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Why John Hubley Was One of the Best Animators You've Never Heard Of

Indiewire By Greg Cwik | Indiewire April 7, 2014 at 11:27AM

Hubley gave audiences intimate glimpses into the lives of those who were often ignored by major animation studios.
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John Hubley's "Harlem Wednesday."
John Hubley's "Harlem Wednesday."

In the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was nodding his head in demagogic agreement with himself, animation pioneer and Hollywood blacklist member John Hubley was tapping his toes to the rhythm of jazz. His experimental animation seemed uncontainable— wildly singular visions that owed more to Hans Hoffman than Max Fleischer. Hubley (whose films are currently touring the country to celebrate his 100th birthday) gave audiences intimate glimpses into the lives of those who were often ignored by major animation studios, and tackled topics such as nuclear war, agnosticism, and social justice. While children hunkered down in front of big, boxy televisions to watch Silly Symphonies, John Hubley was recording his children's voices and using them to create socially-conscious animated films.

Hubley tackled topics such as nuclear war, agnosticism, and social justice.

Hubley started his career painting backgrounds and layouts for Walt Disney Studios in 1935, when he was 22-years-old. He worked on the first classic Disney film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and acted as art director for "Bambi," "Dumbo" (uncredited), the "Rite of Spring" section of "Fantasia," and "Pinocchio." Of these projects, "Rite of Spring" best hints at the ambitious, idiomatic vision of his personal projects that was percolating just beneath the surface: the harmonious marriage of music and animation, and the lush, boundless backgrounds, and Hubley's penchant for breathing life into nebulous entities. "Rite of Spring" has a massive, cosmic scope, of course; Hubley would scale down these aesthetic peculiarities and funnel them into intimate exposés on quotidian life.

After leaving Disney during the strike of 1941, John Hubley joined the United Productions of America, for whom he created the Oscar-winning "Mr. Magoo." In 1952, Hubley was forced to leave UPA consequent of his blacklisted status. He subsequently founded Storyboard Studios, which acted as an alias, and started turning out wildly popular animated commercials. Though they didn't bear his name in the credits, Hubley's animated ads were wholly his own, stamped with his invisible signature; they felt simultaneously out of place within the advertising establishment and, somehow, in some inexplicable way, connected to each other, coursed by a common thread that tethered them to the unnamed artist behind the animation, like episodes of a television anthology.

Hubley's famous 1956 "I Want My Maypo" commercial featured his young son's voice, which lent the ad an authentic air (the child's whininess is undeniably that of a child who wants his Maypo). Hubley's triumph was unexpected, as the commercial was intended to be a failure: Heublein, Inc. planned on dumping their money into a bomb of a commercial for the poorly-selling Maypo in order to create huge loses and get tax-deductible expenses, so they hired Hubley, known for being independent, uncompromising, and antipodal to a capitalistic enterprise's desires, with the simple instructions of making a "slice of life."

The commercial didn't bomb, of course — it increased sales by an average of 78%. In the wake of this immense success, animated commercials proliferated, and the cowboy hat-wearing child, dubbed Marky Maypo, became a household name.

The irony of churning out commercial advertisements while maintaining the aspirations of an artist wasn't lost on Hubley: In his ten-minute live-action short "Date With Dizzy," a Hubley stand-in instructs iconic trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on scoring (or "dubbing," as he calls it) a short commercial for an instant rope ladder. Gillespie and his band watch the cartoon with ambivalence (it's all very silly, as one might expect from a commercial for an instant rope ladder), and they break into a swinging number, which, while aurally stunning, has very little to do with selling instant rope ladders.

The director hangs his head in desperation as Dizzy's quartet lets the music flow. The commercial director tries, in vain, to get Dizzy and crew to play more commercial-apt music, but the real artist remains incorruptible, even as he tries to work with the careerist, whose inability to appreciate art is obvious. Hubley's subversion was subtle but not invisible: The mockery of commercials, capitalism, and the usurpation of art for the sake of the almighty dollar in Hubley's short burns like a freshly-struck match.

"Date With Dizzy" acts as a lens through which we can decipher the filmmaker’s career. As John Sayles aptly notes in the recent film issue of The Believer Magazine (which features a DVD of films Hubley made with his wife, Faith, spanning 17 years, including "Date With Dizzy"), Hubley's cartoons feel alive, attuned to the syncopated rhythm of the world. Sayles likens Hubley's effect on animation to that of Miles Davis on jazz. Sayles remembers how Hubley's cartoons and commercials seemed to infiltrate the drive-in theater screen, those sneaky, subtly subversive clips slipping into the otherwise milquetoast pre-programming galère of kiddy cartoons, as the sun receded and the screen glowed in the night. Sayles succinctly describes his pre-filmmaker impression of the cartoons: "It's one of those again!"

Hubley made family-friendly acid trips.

