Although the ambitions of the United Productions of America (UPA), especially in the early 1950s, foremost pushed the boundaries of animation’s artistic and creative potential, ultimately, the trajectory of UPA as a company was, in no small part, steered by its political context. From the company’s inception (also discussed here and here), it sought to change how, in the eyes of the company’s founders, cartoons ought to look both from an aesthetic and productional standpoint. That, in itself, is, of course, political; and largely stemmed from the UPA artists’ experiences with mismanagement and creative inhibition at other studios, with the 1941 Disney Strike, a response to Walt Disney refusing to allow his company’s artists to unionize, acting as a particularly egregious straw on the camel’s back. Once these artists broke off to form UPA (originally named Industrial Film and Poster Service) during the early 1940s, they would get their start in the industry by, like most other animation companies at the time, creating American political/propaganda films. However, they still approached these films with their unique artistic sensibilities, with Hell-Bent for Election, a film made to promote the presidential campaign of FDR, being fondly remembered (for depicting FDR as a train). Later into the 1940s, their hard work would pay off once they gained the attention of and signed a film deal with Screen Gems (Columbia Pictures/ Sony), who finally took a chance on UPA and allowed them to enact the creative freedom that they had strove to accomplish. UPA would go on to produce some of their best and most iconic work: Gerald McBoingBoing, Rooty Toot Toot, the Mr. Magoo series of films, etc.
However, the 1950s brought its own political hurdles— specifically the Red Scare and McCarthyism. As a condensed overview, a government-sponsored campaign had begun to seek out and oust Americans suspected of promoting communist values, who would, in turn, be blacklisted from employment. It was a terrible, paranoia-fueled, and childish effort that left the lives of many in ruin; but, importantly, you may be thinking: how did this affect the funny cartoons? Well, the animation industry, too, had to reckon with this rise in suspicion; particularly for UPA, the studio had produced films for democratic candidates and artistically took influence from Russian animation. in 1952, Columbia Pictures received notice from the House Un-American Activities Committee that they suspected eight UPA members of having ties to the communist party; and that these employees would either have to publicly denounce communism by accusing other suspected communists or be removed from UPA; a proposition that seven of the eight artists agreed to— all except John Hubley.
For all intents and purposes, John Hubley and his work acted as the heart of UPA. Of course, that isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of the other artists nor to promote Hubley as the sole ’great man’ of UPA, but rather to underscore Hubley’s contributions as vital pieces of UPA’s catalog. John Hubley began his career in animation as a layout artist for many of Disney’s Golden Age films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Bambi, the Rite of Spring vignette in Fantasia, etc.), leaving to join Screen Gems following the Disney Strike in 1941, and later leaving Screen 1946 to work at UPA (which, albeit, was still technically Screen Gems but whatever). Hubley’s artistic ethos remained to break animation down to “essentially the same abstract symbolism that cartoons have continually used,” and it was with that ethos that Hubley carried throughout his work at UPA; helming many of their most iconic and experimental films, including creating the character of Mr. Magoo (directing his debut film The Ragtime Bear) and directing Rooty Toot Toot. His films incorporated modernist art and jazz sensibilities— being as visually striking as they were emotionally complex. So, although he certainly isn’t the forebearer of UPA’s total accomplishments, his contributions to their catalog stood as UPA’s thesis made kinetic, and the subsequent loss of that artistic vision would undoubtedly change both UPA and Hubley as respective artists.
After John Hubley was let go (and subsequently blacklisted) by UPA and Columbia Pictures, Hubley began seeking work as an independent artist. Of course, being an independent artist, even in the best of circumstances, is easier said than done; but this struggle would be particularly amplified by his status as a ‘blacklisted’ artist, making him unable to be hired by another studio. As such, Hubley founded a new studio— Storyboard Studio— with his future wife, Faith Hubley, with the two promising to release a new short film together every year from there on out. The Hubley’s not only maintained their promise to each other until John’s sudden passing in 1977, but also they made this promise as their wedding vows! Firstly, love that for them; secondly, although this arrival is focusing primarily on John, I need to mention that Faith Hubley is a phenomenal filmmaker in her own right who I absolutely recommend (insert sequel hook); and finally, all of this, I think, shows John Hubley’s dedication to his art; that each time the industry turned it back on his— weather for his speaking out against Disney’s labor practices or the United States government’s constitutional “Un-American” campaign— he continued to do what he saw as a right, and did so while continuing his work as a cartoonist and filmmaker.
