Quick! Name an animator who started his career at Disney under the tutelage of the legendary Nine Old Men, created iconic characters like Mr. Magoo and Maypo pitchman Marky Maypo, and worked with such animation hotbeds as UPA, National Film Board of Canada, and Children’s Television Workshop. Give up? This illustrious resume can only belong to John Hubley, one of the most underrated pioneers of American animation. 2014 marks Hubley’s centenary year, as good a reason as any to delve into his back catalog.
Hubley’s first break came in 1936. After moving to Hollywood from small-town Wisconsin, he landed a job as a background artist for Walt Disney Studios. His skills gained notice from his mentors and peers alike. “I was astounded at how a guy like Hubley could draw,” Bill Melendez recalled in an interview with PBS’s Independent Lens. “To me it was just beyond belief. And it didn’t take me long to look at the drawings that Hubley was throwing away to realize that, wow, I can’t draw at all.”
Though Hubley’s work appeared in such films as BAMBI, FANTASIA, and PINOCCHIO, he also gained notoriety for his activism. When Arthur Babbitt, creator of Goofy, was fired for trying to organize Disney employees, Hubley was at the front of the picket line for unionization. Hubley took pride in his activism, but it would later place some professional limitations on him. His refusal to indict other union organizers for the House Un-American Activities Committee indirectly got him fired from his next job at UPA, Columbia Studios’ animation department.
By the time he left Hollywood, his reputation preceded him—not only as a rabble-rousing labor leader, but also as a first-class animator. Hubley had worked on the Oscar-winning short Gerald McBoing-Boing and directed—among others—the acclaimed Rooty Toot Toot. The personal qualities that would later flourish in his independent work appeared in his efforts at UPA. Inspired by his nearsighted uncle Henry, Hubley created the character of Mr. Magoo, an irascible reactionary. Given the character’s penchant for politicized rants, he must have served a cathartic purpose for Hubley and his cohorts.
Unfortunately, Hubley’s inclusion on the blacklist ended his time at UPA. Animation fans could view his departure from Hollywood as a minor tragedy, given the projects on which he was working: he was in preproduction on a feature-length adaptation of FINIAN’S RAINBOW, which was to have starred Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. His defection from mainstream animation channels offered him some greater opportunities for exposure. As the founder of the New York City-based Storyboard Productions, he collaborated with legendary adman George Lois on a series of TV commercials for Maypo Cereal. During this time, Hubley also taught animation classes a few blocks away from the Brattle, at Harvard.
Hubley fretted about the fast pace of the entertainment industry in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, but his move to the East Coast and the shorts he created with his wife, Faith Hubley, allowed him a remarkable second act. His work-for-hire showcased his knack for creating memorable characters, as well as his expressive line art and crack comic timing. Faith’s unconventional technical skills and kaleidoscopic color theory—as well as her empathetic perspective and great kindness—complemented John’s skills and values. The pair would go on to create over twenty short films, both for outside clients (such as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass), and smaller, more personal subjects that frequently featured the vocal talents of their children.
Though Hubley had gained renown for his short films, he occasionally tried his hand at more ambitious feature-length work. In the mid-1970s, he relocated to London, where he assembled a small crew of animators to make a film of the novel Watership Down. This was not a great experience for him. “Well, I guess essentially what was involved was a conflict,” he told historian Michael Barrier in 1976. “I always assumed that I had total creative control, and we started running into conflicts over what to do and how to do it, schedules, money, all kinds of things. It just got impossible… Doing a feature, there’s an awful lot of money involved, and the people who control the money have a lot of power no matter what the hell the contract says. You just have to have a working relationship that’s symbiotic.”
John Hubley’s final project was a TV special based on Doonesbury that aired a few months after his death in 1977. Garry Trudeau had been a pupil of Hubley’s at Yale, and this combined with Faith’s work on the film brought Hubley’s commitment to friends and family full circle. Though the special had been in production for two years, he would not live to see it, as he died of a heart ailment in February of that year.
With mainstream animated features becoming more aesthetically busy and commercially driven, pinpointing the influence of John Hubley’s work can be challenging. Contemporary films like THE SECRET OF KELLS and ERNEST AND CELESTINE continue from his films with their fluid, organic visual style, personal scope, and sly sense of humor. Hubley’s legacy continues in a very real way, as well. His younger daughter Georgia drums in the long-running indie band Yo La Tengo, and her graphic designs grace the covers of their albums. Meanwhile, Emily Hubley has carried on the family business: she has animated sequences in the films BLUE VINYL and HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and her feature film THE TOE TACTIC had a short theatrical run in 2008.