krpalmer: Charlie Brown and Patty in the rain; Charlie Brown wears a fedora and trench coat (charlie brown)
[personal profile] krpalmer
"Man cannot live by anime alone" seems just about self-evident to me. There are also times, though, when it begins to feel a bit like a reproach. I suppose that where some move on to an interest in Japanese or East Asian culture that doesn't need to involve "drawings" and others now find long-format stories of the fantastic told in "live action" over here, I've thought I want to take in more of where I came from in the first place, animation in all forms... but when I'm still working my way little by little through the DVD sets of Batman: The Animated Series, there seems an indication of priorities and the risk of a narrowed viewpoint. (I suppose I'm also watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but it might just be that some combination of "computer animation" and thinking of it as "Star Wars" first somehow keeps it from filling some "animation quota"; in any case, rewatching the DVD sets of it is also slow going.)

I am recording to DVD old movies from the Turner Classic Movies channel, if not watching many of them. In the process of recording them, though, I began to notice a collection of theatrical animation shorts from the 1950s being promoted after the movies, and it very much caught my attention. Ever since reading Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic" from my home town library as a child, I've known about United Productions of America, who changed the look of other studios as well with their own emphasis on "modern design," minimalist backgrounds, limited animation for artistic effect, and character designs with a strong influence from magazine cartooning. I'd never seen any of their own work, though, and this seemed a chance to rectify that. Shipping and handling from TCM's own online store made the collection seem pricy, but "The Jolly Frolics Collection" did arrive soon. (It's explained in the set's supplementary material that Columbia Pictures, who distributed UPA's shorts after letting them replace its own animation studios as a money-saving measure, picked a name the people at UPA didn't like; eventually, they did manage to get it off their title cards.)

It did seem easy enough to think of the old saw about "needing some time to get rolling"; the first cartoons in the collection used the Columbia Pictures characters "the Fox and the Crow" and felt a bit like second-string Warner Brothers cartoons from a decade later, after they'd adopted UPA's influences on background design. There was also the first Mister Magoo cartoon, with a less streamlined design for the fuzzy-eyed old man than in the cartoons the set explained paid the bills. (I suppose the other Mister Magoo cartoons could make up a DVD set or two on their own; noticing some numbers in the set's booklet, though, let me gather the collection includes every single "non-Magoo" theatrical short UPA made.) There was something of a sense everything did begin to really move right with "Gerald McBoingBoing" itself, a cartoon with a rhyming story by Dr. Seuss I've often seen mentioned as attracting real attention.

The backgrounds and character designs were already catching my eye; it was pointed out by Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck in their enusiastic commentaries on several cartoons that the set had been restored, and things did look vibrant and appealing. I suppose I did, though, think a bit about a thought of mine that part of my longevity when it comes to watching anime may be just that I've grown to "like the way the characters look." Things did seem sort of different here.

As I started into the set, I suppose I was inclined to contemplations of how "design" attracts attention but "recurring characters" are better at building something to become part of the cultural landscape. The Disney studios and Warner Brothers had their own "one-off" works, but it's their characters that stick around today even if only as designs on merchandising. The UPA cartoons did occasionally bring characters back (one of whom I'd thought beforehand could have supported a series), but after a while I did begin to get more into the spirit of each new experiment. I also found myself thinking they drew a clear distinction between "innovative design" and straightforward storytelling, although at times I did wonder about all the "sitcom fathers," contented suburban housewives, and rambunctious but lovable children in the cartoons. (In the meantime, some of UPA's key people had been caught up in the Red Scare and left the studio.) When they weren't set in the "here and now," a favourite period for the cartoons did seem to be the "turn of the century."

UPA took deliberate steps away from "funny animals" and "cartoon violence," but just perhaps their work seemed "interesting" and "charming" to me rather than "hilarious." The studio broke up with the conclusion of the collection and became a matter of "historic influence" (I did notice how many of the early cartoons had Bill Melendez credited as an animator, knowing how he eventually got involved making commercials for the Ford Falcon starring the Peanuts characters and went on to the Charlie Brown specials), and certainly that sense of "further horizons" keeps me from thinking the experience is just to be boasted about. It was still a good one, though.

Date: 2012-06-09 06:37 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] thrush
Cool! I have read several of Leonard Maltin's books, starting with the Little Rascals: the Life & Times of Our Gang, and I really enjoy him as a film/TV historian. As someone who has difficulty appreciating North American animation, it's nice to hear about what attracts others to it. I do recall enjoying the Mr. Magoo series when I was young, but I suspect I saw mostly the later shows. (The only one I recall clearly now was the Mr. Magoo Christmas Carol. Songs from that still pop into my head from time to time.)

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