Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) is a chilling piece of short fiction, providing a look into madness through the eyes of a narrator who believes himself to be perfectly sane. Though intriguing in its own right, the story does not seem to be ripe for animated interpretation–at least upon first glance. But the artists at United Productions of America thought otherwise, and in 1953, they adapted the story into a truly spooky animated masterpiece.
According to Adam Abraham’s comprehensive examination of the studio, When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA (2012), UPA founder/producer Steve Bosustow initially came up with the idea to adapt Poe’s long-form poem “The Raven” (1845), but animators Paul Julian and Ted Parmelee convinced Bosustow that an animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart would be even better. Though Bosustow had visions of Heart being UPA’s first 3D short, that version was never publicly released. However, as Abraham relates in When Magoo Flew, when a 3D Heart was screened privately for UPA employees and their families, the cartoon frightened some of the children and resulted in one audience member fainting and another suffering a seizure.
The UPA crew went all out for the production of Tell-Tale Heart. Paul Julian crafted the eerie, gorgeously-animated backdrops for the action (with Pat Matthews contributing the character animation), which set an immediate tone of dread and despair. This sense is further heightened by the script composed by Bill Scott and Fred Grable, which only borrows bits and pieces from Poe’s original work while skillfully mimicking the author’s intent. Combined with narrator James Mason’s oily, distinctive delivery–which perfectly captures the storyteller’s mad desperation–the overall effect of the cartoon is a damnably creepy one, marked by a lingering air of surrealistic frenzy.
UPA’s The Tell-Tale Heart has been recognized as one of the greatest achievements in the studio’s too-short history. Not only was it listed as one of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time (at #24, it is the second of four UPA cartoons on the list), but it was also selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2001. Heart was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, but lost that prize to Disney’s Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom.
You can find The Tell-Tale Heart and other UPA classics on the Jolly Frolics DVD set, available through TCM.