In 1948, after establishing themselves in WWII propaganda and training pictures as well as industrial films, UPA (United Productions of America) replaced Screen Gems as Columbia Pictures’ primary producer of animated theatrical shorts. UPA’s distinct visual flair revolutionized the animation world and inspired noticeable stylistic changes in all other major animation studios, including big-timers Walt Disney and Warner Bros. UPA’s theatrical efforts ultimately earned the studio 15 Academy Award nominations, of which they won three.
In order to distance themselves from the aesthetic conventions codified by the major studios, UPA drew heavily from modern art and marketing in the creation of their visual style. They adopted a highly stylized, innovative graphic aesthetic, characterized by flat, abstract backgrounds and character designs unlike those of their competitors. The simplicity of the aesthetic allowed the shorts to be produced cheaply while retaining distinct and exciting visuals. Their methods formed the basis of what would be termed “limited animation,” and paved the way for affordable television animation and the rise of studios such as Hanna-Barbera and Filmation.
UPA’s theatrical shorts have at last made their way to DVD in one, must-own collection. Turner Classic Movies and Sony Home Entertainment teamed up to release the three-disc Jolly Frolics Collection, which compiles 38 of UPA’s stand-alone theatrical shorts, which were released by Columbia under the arbitrary umbrella title, Jolly Frolics. Admittedly, the lack of a Blu-ray release of this collection disappointed me, but the set offers a beautiful presentation of these shorts anyway, which benefited greatly from my HD system’s upconversion.
You’ll find an incredible array of cartoons in this collection, from the saccharine sweet “Oompahs” (1952), about a little trumpet that only wants to play jazz, to a distinctly Dali-esque adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1953). Rather than touch on every short in the set, I’ll point to some of the highlights here (and lowlights, to be fair). Now, it may be cliché to say so, but I still contend that “Gerald McBoing Boing” (1951), which UPA adapted from a record by Dr. Seuss, stands as one of the most wonderful animated shorts I’ve ever seen. As for the aforementioned adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” don’t let its inclusion in The Jolly Frolics Collection fool you. This James Mason-narrated piece ably captures the spirit of Poe’s foray into the mind of a paranoid sociopath, utilizing an appropriately unsettling, pulsing visual abstraction to represent the titular heart’s tell-tale beating. “Rooty Toot Toot” (1952), an adaptation of the song “Frankie and Johnny,” accounts for yet another indispensible UPA short. Most notable for its extremely abstract characters and its much-subdued mature content, “Rooty Toot Toot” finds one Frankie on trial for the murder of her man Johnny after she caught “rehearsing” with another woman. Other notable entries in this set include the first appearance of UPA’s most recognizable character, the near-sighted Mr. Magoo, in “The Ragtime Bear” (1949); UPA’s 1953 adaptation of James Thurber’s “The Unicorn in the Garden;” and three follow-ups to “Gerald McBoing Boing.”
I found myself disappointed only by the four Ham and Hattie shorts from 1958 and 1959 that close out the chronologically-ordered set. (Of course, by this point in UPA’s history, the majority of the studio’s founders, key animators, and directors had already moved on, so perhaps it’s no surprise.) These shorts consist of two, three-minute segments, one featuring the personality-less little girl Hattie doing random, uninteresting things while a children’s song about trees, sailing, spring, or picnics plays. The Hamilton Ham shorts play out similarly, except that most of the Ham shorts rely uncomfortably on racial stereotypes for their humor. Even with these four clunkers, that leaves you with 34 other shorts that are either animated masterpieces or at least worth watching!
The Jolly Frolics Collection includes a 14-page booklet with an introduction by When Magoo Flew author Adam Abraham, write-ups on each of the shorts, a UPA timeline, UPA personnel bios, a guide to UPA’s continuing series and recurring characters, and a list of further readings. Bonus features on the discs themselves include an introduction by Leonard Maltin, audio commentary on select shorts with Maltin and Jerry Beck, as well as a treasure trove of UPA galleries featuring images from every stage of production from concept art and pencil tests all the way to movie posters and publicity stills.