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United Productions of America (UPA)

Primary Product: Animated cartoons
Producing From: 1943-64
Noted For: Mr. Magoo, Gay Purree and more
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It isn't a bit surprising that Disney, which became a giant in the field, its vast array of properties ranging from Donald Duck to The Little Mermaid, as a result of its founder's imagination …

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… and innovation, looms large in the history of American animation. What's surprising is that UPA, a tiny studio that flourished in the 1950s, with only one noticeable property (Mr. Magoo), is also a giant in terms of making animation history.

It was discord at Disney that sowed the seeds of UPA's revolutionary approach to cartoons. In 1941, his employees, who had theretofore been characterized as the ever-smiling worker-bees who make Mickey Mouse, went on strike. The points at issue concerned working conditions, of course, but there was also resistance to the studio's basic approach to animation, that excellence in this endeavor was to be found exclusively in the imitation of life — that the more closely an animated film resembled one of a living being, the better it was.

Layout man John Hubley, who later wrote several books on animation, was one of several now-idle Disney creators who thought the future of American animation might lie in new areas. At Warner Bros., Chuck Jones was influenced by these ideas when he made his hightly stylistic The Dover Boys (1942).

In '43, several, including (and possibly most notably) producer Steven Bosustow, got together to form a commercial animation enterprise called Industrial Film & Poster Service. This was responsible for several special-purpose films, the best-known of which was Hell-Bent for Election, a 13-minute advocacy of the 1944 presidential re-election campaign of incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. The studio later metamorphosed into United Productions of America, or as we know it, UPA.

UPA's innovations include limited animation, by which fewer and simpler drawings were used to make animation effects. Because it allowed great saving in production cost, this became a staple of TV animation, seen everywhere from Yogi Bear to Fairly OddParents. But as originally conceived, it was less a cost-cutting shortcut than a choice of styles.

UPA's big break came in 1949, when Bosustow made a deal with Columbia Pictures (Congo Bill, Bruce Gentry) to provide the cartoons for them to release. Columbia's cartoons had previously been produced by Charles Mintz, the man who made cartoon history by hijacking Disney's Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and a year later, losing him to Walter Lantz.

UPA's first cartoon intended for theatrical release was Robin Hoodlum, starring The Fox & the Crow and directed by Hubley. UPA had fallen heir to Columbia's cartoon properties, such as Tito & His Burrito and Flippity & Flop, but preferred to develop properties of its own. Mr. Magoo was out that same year, and a couple of years later UPA adapted Dr. Seuss's Gerald McBoing-Boing into cartoons. Gerald. too. became a continuing character for them.

But UPA's legacy also includes scores of non-series cartoons, many of which pushed the limits of animation as it stood. Directors such as Bobe Cannon (Inki & the Minah Bird) and Ted Parmalee (Rocky & Bullwinkle) made adaptations of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart and Thurber's The Unicorn in the Garden; and original stories like Rooty Toot Toot stand out from the thick crowd of theatrical cartoon shorts — which included an ever-increasing amount of UPA's own influence.

The Thurber short was originally intended for a feature built along the lines of Disney's 1940s features, such as The Reluctant Dragon or The Three Caballeros, which were more like collections of shorts than true single-story features. UPA's was to collect several of Thurber's stories into a feature. But the feature was never produced, and eventually that cartoon was released separately.

UPA had an Academy Award nomination as early as 1951, tho that year it lost to MGM's Tom & Jerry film, The Two Mouseketeers. Only two years later, the Mr. Magoo short When Magoo Flew did take home the Oscar. It was only the first. In fact, UPA accomplished the unique achievement of having produced all the nominees for the 1956 award.

But the 1950s were also the years of America's "Red Scare", in which fear of Communist infiltration of various U.S. institutions caused a great deal of disruption in them. Pressure was brought on many Hollywood companies to dismiss or blacklist personnel "tainted" by real or imagined ties to Communism. UPA was only one of many producers affected, but the loss of some of its most creative people was devastating, and came at a time when Hollywood was already turning away from theatrical cartoons. UPA's association with Columbia ended in 1959. For distribution on its 1962 feature, Gay Purr-ee, it had to look elsewhere.

UPA turned to television, but a Dick Tracy animated series, which combined unoriginality and dullness with racism, proved no help to its sagging fortunes. Mr. Magoo did better in that venue, but without the creative spark, quickly sank into the mire of most animated TV productions of the time. UPA did, however, manage to turn its sole remaining cash cow into a made-for-TV feature, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, in which the crotchety old star was cast as Scrooge, no relation, first broadcast on December 18, 1962. A series, starring Magoo in several literary roles, was spun off.

The company ceased production and sold of most of its cartoon library in 1964, retaining only some of its licensing rights. Eventually, it got into distribution. It still exists, and today licenses such diverse properties as the Godzilla movies and the ever-reliable Mr. Magoo.

UPA will always retain its position as source and inspiration of many of the trends affecting animation in the 1950s and beyond. But as an actual producer, subject to the vicissitudes of the market, it's long gone.


UPA articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia™:

Dick TracyThe Fox and the CrowGay Purr-eeGerald McBoing-BoingChuck JonesMadelineMr. Magoo

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Text ©2008-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © UPA