Brief History of UPA Pictures






















"When I die, I don't want to go to heaven … I want to go to UPA"
... Friz Freleng

A Brief History of UPA Pictures

by Adam Abraham

author of the definitive book on UPA, When Magoo Flew

UPA's "Brotherhood of Man" 1945 (unfortunately the color has completely faded)

In its day, UPA was the animation studio against which all others were measured.

UPA (United Productions of America) was more than a cartoon studio -- it was an attitude, a point of view, a new way of thinking about what an animated film could -- and should -- be.

The artists of UPA consciously moved beyond the rounded realism of the Walt Disney Studio and the crash-bang anarchy of Warner Bros. and M-G-M to create films that were innovative and graphically

bold -- the cartoon equivalent to modern art. During the 1950s, UPA's films were nominated for twelve Academy Awards (winning three), and their influence could be seen everywhere, from television advertising to the Zagreb Studio in Yugoslavia.

The origins of UPA can be found in two events in 1941: the strike at the Walt Disney Studio and America's entry into World War II. Among the artists who left Disney's because of the labor dispute were three men
who later founded UPA: Stephen Bosustow, David Hilberman, and Zachary Schwartz.

1943 - Schwartz, Hilberman & Bosustow discuss the storyboard for their first industrial slide film
"Sparks & Chips Get the Blitz"

Many Disney-trained artists found work during this period on war-related, animated propaganda and training films. Some of the people who eventually defined the UPA style, including John Hubley, worked on such films, in which they experimented with contemporary graphics that would have been unwelcome at Disney's. In 1943, Bosustow, Hilberman, and Schwartz formed Industrial Film and Poster Service, the earliest incarnation of what became UPA. One year later, the United Auto Workers (UAW) hired them

to make a film to endorse President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's re-election. "Hell-Bent for Election" was designed by Zachary Schwartz and directed by Charles M. Jones. Another film for the UAW, "Brotherhood of Man," followed in 1945, directed by Robert Cannon.

In 1946, Hilberman and Schwartz decided to leave the company, now known as United Productions of America, and they sold their interest to Stephen Bosustow. With the war over, demand for propaganda

and training films diminished; UPA's prospects were uncertain. At the same time, Columbia Pictures was unhappy with the cartoon shorts produced by its Screen Gems studio and was looking for a replacement.

In 1948, Bosustow made a deal with Columbia. UPA would now produce entertainment cartoons for the general public.

Almost from the start, two prohibitions emerged that defined the UPA cartoon: no talking animals and

no "cartoon violence." John Hubley directed the film that introduced UPA's first "human" cartoon star: a nearsighted, cantankerous old man named Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus). But from the earliest shorts, UPA was most remarkable for its layouts and backgrounds. The designer, more than the animator, became the key creative contributor. Bold graphics, flattened character designs, compressed space, and striking colors combined in the unmistakable UPA "style." These elements coalesced perfectly in "Gerald McBoing Boing," directed by Robert Cannon, from a story by Dr. Seuss. It won the Academy Award for animated short subject in 1951. By the early 50s, UPA was a sensation, embraced by the public and the highbrow critics. Gilbert Seldes, writing about UPA in the Saturday Review, described "the feeling that something new and wonderful has happened, something almost too good to be true."

In some ways, it is a mistake to talk about a UPA "style." Rather, the artists had the flexibility to give each seven-minute film its own look, appropriate to its subject - whether a gothic story by Edgar Allan Poe ("The Tell-Tale Heart") or a whimsical fable by James Thurber ("The Unicorn in the Garden"), whether a view of childhood innocence ("Willie the Kid") or adult lust and betrayal ("Rooty Toot Toot"). A UPA "style" is identifiable in that it influenced other producers of animated cartoons.

M-G-M, Terrytoons, and the revered Disney studio itself fell under UPA's stylized sway. The company went from upstart to industry standard in less than a decade. By the mid-50's, UPA's output was diversified, including a television series (The Gerald McBoing Boing Show), commercials, and industrials. The company maintained offices in Burbank, New York, and London. In 1956, all three films nominated

for the Oscar for animated short were produced by UPA - a feat even Walt Disney never accomplished.

Animation historian, Jerry Beck, pours over UPA memorabilia in the extensive Pete Burness collection.

Click the photograph to visit Cartoon Brew, “leading the animation conversation” by  Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi.

However, from the moment UPA started producing theatrical cartoons, time was running out on the short-film programming (newsreels, travelogues, serial cliffhangers) that preceded the feature in a film bill. The end of block-booking practices and the rise of television diminished the prospects of theatrical shorts. UPA, which always demanded the best of its films, often went over budget, which increased its financial dependence on Columbia Pictures. In 1959, UPA released its first animated feature, 1001 Arabian Nights, starring Mr. Magoo. By this point, many of UPA's key creative personnel, including

John Hubley and Pete Burness, had left the studio, and theatrical shorts trickled to a halt. In 1960, Stephen Bosustow sold controlling interest in UPA to Henry G. Saperstein.

