December 25, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: Independent Animation, 1947–60
The Tender Game. 1958. Directed by John Hubley animated film

The Tender Game. 1958. USA. Directed by John Hubley

These notes accompany a program of independent animated films screening on December 26, 27, and 28 in Theater 3.

The departure of many animation artists from Disney as a result of labor troubles and a desire for freer expression led to a diffusion of talent and styles in the animation field. America also experienced the development of highly independent and solitary individuals working in the fields of animation and experimental filmmaking in general. We will look at some of this latter work in a few months, but today’s program is designed to be a once-over-lightly look at pioneering animators away from Hollywood in the post-World War II era. It is by no means comprehensive.

Douglass Crockwell (1904–1968, The Long Bodies) was somewhat isolated in upstate New York, where he pursued a career as a Norman Rockwell-esque illustrator for magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, but his avocation involved experimenting with abstract film imagery using various substances (glass, clay, wax) to create shifting forms, far removed from his magazine work. It can be argued that the abstractions of Crockwell, Len Lye (1901–1980), and Robert Breer (1926–2011, Jamestown Baloos) coincided with the burgeoning concerns of “modern art” and of museums like ours that may have been resistant to film narrative. (However, it must be said that Iris Barry, the founder of what became MoMA’s Department of Film, was from the first a great admirer of Walt Disney and non-abstract characters like Mickey Mouse.) Lye, a transplanted New Zealander, had been a major force in Britain in the 1930s in John Grierson’s General Post Office unit, which preceded Grierson’s stint as head of the National Film Board of Canada. Lye’s revolutionary technique consisted of inscribing the actual image on the celluloid film (a practice that would be perfected by the painterly films of Stan Brakhage a half-century later.) Color Cry was made by Lye during his period in America, using a technique of his own invention that he called “shadowcast film stencils.” Eventually, Lye gave up film for painting and sculpture. Breer also worked in these mediums, though he continued making films into the 21st century.

At the center of the postwar independent animation movement was United Productions of America (UPA). The formation of the studio grew out of the strike at Disney in 1941. The thrust of UPA’s innovations was to make the animated figures more limited and less naturalistic. This was a significant creative move, but in later years, it became more of a cost-cutting decision than an aesthetic one. The heart and soul of UPA was John Hubley (1914–1977), who had worked on all the Disney features from Snow White to Bambi. Robert Cannon (1909–1964) who had been one of the major Porky Pig guys at Warner Brothers, directed the first UPA film, Brotherhood of Man, followed by the highly original Gerald McBoing Boing. Hubley contributed the Mr. Magoo film Fuddy Duddy Buddy, but Magoo’s favorite director was Pete Burness (1904–1969), who made When Magoo Flew. Ted Parmelee (1912–1964) made an extraordinary adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, originally intended to be part of the brief 1953 craze for 3-D. The business end of UPA was handled by Stephen Bosustow (1911–1981), who eventually took over Magoo’s TV career with Burness, and they also produced programs like Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Moonbird. 1959. Directed by John Hubley animation film

Moonbird. 1959. USA. Directed by John Hubley

John Hubley eventually left to form his own studio, taking Cannon with him as a collaborator, and UPA never fully recovered. Hubley had been blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunt. With his wife, Faith Elliott Hubley, he formed Storyboard Sudios, which became the Hubley Studio. (In addition to collaborating with John until his death, Faith made an annual film of her own, and their daughter, Emily, is now a distinguished independent director of both animation and live-action films). The Tender Game and Moonbird are representative of Hubley’s early award-winning style, which built on UPA’s productions. According to legend, John had been heavily influenced as early as 1939 by a stylized Soviet animated film from 1934 (Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s The Tale of the Czar Durandai), which was brought to the Disney animators’ attention by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Ernest Pintoff (1931–2002) had been at UPA, and he eventually moved into live-action directing. The Violinist and The Critic (1963, his last cartoon) are considered classics and are hysterically funny. Stan Vanderbeek (1927–1984) was a major figure in the American Surrealist movement who collaborated with the likes of Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer. Science Friction is an early example of his collage work. Lou Bunin (1904–1994) was a puppeteer who apprenticed with Diego Rivera and Tina Modotti in Mexico, had a stint at the 1939 New York World’s Fair working with 3-D puppet animation, and made a feature-length version of Alice in Wonderland that was suppressed by Walt Disney (in order to promote his own version) and eventually restored by MoMA’s Department of Film. Like Hubley, a victim of right-wing political hysteria, Bunin devoted the rest of his career to television puppet animation, of which Dingo Dog and the Kangaroo is representative.