Hubley, who often made use of Benny Carter's boppin' music, released "Date With Dizzy" at a time when jazz was in that odd synapse between being niche— "black music"—and breaking into the mainstream. As well as being a paramount moment in self-referential filmmaking, its sharp, satirical edge on clear display, "Date With Dizzy" remains a fascinating snapshot of a brief, fleeting moment in jazz history — that breath before the very definition of "jazz" was obscured beyond recognition, with the advent of modal jazz and free-jazz.

Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and other pioneers of experimental jazz were recording seminal albums, such as Davis' "Kind of Blue" and Coleman's "The Shape of Jazz to Come," both of which came out in 1959, and Davis’ controversial, brilliant "Sketches of Spain," which came out the next year. There was the dissolution of Davis' first great quintet, and the birth of the embryonic stages of Impulse! Records. Jazz was movin' on up, into the realm of the mainstream.

As Davis and Coleman and Coltrane were altering and reshaping the concept of what jazz could be, John Hubley was reshaping the concept of what a cartoon could be. Still operating under his Storyboard alias, Hubley began orchestrating more aesthetically complex, narratively opaque projects. He worked in oils, water colors, pen and ink, felt-tip markers; he commingled black-and-white sketches — wiry, emaciated things, like scratches from low-hanging tree branches — and splashes of color, over-saturated, under-saturated, deeply layered and endlessly energetic. Hubley made family-friendly acid trips with delightful liberal leanings while he was black listed during those scary, shrouded years known as McCarthyism. These cartoons (and one live-action, pseudo-meta film) are vivid portrayals of a hazy time in American history, when the Martini and gray flannel suit were giving way to the counter culture and rock ‘n’ roll.

The last short he made before his blacklisting, 1951's "Rooty Toot Toot," is the most structurally linear, and thus most well-known of Hubley's shorts. It's the story of two sweethearts, Frankie and Johnny, the former of whom shot the latter dead. There's love, lust, treachery and murder in this ten-minute cartoon, which is notable for its depiction of black characters on the jury in Frankie's trial. Hubley eschews outlines and simply paints their skin color directly onto the backgrounds, leaving the characters in ethereal, opaque shapes. It's not an overt political statement, but the presence of blacks integrated, not assimilated with whites in a court room, as a jury of peers, stands in stark contrast to, say, "Cinderella," which Disney had released the previous year.

As with "Rooty Toot Toot," Hubley set his more sober, sedate "Harlem Wednesday" to the rhythm of Benny Carter's sultry music. "Harlem Wednesday" is a wordless vignette that illustrates the daily banalities and trivialities of black life in Harlem. Gregorio Prestopino supplies the static paintings of people carrying ice, taking out trash, sitting on sidewalks, often framed in front of wrought iron fences and looming black gates. The backgrounds and the characters nearly blend together, creating a feeling of symbiosis, of people rooted in their environment, and an environment that conforms around its people. Hubley begins and ends the short with the same shot of a young boy sleeping. At the end of the day, much has happened but nothing has changed.

Hubley’s shorts offered myriad innovations and detours from established norms.

Hubley’s shorts offered myriad innovations and detours from established norms: the use of his children’s voices in "Moonbird"; the beautiful controlled chaos of "Adventure of an *"; the use of layers to create parallax and depth in "The Tender Game"; the gentle encapsulation of commerce and consumption’s Sisyphean cycling in "Urbanissimo," which originally ran paired with Godard's "Weekend — the list goes on.

After his death in 1977, Hubley's wife Faith continued producing abstract, often mythical animated films, even after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer (she would live another 26 years). It seems wonderfully fitting that John Hubley got his start working for Disney: Hubley, that sly, subversive artist, chipped away at the establishment from within, and his art and his ambitions were the antithesis of Uncle Walt’s gargantuan company.

As Hubley's style evolved over time, it felt organic in its constantly shifting, swaying aesthetic. He portrayed human characters lost in an irrational world that was ill at ease with itself. He channeled Picasso, Klee, and Matisse; and he conjured coteries of aesthetic and philosophical –isms, upon which Uncle Walt would have frowned: modernism, minimalism, postmodernism, deconstructuralism, surrealism, Dadaism — synthesizing them all into potent commentaries on culture and society. It was social realism through artistic abstractionism.

But above all he was, ultimately, an idealist, perhaps the sole trait that he shared with Disney (though Hubley's idealism landed him on Hollywood's blacklist, whereas Walt decried "communist agitation" and testified before the HUAC). Hubley’s works, rooted in the sad realities of the Red Scare, offered an unflinching gaze into everyday life. A fine conscience he turned out to be.

A traveling program of films by John and Faith Hubley, all in new 35mm prints, are currently touring the country in honor of the animator's 100th birthday. Go here for more information.

This article is related to: Reviews, John Hubley, Animation, Faith Hubley, Disney