For a man who survived the blacklist, John Hubley’s personal animations aren’t very interested in exclusion. Outside of his short Flatland, produced ten years after the blacklist, we’d find no mention of exile or hardship at the hands of a larger system. Hubley’s films explored creation and laughed at opposition, carving its audience tiny paths toward new ways of thinking.
About a square who dreams of cubes, Flatland is narrated by Dudley Moore, a comedian whose chuckle conveyed alarm, impotence and absurdity at once. Between Moore’s flat dreams and layered narration, Flatlands peeks into the pre-hippy urgency for unchecked self-exploration. How validating it must be when the world suppresses your search for enlightenment—what you’re looking for must be really (self-)important. Everything here encourages your questions in the same breath it asks its own. This, I think, is why Hubley’s Flatland giggles to itself, but it isn’t why his world of flat and faceless shapes evokes such pathos. Those shapes make us feel by way of something less intellectual: they embody a kind of enchantment.
Hubley’s career started at Walt Disney Studios, where he contributed to Snow White, Dumbo and Fantasia; he left during the 1941 animator’s strike. After a stint animating for the Air Force, Hubley helped found United Productions of America (UPA) where Gerald McBoing Boing rolled out a red carpet to his future. That Oscar winner, produced as a Jolly Frolick for Columbia Pictures (their answer to Looney Tunes), wasn’t precisely Hubley’s brainchild but is of a piece with his other playfully self-aware, kid-centric works. He’d invent plenty of characters (most famously Mr. Magoo) before not naming names, teaching at Harvard and spending the later part of his career on independently funded animations for high pedigree financiers. He reached his biggest audiences as the head animator for PBS’ The Electric Company.
Hubley’s work embraces possibility through imagination, improvisation and childlike play. His Oscar-winning short Moonbird is a black page/white crayon filled adventure based on a late night snipe hunt held by his two sons. The looseness of the boys’ exchanges gives you space to intuit the magic in their machinations. Indeed, the moments that aren’t so loose—as when the younger admits hunger and the elder gives him hard candy—feel closed and basic by comparison; the stillness is silly and stuck and gives you a lot to laugh at. Kids eat…giving parents a minute to breathe…then they play some more because it’s their nature and the further we are from our nature the faster we forget it.
Mr. Magoo, the famously farsighted (or nearsighted?) fifties cartoon character, gave Hubley a regular opportunity to noodle with formalism. Magoo would squint, and a stylistically shaped bear would become a banjo-playing nephew (see short Ragtime Bear). He’d do this again but to more impressionistic ends.
In 1967, a decade after Moonbird, Hubley directed Windy Day around his daughters at play. As the girls negotiate who gets to be Princess Polly and who’s Prince Joel, they morph from line drawings into characters of various media—they do this at the speed of imagination. Sometimes they’re made of crayon, other times watercolor, but the sense of possibility and openness that comes from the sound of children playing finds a comprehensive voice through the imagery. Perhaps it’s a translation of the language of childhood into something more tangible, functional or adult, but if it’s a translation, the translator was most committed to conveying the idea’s energy.
Paternity is prominent for Hubley, even when he pulls the lens really far out to see the beginnings of civilizations, as in Of Man and Stars (1964) or Of Men and Demons (1969)—both parables about the laughable hubris of human supremacy over the natural world. In Man and Stars a lion, the king of the jungle, hands his crown to a farmer as reward for his cultivation skills. Thereafter, the “king” broods like Hamlet, uncertain how to manage the unbearable weight of “his place in the universe.” In Men and Demons pre-industrial fisherman, set to the music of Quincy Jones, find themselves plagued by Demons. Each time the Demons destroy their home, the fishermen invent another way, and then a newer way, and then a new new way—finally constructing pathways built of zeroes and ones (binary code) to shuttle resources around the world, improving life on earth. Against the backdrop of persistent ingenuity, these Demons recur to thwart achievement. Our only hope lies in the evidence creation will always outsmart destruction. (Such is also proven in 1970’s Eggs, in which Mother Nature and Death negotiate population until their boss transfers them elsewhere.) Separated by five years and a gulf of perspective, Hubley’s Man films see a conclusion with his comedy of urban development Urbanissimo.
The expressions of Hubley’s characters reveal depths of motivation. When Urbanisimo (1967), a building with a thousand feet, steals a plum from a farmer, “he” returns it in a can. Then, when the building’s herd of babies cry and throw down their empty bottles, the farmer anxiously responds with his cow in tow. An uncomfortable alliance arises from these unspoken pressures and when the building starts to shake, the farmer looks to have a new job. Sure, the subject is industrial, but just look at the necessity in that tacit agreement.
Hubley made a lot of films about science (the primary subject in 1972 Dig and Of Men and Stars) but his relationship stories seem the most truthy and vulnerable, and for this we can credit his marriage. In 1955, the blacklist forced John and his part of UPA to move to New York. He then met and married Faith Chestman, and for all films made from 1956 on, “Hubley” stood for not one person but two. Their first collaboration is the stunningly inventive Adventures of an * in which a tiny grammatical convention morphs into a child, a young man and then a father, trapped by a workforce that threatens to squelch his exuberance. It’s an existential crisis both lobbed and resolved via typography, with retro-hot vibraphone by Lionel Hampton. Jazz and improvised dialogue would guide the Hubley’s output through the fifties and sixties, but an emphasis on formalism and a quality of abstract expressionism distinguish their more emotional revelations.
Ella Fitzgerald’s voice sways like the breathing trees in 1958’s The Tender Game. In a world of brushstrokes and color blocks, one lonesome line-drawn florist finds a match in the park’s groundskeeper and their titular game moves like the jazz in the park. They bend and morph, exchange embarrassment and thrall; it’s so unique we almost shouldn’t understand it, but the feelings are as mixy and confusing as the ones you remember from the best first kisses—clarity was never the virtue of infatuation. Like romance, Tender Game makes you feel ways you couldn’t grant it permission for.
Made much later, the Hubley’s Everybody Rides the Carousel features a similarly profound chapter on romance. Young adulthood, it says, is our time ‘to share the self,’ even if we’re not fully aware of the danger of that proposition. Meryl Streep’s voice is put to great use as half of a fledgling romance. She gets a haircut. He doesn’t like it. She says it’ll grow back. “How Long?” he asks. “Two years…” “Can you stick around that long?” she jokes, introducing them both to the hazard of commitment. As their confidence shakes, shadowy reversals of their silhouettes invade their pale faces and to conceal the shadowy face, they don masks. Recalling the mask of comedy/drama, the vision is remarkable, and then terribly sad. As if to provide a solution, the Hubleys replay the scene with a different ending: after she introduces insecurity, he pulls off his mask and, inspired, she melts into him, a merging puddle of color, kissing, confessions that revel in our aptitude for love because the rest of the world is the playground of bad feelings, demands and rigidity. This vulnerable place right here is the playground of all creation.