When it comes to theatrical animation in the 1950s, there arguably were no greater innovators than the talented artists at United Productions of America. UPA’s highly stylized, modern aesthetic was visually appealing; the cartoons were creative and fresh, with entertaining characters and funny, unexpected new ways of storytelling.
One of those unique characters came directly from the sometimes-twisted mind of children’s author Dr. Seuss, who approached UPA with an idea for a new cartoon to be based off a record he had recently created. It was a relatively simple story, centering around a young boy who cannot speak, and instead communicates via a wide variety of sound effects.
Gerald McBoing-Boing was a revelation. Its flat, modernistic style–one rarely seen in cartoons of the day–highlighted the artificiality of the cartoon, but also elevated it to new artistic levels. Gerald is quite different from other animated shorts of its day; it lacks the obvious strides towards realism in the Walt Disney-produced cartoons, and operates in a less chaotic sphere than the colorful violence of the MGM Tom & Jerry and Droopy cartoons and those of the Warner Bros. lot. There are no wild, inconceivable takes in Gerald, no sentimentalism to mar the straightforward storyline.
That’s not to say that Gerald McBoing-Boing is sterile by any definition. From its first moments, the cartoon is an exercise in dynamic movement. We see the characters “sketched” onto the screen in the beginning; the vitality is immediate. The open backgrounds of the scenes (there are no delineated walls or ceilings in the interiors) allow for broad strokes of movement from each of the characters. The lines are solid but fluid; the characters move freely and expressively. Watch Gerald’s little hops as he walks along to school–it’s a small, yet emotionally effective expressive of innocent joy. His later descent into sadness, which is so compellingly highlighted in the shaving scene with his father, is undeniably moving. There’s life here, even in the simplest of drawings onscreen. It’s like watching a painting move, and it’s utterly lovely.
Gerald remains one of the most beloved and best-remembered products of the short-lived UPA studio. Indeed, on the 1994 compilation of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time, Gerald was voted as the ninth greatest animated short of all time, making it the highest-ranking UPA short on the list. And UPA received its first Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) for Gerald McBoing-Boing. Three sequels followed the cartoon, and one of them, Gerald McBoing-Boing on Planet Moo, was also Oscar-nominated. Gerald’s win started a precedent; indeed, over the course of the next decade, UPA amassed twelve total nominations, snagging the award twice more for two entries in the Mr. Magoo series (When Magoo Flew, 1954, and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper, 1956). In fact, UPA would go on to become the most nominated animation studio of the 1950s, garnering more accolades than usual suspects Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM (and that doesn’t even include the two nominations UPA scored in 1948 and 1949, for two cartoons the studio produced for Columbia).