The Red Scare Killed an Animator's Career, So He Took Over TV

Plus: global animation news and two anime classics streaming now.

Welcome back to the Animation Obsessive newsletter! Thanks for tuning in.

This week, our main feature is a dive into the fall and rise of John Hubley, a brilliant director persecuted during the Red Scare of the 1950s. His career was ruined — until he fought his way back to success on television.

After that, stick around for animation news from around the world — and two anime films streaming right now. There’ll be plenty more next week, so don’t hesitate to sign up if you haven’t already. It’s free, and you’ll never miss an issue:

Now, here we go!

John Hubley, master of the animated ad

We see the TV commercial as the face of big business. And yet, as ironic as it might sound, the medium was forged in part by labor-left figures and even communists — at least in its animated form.

A peek at how that happened comes from the career of John Hubley, the signature voice of mid-century cartoons.

In the 1940s, Hubley was a member of both the animation industry and the Communist Party. He took part in labor activism, including the Disney strike of 1941. And he joined with other “thinly disguised Reds,” as director Bill Hurtz once called them, to form UPA. (In some cases, the connection was real — co-founders David Hilberman and Zack Schwartz tried to emigrate to the USSR.)

UPA’s early work had a progressive bent. See the piece The Brotherhood of Man, made for a union in 1945. It adapts an anti-racist pamphlet called The Races of Mankind and features contributions from Hubley. The film proved to be popular.

Yet the political climate was shifting under UPA’s feet, according to Adam Abraham’s When Magoo Flew and Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons. The Red Scare was picking up speed — and UPA was full of leftists. The Races of Mankind pamphlet was declared “communist propaganda” and banned in the Army and the USO. UPA’s ties to the labor movement became a liability.

In 1947, the FBI visited UPA and interviewed Hubley. Soon, the studio’s government contracts dried up. When Walt Disney named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he accused Hilberman. (No stranger to jumping at red shadows, Disney also named the League of Women Voters.) And the California State Senate singled out The Brotherhood of Man in a report on “un-American activities” in 1948.

The situation worsened in the early 1950s. Red-baiters hounded UPA. Former staffers turned witness before the Un-American Activities Committee. Alumni like Phil Eastman and Bill Scott lost their jobs. In 1952, UPA’s distributor Columbia Pictures handed down a list of eight more members believed to have communist ties. Among them were Hurtz, Bill Melendez (A Charlie Brown Christmas) and John Hubley.

Hubley refused to cooperate with the HUAC. “I would be in the position of literally crawling and lying were I to concede,” Abraham quotes him as saying. In playing along, Hubley remarked, “I would destroy myself.” And so he was blacklisted from Hollywood. He lost his job at UPA in May 1952.

From the ashes

Hubley was a multi-time Oscar nominee, but his career was suddenly over. He was adrift. Barrier quotes the business owner Les Novros: “I saw him wandering outside my studio one day and called him in; he was woebegone. I said, ‘You want to work?’ Nobody would hire him. I gave him a little job to do; a man’s got to work.”

But Hubley’s predicament had a solution. Television was booming — and television commercials lacked credits. A number of accused communists, including Hilberman and Schwartz, were finding big success in animated TV spots. In 1954, Hubley formed the studio Storyboard Inc. to do cartoon advertising.

A front man named Earl Klein handled meetings and contracts, but it was an open secret who ran Storyboard. Hubley’s later wife Faith Elliott recalled that “everybody in town knew.” Still, the company grew fast and quite a few UPA staffers joined him.

Throughout 1954, Storyboard dropped a string of fun, fascinating and highly successful ads like Hey, Mabel! and Dry Bones. An early spot for Muntz TV, animated by Melendez, was highlighted that June by the Art Directors Club of New York. And Hubley hit the jackpot in November with the Heinz ad Fluff, also known as #$%&()*.

Animated by Art Babbitt, Fluff is a TV ad that parodies TV ads — one of the very first to do so. A bumbling spokesman tries and fails to sell Worcestershire sauce to the viewer. The spot nabbed a major prize from the Art Directors Club and was wildly popular. In Television’s Classic Commercials, historian Lincoln Diamant writes that Fluff “played throughout the late ‘50s and never wore out its welcome.”

TV advertising was a young medium. Hubley had quite a bit of say in its trajectory. “In the era before the ‘creative types’ in advertising agencies had learned enough to start telling their suppliers how to do it all,” Diamant writes, “Storyboard Productions, always innovative with animation, was powerfully innovative with content.”

As Storyboard’s style came into view, it was widely copied. The formula was simple. “Make the human elements your central theme and build around them,” Hubley told Sponsor Magazine. “It’s these elements that draw people to watch TV shows in the first place — your commercial should capitalize on this fact.” Also, one selling point was better than two. Three was too many.

To this outline, Hubley added clean and artful modernist design, slick animation and social satire. And jazz. All of this appears in Bop Corn (1955), which Diamant calls “a prime example of successful TV marketing” — with animation “light years beyond anything else being done on television at that time.” Its use of jazz, slang and abstract animation proved influential, and the ad moved product.

Hubley rounded out 1955 with major campaigns for Bank of America, Ford (begun in late ‘54) and more. Ford “Bird” was reportedly his biggest hit to date. Storyboard soon commanded the highest fees in animated TV advertising. In Billboard’s trade survey for the ads of ‘55, animated spots dominated every category. And Hubley dominated animation:

Five of the 10 most imaginative commercials are Storyboard productions. Four of the 10 most effective commercials are Storyboard jobs. Of the total 13 commercials in the winners' list, six are out of Storyboard.

