I remember first stumbling upon one of John Hubley's animated films when his Oscar-winning 1959 short "Moonbird" screened here last year. It returns this weekend in a retrospective featuring seven other Hubley shorts at the Siskel Film Center, which is celebrating the animator's centennial.
Let's talk about "Moonbird" for a moment. The charms of this 10-minute film (also available on YouTube) are substantial, featuring audio of Hubley's two young sons recorded surreptitiously as the pair lay in bed and drifted off to sleep, entertaining one another with the adventures of a bird on the loose.
I love this story — of an animator amusing himself by placing a tape recorder somewhere hidden in a room shared by his little boys, Mark (6) and Ray (3), and later using that audio for inspiration. Except none of it is true.
Those delectable bedtime ramblings? They were — well, I guess you would say they were staged, for lack of a better word. "My mother and father would bring us into a recording studio," explained Ray when I rang him up this week, "ply us with milkshakes and tell us, 'Let's pretend.'"
So none of that audio was the spontaneous chatter of sleepy boys. (Damn you, Wikipedia and your untrue-but-enchanting falsehood!) I doubt this was a deliberate obfuscation on Hubley's part. Rather, I suspect that no one ever bothered to ask about the film's genesis.
Wisconsin-born and Michigan-raised, Hubley got his start at Disney painting backgrounds and doing layouts on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" before rising to art director on films such as "Bambi" and "Pinocchio."
Hubley may not be a household name, but his work is incredibly distinctive and full of wit. He died at 62 in 1977, leaving behind a fascinating career that weathered the Hollywood blacklist.
"He was always very interested in art and drawing," said Ray, who lives in New York and works as a film editor. (He also has a daughter at Northwestern University.) "My dad finished high school and wanted to get away from his mother — he didn't have any siblings — so he went to Los Angeles and lived with an uncle and went to art school. And while he was in art school he got recruited to work at Disney."
These were the pre-war boom years at Disney, "and there was a real sense of excitement. They had art classes, they had outings to museums, they brought in live models for them to paint. It was like an institution for learning at that time."
And then: "Things got sort of hot because of this labor strike by the animators." That was in 1941. "He wasn't an organizer of it, but he was very much involved in it — maybe he was sort of an organizer, I don't know — but at the end of the strike he was part of a group that came back, and they were very unhappy." Many, including Hubley, left to form a new company called United Productions of America, or UPA.
It was at UPA that Hubley created Mr. Magoo. One of animation's most enduring characters, as it happens, was based on that uncle who put Hubley up when he first moved to LA. "He's the perfect character for the '50s," said Ray. "You're kind of blind, you don't know what's going on, you're kind of afraid of everything."
UPA was remarkably successful, but Hubley eventually left in the mid-'50s when his name appeared on a list of suspected communists. "There's a general theory in the animation world that certain people who had been involved in organizing the Disney strike were the ones blacklisted." Hubley could have stayed and worked anonymously. "But he was political about the idea of: I'm an artist, I'm not just a cartoonist. Disney told me I'm an artist, I think of myself as an artist and screw you, basically, I'm not going to do work and not put my name on it."
I asked Ray if his father ever talked about these things at home. If there was loud opining. "In our house," he said, "it was Hitler, McCarthy and Disney, and not necessarily in that order."
Hubley and his wife, Faith, (his collaborator who later developed a reputation as an animator in her own right) eventually moved to New York and opened a company that made animated commercials, including the hugely popular "I want my Maypo!" spot that was voiced by Hubley's son Mark.
You can find the Maypo stuff easily online, but not much else of Hubley's work is around, which makes the program at the Siskel such a delight. "At lot of times you hear it dismissed as 'limited animation,' which is an insult," said Brandon Doherty, who is the Siskel's technical manager. He also teaches animation courses at Columbia College Chicago.
"When you look at Disney and especially Pixar now, which is the cream of the crop, it's this hyper-realism 2.0 that you see," Doherty said. "Everything is in the Golden Hour, everything has this lush texture to it.
"But when you look at what Hubley is doing, he's not trying to be realistic. He's trying to deal with a lot of neuroses of modern life. Look at the looseness of the animation. You see this wonderful almost watercolor aspect of his work and the simple, monochromatic things going on there."
Hubley and his UPA cohorts brought elements of modern art into animation. The work is resolutely hand-drawn, a little raw and scratchier than what we've become accustomed to seeing in today's animation.
Sometimes the backgrounds look like Mark Rothko paintings. They're gorgeous and dark and full of abstract texture. And his work could be so funny.
I'm especially taken with a short from 1970 called "Eggs," starring Mother Nature and the Grim Reaper as an odd couple cruising around in a convertible. He's in the driver's seat, cigar in hand: "I just ran over a snake! I never seen so many animals..."