Sunday, April 08, 2012

Ham and Hattie are Ho-hum

I've been working my way through the UPA Jolly Frolics DVD collection. I had never seen any of the Ham and Hattie shorts, so I was naturally curious about them. They are bad, but specifically bad in ways that illuminate what went wrong with UPA.

These films show all the things that UPA didn't care about, personality, humour and animation being three of the most prominent. Having lost key personnel such as John Hubley, Phil Eastman and Bill Scott, the studio was left with little more than design in these cartoons. While the design is sometimes attractive, it's not enough to sustain interest for seven minutes.

Hattie is a little girl whose personality can only be described as bland. We get no sense of who she is, what she values, or how she could be expected to respond. The cartoons are free of conflict relating to her and the humour is so soft that the cartoons might be turned down by Sesame Street as too boring. Even pre-school shows have more bite than Hattie.

The animation is severely limited, akin to what was being done on TV at roughly the same time, even though the UPA theatricals presumably had better budgets. In Trees, a cat is riding on an out-of-control wagon and it's just a held cel panning across several backgrounds.

Ham is even worse. He takes on a different persona in each of his four cartoons: a Jamaican, a dog, a Japanese and an Italian. Why create a character if he is going to be different in appearance in every cartoon? His ethnic adventures are accompanied by a narrator with the appropriate accent, making it clear that the later UPA Dick Tracy TV cartoons starring Joe Jitsu and Go Go Gomez were completely in line with UPA's sensibilities. So much for the studio being politically progressive.

Like Hattie, the Ham stories are dull with few gags and little conflict. The most they aspire to is a smile. The stories are simplistic, the characters have no psychological depth, let alone complexity, and the motion in the Ham cartoons is sloppy. Either the assistant animators had no clue how to maintain shapes and volumes or nobody cared at that point. Inbetweens were seen as a luxury. The design is also unpleasant, tending towards lumpiness.

There's no question that by the time these cartoons were made, UPA was a spent force. They might rally for the TV special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol or the features 1001 Arabian Nights or Gay Purr-ee, but even these films can't compare to the work being done at the studio's birth. Whatever one's view of Stephen Busustow, he was not a guiding sensibility. Without the right people around him, he was no better than Walter Lantz, another weak producer whose quality level was all over the map.

The Hollywood blacklist, the result of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was terrible for UPA. Conformist hysteria gripped mainstream society to the point where any deviation from political orthodoxy was seen as a threat to the nation. The irony is that the artists attracted to left wing politics in the '30s and '40s were reacting to a world that had gone off the rails and one they wished to fix. In short, they were not aesthetes, only interested in creating beauty; they were engaged with the larger world and had opinions about more than the way an image should look.

When UPA lost Hubley and Eastman to the blacklist (as well as the unpersecuted Bill Scott), they lost their mainspring. These men understood personality (see Scott's work for Jay Ward, Hubley's independent films and Eastman's books), they understood how to create stories and in Hubley's case, valued the expressive quality of movement. Without them, UPA was full of artists who wanted to create pretty pictures but had no idea what those pictures should be about. Like Hubley, Bob Cannon's cartoons at UPA also valued expressive movement, but once he got past Christopher Crumpet, his cartoons became a little too precious. Cannon's animation is like Ham and Hattie's design: window dressing with nothing much to sell.

Thad Komorowski has also commented on the DVD set. He feels that only the first disk is worth watching. I'd be willing to dip into the second. However, regardless of your opinion, this set finally allows viewers to put UPA in perspective for the first time since the cartoons were originally released. Eleven years of cartoons show the quick rise and the prolonged fall of the studio. The Ham and Hattie cartoons rank with the worst theatricals of the era and by the time that UPA moved into TV production, the body was already cold.


Zartok-35 said...

Atleast it wasn't a toatl waste, we got some good stuff from Rod Scribner out of it, if nothing else.

J Lee said...

The blacklist also did a disservice to UPA's critical legacy in a way. Most of the the critics who had championed UPA's rise were horrified by the HUAC hearings, and were aware of the careers and lives being ruined. It seems like, in a way to compensate for not being able to stand up directly for people like Hubley and Eastman, the critics tried to help the studio out by continuing to heap effusive praise on UPA well past the time where that praise was warranted.

