Articles

The silly, splendid world of Stephen Bosustow

With a nearsighted codger named Magoo and a clutch of cartoon characters bent on sophisticated slapstick, this Canadian-born film maker is winning Oscars, revolutionizing TV commercials and grossing more than two million a year

Barbara Moon December 7 1957
Articles

The silly, splendid world of Stephen Bosustow

With a nearsighted codger named Magoo and a clutch of cartoon characters bent on sophisticated slapstick, this Canadian-born film maker is winning Oscars, revolutionizing TV commercials and grossing more than two million a year

Barbara Moon December 7 1957

This article was originally published in December 1957 under the headline "The silly, splendid world of Stephen Bosustow"

We invited the old gentleman and his nephew for a visit. Here, drawn exclusively for Maclean's, is a record of their trip.

MAGOO IN ALBERTA "Great Caesar! They should do something about these prairie highways...my shock absorbers are ruined."


MAGOO IN VANCOUVER "Speak up, my good man, is this or is this not Granvilie and Hastings?"


MAGOO IN TORONTO "When's the next flight to Winnipeg?"


MAGOO AT NIAGARA FALLS "Give me room service! Something's wrong...the tap is running but the tub won't fill."


MAGOO IN QUEBEC CITY "One thing. they get Disneyland good and clear up here."


MAGOO AT A HOCKEY GAME "Bunt, you fool, bunt!"


MAGOO IN THE TV ROOM "Certainly it's their flag, Waldo... you're just used to seeing it in color."


MAGOO IN OTTAWA "By George, Mr. Diefenbaker, it's an honor to meet you."


MAGOO ON THE PRAIRIES "I guess the northern species take more killing."


MAGOO IN B.C. "Seventh floor, and make it snappy, boy."


MAGOO IN HALIFAX "Yes sir, bagged him right in the lobby of the Lord elson."


MAGOO AT THE MUSICAL RIDE "Here are the tickets, Waldo. Now don't try to get on the merry-go-round until it stops."


MAGOO ON THE CABOT TRAIL "Hand me another set of pliers, Waldo. . . these are chewing up the head bolts." For a couple of years now a new phenomenon has been hippety-hopping through the television day. It's embodied in troops of wayward little characters who look like bent hairpins, move with the erratic vivacity of water spiders and speak with burlesque voices. They skid onto the TV screen and start to wrangle among them selves. thwack each other with bladders, beat drums, forget their lines, recite doggerel, and often regroup their own particulars like iron filings under a magnet. They're the new breed of animated cartoons, and their job is to bootleg the sponsor's message to `our attention under cover of their antics-which more often than not consist of parodying the blat-voiced pitch men they're fast replacing. In the midst of a TV program schedule in which "adult" often means only that the hero hasn't shaved, the chances are that some of the most congenial television you're seeing is in the form of animated commercials.

In fact, a Canadian research bureau was recently able to tell Jell-O that its cartoon spot of a Chinese baby acquiring Western eating habits had charted more audience interest than any part of the program it accompanied. 

Or take another case - a campaign of TV cartoons created for Piel's Beer, a Brooklyn brewery. These cartoons are such conversation pieces in smart Gotham circles that Piel's takes space in New York newspapers to list the times and stations for aficionados. The improbable advent of top billing for commercials can he traced to the screen door, in Burbank. California, of a forty six-year-old Canadian-born businessman named Stephen Bosustow. Bosustow. who believes in treating grownups as grownups, is boss of a humming little animated-car toon studio. UPA Pictures. Inc., which pioneered the new animated spoof commercials in 1948 and remains, despite multiplying competitors, the pace-setter in the field. Even the rivals peddle their product as “UPA-style.” Bosustow insists that UPA has no single style and, strictly speaking, this is true, since each staff artist is allowed to bend his animated wires in his own way. Still, fans insist it's UPA-style when the wires are barbed.

