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UPA Cartoons—At Last!

By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin March 28, 2012 at 1:00AM

I’m proud to be associated with TCM’s exclusive new three-disc DVD set of 'Jolly Frolics', the innovative, award winning UPA cartoons that have been neglected on home video so long. I’m speaking of 'Gerald McBoing Boing', 'Unicorn in the Garden', 'The Tell-Tale Heart', 'Rooty Toot Toot', and the first Mister Magoo cartoon, Ragtime Bear, among others. These shorts, made by former Disney staffers who embraced modern art and graphics, wowed pop-culture critics, audiences, and Oscar voters in the late 1940s and 50s, but haven’t been readily accessible in recent years.
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UPA The Jolly Frolics Collection

I’m proud to be associated with TCM’s exclusive new three-disc DVD set of Jolly Frolics, the innovative, award winning UPA cartoons that have been neglected on home video so long. I’m speaking of Gerald McBoing Boing, Unicorn in the Garden, The Tell-Tale Heart, Rooty Toot Toot, and the first Mister Magoo cartoon, Ragtime Bear, among others. These shorts, made by former Disney staffers who embraced modern art and graphics, wowed pop-culture critics, audiences, and Oscar voters in the late 1940s and 50s, but haven’t been readily accessible in recent years. I’m especially proud of the folks at TCM and Sony who went the extra mile to restore these films and make the collection as thorough as possible.

One example: the Sony restoration team, led by Grover Crisp and Rita Belda, discovered that in years past, Columbia Pictures (which distributed the UPA titles theatrically) cut the negatives and inserted new opening and closing titles for reissue purposes. Like most studios at that time, they then discarded the original material! We really wanted the films to look exactly the way they did when they were new whenever possible, so I suggested one possible solution, albeit a cumbersome one: the Museum of Modern Art acquired 35mm Technicolor prints of the early UPA gems when they mounted a tribute to the studio back in the 1950s. Sure enough, Sony went to the trouble of borrowing those prints from MoMA, scanned the openings and closings, then cleaned up the well-worn footage to match their beautiful new restorations. That’s what I call dedication to doing the job right.

A frame from the delightful 'Gerald McBoing Boing'.
A frame from the delightful 'Gerald McBoing Boing'.

I provide an on-camera introduction and some commentary tracks, for which I asked my pal Jerry Beck to join me. He had another good idea: at a recent animation show in L.A. he met Gladys Holland, a charming French-born actress who performed the narration for one of UPA’s most charming shorts, an adaptation of Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline. Sure enough, Ms. Holland was happy to come to a studio and contribute her memories of working on the film.

By reaching out to a number of animation experts and collectors like Amid Amidi (author of Cartoon Modern and Jerry Beck’s partner in running at cartoonbrew.com), Adam Abraham (author of the excellent new book on UPA, When Magoo Flew), Tee Bosustow (son of UPA co-founder Stephen Bosustow), Bruce Burness (son of UPA director Pete Burness), Mike Glad, and Mike Van Eaton, among others, the folks at Turner have produced a highly informative and attractive booklet about the studio, and assembled an impressive collection of original artwork and promotional material as bonus features for the DVD set.

When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA

There are 38 cartoons in all, from the company’s first commercial releases, featuring Columbia’s established characters The Fox and Crow in 1949, to their last ten years later. (The Magoo cartoons will appear in a separate four-disc boxed set being released in June by Shout! Factory.)

I first wrote about UPA in my book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons many years ago, and was lucky enough to talk to many of its key personalities. Now Adam Abraham has dug even deeper to trace the history of this storied studio and the people who created its groundbreaking films in his book When Magoo Flew (Wesleyan University Press). Adam writes well, and certainly did his homework; I learned a lot and pass along my highest recommendation. It’s felicitous timing to have the book come out at the same time as this DVD collection. They complement each other perfectly.

This original piece of artwork set the color palette for a scene in the James Thurber adaptation 'Unicorn in the Garden'.
This original piece of artwork set the color palette for a scene in the James Thurber adaptation 'Unicorn in the Garden'.

Note: The one UPA cartoon that has had continual exposure is the charming Gerald McBoing Boing, from a story by Dr. Seuss.  The 1950 cartoon and its sequels were released on video cassette and later turned up as bonus material on the DVD release of Hellboy, of all things. Why? Because Guillermo Del Toro is a UPA fan. But even then, the prints were not restored as they have been for this comprehensive release. Click HERE to purchase the set exclusively from TCM.

UPA cartoons were in glorious Technicolor, but Columbia’s posters were, unfortunately, produced in drab duotone.
UPA cartoons were in glorious Technicolor, but Columbia’s posters were, unfortunately, produced in drab duotone.

This article is related to: DVD Reviews, Turner Classic Movies, Sony, Cartoon Brew, Animation, UPA