When the people who worked with animator John Hubley (1914-1977) spoke of him, they agreed that he was a creative genius, a designer who would push the envelope of his medium, a man of vision with the ability to follow a dream. Working with him could also be very difficult.
Hubley was born in Marinette, Wisconsin on May 21, 1914, into an artistic family. His grandfather was a painter, and his mother attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Growing up watching his grandfather in his studio, Hubley knew that he would be a painter. He went to college in Los Angeles, California, then studied painting at the Art Center there for three years.
At the age of 22, Hubley went to work at the Walt Disney studios. Disney was undergoing a rapid expansion, as work was beginning on the studio's first feature-length cartoon, Snow White. Young artists were in demand to do the large amounts of work, and the studio provided training and apprenticeships to determine the best people to work on the important features. Hubley soon found himself at work on Snow White,, painting backgrounds and preparing layouts. He was art director for the classic Pinocchio, working with the animation director to determine the layout and general look of the entire film. He had the same role on Bambi and Dumbo, and for the opening sequences of Fantasia.
The famous Disney strike occurred in 1941. Many of the younger art school graduates that had joined Disney after the success of Snow White, and who were now part of a large production company, found themselves at odds with Disney's paternalism. Both in matters of compensation and creative freedom, the artists felt cheated. Walt Disney's goal was greater realism in his studio's animation, which went against what many, including Hubley, saw as the unlimited possibilities for imagination, stylization and fantasy in the medium.
Hubley was one of the first to walk out, and soon found himself working at Screen Gems, making cartoons that were released by Columbia Pictures. The studio was run by former Disney animator Frank Tashlin, and employed many former Disney artists. There, Hubley told interviewer John D. Ford, "we tried some very experimental things; none of them quite got off the ground, but there was a lot of ground broken." There was certainly more artistic freedom at Screen Gems than at Disney, but the final product still had to meet the criteria of the studio heads who wanted safe, familiar products. In 1942, Tashlin was replaced by veteran animation producer Dave Fleischer, who was much less open to experimentation, and preferred to run a more Disney-like operation.
From FMPU to UPA
The United States had entered World War II in December 1941. Soon Hubley took the opportunity to join the Army, specifically the newly formed Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), designed to create training films for the large number of recruits entering the Air Force. Hubley was assigned to the Animation Unit, working with veteran Disney animator, Frank Thomas. While the Air Force had strict guidelines about what they wanted to be taught, they were far more flexible than any commercial studio had been in terms of presentation. The animators at FMPU found creative freedom they had only dreamed about.
In 1944, Hubley was given his first chance to apply this freedom to something other than teaching someone how to fire a machine gun. The United Auto Workers (UAW) approached Hubley about making an animated cartoon to support Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1944 presidential election. The script had been written and Hubley worked with fellow animator Bill Hurtz to prepare the storyboards. (Storyboards are an early step in many films-animated, live-action, and advertising-where the script is first translated into a visual medium, like a large comic strip so that the filmmakers can get an idea how the progression of action and scenes will look before committing more time and money.) When a studio was needed to produce it, the task fell to newly formed Industrial Film, started by two former Disney employees and a former Screen Gems animator. Industrial Film had never made a film before as a company, but Hell-bent for Election was made, and an association between Industrial Film and Hubley was forged. When the UAW approached Industrial in 1945, with a script for an anti-racism film, Brotherhood of Man, Hubley was chosen to direct. He was still in the Army, though and could only work weekends and evenings, so the credit for directing went to another.
On December 31, 1945, Industrial Film was incorporated as United Productions of America, or as it came to be known, UPA. Hubley was now a regular employee. The studio survived on government and industrial films for awhile until a FBI report listed communist ties to numerous employees, including Hubley. This put an end to most government contracts. Fortunately, the fledgling studio had struck a deal with Columbia pictures-which was unhappy with the productions of its own Screen Gems Unit-for distribution.
Columbia wanted UPA to continue to use its established cartoon stars, the Fox and the Crow. The two cartoons Hubley directed featuring those characters are dull. Clearly he wanted to work on something new.
For his third Columbia release, Hubley created his most famous and long-lived character. After convincing the decision-makers at Columbia that UPA's strength lay in its human characters, not in anthropomorphous animals, Hubley made Ragtime Bear, and introduced Mr. Magoo as a supporting player. He was based on an uncle of Hubley's, who was bull-headed and obstinate. Magoo had the additional handicap of being incredibly nearsighted, which caused him to incorrectly perceive almost everything he saw. Magoo's long life must also be credited to the man who provided his voice, veteran broadcast and nightclub performer, Jim Backus. After the first recording session with Backus reading the script seemed to lack something, Hubley told Backus to keep to the main plot but to improvise the dialogue. Magoo had found his voice, and Hubley found another technique he would use throughout his career: spontaneous, and sometimes overheard, conversations in place of scripted dialogues.
