Back in the fifties, most cartoons were about funny animals doing crazy things. While some of them included humor directed at adults, animated shorts were intended to be family fare. Cartoon characters might fall off a building or get blown to smithereens, but nobody ever got hurt. The tone was always breezy, lighthearted, upbeat.
So UPA’s decision to produce a short based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was a pretty startling move. But this wasn’t the first time the studio flouted the status quo. Though little known today, UPA was one of the most innovative studios in the history of animation, and it had a tremendous impact on the medium. Most importantly, the studio’s artists embraced a radical simplification of figures and backgrounds, and drew on the language of abstraction. They didn’t care about imitating life. Their goal was to create vivid, expressive images.
Poe’s story is a disturbing descent into the mind of a madman, who tells us how he came to murder the old man he had been living with. The opening paragraph gives us a vivid picture of the narrator’s state of mind.
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
The tale is incredibly compact, with our narrator giving a harrowing account of the crime in about four pages. At just under eight minutes, the cartoon maintains the same single-minded focus. Screenwriters Bill Scott and Fred Grable do away with the obsessive precision of Poe’s language and go for a simpler, more direct approach. They also eliminate the killer’s explanations of his complex, conflicting emotions. In the film the narration is fairly straightforward, and James Mason’s delivery is both effective and affecting.
In the film, just as in Poe’s story, we experience everything from our narrator’s point of view. Director Ted Parmalee, designer Paul Julian and animator Pat Matthews conjure up a series of unnerving images that bring us right into the oppressive gloom of the old house. Drawing on both expressionism and surrealism, the style of the film makes us feel that we are indeed seeing all this through the eyes of a madman. Spiky shadows stretch across the floorboards. The moon decays and crumbles before our eyes. When the old man is murdered we see his face disappear in a violent swirl of yellow and black.
The film would not be as powerful or as disturbing without Boris Kremenliev’s eerie modern score. Kremenliev did very little work in film, which is a shame because the dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms he uses for The Tell-Tale Heart complement the images perfectly. His style was completely in synch with the kind of music that was being performed in concert halls at the time, but it was a bold approach for a short that was being released by a major studio. While David Raksin and Bronislau Kaper had subtly woven new compositional techniques into their work, I don’t know of any Hollywood score up to that time that was so aggressively modern.
Though UPA existed as a company into the seventies, it really only maintained its position as an innovator from the late forties into the mid-fifties. But its influence on animation has been felt ever since.
If you want to know more about UPA, you can access the Wikipedia article by clicking here.
And if you want to watch The Tell-Tale Heart, click here.