This isn’t the tale about the fetching ten-year-old blue-eyed blonde haired Latina vixen waiting to kick my ass in the schoolyard, encouraged by a devious sixth grader who claimed that I was sweet on her boyfriend, a guy with as much appeal to me as a dented hubcap. Vixen perched on the flagpole’s concrete base eating her breakfast: Fritos. When I entered the playground she called me over by my last name. I sensed danger; she was the type that reeked attitude. She also didn’t talk to innocuous kids like me. Even though I was a year older, she towered over me, a whippet thin and pasty white comic-bookworm. I kept my cool, walked over and groused, “Yeah, what?” My lack of intimidation threw her off her tough girl game. I might have been small but I was feisty, confident that I could talk my way out of this predicament. She got nervous and stammered, “You, you, you like Richie! I don’t like that!” I looked her straight in the eyes and said in a definitive tone, “You’re mistaken. I don’t like him.” Even though her complexion was dark olive, her face flushed crimson. I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my eleven years. She was flummoxed, unsure of what to do next. It was a standoff. I wondered if I was about to say ‘adios’ to my teeth. Instead, she offered me her Fritos. We also shared chemistry and she ditched Richie. Decades later, I’m still finding same sex love in the most unlikely places, but to reiterate, this tale is not about that, it’s about another of my life long passions: animation.
When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, I had a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons with my favorites being any fare pumped out by Warner Brothers — Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. When I reached my teens in the Seventies I caught a screening of Disney’s Fantasia at the Larkin, a movie house that seemed determined to play the re-release of this masterpiece in perpetuity. It featured the early work of the animator John Hubley. He participated on “The Rite of Spring” segment. At that time I was enrolled in the Teenage Animation Workshop at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Not only did kids get hands on experience animating their own films, the instructors enlightened us about the pioneers of the craft, including Hubley, whose frequent collaborator was his wife, Faith.
Hubley left Disney in 1941 during the animators’ strike. Next, he joined United Productions of America where he created Mr. Magoo, based on an uncle. Due to the blacklist, he was forced to leave UPA because he refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Next, he founded his own company, Storyboard Studios. There, he made animated TV commercials, including the Maypo cereal ads.
With Faith, he continued to direct his own independent animated films, films that resonated with me. They often featured soundtracks with jazz greats. My favorite Hubley film is a timeless six-minute impressionistic love story made in 1958 called The Tender Game. The soundtrack features the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ella Fitzgerald delivering a satin smooth vocal on the song, Tenderly.
When I first saw this film about forty years ago, I was certain I wanted to be an animator. When I informed my mother about my goal, her reaction was comparable to what a mom of today might think if her daughter announced that she aspired to be a pole dancer. 1974 was decades before the arrival of Pixar. Animation, particularly the independent style of animation, was a guaranteed one-way ticket to the poorhouse. My mother feared that she and my father would be stuck supporting me forever. In college, I shifted gears and earned my degree in live action filmmaking. I worked for almost ten years in TV commercial film production. Eventually, I lost interest in making films on my own, preferring to write unmarketable screenplays.
In honor of the centennial of John Hubley’s birth, Manhattan’s Film Forum is holding two tribute screenings of his work. The first screening, this past Tuesday, included The Tender Game.
I attended with my colleague, Godsend. It was a delight to see this classic short in a pristine 35 mm color print.
Considering that this weekend starts summer, and all the promises that come during the warm weather months, embedded below is a crummy quality YouTube video of The Tender Game. The story is set in the fall, but falling in love is not seasonal, unless I missed that memo. Even though the characters are abstract the emotion is familiar, and the overall effect is quite charming.