“John was a great lover of cinema, of the idea that film, in all its evolving forms, should be seen and valued as it is here at the Film Forum,” Ray Hubley said last night, at the downtown Manhattan movie mecca’s centennial celebration of his father, animator John Hubley.
“Tonight’s films” he continued, before an audience that included siblings Mark, Emily, and Georgia, “convey his lifelong reach for a freer, more personal, more improvisatory, more humanistic art form.”
For more than four decades, John Hubley’s art form was filmed animation. From his early work for Walt Disney Productions on now-iconic classics like SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) and FANTASIA (1940) to the freeform shorts he co-created with his wife Faith – often featuring the voices of their kids – Hubley continually “battled against the limits of the marketplace,” his son said. Those battles were complicated by his participation in a famously acrimonious strike of Disney animators during production on DUMBO in 1941, and his career-altering refusal to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952.
When the latter relegated him to the Hollywood Blacklist, John and Faith Hubley moved to New York City and started their own independent production house: Storyboard Studios. Keeping the lights on with animated TV commercials for products like Maypo Oatmeal (featuring the voice of son Mark as “Marky Maypo”), the Hubleys went on to score seven Academy Award nominations and three wins for their collaborative short films: MOONBIRD (1959), featuring the voices of both Ray and Mark; THE HOLE (1962); and HERB ALPERT & THE TIJUANA BRASS DOUBLE FEATURE (1966).
THE HOLE was the last of the eight shorts Film Forum screened, and, if you’re unfamiliar with Hubley’s work outside of Mr. Magoo (a character he co-created in 1949 at the legendary United Productions of America) it’s an excellent place to begin. For fifteen unforgettable minutes, two New York City construction workers shoot the breeze, order coffee, and debate the likelihood of nuclear annihilation. Featuring the voices of jazzman Dizzy Gillespie and character actor George Matthews (Harvey the boxer from “The Honeymooners”), THE HOLE is simultaneously funny and frightening, with an improvisational realism that is oddly heightened by the non-realistic art. It’s about as un-Disney as you can get (and I mean that completely as a compliment).
Other highlights of the Film Forum program included the sharply satirical ZUCKERKANDL! (1968), which I’m tempted to call Python-esque, except for the fact that it pre-dates Terry Gilliam’s TV animations by a year, and COCKABOODY (1973), wherein a delightfully nonsensical conversation between daughters Emily and Georgia (later a founder of Yo La Tengo) is illustrated by their father, with an animated cameo by mom. And the more traditional FUDDY DUDDY BUDDY (1951) with Mr. Magoo is a reminder of how much the character is based on W.C. Fields, a man Ray Hubley cited as an influence on his father, along with Luis Bunuel. (And what a buddy picture that would have made.)
And here’s the best news of all: If you missed the first program, Film Forum “does it again” with Mr. Magoo and Friends, a collection of 12 restored cartoons featuring the bespectacled hero (and others), most directed by Hubley, playing this Sunday, May 25 at 11 a.m. as part of the Film Forum Junior series (expect a sell-out crowd with lots of rambunctious kids, which shouldn’t surprise you when something has “Junior” in the name). That screening will include Magoo’s debut in RAGTIME BEAR (1949), plus ROBIN HOODLUM (1948) and THE MAGIC FLUKE (1949) starring Fox and Crow, Oscar winners MOONBIRD and HERB ALPERT & THE TIJUANA BRASS DOUBLE FEATURE, ROOTY TOOT TOOT (1951), OF MEN AND DEMONS (1969), and Robert Cannon’s GERALD McBOING-BOING (1950).
And Part 2 of the Hubley Centennial Tribute takes place on Tuesday, May 27 at 6:30 p.m., featuring another ninety minutes of rarely screened shorts, many, like the first, in newly struck 35mm prints. Both events are recommended, as is seeking out everything the Hubleys ever did (which I plan to do as soon as I hit “publish”).
It is, as his son Ray said, “a jazzy 100th birthday” celebration for John Hubley, thanks to repertory programer Bruce Goldstein and Film Forum.