academy Awards (winning three), and their influence could be seen everywhere, from television advertising to the Zagreb Studio in Yugoslavia.

The origins of UPA can be found in two events in 1941: the strike at the Walt Disney Studio and America’s entry into World War II. Among the artists who left Disney’s because of the labor dispute were three men who later founded UPA: Stephen Bosustow, David Hilberman, and Zachary Schwartz.

UPA Founders

Schwartz, Hilberman & Bosustow discuss the storyboard for their fist slide film, “Sparks & Chips Get the Blitz” (1943)

Many Disney-trained artists found work during this period on war-related, animated propaganda and training films. Some of the people who eventually defined the UPA style, including John Hubley, worked on such films, in which they experimented with contemporary graphics that would have been unwelcome at Disney’s.

In 1943, Bosustow, Hilberman, and Schwartz formed Industrial Film and Poster Service, the earliest incarnation of what became UPA. One year later, the United Auto Workers (UAW) hired them to make a film to endorse President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s re-election. “Hell-Bent for Election” was designed by Zachary Schwartz and directed by Charles M. Jones. Another film for the UAW, “Brotherhood of Man,” followed in 1945, directed by Bobe Cannon.

In 1946, Hilberman and Schwartz decided to leave the company, now known as United Productions of America, and they sold their interest to Stephen Bosustow. With the war over, demand for propaganda and training films diminished; UPA’s prospects were uncertain. At the same time, Columbia Pictures was unhappy with the cartoon shorts produced by its Screen Gems studio and was looking for a replacement. In 1948, Bosustow made a deal with Columbia. UPA would now produce entertainment cartoons for the general public.

Bosustow, Hee, Cannon & composer, Ray Sherman, at a screening of “The Oompahs” for an Vogue magazine article. (1952)

Almost from the start, two prohibitions emerged that defined the UPA cartoon: no talking animals and no “cartoon violence.” John Hubley directed the film that introduced UPA’s first “human” cartoon star: a nearsighted, cantankerous old man named Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus). But from the earliest shorts, UPA was most remarkable for its layouts and backgrounds. The designer, more than the animator, became the key creative contributor. Bold graphics, flattened character designs, compressed space, and striking colors combined in the unmistakable UPA “style.” These elements coalesced perfectly in “Gerald McBoing Boing,” directed by Robert Cannon, from a story by Dr. Seuss. It won the Academy Award for animated short subject in 1951. By the early 50s, UPA was a sensation, embraced by the public and the highbrow critics. Gilbert Seldes, writing about UPA in the Saturday Review, described “the feeling that something new and wonderful has happened, something almost too good to be true.”

In some ways, it is a mistake to talk about a UPA “style.” Rather, the artists had the flexibility to give each seven-minute film its own look, appropriate to its subject – whether a gothic story by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart”) or a whimsical fable by James Thurber (“The Unicorn in the Garden”), whether a view of childhood innocence (“Willie the Kid”) or adult lust and betrayal (“Rooty Toot Toot”). A UPA “style” is identifiable in that it influenced other producers of animated cartoons.

M-G-M, Terrytoons, and the revered Disney studio itself fell under UPA’s stylized sway. The company went from upstart to industry standard in less than a decade. By the mid-50’s, UPA’s output was diversified, including a television series (The Gerald McBoing Boing Show), commercials, and industrials. The company maintained offices in Burbank, New York, and London. In 1956, all three films nominated for the Oscar for animated short were produced by UPA – a feat no one, not even Walt Disney, has never accomplished to this day.

Animation historian Jerry Beck pours over UPA memorabilia in the extensive Pete Burness collection.

However, from the moment UPA started producing theatrical cartoons, time was running out on the short-film programming (newsreels, travelogues, serial cliffhangers) that preceded the feature in a film bill. The end of block-booking practices and the rise of television diminished the prospects of theatrical shorts. UPA, which always demanded the best of its films, often went over budget, which increased its financial dependence on Columbia Pictures. In 1959, UPA released its first animated feature, 1001 Arabian Nights, starring Mr. Magoo. By this point, many of UPA’s key creative personnel, including John Hubley and Pete Burness, had left the studio, and theatrical shorts trickled to a halt. In 1960, Stephen Bosustow sold controlling interest in UPA to Henry G. Saperstein.

Although UPA continued to produce material, including the perennial favorite, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”, the “Boing Heard Round the World” documentary feature will only be covering UPA’s 40s and 50s output. UPA’s meteoric rise, happy reign, and regrettable decline make a classic story of American business, enterprise, and creativity. Leo Salkin, a former employee, commented, “If God were merciful, UPA would have survived.” Although the “golden era” of UPA is in the past, the imaginative vision of its films lives on. Now that computer-generated “three-dimensional” animation is in vogue, it is refreshing to return to the unabashedly two-dimensional world of UPA. The documentary hopes that a new generation of animators, filmmakers, and fans can rediscover the UPA legacy.

“When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven … I want to go to UPA” — Friz Freleng

Only image that survived the Cine Artist partnership. (1942)

Note: Recent research has discovered a company called Associate Cine Artists, headed by Cy Young and Steve Bosustow, and later joined by Tom Armstrong. It lasted a year, just prior to Bosustow’s partnership with Dave Hilberman and Zack Schwartz in 1943. One image was uncovered that presumably represents the first film Cine Artists pitched.