Sunday, April 01, 2012

Book Review: When Magoo Flew

The only way this book could be better is if the artists who worked at UPA were all still alive to be interviewed. Thankfully, many were interviewed before their deaths by animation historians such as John Canemaker, Michael Barrier, Leonard Maltin and Karl Cohen and author Adam Abraham has accessed this information as well as trade publications, studio records, letters, etc. to write the most detailed history of UPA to date.

What struck me most while reading this book was how continually precarious UPA's existence was. There were, of course, the early days when finding any work was a life or death situation for the company. However, even when they got a contract to do theatrical shorts for Columbia, the first two contracts were only for two cartoons apiece.

Other threats to the studio's existence had to do with the various partners. While some studios were owned by individuals, such as Leon Schesinger, or partnerships such as the Disney brothers or Harman and Ising, UPA started with three partners and often had more. The inevitable artistic and business conflicts that developed due to the many owners and ownership changes meant that the studio never had a genuinely steady hand on the till. Producer Steve Busustow was only nominally in control, always having to deal with competing partners.

UPA also had the problem of being born at the same time that television was changing the entertainment landscape. It had less time than other studios to solidify it's sensibility and to create characters popular with audiences.

Finally, UPA was the animation studio hit hardest by the 1950s witch hunt for Communists in the film industry. It forced out John Hubley, arguably the studio's heart and soul, as well as Phil Eastman, a top story man. Writer Bill Scott was collateral damage, as he was laid off at the same time as Eastman to disguise that the move was political.

With all these problems, the studio managed to create interesting films. Its peak years were brief; the most memorable films were released from 1949 to 1952. Yet the studio changed the look of animation in North America and inspired foreign studios like Zagreb as well.

Abraham's book covers it all: the budgets, the personnel, the satellite studios, the sponsored films and the many sales of the company to corporate interests. There are interesting tidbits about individuals here, such as director Bobe Cannon's bathing habits and animator Pat Matthews' brain surgery.

The studio was controlled by artists, but those artists had trouble staying on budget and often were so in love with their imagery that they forgot about the audiences they were trying to please. Abraham's book tells the story of UPA's triumphs and tragedies in a way that's both enlightening and cautionary. The book is valuable beyond the historical facts for anyone who dreams of running a studio or who hopes to break out of a commercial straitjacket. UPA solidified a graphical revolution in animation, but didn't have the organization or luck to profit from it for more than a short time.

1 comment:

Michael Sporn said...

An excellent review, Mark, of an excellent book.

Abraham really did his homework, though at times it feels a bit like listing films and their info. There's such an enormous look at all the politics before the studio was up and running, during and even after. It's quite striking.

I think the dvd recently released by TCM is an important companion piece to feel the artistry that comes through the films. The sense of the films doesn't really come through the book, but the history sure does.