Jolly Frolics And Labor Disputes

by John Holbo on April 17, 2012

Oh joy! “Gerald McBoing Boing”! “Rooty Toot Toot”! And thirtyplus other titles, many of which I’ve never seen! All these lovely old UPA cartoons are finally available on DVD – UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection [amazon]. And, while I wait for my copy to arrive, I am reading When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA, by Adam Abraham. Obviously you’ve got to be a bit of a fanatic to want to read a whole book about UPA (but at least the Kindle edition is inexpensive, I see.)

You can read a short version of the UPA history on Wikipedia. Really short version: UPA was founded by disgruntled former employees of Uncle Walt who pioneered some simplified techniques while working for Uncle Sam, which – admixed with artistic ambition and modernist design sensibilities – led to some great animation. Then there was the Red Scare and they got into the Godzilla business and … well, more of a whimper than a bang. Ah, well.

If you google around you can find UPA-produced wartime material. For example, this classic Private SNAFU, “Booby Traps”, whose Fudd-like, Blanc-voiced protagonist anticipates the “Endearing Young Charms” gag of later, “Looney Tunes” fame. Oh, and “Hell-Bent For Election,” a UAW-sponsored, pro-Roosevelt cartoon.

Here is a bit from the Magoo Flew book. Disney was having union trouble:

Other animation producers signed with the SCG [Screen Cartoonists Guild]: Walter Lantz, George Pal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The trend was against the paternalistic mode of Walt Disney’s studio. So the hardscrabble Midwesterner, who had come from so little and gained so much, lent his charisma to a personal plea. Over the course of two days in February 1941, Disney stood before his employees and made a big speech. In Studio A, the 622-seat theatre on the Burbank lot, Walt recounted the entire history of Walt Disney Productions: the loss of his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the betrayal by his early associates, the creation of Mickey Mouse, the reinvestment of every penny back into production. As Ward Kimball noted, many “called it a sob story.” Disney was, in turn, convivial, emotional, and blithely condescending. Dave Hilberman remembered the diatribe, rather colorfully, as the “law of the jungle” speech. Walt actually said that “it’s the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way, and I don’t give a damn what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that.” When that line didn’t work, he threatened, “I’ll never let you swim in my pool again!” As the Nation commented, the speech “recruited more members for the Screen Cartoonists’ [sic] Guild than a year of campaigning.” (14)

But it wasn’t the first time the future UPA-founders had these sorts of problems. Zack Schwartz ended up working for Disney in the first place only after asking for a raise from competitor Leon Schlesinger.

In response to Schwartz’ request, the nattily dressed and heavily pomaded producer boasted that some people worked at his studio for as little as six dollars a week. Schwartz snapped back, “Mr. Schlesinger, if I had people working for me for six dollars a week, I’d keep quiet. I’d be ashamed to tell anybody about it.” That was his last day at Leon Schlesinger Productions (7)

Fortunately these days things are different in the American animation industry. Cartoon Brew has a series of posts about Digital Domain CEO John Textor bragging that free labor is much better than cheap labor. Best of all is getting the workers to pay to work!

Amid Amidi snarks:

Textor’s rationale for making students pay to work at Digital Domain is that he felt strongly about keeping jobs in North America. That’s why yesterday he announced a co-production deal with Chinese company Beijing Galloping Horse Film Co., Ltd. which will serve as co-producer and distributor of Digital Domain’s first feature The Legend of Tembo.

It’s easy to understand why Textor is so enthused about China. The Chinese government is giving him free land and Chinese investors are handing over $50 million for Digital Domain to build a motion capture facility. With a deal like that, students will have to pay Textor a lot more money to work for free if they want those jobs to stay in North America.

Oh joy!

Amidi’s Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation [amazon] is also back in print, I see. It’s a wonderful source, if you like this sort of thing.



Bill Benzon 04.17.12 at 10:27 am

For a bit more on UPA, but less than a book, Mike Barrier did a chapter in his book on Hollywood Cartoons and has posted that chapter here:


Yan 04.17.12 at 11:21 am

Really looking forward to seeing this collection. I recently saw this cartoon from the collection, and it’s just amazing:


John Holbo 04.17.12 at 12:27 pm

Yes, that’s one of my favorites! Thanks for the link, Bill.


Robert Halford 04.17.12 at 12:49 pm

It’s important to note the most important part of the story: the Disney strike was successful. Disney Animation is a union shop (the animators guild, part of IATSE) as is pretty much all of the Hollywood animation industry. Generally, Hollywood is one of the last heavily unionized manufacturing industries left in America.


Robert Halford 04.17.12 at 12:57 pm

I mean, I think your “Fortunately things are different today in the American animation industry” was meant ironically, but things really are different — the industry is basically unionized. Things aren’t perfect — there are some vfx people left out of the union at some places – but pretty much all feature animation is unionized. And actually Disney is now one of the best shops on this issue, and pretty much everyone working in their animations is in the Animation Guild.


Bill Benzon 04.17.12 at 2:08 pm

Animator Michael Sporn has been following this round of UPA stuff on his blog. His most recent post is about background art on The Man on the Flying Trapeze:

In this post (second item) he links to some other coverage:


Bruce Baugh 04.17.12 at 3:51 pm

Wow. I love threads like this. New reading about things that interest me, on a continuing basis. :)


Ohio Mom 04.17.12 at 5:00 pm

I remember Gerald McBoing Boing. The boy who learned to communicate using assistive technology.


ChrisTS 04.18.12 at 1:36 am

I have been longing to find a [playable] video of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. I adore that film.

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