Adam Abraham’s new book, which has just been published by Wesleyan University Press, is an easy book to recommend to anyone interested in film or animation history. I was one of the anonymous readers Wesleyan engaged to evaluate it. A brief excerpt from my confidential evaluation is used on the back cover as an endorsement; but I would like to say a few more words on why the book is so important. (I did have some reservations, but they did not hesitate me from urging its publications.)
Until now, one of the many glaring gaps in animation, film and TV history has been the lack of an authoritative (or even a superficial) history of UPA, which was the most important American animation studio in the post-World War II period. (I do recall a self-published work issued on ditto whose circulation was obviously limited and lacked the scholarship of Abraham’s book.) The studio’s films, ranging from John Hubley’s Rooty Toot Toot and Ragtime Bear (which introduced Mr. Magoo) to Bobe Cannon’s Gerald McBoing Boing and Ted Parmelee’s The Tell-Tale Heart, were seen in their day as revolutionary and had a profound influence. Their films changed the way animation was designed and set the tone for not only for much of what followed (especially TV programs), but also helped define the field of motion graphics, including the development of the modern title sequence (predating the better known work of Saul Bass).
The studio has been largely neglected, in part, due to the lack of books such as this, as well as the lack of corporate support by the various rights holders (e.g., until recently, the best collection of UPA films on DVD was found as extras on the Hellboy special edition DVDs/Blu-Rays owing to Guillermo del Toro being a UPA fan ). As I noted earlier here, two new DVDs containing the bulk of UPA’s theatrical work are also now available.
Over the years, there has been talk of someone doing a serious study of the studio, a project pushed by the family of UPA-cofounder Steve Bosustow (I recall Charles Solomon once being bandied about as a possible candidate).
My biggest complaint is that the author’s knowledge of animation history pre-UPA seems limited. It’s almost as if he’s channeling the views of Disney animation artists in the 1930s and early 1940s who went on to found UPA, who thought of themselves as the center of the animation universe. This leads to a somewhat parochial view of the film and animation world at the time of UPA’s birth. In his research, Abraham’s also misses some important articles, including Michael Frierson’s "The Carry Over Dissolve in UPA Animation"in the 2001 issue of Animation Journal. But these are not game changers and this is certainly a book I can easily recommend.
Jerry Beck at Cartoon Brew breaks the news that two DVD sets devoted to UPA’s theatrical cartoons are coming out soon: UPA Jolly Frolics due out on March 5th from Turner Classic Movies and The Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection 1949-1959 which s due out June 19th from Shout! Factory (both are available for preorder). Until now, the best DVD source for them was the Special Edition set of Guillermo Del Toro’s HellBoy. which includes three Gerald McBoing shorts plus The Tell-Tale Heart as extras. (Del Toro is a long-time animation fan and has been working lately with DreamWorks Animation, where he’s slated to direct a forthcoming movie.)
These films have been shown intermittently on American cable channels, but such major titles as John Hubley’s Ragtime Bear (which introduced Mr. Magoo) and Rooty Toot Toot will now be available in restored versions (they were previously available on out-of-print VHS versions). Because of their lack of availability, the importance of UPA to post-World War II American and international animation has largely been overlooked.
If this isn’t enough, Wesleyan University Press will be publishing Adam Abraham’s When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA which is scheduled to be published March 9th. (It is also available for preorder at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)
By the way, I reviewed the book for the publisher, but will hold off my comments until after it comes out; but I should note I recommended Wesleyan publish it.
I’m a bit late posting on this, but it’s never too late to acknowledge Pierre Floquet receiving the Society for Animation Studies’ 2011 McLaren-Lambart Award “for the Best Scholarly Book on animation” for his Le langage comique de Tex Avery, published in 2009 by L’Harmattan. Floquet, who’s on the faculty of IPB, Bordeaux University. His 1996 PhD thesis was “on linguistics applied to cinema, focusing on Tex Avery’s comic language.”
The McLaren-Lambart Award is named in memory of Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart and derives from the National Film Board of Canada’s initial involvement in the Award. The Society’s announcement notes:
This book, published in French …, is a detailed analysis of the cinematic nuances at play in the cartoons directed by Tex Avery at MGM from 1942-1951. With remarkably complex insights into Avery’s comic language, the author distills what at first glance might seem like a director’s reliance on coarse gags and repetitive formulae into a sophisticated colloquy with moviegoers. The manner in which Avery engages viewers on the nature of cinema has always been disarming, played for laughs instead of reflection, but French film scholars recognized him as an important auteur as early as the 1960s. This recent book in many ways is a fulfillment of this earlier recognition, a culminating study of Tex Avery’s influential body of work. Pierre Floquet’s writing on the concept of distantiation, from Althusser and especially Brecht, is essential. It points to a genuine concern with the form of the language of cartoons that is just as vital in any consideration of modern animation as it is with Avery’s œuvre.