During the 1960s, Saperstein produced two television series of Mr. Magoo shorts and one based on

Dick Tracy. These employed the cost-cutting practices of "limited" animation. In 1962, UPA made its second animated feature, Gay Purr-ee, and a holiday special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Another Magoo series was produced in 1977 in association with De Patie-Freleng. Twenty years later, Mr. Magoo appeared in a live-action feature, starring Leslie Nielsen. Ironically, this film was released by the Walt Disney Company, which indirectly started it all in 1941. Classic Media, a New York-based entertainment company, bought UPA's television library and characters in 2000 and plans to reintroduce Gerald McBoing Boing in a new television series.

UPA's meteoric rise, happy reign, and regrettable decline make a classic story of American business, enterprise, and creativity. Leo Salkin, a former employee, commented, "If God were merciful, UPA would have survived." Although UPA is in the past, the imaginative vision of its films lives on. Now

that computer-generated "three-dimensional" animation is in vogue, it is refreshing to return to the unabashedly two-dimensional world of UPA. Today a new generation of animators, filmmakers,

and fans can rediscover UPA's legacy of laughter.

Excerpts from "Of Mice and Magic"

By Leonard Maltin

by permission of the author

As a break from the repetition and the formula procedures at other studios, UPA was unique.

"I was working at Warner Brothers before I went

to UPA, and boy, it was just like a breath of fresh air," says animator Bill Melendez. "It was really

a great adventure."

The magic of UPA was to be found in the variety of its films, each one based on a new idea, with

a new concept in design and color. Some of the company's industrial and sponsored films were

so enjoyable to watch that they received theatrical bookings.

Instead of having a musical director on staff,

UPA hired well-known writers like David

Raksin and Ernest Gold, as well as journeymen composers, to do their scores, feeling that it

was just as important to have a fresh sound track as to have an individual graphic style for every film. The results were consistently rewarding.

The triumph of UPA was not in its artwork, but

in its marriage of form and content. When these elements were perfectly matched, the results

were unbeatable.

UPA Gallery of Memories

Below are a few items from the collections of artists who worked at UPA, and at earlier animation studios, and also from collectors of animation memorabilia. Nothing shown on this page is for sale, but is merely here to share for the fun of it. However, for those interesting in buying, there are items for sale in the Funding button. All proceeds from the sale of those items will go to the production of "The Boing Heard Round the World".

If you'd like to find out more about Leonard Maltin and his book, "Of Mice and Magic, a History of American Animated Cartoons", Click this panel.http://www.leonardmaltin.com

Does anyone know who signed this card?

All the 1941 Disney Strike organizers apparently got one of these pleasant notices.

This sketch was in a folder labeled "Associate Cine-Artists".

Other drawings indicate that it was for a film to promote buying

WWII war bonds. Our initial feeling is that this was an unfinished

project for a brief company started by Steve Bosustow and Cal Howard, which briefly preceded UPA, or Industrial Film and Poster Service, as it was first called. Does anyone have an idea if this is a correct assumption, or not?

Here is UPA's first film, a slide film called "Sparks and Chips Get the Blitz" 1943. Next to it is another slide film made the next year called "Jimmy Rabbit"

The Ragtime Bear,

chasing a dandelion

thinking it’s a delicious

golf ball ... well, you have to see

the short.  These are three of the original

Art Babbitt rough extremes for "Grizzly Golfer", with Mr. Magoo, from the collection of Pete Burness

Custom made cuff links for

Steve Bosustow, using

frames from a 35mm

print of a UPA film

One of the Fred Crippen Christmas glasses.

This is a sample of UPA's only attempt to get into the recording business. There first, and we think, there only, record was recorded by one of Bing Crosby's sons, Phil Crosby. The flip side, "Thanks" didn't do any better.

And, finally, this is one of the walls at our 1st documentary production office, which included, one of the license plates purchased by Upa's London studio, a poster for the first screening of a work-in-progress of the documentary, formerly, "UPA: Mavericks, Mutiny & Magoo, a 1954 award for Tell Tale Heart from the International Film Festival of

São Paulo, Brazil,

a certificate from Filmex

for the 1978 UPA Tribute

we produced, and a

promotional cel

of Mr. Magoo.


That's if for now.

We will try to change this

from time to time as we

find new items.

Hope you have enjoyed your trip down memory lane with us.

the UPA Legacy Team