In 1957, Hubley released his first independent cartoon and the debut film of Storyboard, Inc, The Adventures of an *. Commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, The Adventures of an * tells the story of a father and son, and that relationship affects the son as he grows up, illustrating this story through an impressionistic modernist style where the characters will often be represented by little more than an asterisk (*). Although The Adventures of an * can be seen as a continuation of where Hubley had left off with UPA, I think it acts instead as a reinvention and reintroduction to Hubley’s style; it contains the same graphic design, modernist sensibilities, and nonliteral storytelling as Gerald McBoingBoing or Rooty Toot Toot, but leans into those elements even more fervently. Characters shift from being represented by bodies or abstracted symbols; backgrounds vary between physical space to splatter paintings to somewhere in between, all within the same scene— even the same shot. As a filmmaker, Hubley prioritizes conveyance and, especially, the convenience of emotion— if the audience knows what it is they’re seeing and feels something in respect to it, then anything that would be accentual to that can be removed. The film expresses the expertness of its craft through how it constructs its narrative, but childlike in how it portrays it; or, part differently, the film feels free— as if the sophisticated hands we expect of a filmmaker have been pulled back to instead allow the innocence of the film to express itself. In this way, the film’s Jazz soundtrack becomes incredibly apt— perfectly fitting Hubley’s crafted stream-of-consciousness storytelling by accentuating it with an exciting genre of music that heavily utilizes improvisation and emotion.
Jazz and improvisation would continue to serve as musses in Hubley’s filmography. Most, if not all, of Hubley’s films, utilized Jazz for their scores, with some Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie notable and frequent collaborators. Indeed, he occasionally put Jazz at the forefront of the film, such as in Date with the Dizzy. Jazz music helped to underscore both the humanistic qualities of Hubley’s shorts and their impressionism— giving them an emotive, living-breathing sense as the visuals flowed with the improvisational riffs of saxophones and trumpets. Additionally, in a historical context, his use of Jazz could be seen as an extension of Hubley’s increasing political awareness in his films, with humanist topics (civil rights/ equality and anti-war beliefs) frequently recurring in his shorts. Moreover, the improvisational nature of Jazz would permeate more and more of Hubley’s films as he began experimenting with using improvised dialogue. An excellent example of Hubley’s humanist sensibilities and his use of improvised dialogue comes in his 1962 short film The Hole, where Dizzy Gillespie and George Mathews improvise a conversation between two construction workers— their discussion ranging from ballroom dancing to cold war anxiety. As a filmmaker, Hubley concerned himself and his work not just with pushing forward the visual language of animation, but he used that language to tell stories of emotional honesty, both of fantastical/ nonliteral worlds and of the people we see every day.
Hubley’s contributions to the medium of animation would culminate in 1959 with the release of Moonbird— the first independent film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Directed by both John and Faith Hubley, Moonbird would see the duo utilizing improvisational dialogue for the first time, with the two actors in the film being their young children, Ray and Mark Hubley, portraying two little boys going out at night to catch a moonbird. In many ways, the film epitomizes John Hubley’s artistic sensibilities, particularly his willingness to experiment and his prioritization of emotion. It’s the type of film where nothing happens, yet you become completely immersed; Hubely’s humanism allows for the relative insignificance of a conversation held by two children elevated to a high level of dignity. In another manner of speaking: when Hubley can portray anything in his films and can do so in such a visually forwarding way, it remains noteworthy that what he still chose to focus on was a moment of peaceful companionship. Moreover, Hubley illustrates this through his signature impressionist style that translates the children’s imagination into an equally creative and tender way.
Moonbird helps to underscore what John Hubley had been pursuing in his work since his departure from Disney— a step away from portraying the creative by relating it to reality; and showing appreciation for the human by conveying it through the creative. His films often put people— many times without even the filter of a script— at the forefront of the picture and illustrated them in a way that, while technically less complicated than some of his contemporaries, felt palpably honest and genuine to who they and he were.