UPA has produced, among hosts of other spots, a famous commercial for Jell-O Instant Puddings, featuring a chant (“Busy day, busy day . . .”) that became almost as epidemic, for a while, as The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

UPA has several other man-bites-dog feats to its credit, including at least one case of top hilling for a seven-ittinute theatre short. Theatre shorts had long been Hollywood’s stepchildren, scorned by movie-house operators as mere fillers in the regular program. UPA changed all that with a crop of prestige theatre cartoons, such as Gerald McBoing-Boing, the Nearsighted Mr. Magoo series, Christopher Crumpet, Madeline, and Willie the Kid. So two years ago the manager of a theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, used the upper two thirds of his newspaper ad to beat the drums for UPA’s newest, Rooty Toot Toot, a re-interpretation of the Ballad of Frankie and Johnny having to do with the methods a mouthpiece can use to beat the rap for a pretty client. The main feature was dismissed in a couple of lines at the bottom of the ad. Variety, in reporting the facts, headlined the story “MILLENNIUM.”

Thirty thousand dates for Gerald

Another UPA triumph is the case history of Gerald McBoing-Boing, its most famous short. Gerald earned back ten times its original price tag at a time when rising production costs were already colliding with fixed theatre rentals to force many animation studios to the wall.

Even such major studios as Paramount have now closed down their animation departments, and others have sharply curtailed production. But Gerald played thirty thousand theatre dates (there are only twenty-three thousand theatres in the whole U. S.), showed simultaneously at three New York first-run movie houses and won UPA’s first Academy Award.

UPA animated shorts have won three Oscars, all told, more than a hundred other awards and honors from all over the world, including Cannes and Edinburgh, and the applause of such jaded critics as Gilbert Seldes, who chirruped not long ago, “I, for one, hope UPA goes on forever.” UPA has even won art prizes for its business letterhead.

The Cameo, a newsreel theatre in Charing Cross, London, regularly shows entire programs of UPA shorts, and it was to one of these that Princess Margaret, a couple of years ago, made the first private, unscheduled visit by a member of the royal family to a movie. Her sister. Queen Elizabeth II. has watched UPA cartoons at command performances. One of Bosustow’s prized possessions is his citation from a U. S. class magazine as “the man in the motion-picture industry who has done most to improve standards and enhance the medium’s role as an ambassador for the U. S. to the rest of the world.”

But UPA shorts have most confounded the animation industry and the public by doing all these things in a cartoon style as remote from Walt Disney’s as a dry Martini is from cherry pop.

The Disney concept had dominated animated cartooning for so long that kiddies fidgeting through movie newsreels were saying, “When’s the Mickey Mouse?” instead of “When’s the cartoon?” For thirty years, under Disney’s sway, animated cartoons featured anthropomorphized animals that cut their own cookie shapes through solid walls, fired each other out of cannon and fell to the sidewalk with sounds of ringing metal. By custom they had only four fingers and they all wore white cotton gloves. A few full-length cartoons had daintier stars, such as eyelashed fawns and fairytale princesses.

Disney has described his own plot requirements thus: “I’m just corny enough to like a story that hits me over the heart.” He has publicly blamed the flop of his cartoon feature, Alice in Wonderland. on the proposition that the story had “intellectual appeal but no emotional appeal.” As a result, the curiously unquestioned notion was abroad that cartoon characters should call up in the audience the same flush of helpless tenderness as puppies, say, or very small kittens—except for the villains, who were bullies with the resilience of rubber bands.

Bosustow, who was fired by Disney sixteen years ago, decided these plump pleasing fantasies were only a side road. “It’s simple enough,” he says now. “Animation ought to stand in relation to the motion picture as drawn art stands to the still photograph. It’s a whole interpretive art form.”

Hugging this heresy, Bosustow opened his own studio in 1945 and proceeded to assemble a staff of like-minded young men. They began animating every kind of story line from sibling rivalry (Family Circus) to safety first (The Jaywalker), and every art style in sight. In twelve years UPA has borrowed from such advanced painters as Picasso, Mondriaan, Modigliani, Dali and Paul Klee; it has galvanized into action James Thurber's ectoplasmic mortals, the naïve figures squeezed from Ludwig Bemelmans’ private toothpaste tube, Saul Steinberg’s cogwheels and crooked wires, woodcuts after the style of Gustave Doré, crayon drawings that could have been done in any kindergarten and some drastic inventions of its own.