Hubley did four Magoos before feeling restricted by the character and his actions. Magoo became the mainstay of UPA, lasting long into the 1960s and television specials, but Hubley was disappointed with where the character went. "They just took very limited aspects of his character," he told John D. Ford. "Mostly his nearsightedness-and hung onto it." UPA enjoyed its success, but found it had to make commercially appealing films to stay successful.
Although he became busy supervising the studio, Hubley was able to create a few more critical successes-still well regarded to this day-while at UPA. One was Rooty Toot Toot, a retelling of the Frankie and Johnny legend. Hubley also collaborated with Paul Julian on the main titles and linking segments for Stanley Kramer's live-action film, The Fourposter.
In the early fifties, Hubley fell victim to McCarthyism and the general wave of anti-Communist sentiment sweeping the United States. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) listed many in the entertainment industry as suspected Communists, with information obtained in often unconstitutional and unsubstantiated manners. Most found themselves out of work, as public groups, investors, and sponsors pressured studios and networks. Tired of where the studio was going, frustrated with doing too much on the business end of the studio and not enough creatively, and not caring to fight the charges, Hubley left UPA and formed his own studio, producing mainly commercials.
Soon afterward, in 1955, he married his second wife, Faith Elliott. The two had met years before when both were working on the Columbia lot. Elliott had worked in the live-action film industry in various capacities before marrying Hubley. Working together in his new studio, which they had relocated to New York City, they realized the difficulty of combining art and commerce. As part of their wedding vows, they promised to produce one independent film a year.
The first film they worked on together was Adventures of an * (asterisk), commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum. Hubley told interviewer John D. Ford that film came from a "need to break through and play around with more plasticity. We wanted to get a graphic look that had never been seen before. So we played with the wax-resist technique: drawing with wax and splashing it with watercolor to produce a resisted texture." The film had a large influence on European animators, Hubley added, "For a while that little * became a symbol in Europe of the breakthrough for animation." Not content to repeat themselves, the Hubleys let every subsequent film explore a different technique, both graphically and in terms of structure.
It was also the first of many films about human growth and development that the Hubleys would create. The theme was returned to again in notable films like Moonbird (1959), Cockaboody (1974), and the epic Everybody Rides the Carousel (1975) about the stages of life. Moonbird used a soundtrack of the Hubley's children at play. The Hubleys used improvised or found soundtracks in many of their films, along with jazz musical accompaniment from many leading musicians, like Shelly Manne and Quincy Jones. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie even improvised dialogue with Dudley Moore for 1964's The Hat.
Moonbird was Hubley's first film nominated for an Academy Award, winning the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) in 1959. This was the first of three Oscars that he would garner, sharing the award with Faith in the same category in 1962 for The Hole, a film about the imagination and the horrors of nuclear war. In 1966, the couple won once again for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature, animation keyed to two of the popular band's songs. The Hubleys received four more nominations, over the next eleven years, including one in 1977 for A Doonesbury Special.
Bringing Garry Trudeau's comic strip characters to life for a half-hour television special was the last project Hubley worked on. Trudeau was a student of Hubley's in 1973, when he suggested that even though the strip was static (Trudeau had often been criticized for the copier-like uniformity of his drawing) the characters were strong enough to translate into motion. As Trudeau wrote in his introduction to the book based on the show, "He believed strongly that any aspect of the process of human growth could be symbolized and that no idea was too weighty to be dramatized visually."
Trudeau and the Hubleys began working on the project in November of 1976, but John Hubley became ill soon after. He died of cancer in New Haven, Connecticut on February 21, 1977. Faith Hubley and Trudeau completed A Doonesbury Special as a tribute to John Hubley.
John Hubley's influence is still around. Faith Hubley is still keeping her vow and creating at least one independent film a year, collaborating with their daughter, Emily, also a filmmaker. The influence he had in Europe is still felt, as the international organization for animation education and preservation that he helped to found in 1960, ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation), is still going strong, with chapters around the world.
And there is the intangible. Bill Scott, one of the creative minds behind-and the voice of-1960s cartoon icon Bullwinkle, worked for Hubley at FMPU during World War II and collaborated with him at UPA. He provides this coda to the Hubley's life, as quoted by Keith Scott: "I loved 'Hub' as a leader. He was the guy way out on the end of the string, pulling animation as a medium after him, as far as its expanse and what it could do. He was one of the first to bring both social and moral passion into animation, and to expand the frontiers beyond what it had been: moving versions of old German fairy-tale illustrations. Anything you could visualize could be animated. That was the genius of Hubley, and it was very exciting to be hooked up to somebody like that."
The American Animated Cartoon, edited by Danny Peary and Gerald Peary, Dutton, 1980.
Barrier, Michael, Hollywood Cartoons, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Maltin, Leonard, Of Mice and Magic, New American Library, 1980.
Scott, Keith, The Moose That Roared, St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Stephenson, Ralph, The Animated Film, Tantivy Press, 1973.
Trudeau, Garry, A Doonesbury Special, Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977.
"Faith Hubley," Onion AV Club, http://www.theavclub.com/avclub3610/ (January 1, 2001).