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Director: Lew Keller
Release Date: January 16, 1959
Stars: Ham and Hattie
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Picnics are Fun and Dino's Serenade © UPA

‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ is the last of only four Ham and Hattie cartoons, and one of UPA’s last theatrical cartoons, overall (it was followed by only four Mr. Magoo cartoons).

‘Picnics are Fun’ is a particular highlight within the series. In this charming children’s song Mel Leven, with his ukelele, sings about the delight of picnicking. His song clearly is about picnic in the countryside, and features a pool, a waterfall, and wild flowers. But Lew Keller places Hattie on the roof top of a tall building, juxtaposing the song’s rural lyrics with surprisingly urban images. Especially when Leven sings about “the clean country air” the brown images become poignant indeed. At the same time this little film is an ode to children’s fantasy, which can change a roof top into a forest worth picnicking in.

‘Dino’s Serenade’ is less successful. The song is sung by Hal Peary, who had used mock-Japanese in ‘Saganaki’ and who uses mock-Italian in this song. ‘Dino’s Serenade’ is a song about love, and Lew Keller’s images are most original, as Dino provides the complete setting for the song himself: not only his violin, but also the Italian restaurant, and the girl, who long looks like a lifeless doll. Unfortunately, a rival uses Dino’s serenade to woo the girl, leaving Dino empty-handed, yet the song ends on an upbeat note: “It’s a good day to make love”.

Like all ‘Ham and Hattie’ cartoon, ‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ is a delight to watch: the designs are beautiful, and the characters are appealing, even in their extremely limited animation. It’s a pity no more were made.

Watch ‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ is available on the DVD box set ‘UPA – The Jolly Frolics Collection’

Director: Lew Keller
Release Date: October, 1958
Stars: Ham and Hattie
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Spring and Saganaki © UPA

‘Spring and Saganaki’ is the third cartoon within the short ‘Ham and Hattie’ series.

‘Spring’ is another gentle children’s song by Mel Leven, sung by him accompanied by his ukelele. This part is notable for its very beautiful background art. For the second song Ham changes into Japanese farmer Saganaki, who wants to join an army of Samurai. This part is in fact a story told in rhyme. Unfortunately, the episode is hampered by singer Hal Peary’s mock-Japanese and the more trite song by Mel Leven and Jim Murakami, which is reminiscent of similar pseudo-ethnic swing songs from the 1930s. The result is the weakest of the four Ham and Hattie cartoons. Yet, as the designs are still top notch, ‘Spring and Nagasaki’ remains a delight to watch, if not to listen to.

Watch ‘Spring and Saganaki’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Spring and Saganaki’ is available on the DVD box set ‘UPA – The Jolly Frolics Collection’

Director: Lew Keller
Release Date: February 27, 1958
Stars: Ham and Hattie
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Sailing and Village Band © UPA‘Sailing and Village Band’ is the second of four ‘Ham and Hattie’ cartoons, virtual video clips to two songs each.

‘Sailing’ is a very nice children’s song by Mel Leven on his ukelele. In this song he sing about sailing, and his lyrics are accompanied by images of little girl Hattie with a toy sail boat in a fountain in a park. This song is more narrative than ‘Trees’ was, and when Mel Leven sing about a sea monster, Hattie’s toy boat encounters a frog in the pool.

For the second song, ‘Village Band’ Ham changes himself into blue dog Roscoe, a tuba player in a very undignified village band in small, but very dignified village. Unlike any other Ham and Hattie episode this is actually a story, using a narrator. This is a typical UPA story of misfits and outcasts getting respect from their environment. Nevertheless, there’s an unwelcome sense of conformism present, for the beatnik-like band gets ‘dignified’ by wearing official costumes, emblem of their incorporation into the system…

Watch ‘Sailing and Village Band’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sailing and Village Band’ is available on the DVD box set ‘UPA – The Jolly Frolics Collection’

Director: Lew Keller
Release Date: January 30, 1958
Stars: Ham and Hattie
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Trees and Jamaican Daddy © UPA

UPA’s last theatrical cartoon series consisted of four films only, but these four are beautiful and delightful shorts well worth watching.

The four shorts are all double-bills showcasing two songs each: the first is a children’s song by Mel Leven (who would become famous for his songs for ‘101 Dalmatians’), who sings and plays the ukulele. This first song stars the little girl Hattie, who herself remains a silent character. After Hattie’s song comes a more general song, starring the mustached wizard Ham. Ham was actually a non-character, as for each song he changes himself into someone else.

All four Ham and Hattie films boast beautiful designs, superb cartoon modern background art, but extremely limited animation, with little to no movement and practically no inbetweening. The first song of ‘Trees and Jamaican Daddy’ is a gentle children’s song about er… trees. The images feature Hattie and her toy bird playing in a forest. The second song, ‘Jamaican Daddy’, stars Ham as a Jamaican maracas player and is arguably the best song in the series. This catchy Calypso song tells how one should maintain the family tree by getting as many babies as possible. The song is accompanied by sunny and tongue-in-cheek images of Latinos with very large families.