The latter include Gerald McBoingBoing, done in collaboration with Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, an adman from La Jolla, Calif. Geisel is the creator of some pleasantly cockeyed children’s books—including And To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins—and a faintly mad series of advertisements with the constant cutline, “Quick, Henry, the Flit.”

In Gerald McBoing-Boing, Geisel wrote the fable of a six-year-old who produced sound effects instead of speech ind, after a series of rejections because of his handicap, found fame, acceptance ind his niche in a radio station. UPA bought Geisel’s couplets seven years ago ind made the cartoon that first staggered Disney on his pinnacle.

UPA’s other prize property, and the star of its most popular theatre series, is Mr. Magoo. Magoo is a slit-eyed old codger of superb insouciance but less than 20-60 vision, who’s apt to tip his hat md mutter, “G’night, officer,” to a lamp post, or mistake a goldfish bowl for a TV set. Even such churlish intellectuals as Gilbert Harding love Magoo (who has been described, by an Englishman, as “a nearsighted Gilbert Harding”), but seventeen members of the Hampstead Children’s Cinema Council in London blacklisted Magoo last fall as “too sophisticated for children.”

This was fine with Bosustow: it’s approximately the way he likes UPA's p-oduct to be.

“I’m not against children,” says Bosustow, who has two of his own. He makes a deprecating little two-handed, sidearmed gesture, like a baby bird trying its wings. “We just like to do things for adults.” He's so serious about this that not long ago UPA turned out a theatre cartoon kiddies were actually forbidden to see.

It was an animated art treatment of Poe’s Gothic horror story, The Tell Tale Heart, and U. K. film censors labeled it “adults only.” It had distorted, rotting, scaffolded backgrounds, flashes of livid light, a single eyeball filmed over with milky scum, a narration in actor James Mason’s lightest, most chilling voice and a sound track based on the amplified thump of a real human heart. Connoisseurs called it “a movie landmark.”

The connoisseurs—and the adults UPA most likes to do things for—are a minority group that have heretofore been pretty much neglected by the mass media. They’re a group described in England, not long ago, as “the people who read Penguin pocketbooks”; in North America they’re now being known as Upper Bohemians. No complete list of credentials is available for this class, but as good an exhibit as any is Bosustow himself.

A sloping six-footer with warm dark eyes, a villainous dark mustache and an informal grin, he likes progressive jazz, reads the New Yorker (as well as any Penguin pocketbooks available in California), mixes a fine dry Martini and takes innocent joy in puns and wordplay. (UPA cartoons have been issued under such waggish titles as Robin Hoodlum, Little Boy Blew, Captains Outrageous and The Magic Fluke; a new theatre series made up of two self-contained segments is being called A Pair of Shorts.)

He persists in being irreverent about himself and his success. “I'm an executive,” he says, hooking his thumbs in his armpits mock-pompously. “At least I sit behind a desk now, so I suppose I’m an executive. I worry about money and that sort of thing.” Bosustow, who worked up through the cartoon ranks, hasn’t drawn professionally for ten years. In California being an executive means he now drives an air-conditioned Cadillac convertible and finds himself wearing discreetly expensive business suits more often than sports shirts. It also means a luxurious new ranchhouse in Encino, a flossy colony on a hillside above the San Fernando Valley.

Actually he still thinks of himself as an artist, has vast knowledge of modern art and, in private, turns out an impressionistic oil sketch every two or three months. He claims he doesn't know if they’re any good. “I’m supposed to be able to judge other people's work,” he says, sketching a helpless gesture. “But about my own I just can’t tell.” His wife, Audrey, a handsome crinkly eyed blonde with a cropped upsweep and a countryclub tan, hangs the ones she likes in the place of honor beside the fireplace and says, with a grin, that she's no art expert. The Bosustows have two boys, Stephen, nineteen, and Nicky, seventeen. The boys have never met a movie star though they live only a few blocks from Liberace, the pianist, and Jack Carson, a Canadianborn movie comedian, and they’re expected to earn their own pocket money. This summer they took jobs as a postman and a dishwasher respectively.