A noble gesture, but unfortunately it was tied in at times with disparaging the work of other cartoon studios as mere mindless animated violence and certainly not worthy of serious critical review. Growing up in New York in the 1960s, whenever there was anything written favorably about non-Disney theatrical animation, it seemed to be about UPA -- if someone like Chuck Jones was going to get a shout-out, it was going to be for working with Ted Geisel's characters on "The Grinch that Stole Christmas", not for his own (overly-violent to the critics and responsible children's telecvision gropus) creations.

Since during the '60s the made-for-TV UPA stuff was pretty much all that was available to the average person, the critics still singling out Magoo for plaudits was puzzling, to say the least. My first exposure to the theatrical Magoos was actually at a McDonald's on 23rd Street in Manhattan, which had a TV and a U-matic video player showing the shorts in the mid-1970s. They were a step up in quality from the TV fare and certainly better than Ham & Hattie, but as far as entertainment value using stylized late-50s animation goes, Gene Dietch's Terrytoons or the one-shots at Paramount were more fun, even if their graphics work was a notch or two lower.

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

At least that's something (though he wasn't given screen credit for that part anyway).

I do admit the later UPA stuff is pretty much bland and pathetic at best, and these four shorts are examples of that era I don't usually think about often, though it's interesting they were made at all (what with TV-ish production values). There's hardly much characterization at all besides giving the names of these two characters and see them act as performers in their own segments when they could've told a story either with one or two of 'em that wasn't song-specific.

Brubaker said...

Thumbs up, Mark. That's all I have to say. Pretty much my thoughts on the later UPA shorts.

And J. Lee is right about the Deitch Terrys and one-shot Paramounts. They were stylized like UPA, but they had punch, story-wise.

Thad said...

Actually, it's the first disk that's only worth re-watching. The whole set is worth watching at least once. It was almost unbearably ironic the first disk ended with Rooty Toot Toot. For me, the only one after that works well as a whole after it is Christopher Crumpet. The Tell-Tale Heart I neither like nor dislike; its appeal just eludes me. Unicorn in the Garden, however, is one of the Golden Age's true antichrists.

Your comment about Steve Bosustow reminded me that I originally wanted to comment on how Adam Abraham really skirts over S.B.'s lack of aesthetics and prowess in When Magoo Flew in my review. But like Lantz, I think the studio's work alone speaks enough about him, ultimately.

Michael Sporn said...

The 2nd disc contains: The Tell Tale Heart - a great film, despite Thad's waffling - Madeline, Christopher Crumpet, and The Unicorn In the garden. All are very good. Even with Thurber's misogenism, Unicorn is brilliantly done.

The 3rd disc has only How Now Boing Boing, a good film, to stand up for it.

This is a great set of dvds.

Mark, your analysis, as usual, is remarkably fine.

Anonymous said...

I am a fan, just a fan. Would you recommend this set? It sounds like perhaps no.

Mark Mayerson said...

If you're interested in design, get it. If you're interested in animation, I still think it's worth getting. If you're interested in gags or characters, you may be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

The arc of UPA's disintegration can also be traced in miniature by watching just the three Gerald Mc Boing Boing shorts the studio made after the stellar, deservedly Oscar winning initial eponymous entry in the series.

The Gerald Mc Boing Boing Symphony is entertaining but falls back on a cliche ending. Gerald errs in performing his part and gets canned by the character who served as his savior in the first short. He is redeemed only by a fluke, after which his boss instantly loves him again, lessening that character. Dr. Seuss is sorely missed.

How Now Boing Boing, lacking a satisfying ending that maintains it's star's franchise, stoops to actually breaking the rule that he cannot be understood by translating his signature spoken sound effects into discernible English! Why have a Gerald McBoing Boing if he can talk like anyone else? Such a move Dr. Seuss never made in the original story. In fact, that original cartoon ends by restating the words that concretely must define the Gerald character "He doesn't speak works, he goes boing boing instead!"

Gerald Mc Boing Boing on the Planet Moo is the weakest and worst (and last theatrical foray) of the series. The action isn't even driven by Gerald but by the verbally defined King of Moo character. Why this cartoon got an Oscar nomination is anyone's guess. Lacking the solid story and consistent character that Seuss might have provided, this entry put an end to the Gerald Mc Boing Boing UPA theatrical short filmography.

