The UPA and the Environment: A Modernist Look at Urban Nature
At the same time the Disney Studios were producing animal rights-driven animated features, a new animation studio was born, United Productions of America, a studio that drew its stance on ecology from its technology-driven modernist perspective that is reflected in both the narrative and aesthetic content of its animated films. United Productions of America (UPA) grew out of the 1941 strike at Walt Disney Studios that enticed three ex-Disney artists, Stephen Bosustow, Zack Schwartz, and Dave Hilberman to leave Disney and challenge its anti-union culture. Since the UPA studio also grew during the World War II era, they first produced industrial films for the then liberal policies of the federal government.
As the “Industrial Films and Poster Service,” for example, their company name before UPA, they produced an election film for Franklin Delano Roosevelt entitled Hell-Bent for Election (1944) and a human rights film about race relations, Brotherhood of Man (1946). Both of these films not only demonstrated their support for Roosevelt’s governmental programs, but also illustrated the studio’s own leftist politics and, at least to a certain extent, its modernist aesthetic. Hell-Bent for Election immerses a pro-FDR political message in a Chuck Jones-directed cartoon “with the same self-conscious use of both modern design and film techniques (matched dissolves, odd angles…)” (Barrier 511). The backgrounds in Hell-Bent for Election described as “very designed and abstract” (Barrier Hollywood Cartoons 511) anticipate the later work of UPA, the “stylization of movement, of what Hilberman called ‘a different kind of animation that came out of the stylized characters’” (Barrier 514).UPA embraced a philosophy that advocated making the presence of the animator transparent and foregrounded stylized representations of figures and setting within a modern technologically driven socio-cultural context manifested in the abstract. UPA’s aesthetic contributes to a modernist view of culture driven by a Bauhaus-like vision of balance rather than existential doom, especially that found in Gyorgy Kepes's Language of Vision. Kepes asserted that “Visual language … must absorb the dynamic idioms of the visual imagery to mobilize the creative imagination for positive social action, and direct it toward positive social goals (14). The artists at UPA embraced this philosophy of the activism driven by an abstract image refined to its most elementary structure. For Kepes, art should serve society as “a positive popular art, an art reaching everybody and understood by everyone” (221). UPA saw animation as the popular art that could best serve society’s needs.
Although it grounds earlier political cartoons like Hell-Bent for Election and Brotherhood of Man, this philosophy is most evident in shorter animated works like Gerald McBoing Boing (1951) and Rooty Toot Toot (1952). We assert, however, that it continues to resonate in two of the animated feature films produced by UPA, 1001 Arabian Nights (1959) and Gay Purr-ee, a film that highlights urban nature through both its narrative and aesthetic, foregrounding the interconnections between nature and a culture driven and constructed by technology. 1001 Arabian Nights builds on the modernist narrative of Gerald McBoing Boing in which human nature becomes subsumed by technology, even within the fantasy world of the “Arabian Nights.” Gay Purr-ee takes a more blatant human and organismic approach to ecology as it heightens the modernist aesthetic of Rooty Toot Toot in a narrative valorizing pastoral nature over corrupt urban technology.
Created by children’s book author Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel) and the writer for Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bill Scott, Gerald McBoing Boing centers on Gerald, a boy who can only speak in sound effects. Instead of inhibiting his success, however, Gerald’s “defect” becomes an asset when a radio station hires him as its sound effects department. This premise embraces an environmental message that takes an ambivalent stance toward technology. Although Gerald does find his sound effect voice beneficial when a mysterious corporate officer stops him at the railroad tracks and hires him to work for the radio station, he is shunned by friends and family and nearly runs away from home to escape their scorn. In Gerald McBoing Boing, technology becomes a tool only when it subsumes the language that would make Gerald human and connect him with both the human and natural worlds.
The aesthetics of Gerald McBoing Boing foreground the immersion in a modernist perspective and hark back to UPA’s mid-1940s Bauhaus-like philosophy behind Brotherhood of Man. Gerald echoed the ideas that had shaped UPA’s films in the middle forties, the ideas that Gyorgy Kepes had advanced in Language of Vision. Cannon and Hurtz avoided the violence of Warner Brothers and the conservative aesthetic of Disney to produce “inventive stylization of movement in Gerald McBoing Boing; it shows up, for instance, in the way a doctor’s slightly gawky legs accent his rigid verticality” (Barrier 525).The goal for Cannon and Hurtz was to, as Hurtz put it, “boil[ ] it down” (qtd. in Barrier 525). UPA emphasized this minimalist aesthetic rather than narrative and conveyed its political stance in the same way abstract modern art communicates its message—through visual symbol and metaphor.
The same thematic and aesthetic philosophy underpinning Gerald McBoing Boing guides 1001 Arabian Nights. Gerald McBoing Boing has clear connections to Mr. Magoo, the protagonist of 1001 Arabian Nights. In 1001 Arabian Nights technology plays a vital role in building not only the stylized aesthetic, but also in driving a narrative in which Magoo’s bumbling character assists his hapless son only because technology intercedes. The sophisticated design and color of the film augments a narrative in which the technology of a genie in his bottle, a flying carpet, and a magic flame supersede bumbling and incompetent human and nonhuman nature. Yet technology does not serve as a tool for destruction in 1001 Arabian Nights. Instead, it serves to preserve and protect humans and their natural world and illustrates the interconnected interdependence between culture and the nature of humanity. The supernatural, however, most powerfully facilitates this “technology,” so its connection to the modern world is diluted.
Gay Purr-ee, on the other hand, highlights a pastoral nature like that contrasted with the corruption of urban space and depicted, if briefly, in Rooty Toot Toot. Rooty Toot Toot is arguably one of the best cartoons to come out of UPA. It tells the story of Frankie and Johnny through song and from the perspective of two lawyers, a bartender, and Nellie Bly, Frankie’s rival for Johnny’s love—all in a Technicolor stylized courtroom setting complete with judge and jury. Although the lawyer prosecuting Frankie for Johnny’s murder, the bartender, and Nellie Bly all tell their tale within the confines of the bar in which Johnny is shot, Frankie’s defense lawyer paints a pastoral image of Frankie’s home that highlights her innocence and her connection to nature and connects Rooty Toot Toot with Gay Purr-ee.
Although Maltin asserts that Gay Purr-ee is “too labored” and “too coy,” (Seven Minutes 336) and Newsweek claims “There seems to be an effort to reach a hitherto undiscovered audience—the fey four-year-old of recherché taste” in its review of the film (qtd. in Maltin 336), Gay Purr-ee continues stylistic and thematic patterns found in Rooty Toot Toot, especially in developing its Technicolor pastoral and urban settings. The feature’s modernist aesthetic highlights a dynamic landscape that valorizes both urban and rural nature. But the film’s narrative, as in Rooty Toot Toot, validates the pastoral as a space where the natural world can thrive.