UPA was founded in the wake of the Disney animators' strike of 1941, which resulted in a number of long-time employees of Walt Disney leaving the venerable studio for greener pastures. One of the animators taking part in the Disney exodus was John Hubley, an artist who disagreed with the ultra-realistic style of animation that Disney had developed and championed. Along with a number of other animators, Hubley promoted the idea that animation did not have to be a painstakingly realistic imitation of real life; he felt that the medium of animation had been forced down a narrow path by simply trying to imitate reality. Chuck Jones' 1944 cartoon The Dover Boys showed that animation could present an artistic vision that did not have to obey the laws of reality, and a number of animators in the industry, including Hubley, were interested in producing animation of this sort: animation that defied logic and reality for the sake of art.
After leaving Disney, Hubley worked together with animators Zack Schwartz, Dave Hilberman and Steve Bosustow to form a studio called United Film Production, where they were able to apply their ideas of animation. Finding work (and income) in the then-booming field of wartime work for the government, the small studio produced a cartoon in 1944 for the re-election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt entitled Hell-Bent for Election (directed by Chuck Jones). The cartoon was a major theatrical success, and with its sudden fame the studio re-named itself United Productions of America (UPA). Initially UPA contracted with the government to produce animation, but the government contracts quickly evaporated when the FBI began investigating suspected Communist activities in Hollywood in the late 1940s. No formal charges were filed against anyone at UPA in the beginnings of the Red Scare, but the government contracts were quickly cancelled as Washington severed its ties with Hollywood.
UPA moved to the crowded field of theatrical cartoons to sustain itself, and quickly won a contract with Columbia Pictures to try to breathe life into their moribund cartoon studio. Columbia's Screen Gems cartoons series had been uniformly unexceptional since the heyday of Krazy Kat in the silent era. The UPA animators applied their ideas of animation to Columbia's theatrical cartoons, working with their series The Fox and the Crow, then scoring a hit with the cartoon The Ragtime Bear in 1949. This cartoon featured the first appearance of Mister Magoo. It was a box-office hit, and UPA's star quickly rose as the 1950s dawned.
As one of the few "human" cartoon characters in a Hollywood full of talking mice, rabbits, and bears, as well as having a unique, simplistic drawing style that contrasted greatly with other cartoons of the day, the Mister Magoo series won accolades for UPA and made the competing animation studios sit up and take notice. Two Magoo cartoons won Oscars for the studio: When Magoo Flew in 1953 and Mister Magoo's Puddle Jumper in 1955.
In 1951, UPA scored another major hit with Gerald McBoing-Boing, based on a story by Dr. Seuss. Gerald McBoing-Boing won UPA another Academy Award, and several UPA cartoons would receive Oscar nominations in the next few years. With such cartoons as The Tell-Tale Heart and Rooty Toot Toot taking risks and offering the public something different from cat-mouse battles and Silly Symphonies, UPA's unique style of limited animation struck the industry of theatrical cartoons like a lightning bolt. It influenced style changes in all of the other major animation studios, including Warner Bros, MGM, and even giant Disney. The days of lush, painstakingly-detailed animation came to an end, but they were replaced by a new era of experimentation and artistic growth...which, unfortunately, did not last very long.
The HUAC commission hearings on Communism in Hollywood took a heavy toll on UPA, because many members of its animation staff had been free-thinking, independent artists who had supported controversial ideas. This caused difficulty for Columbia Pictures, and in 1952 John Hubley was blacklisted and let go from his position at UPA. When he left, much of the innovation and creativity of UPA left with him. The studio continued under the guidance of Bosustow, but the energetic, innovative quality of UPA's cartoons quickly faded.
As the major Hollywood studios began cutting back and shutting down their animation studios with the dawn of the 1960s, UPA was in financial straits, and Steve Bosustow sold the studio to a new producer, Henry G. Saperstein. Saperstein turned UPA's focus to television to sustain itself. This proved to be a death-knell for the studio, for though it was able to produce income by expanding the Mister Magoo series and bringing it to television, the quality of the series faded and became a shadow of its former self. UPA produced other animated series for TV, including an forgettable adaptation of the comic strip Dick Tracy, but the rigors of television snuffed out UPA's flame. UPA was forced to churn out cartoons at a far greater quantity than the studio had done for theatrical release; this caused the Mister Magoo series to sink to an embarrassing level.
The UPA style of limited animation was adopted by other animation studios, and especially by TV cartoon studios such as Hanna-Barbera Productions. However, this was done as a cost-cutting measure rather than as an art form. A plethora of low-budget, cheaply made cartoons brought the American animation industry to its lowest point over the next twenty years. This was in spite of the fact that UPA's pioneering of the form was meant to expand the boundaries of animation and create a new form of art.
(One bright moment in the UPA television era came with Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, the first episode of an animated TV series entitled The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo. Christmas Carol captured the spirit of Charles Dickens' tale in a manner that few of the many re-tellings of the story would, and it is considered to be a holiday classic of the 1960s, ranking alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)
Saperstein kept UPA afloat in the 1960s and beyond by abandoning animation production completely and selling off UPA's library of cartoons, though the studio retained the licenses and copyrights on Mister Magoo, Gerald McBoing-Boing and the other UPA characters. This led to UPA contracting with the DePatie-Freleng studio to produce a new animated series called What's New Mister Magoo? in the 1970s. Columbia Pictures retained ownership of UPA's theatrical cartoons. The studio's TV cartoon library is currently under license by Classic Media, who also holds exclusive rights to the Famous Studios cartoon charcters. The irony of the same company owning both the libraries of the best (UPA) and worst (Famous) cartoons in Hollywood is only apparent to dedicated scholars of animation history.
Saperstein then led UPA into a contract with Toho Studios of Japan to distribute its "giant monster" (see kaiju) movies in America. Theatrical releases, and especially TV syndication, of the Toho monster movies created a new cult movie market for Japanese monster movies, and such long-running television movie syndication packages such as Creature Double Feature exposed the Toho movie monsters to young American audiences, who embraced them and helped them maintain their popularity throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When Toho began producing a new generation of monster movies in the late 1980s, beginning with Godzilla 1985, UPA capitalized on its Toho contract and help introduce the new kaiju features to the Western world.
Because of its long association with Toho, UPA is better known to cult-movie fans today as Toho's American distributor rather than a pioneer of animated cartoons. But the legacy of UPA is an important chapter in the history of American animation.
UPA continues to license the American library of Godzilla movies, even today. UPA's contract with Toho also resulted in Saperstein producing Woody Allen's first feature film, What's Up Tiger Lily?. UPA continues to hold the licensing rights to Mister Magoo, and Saperstein was executive producer to Disney's (forgettable) live-action feature Mister Magoo in 1997.