Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ham and Hattie are Ho-hum

I've been working my way through the UPA Jolly Frolics DVD collection. I had never seen any of the Ham and Hattie shorts, so I was naturally curious about them. They are bad, but specifically bad in ways that illuminate what went wrong with UPA.

These films show all the things that UPA didn't care about, personality, humour and animation being three of the most prominent. Having lost key personnel such as John Hubley, Phil Eastman and Bill Scott, the studio was left with little more than design in these cartoons. While the design is sometimes attractive, it's not enough to sustain interest for seven minutes.

Hattie is a little girl whose personality can only be described as bland. We get no sense of who she is, what she values, or how she could be expected to respond. The cartoons are free of conflict relating to her and the humour is so soft that the cartoons might be turned down by Sesame Street as too boring. Even pre-school shows have more bite than Hattie.

The animation is severely limited, akin to what was being done on TV at roughly the same time, even though the UPA theatricals presumably had better budgets. In Trees, a cat is riding on an out-of-control wagon and it's just a held cel panning across several backgrounds.

Ham is even worse. He takes on a different persona in each of his four cartoons: a Jamaican, a dog, a Japanese and an Italian. Why create a character if he is going to be different in appearance in every cartoon? His ethnic adventures are accompanied by a narrator with the appropriate accent, making it clear that the later UPA Dick Tracy TV cartoons starring Joe Jitsu and Go Go Gomez were completely in line with UPA's sensibilities. So much for the studio being politically progressive.

Like Hattie, the Ham stories are dull with few gags and little conflict. The most they aspire to is a smile. The stories are simplistic, the characters have no psychological depth, let alone complexity, and the motion in the Ham cartoons is sloppy. Either the assistant animators had no clue how to maintain shapes and volumes or nobody cared at that point. Inbetweens were seen as a luxury. The design is also unpleasant, tending towards lumpiness.

There's no question that by the time these cartoons were made, UPA was a spent force. They might rally for the TV special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol or the features 1001 Arabian Nights or Gay Purr-ee, but even these films can't compare to the work being done at the studio's birth. Whatever one's view of Stephen Busustow, he was not a guiding sensibility. Without the right people around him, he was no better than Walter Lantz, another weak producer whose quality level was all over the map.

The Hollywood blacklist, the result of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was terrible for UPA. Conformist hysteria gripped mainstream society to the point where any deviation from political orthodoxy was seen as a threat to the nation. The irony is that the artists attracted to left wing politics in the '30s and '40s were reacting to a world that had gone off the rails and one they wished to fix. In short, they were not aesthetes, only interested in creating beauty; they were engaged with the larger world and had opinions about more than the way an image should look.

When UPA lost Hubley and Eastman to the blacklist (as well as the unpersecuted Bill Scott), they lost their mainspring. These men understood personality (see Scott's work for Jay Ward, Hubley's independent films and Eastman's books), they understood how to create stories and in Hubley's case, valued the expressive quality of movement. Without them, UPA was full of artists who wanted to create pretty pictures but had no idea what those pictures should be about. Like Hubley, Bob Cannon's cartoons at UPA also valued expressive movement, but once he got past Christopher Crumpet, his cartoons became a little too precious. Cannon's animation is like Ham and Hattie's design: window dressing with nothing much to sell.

Thad Komorowski has also commented on the DVD set. He feels that only the first disk is worth watching. I'd be willing to dip into the second. However, regardless of your opinion, this set finally allows viewers to put UPA in perspective for the first time since the cartoons were originally released. Eleven years of cartoons show the quick rise and the prolonged fall of the studio. The Ham and Hattie cartoons rank with the worst theatricals of the era and by the time that UPA moved into TV production, the body was already cold.

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