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The most pleasing package of animated short subjects seen in a long time, TCM Vault Collection's The Jolly Frolics Collection is a veritable crash course on a long neglected vein of American cartoons. MGM, Warners and to a lesser extent Paramount and Universal promoted their animation libraries on television, but Columbia's once-celebrated output from the 1950s almost disappeared after the demise of theatrical kiddie cartoon matinees. The 38 theatrical cartoons in the collection come from a company called UPA, which we '50s kids immediately recognize as the house label for the popular Mr. Magoo cartoons voiced by Jim Backus. As with Tom & Jerry, Popeye and The Pink Panther, an early series of superior Magoo classics has been overshadowed by later cheap productions made for TV consumption. Believe me, we 8 year-olds at kiddie matinees laughed our heads off at the antics of the now non-PC adventures of the nearsighted Magoo, a character that made every kid who wore glasses at least a little bit more self-conscious.
I can state that I was aware of UPA and knew of some of its greater achievements, but The Jolly Frolics Collection presents a fascinating portrait of an upstart animation company that more or less did the impossible After the Fleischer organization lost its Paramount backing, Disney and Warners pretty much had the animation field wrapped up. Founded in part by animation producers and directors banished by Disney during the bitter strikes of the 1940s, UPA began as a producer of commercials and wartime government films, and then won a stab at a wider audience by replacing Screen Gems as Columbia's contracted provider of theatrical shorts. UPA's progressive talent applied emerging ideas in graphics to established cel animation techniques. We're told that the brilliant animator John Hubley invented characters that were little more than squiggles because he was a devout follower of Pablo Picasso. Previously lavish backgrounds were replaced by minimalist ink-strokes and bold dashes of color. Stories were important. The look of the cartoons matched the graphic styles of emerging children's storybooks.
What this meant was that UPA slashed the time needed for animation and photography, which lowered production costs. Even Disney had to cut corners, but UPA had found a house style that complimented the limited animation. The cartoons in this collection do not resemble the truly cut-price mediocrities that followed Hanna & Barbera's wholesale invasion of the TV market. Run of the mill H&B cartoons (and those by later owners of the UPA logo) were crude radio shows driven by mindless repetition ("El Kabong", anybody?). Generic animation was created, to be reused and reprinted ad infinitum to fit any words a character might say.
UPA's animation is minimalist but artistic. The backgrounds and design are customized to the needs of individual storylines. And the music tracks are just as artfully produced -- composer David Raksin shows up in the collection, to name just one major talent. A series of early cartoons had to make use of pre-existing Fox and Crow characters owned by Columbia, and at least one storyline sounds like a lift from Tex Avery. But almost from the beginning UPA hit home runs and won awards with phenomenally popular concept cartoons. Introduced in a cartoon called The Ragtime Bear, the popular Mr. Magoo may have given UPA the freedom to be even more creative. Dr. Seuss came up with the idea for Gerald McBoing Boing, a character that speaks only in sound effects. The short subject was so popular, its title ended up on theater marquees. Many of the cartoons are about other 'special' little kids, or familiar fairy tale situations. But there's always a worthwhile twist, as when one cartoon The Family Circus makes an intelligent statement about child psychology. A few of the cartoons are almost indescribably hip. Rooty Toot Toot is a raucous retelling of "Frankie and Johnny" with be-bop music ... and ballet.
The Jolly Frolics Collection also gives us a flawless copy of UPA's The Tell-Tale Heart, which I remember being marketed in the 1960s as a Columbia 8mm short subject. With its terrific narration by James Mason, the cartoon creates a frightening mood through the actor's voice, a baleful soundtrack score and fascinating, original animation effects. It's one of the best 'haunted' experiences to be found on film, and it is only seven minutes long. 1
All of the shorts are amusing entertainments. Director Stephen Bosustow bought the right to two perfect candidates for conversion to the UPA style. Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeleine is the familiar story of the little French schoolgirls that take walking excursions two-by-by two. Its cartoon adaptation has a delightful atmosphere and retains the original's touches, like the distorted image of the nun running, to express haste. James Thurber illustrated his collections of humorous short stories with his own UPA-like doodle-drawings, which are utilized for the amusing The Unicorn in the Garden.
By the end of the 1950s the heyday of theatrical animation short subjects was over, and UPA scaled back its production along with the other established companies. Contributors to the The Jolly Frolics Collection set Adam Abraham, Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck and Gladys Holland connect the dots for some under-reported issues in Hollywood history. Not all of the talents associated with UPA were fired by Disney for Union organizing, but company chief Stephen Bosustow certainly was. Ugly politics forced the firing of Phil Eastman and Bill Scott in the anti-Communist purge of 1951; I remember reading my daughter Eastman's charming children's book Are You My Mother? The best known and least understood great cartoon talent kicked around by the Red baiters was the great John Hubley, a veteran Disney animator. Hubley had to start again from scratch in TV commercials and slowly built up a prestigious body of experimental animation dedicated to liberal themes. His wife and partner Faith Hubley contributes one of the most stirring testimonials to the Blacklist interview book Tender Comrades.
Essayist Adam Abraham sums up the uniqueness of UPA when he tells us that Columbia imposed just two edicts on their output: "no talking animals and no cartoon violence."
The TCM Vault Collection's DVD of The Jolly Frolics Collection comes in bright packaging that communicates the spirit of the whole enterprise. The source materials and transfers are pristine. We note animation talent familiar from other 50s houses -- I guess some of these folk moved about or were freelance -- and the occasional hot name like David Raksin, the composer. I'll bet that Raksin's charming and compact sketch of Paris for Madeleine was more fun for him than a more career-visible score for a full feature. The 38 cartoons are spread across three discs; a number have audio commentaries with Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck. Extra features include a Leonard Maltin introduction and galleries of UPA artwork and storyboards.
The insert booklet is the source of much of the information in this review. Besides Adam Abraham's excellent essay on the UPA years, the booklet has an illustrated timeline of important events, including work by UPA talent produced outside the company, and a nice set of brief bios of the animators, writers and producers who made the films.
The Jolly Frolics Collection brings back a lot of happy memories. Here are the contents of the set:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Jolly Frolics Collection Blu-ray rates:
1. A color artist and designer on The Tell-Tale Heart was Paul Julian ... horror and Sci-fi fans will recognize his style immediately, from the chilling art cartoon The Hangman to title sequences for Roger Corman films.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.