Hubley was the king of TV animation, and it overwhelmed him. “He was buying expensive clothes and he looked like hell,” Faith Elliott said. Storyboard grew unwieldy — “before I really noticed I had a huge staff and offices on the East and West coasts,” Hubley later remarked. Now married to Faith and working beside her, Hubley downsized in 1956, closing his Hollywood office and keeping Storyboard to New York.

Even with the effort to shrink, Hubley was about to have the biggest success of his career. It was a TV spot, bankrolled by Heublein Inc. and first aired in September 1956, called I Want My Maypo.

According to Faith, the Maypo contract was meant to be a costly failure — a tax write-off for Heublein. “They didn't want the cereal company to make a profit so they gave us total creative freedom,” she said. Heublein poured money into Storyboard and offered John and Faith a vague directive: “Make a commercial that’s not a commercial, just do a slice of life, a dramatic piece.”

With Emery Hawkins on animation, the Hubleys crafted a documentary-style spot starring their son Mark. And yet I Want My Maypo went colossal, striking a chord with viewers young and old. According to Sponsor, the ad “boosted sales an average of 78% (it was as high as 186% in some markets).” A long series of Maypo spots followed.

Still, the Hubleys were de-emphasizing commercial work in 1956. “We made a decision that we would just do the kind of films that we wanted to make,” John said. The same month that Storyboard closed its Hollywood office, he finally confronted the Un-American Activities Committee. It had been trying to reach him for years.

“Hubley wielded the First and Fifth Amendments and parried the Committee with intelligence and rigor,” Abraham writes. The HUAC’s power had already waned since its peak, and Hubley was able to clear his name without admitting to much of anything — including whether he’d ever been a communist. He was free to make movies again.

The Hubleys released their first short film, The Adventures of *, in 1957. Buoyed by the Maypo campaign, they funded Moonbird (1959) and won the first Oscar ever given to an independent cartoon. Many more films, and two more Oscar wins, followed in the years to come. They did commercials on the side, but the Hubleys were artists first.

John Hubley stayed a political firebrand for the rest of his life, though. His daughter Emily remembered that she hadn’t “ever seen him so happy” as he was while watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. “In our house,” his son Ray told the Chicago Tribune, “it was Hitler, McCarthy and Disney, and not necessarily in that order.”

Headlines around the world

Netflix developing Ultraman movie

On Thursday, Netflix revealed a new animated feature based on Japan’s long-running Ultraman franchise. Done in CG, the film is animated by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and helmed by Shannon Tindle — the uncredited director of Kubo and the Two Strings. John Aoshima co-directs. Variety reports that Ultraman “will be stylized but not strictly anime.”

Tindle began the film as an Ultraman-inspired project before the license was attached. A baseball player named Ken Sato is set to become Ultraman, but he somehow takes in “a newborn kaiju monster — the offspring of his greatest enemy — as his own child,” according to Variety. It sounds like an unexpected twist on the Ultraman formula. We’ll be watching for more.

Mugen Train crowned highest-earning film of 2020

The record-smashing hit Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train continues to roll. Thanks to its global earnings this year, it’s become the top-grossing film released in 2020 — edging out the live-action Chinese blockbuster The Eight Hundred.

Mugen Train is reportedly the first “non-Hollywood, non-U.S. film” ever to top the global year-end chart. It remains the biggest film in Japan’s history, with revenues above $474 million worldwide as of this week. Even American audiences love Mugen Train, which boasts the country’s best opening for an anime film since the ‘90s.

Soyuzmultfilm acquires popular children’s TV channel

We reported back in March that Soyuzmultfilm, the signature Russian animation studio, was making moves to start its own cable channel. Those moves have now come to fruition.

On Thursday, Soyuzmultfilm announced that it would purchase Multilandia, a major children’s TV channel in Russia. Cartoons by Soyuzmultfilm already make up around 25% of Multilandia’s programming. Among them is the recent premiere Meow Magic (Chuch-Myauch), based on the Soviet classic Chuchelo-Myauchelo. There are reportedly no plans to rename the channel.

Soyuzmultfilm head Yuliana Slashcheva called the purchase a necessary step in the studio’s growth strategy. It hopes to stake out a position in both production and distribution. Unspecified companies of a similar scope abroad, she said, possess “a whole pool of channels, segmented by audience, for distributing their content.”

What’s streaming

Earlier this week, the free service RetroCrush began streaming two anime classics — Barefoot Gen (1983) and Barefoot Gen 2 (1986). Both are beautifully restored, but make no mistake: these are tough films.

The original Barefoot Gen adapts a manga series about the bombing of Hiroshima, written by a survivor. That series is largely autobiographical — and it’s nightmarish in its detail. The film is no different. Barefoot Gen is by no means for everyone, or even for those who can get through Grave of the Fireflies. Still, it holds an important spot in animation history. Find it here.

Barefoot Gen 2 is also difficult, but isn’t the same hell as its predecessor. It takes place in the years after the nuclear attack, as survivors begin to pick up the pieces. The production values are stellar. This one is directed by the always-interesting Toshio Hirata, known for films like The Golden Bird and The Fantastic Adventures of Unico. It’s easily one of his darker films, but it’s still critical viewing for fans. Watch it here.

Last word

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve enjoyed.

If you missed last week’s newsletter, we rounded up the films of Yuri Norstein, arguably the most respected living animator from Russia. Don’t hesitate to check our archives if you’re looking for more — we started on Substack back in February and we haven’t skipped a week yet.

Finally, we’re always on the hunt for new global animation to cover. If you think there’s something we should see, please let us know:

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Until next week!