Justin Smith said...

Yeah, these Ham and Hattie cartoons are pretty boring to me. I'd say more, but I think you've said everything that can be said about this particular series from UPA. Great analysis as usual.

Jack Heiter said...

Mr. Mayerson,

A few years ago I met a person at a film festival who told me that he was an animation professor and taught animation in a local college. I asked him if he knew about UPA Pictures and he said no. I then asked him where he had studied animation and he said he hadn’t but he had read about animation in a book.

Although I studied art at The Art Center School I never studied animation in school or a book and produced my first animated film in 1957 one year after I began my career in animation at UPA. Every thing I learned after I began working at UPA I learned from some of the greatest animation artists in the world (at that time) and from the experience and encouragement from such mentors as Bobe Cannon, Steven Busustow, Pete Burness, Fred Crippen, Jimmy Murakami, Jules Engel, Bob Macintosh, and many names you’ve probably never heard of. Abe Levitow taught me the basics of animation and directing years later while I was working as a background artist on the “Mr Magoo” TV series.

At first I worked on “The Mc Boing Boing Show” doing titles, then designing small elements for parts of the show and eventually I was asked to paint backgrounds for “A Horse of Course”. I painted a number of backgrounds after that and as the Boing Boing show was winding down the studio decided to utilize some of the talent coming off of the show. Fred Crippen, Jimmy Murakami, and John Urie each created their own shorts and presented them to Steve and requested that he let me paint BGs for them. We had very small budgets so we worked day and night without overtime because we wanted do something we could be proud of. When the first dailies of “The Village Band” were screened everyone was very excited, but Jules Engel was upset that he wasn’t asked to paint the BGs and insisted that I change one tiny little streak of color on one of my backgrounds. When I refused he had me fired. I was in the process of styling the BGs for “Trees” and “Saganaki” and had everything ready to start painting when I was fired and Jules took over using my color keys and painted the BGs for both shows. He did not give me credit for my work on those two shows.

These shorts were combined with others and were exhibited as the “Ham and Hattie” shorts and one out of the series won an Oscar, so they were not “bad, but specifically bad in ways that illuminate what went wrong with UPA” as you say.

I’m sure you’ve learned a lot about animation over the years and I assume you are a good teacher, but I think you need to learn something about critiquing something you lack information about and not just rely on books to formulate your opinions. And I don’t think you are qualified to comment on people you have only heard of other than their credits and knowledge you gleaned from books or hearsay. I knew and worked with many of the people that Adam Abraham writes about in “When Magoo Flew” first hand and I particularly object to your opinion of Steve Busustow not being a “guiding sensibility”. I assume you never met Steve and if you had you would never have made an insensitive comment like that. If it hadn’t been for Steve Busustow a great chunk of animation history would be missing in our lives and UPA would not have existed as we know it. Steve was not Walt Disney or Walter Lantz, he was himself and a great animation producer.


Jack Heiter

Mark Mayerson said...

Jack, do you feel that the Ham and Hattie cartoons are as good as UPA's earlier work, such as Gerald McBoing Boing and Rooty Toot Toot? If not, what do you think caused the difference?

Christopher Sobieniak said...

Since it's been 5 years and Jack didn't respond, I thought I'd go back and leave a few cents to what he had said on some points.

When I refused he had me fired. I was in the process of styling the BGs for “Trees” and “Saganaki” and had everything ready to start painting when I was fired and Jules took over using my color keys and painted the BGs for both shows. He did not give me credit for my work on those two shows.

Still, I did spot your credit on "Village Band" anyway (despite sharing the spot with Jules), but I'm sure it was one of those situations that was hard to maneuver through when you're just starting out in the business. There's always someone above you who might have the upper hand anyway.

These shorts were combined with others and were exhibited as the “Ham and Hattie” shorts and one out of the series won an Oscar, so they were not “bad, but specifically bad in ways that illuminate what went wrong with UPA” as you say.

Technically "Trees and Jamaica Daddy" was nominated, none of the other Ham & Hattie shorts got further than that.