Watch ‘Trees and Jamaican Daddy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Trees and Jamaican Daddy’ is available on the DVD box set ‘UPA – The Jolly Frolics Collection’

Director: John Hubley
Release Date: March 27, 1952
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Rooty Toot Toot © UPAIn a time when most Hollywood animation studios produced chase cartoons featuring anthropomorphized animals, UPA and director John Hubley come with a court drama about a murder…

That we have something different in our hands is underlined when during the opening titles we watch a choreographer being billed. Indeed, ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is something different, and widely praized as one of the most beautiful cartoons ever produced.

Based on the traditional murder ballad ‘Frankie and Johnny’, it’s set in a court room. We come to know how the jealous girl Frankie shot her lover Johnny down, when she caught him with singer Nellie Bly. Then Frankie’s lawyer, Honest John, comes in with a rather different story…

‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is not a flawless cartoon. Phil Moore’s music is a rather unsuccessful marriage between musical and jump blues, lacking strong melodies. His score even threatens to wear the action down. One can only guess what the cartoon would have sound like in the hands of a more capable composer.

Moreover, Honest John’s account of the murder is a missed opportunity. It’s too silly and too cartoonish (the following bullets come right out of the chase cartoon) to be believed. Indeed, the lawyer himself declares it to be fiction, making all claims of ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ being a sort of cartoon ‘Rashomon’ out of place and unfounded. In substance ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is much more akin to that other great musical court cartoon, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?‘ from 1935, which is also based on a traditional text.

No, the real attraction of ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ lies in it looks: practically every frame is a beautiful illustration in itself. The colors and designs, by Paul Julian, are elegant and stylish; simple, yet sophisticated. There’s a perfect harmony between characters and backgrounds, and the stark colors enhance both character and mood.

The animation, too, is superb. John Hubley didn’t think much of his colleague’s Bobe Cannon’s ideal of “drawings that moved”. Instead we watch moving characters, and it’s clear where the choreography comes in, for many characters move with a ballet-like elegance, especially Frankie and Honest John. The movement of the characters is often unreal (as in Nellie’s curling arms), but always delicate. It’s no surprise that the animation was done by the able hands of veteran animators like Art Babbitt and Grim Natwick. When the Jury declares Frankie not guilty, the cartoon bursts in a frenzy of bold design that has to be seen to be believed.

Even if ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is not perfect, it’s a masterpiece nonetheless, and one of the best cartoons UPA ever produced.

Watch ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

Director: Bobe Cannon
Release Date: January 24, 1952
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Oompahs © UPAIn ‘The Oompahs’ a voice over tells a story about a family of musical instruments.

‘The Oompahs’ is one of UPA’s most avantgardistic cartoons. Its story and designs are by caricaturist T. Hee, who went for the extremes. The instruments are very basic paper cut outs, with very little animation on them. Mostly they just move across the screen. It’s almost unbelievable that such a modern cartoon could come from a Hollywood studio, at all.

The cartoon is the prime example of director Bobe Cannon’s wish to let the audience watch “drawings that moved”. Even if the founding idea of humanized musical instruments is the same as in Disney’s ‘Music Land‘ (1936), ‘The Oompahs’ is aesthetically miles away from the earlier cartoon.

Like some other UPA cartoons ‘The Oompahs’ tells about a young character with a free spirit. Young Orville, a trumpet, wants to play and improvize freely with his friends (some other instruments), in a game that is depicted by a baseball match, and which sounds like a dixieland band. But Oompah Pa doesn’t approve and makes young Orville practice boring tunes. Then young Orville loses all spirit, gets sick, and only his friends can revive him.

This message of letting creative energy run free must have appealed a lot to its makers, for creative freedom was the raison d’être of the whole studio.

Watch ‘The Oompahs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bobe Cannon
Release Date: November 29, 1951
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Wonder Gloves © UPA‘The Wonder Gloves’ is one of the more extreme films by the UPA studio: the characters have an extraordinarily thick outline, and Paul Julian’s backgrounds are minimal and very graphic, indeed, using photographic material to indicate textures.

Moreover, the animation is limited, sometimes no more than several poses without movement inbetween. Lou Maury’s music, too, is strikingly modern, more reminiscent of contemporary French music than of classic cartoon music.

In the cartoon Uncle George tells his nephew how he found yellow wonder boxing gloves with which he became a star boxer. The framing story uses dialogue, but Uncle George’s story is told in pantomime.

Unfortunately, the story is less interesting than the designs of the cartoon. At points the limited animation hampers a fluent telling instead of enhancing it.

Watch ‘The Wonder Gloves’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bobe Cannon
Release Date: September 27, 1951
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Georgie and the Dragon © UPA‘Georgie and the Dragon’ is one of those UPA shorts about young people trying to break free, a topic the studio favored (see also ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’ from 1951) and ‘The Oompahs‘ from 1952).

‘Georgie and the Dragon’ is set in Scotland, and tells about the lonesome boy Georgie. His father forbids him to bring pets in the house, but little Georgie befriends a little dragon. When he takes it home it grows larger every minute. Nevertheless Georgie manages to hide the dragon from his parents, even if the dragon’s fire repeatedly damages his father and his surroundings.

‘Georgie and the Dragon’ is a gentle story, but the film is hampered by the tiresome Scottish dialogue and all too present angular backgrounds by Bill Hurtz, against which the fluently animated characters don’t read well.

Watch ‘Georgie and the Dragon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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