Bosustow, who started supporting himself as soon as he left high school, claims he’d still be an office boy if he hadn’t been fired from his first job. “I’m so thankful,” he says with a grimace of comic relief. “It was the Depression, so no one ever just quit.”

He was one of four children of a Cornish-Huguenot machine - shop owner and a Scottish schoolteacher. He was born in Victoria, B.C., but when he was eleven his family moved to Los Angeles, where Bosustow doodled through his schooling, went to the movies every Saturday and spent a good deal of time fooling around on the drums. He had no particular ambitions when he went to work and, since jobs were scarce, took what he could get.

He lost his first post, as office boy in a chemical company, because he kept laying aside his broom to peer through the laboratory microscopes. He then lost jobs as a truck driver, as a filler of soappowder boxes and as a shipping clerk. Next he lost his first, second and third jobs in cartoon studios. “How long I lasted in a job usually depended on how interested I was in it,” he says. “I had a very enquiring mind.”

In 1934 Bosustow met and married Audrey Stevenson, daughter of one Broadway actor, Houseley Stevenson, and sister of another, Onslow Stevens. The same year he joined the Disney Studios and, after working his way up to the story department, got fired twice more. This was during the famous 1941 strike over union organization at the Disney plant. Bosustow’s version is that he was helping to organize the studio when he was laid off along with thirteen other pro-union men. A thousand Disney employees thereupon struck and as a result the fourteen were rehired; Bosustow and the others were let out again shortly afterward. At this time he organized the forerunner of UPA. and went broke. “It taught me the importance of a good saies organization,” he remarks without regret.

After getting fired from a job with Howard Hughes’ aircraft plant he got together a small bankroll by lecturing at the California Institute of Technology and, in 1945, organized United Productions of America in his spare time. The name was changed to UPA Pictures, Inc. last year. The outfit's first jobs were instructional films for industry and the armed forces and in them Bosustow worked out some of the avant-garde techniques that had been seething in his mind during the years at Disney. In 1948 UPA sold its first animated TV commercial; the same year it signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to make theatre cartoons. Gerald McBoing-Boing was its tenth short under the contract.

UPA cultivates its avant-garden in the San Fernando Valley, just behind the Hollywood Hills and just down the road a piece from the huge Disney plant. There’s also a New York studio devoted mostly to turning out TV spots. Together they keep some one hundred and seventyfive employees busy and in 1956 grossed »wo and a quarter million dollars.

The Burbank offices are in a two-story p:nk stucco building; the workshop across the way consists of a series of one-story units laid out like a motel around a central patio. The atmosphere of breezy informality is guaranteed by. among other factors, the presence on staff of five former members of Spike Jones’ band. There's a ping-pong table in the patio and the company bulletin board is customarily crowded with cartoons, rude notices and cheeky personal messages. There are no time clocks.

Bosustow. who hates being told he looks like a younger edition of Disney (which he does), recalls that he worked for Disney seven years without once meeting the boss. The door of his own office is open to any employee anytime, and everyone calls him “Steve." He is proud of the artistic freedom at UPA. “The key." he says, “is that I don't want c make cartoons myself; I just want to keep a studio running that can turn out ...rtoons." He expands this: "There is no single company style, imposed from above. If anyone gets a good idea he’s tree to develop it. A good deal of the time 1 don't even see the stuff to okay it."

It pays off. Here's the reaction of Frank Comstock, a jazz musician who was commissioned to write the music for one Magoo cartoon: “I really got my jollies from workin' there." Comstock s own translation: “I had no boss. I just wrote what I felt was right." Comstock adds, "This is a wonderful studio. They like progressive things."

UPA's liking for progressive things may have won fans, prestige and Academy Awards, but it has also, unfortunately. tended to scare off possible bankrollers. on the whole a conservative lot. For instance. Gerald McBoing-Boing was scarcely UPA's most experimental cartoan. but when it went to Columbia for distribution a Columbia vice-president said briskly. "Okay, boys, you've had vour artistic success. Now' let’s make something commercial." A derisive homemade cartoon pinned to one UPA artist’s layout board shows a fat Columbia executive— possibly the same one — leaning forward and saying urgently around his cigar. “Yeah, but will the kiddies like it?"

5.nee it was doubtful if the kiddies would like them. UPA hasn't been able to rustle up funds for a number of pet projects. Among the ideas that have had to be scrapped were a feature-length treatment of Don Quixote, adapted for UPA by Aidons Huxley, and a featurelength treatment of The White Deer, by James Thurber.

l ast season UPA was placed in a strange position for a cartoon company that holds the best possible credentials from I V advertisers. CBS contracted with Bosustow for twenty-six half-hour cartoon shows as competition for ABC’s Disneyland (whose own sponsors often furnish it forth with UPA-style commercials). After only eleven shows the series was canceled. No sponsors. They con'idered it too intellectual: the cartooned stories and vignettes didn’t hit them over the heart.

Bosustow is undaunted. "We’re bubbling here all the time," he says. He's deep in drawing up a new format for a TV series and hopes he’ll have a sponsor by the time this article appears. UPA's first feature-length cartoons are already in the works. One. which Columbia Pictures has decided is commercial enough to back, is called Mr. Magoo's Arabian Nights. It should be ready for the fall of 1958. Canadian playwright Ted Allan, now living in London, was one of three writers Bosustow commissioned to prepare treatments for the film. Hecht-Hill-

Lancaster. an off-beat independent production company in Hollywood, is putting up money for a cartooned biography of the late Jelly-Roll Morton, the great jazz pianist, and for an animated story of the Bible. Both should be reaiBy in 1959. "Our big experimental direction, says Busustow. "is away from comedy. UPA will also continue to explore abstract cartooning in the style of the Canadian National Film Board's Norman McLaren, whom Bosustow has tried to hire at least once. "1 believe in diversification." says Bosustow1.

He also believes that, given time and UPA’s best efforts, the public will eventually recognize animation as the great twentieth-century art form he’s convinced it is.

Some people already have the right idea. Take the tiny Boy Scout in the balcony of a Los Angeles theatre. Gerald McBoing-Boing was on the screen. The Boy Scout watched it all the way through with birthday candles in his eyes. When it was over he turned to his mother.

"Boy!" he said. “That w-as better than a cartoon." ★


The life and good times of Mister Magoo

UPA’s top property is a male star so nearsighted he doesn’t recognize himself in a mirror. His name is Mister Magoo. He began his motion-picture career nearly ten years ago as an anonymous bit player in a theatre cartoon called The Ragtime Bear, was an instant success and almost overnight became a featured player with his own cartoon series. He won an Academy Award in 1956 for Magoo’s Puddle Jumper.

Here he’s been called “a W. C. Fields character” and in England “a nearsighted Gilbert Harding,” but the most complete description of Magoo exists in the files at UPA. Lest any UPA employee lapse into thinking Magoo is not real, a profile has been prepared. It reads, in part:

“Magoo is about sixty years old. He is retired, and has had a comfortable amount of money long enough to be unconcerned with many of the realer problems of existence, although he is apt to rage if he feels he is being cheated. His actions are always absolutely right in his own mind, and he is usually guided by the best of motives.

“He almost never admits that he can’t see. Even when it is brought to

his attention, he will deny it with a line such as, ‘Why don’t they put up a sign?’

“You might say that he has the mind and the driving energy of a youth of twenty-five trapped in the body of an old man.

“He likes to think of himself as a hard-headed, practical businessman, but actually he is a softie who allows himself to be moved solely by his emotions.

“He lives in an ornate gingerbread mausoleum, furnished in the most cluttered and overdecorated Victorian style, containing everything from paperweights to pug dogs. But he also has a TV set and a garbage-disposal unit. His attitude toward Waldo, his callow and none-too-bright nephew, is at once overbearing and tender. He will rage at the lad over some trifling matter, then buy him a car for his birthday.

“He fancies himself as quite a wit, and is addicted to telling obvious jokes at which he chuckles delightedly for hours afterward.

“Magoo should be everyone’s father image seen in a distortion glass.

“He is every adolescent’s idea of his own grandfather.”