If Hedwig And The Angry Inch has a center, it’s “The Origin Of Love,” a glammed-out retelling of an Aristophanes speech in Plato’s Symposium. As Genevieve Koski traced on Tuesday, Aristophanes’ explanation of sexuality as an aftereffect of the gods ripping humans in half resonates throughout the film. Hedwig’s performance of the song is intercut with a beautiful animated sequence that mixes mythological imagery with a hand-drawn, lo-fi aesthetic. The animation, by Emily Hubley, has its own origin story: She’s the second generation of a family whose outsized influence in the arts is marking its centennial this year. Though their story doesn’t go back quite as far as Zeus’, it’s stretched through virtually the entire history of animation. From Snow White through Mr. Magoo to Hedwig, through constant political, professional, and personal turmoil, the Hubley family has consistently made interesting and groundbreaking films, while maintaining a healthy disrespect for the seductions of commercial success.
The first animator in the family was John Hubley, born in Marinette, Wisconsin in 1914. He started on art early—his grandfather was a painter, and his mother attended the Art Institute Of Chicago. As he told John D. Ford in a 1973 interview, “I used to watch my grandfather when I was a little kid, so I have that kind of studio background. It was always ordained that I would go to art school as soon as I got out of high school.” In December of 1936, at age 22, he started work at Disney. This is where his real education began: At that time, Disney was investing a great deal into building a stable of animators, creating an environment Hubley later described to Ford as “a marvelous big Renaissance Craft Hall.” Even in his earliest work, he was searching for technical and graphic innovations: For the fight scene in Bambi, he developed a technique called “gobo,” taken from a lighting trick used in live-action photography. As he explained it to John Culhane in 1973 (collected in Didier Ghez’s Walt’s People: Talking Disney With the Artists Who Knew Him), he would create a mask for each frame with areas of the animation he wanted to highlight cut out. The frame would be covered with the mask and photographed through the cutouts at 50 percent of normal light. Then the film was cranked back, the mask was removed, and the entire frame was photographed again, still at 50 percent of normal light. The result was a stunning sequence where highlights are burned out and overexposed, and the rest of the frame is stygian, reducing the grappling stags to near-abstractions.
It became apparent to Hubley that Disney wasn’t interested in pushing animation forward in the direction he wanted when Frank Lloyd Wright visited the studio in February 1939. Wright had brought a print of Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s 1934 short “The Tale Of The Czar Durandai,” which had a flat, modern look Hubley responded to. Disney’s style, then and for years after, was built around representing volume, rotating shapes as though they were three-dimensional. Ivanov-Vano’s approach, as Hubley described it to Culhane, was “screw the volume, just move it as a shape.” But when the screening was over, Disney’s response was less than encouraging: “What, Jesus Christ, you want me to make films like that?!”
Hubley didn’t get to explore the flatter look he was interested in until he left Disney in the aftermath of the 1941 animators’ strike, a bitter clash that pushed many of Disney’s most talented artists out of the studio. Like many ex-Disney employees, Hubley landed at Screen Gems, where he worked under Frank Tashlin, and later, Dave Fleischer. There, Hubley was finally able to begin doing technical and stylistic experimentation, “crazy things that were anti- the classic Disney approach,” as he told. These experiments weren’t particularly successful, however, even by his own account. He had more luck after joining the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit. There, he worked on training films for the U.S. Air Force, helping develop a stubborn gunner named Trigger Joe, voiced by Mel Blanc. The Air Force didn’t care what the films looked like, as long as they got the point across, and Hubley’s supervisors didn’t care what he did, as long as the Air Force was happy, so he enjoyed a certain amount of stylistic freedom. He did freelance work during this time for Industrial Film And Poster Service, helping storyboard the UAW’s 1944 “re-elect Roosevelt” film “Hell-Bent For Election,” and insisting that Chuck Jones be hired to direct. The film was a hit (Roosevelt was re-elected); John went on to work as a production designer on another UAW commission: the anti-racism film “The Brotherhood Of Man.”
By this time, the studio had re-christened itself United Productions Of America. “Hell-Bent For Election” looks like a Chuck Jones film, but “The Brotherhood Of Man” is the first clear example of what would become the UPA house style, which Hubley later described like this:
The one thing was just this flat shape, flattening the characters, instead of dealing with the volume… And working with shapes like that, they’re easier to animate, they’re more interesting. It was a fresh thing… It was shorthand, it was faster, and it was more exciting… Don’t worry about the 18th-century watercolor technique, model, and everything. Just flatten it up; that was the essential graphic style. It came out of Matisse, Picasso, modern painters.
Around this time, Hubley met Faith Elliot, who became his second wife and his long-time collaborator. Born in 1924 in Manhattan, she led a life distinguished from a young age by dual commitments to radical politics and the arts. By her own account in a wide-ranging interview with Patrick McGilligan for Film Quarterly in 1988, by the time she met John, she had already led several lifetimes. As a child, she’d joined the American Student Union, been arrested at an anti-Nazi rally in Yorkville, left her family at age 15 after refusing to become a dentist as her parents wished, worked with the New Theatre League, studied music, painting, and acting, gotten married in New York and divorced in Reno, moved to Los Angeles to work in a metal shop, and held a wide variety of jobs at Columbia, a studio she chose because John Howard Lawson worked there. Despite its Progressive bona fides, she found the studio stiflingly sexist:
Dede [Allen] and I were trying to get hired in editing, and they would say, “No you can’t, because you’re a girl.” We’d say, “Well, why not?” They’d say, “Well you’re not strong enough.” Then we would gain a lot of weight and show them we could lift heavy boxes, and then they would say, “We’re not relaxed with you. You don't swear.” Then we would practice saying “fuck” and “shit,” walking through the studio saying, “fuck shit fuck shit,” and then they would say, “That’s no way for a girl to talk.”
John and Faith became fast friends, but Faith had no intention of staying on the West Coast. Politically, she preferred New York, where “there was little separation between theory and practice… In Hollywood you made a lot of money, and then you helped the people.” She’d made a promise to herself to only remain in Hollywood for four or five years, as a deliberate sort of training course, so she could learn a craft and “understand the economics, the budget and management of the studios, so that I would never be seduced by Hollywood.” It was the first of many promises she made to not let her life be ruled by commerce, and she kept it. By 1947, she’d left Los Angeles for New York, left New York for the International Conference For Working Youth in Warsaw, joined an International Brigade in Czechoslovakia (where she earned a medal and a scar saving another worker from a falling boulder), gone to Prague, contracted meningitis in Italy, written a mafia screenplay, moved to Paris, and returned home to New York, where she finally landed the editing job she couldn’t get at Columbia, on James Wong Howe’s Go, Man, Go.
While Faith was living the peripatetic life, John Hubley found mainstream success. When the war ended, he naturally moved to UPA, where he continued making films for the armed forces. By this time, Columbia had closed Screen Gems and contracted with UPA to produce animated shorts, with the condition that they must use the popular Fox and Crow characters Frank Tashlin had created for them. Hubley directed three of these, earning UPA its first Academy Award nomination for “Robin Hoodlum.”
But although he was able to infuse his own style into the backgrounds, he wanted to create his own characters. When Columbia finally agreed to let UPA create something original, Hubley created Mr. Magoo, based on a near-sighted, reactionary uncle. Hubley’s Magoo shorts shouldn’t be confused with the later, inferior television versions; they’re jazz-inflected mayhem. He also served as supervising director on the Dr. Seuss-penned “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” which won an Academy Award. But Hubley really came into his own directing 1951’s “Rooty Toot Toot,” a retelling of “Frankie and Johnny” that takes the flat, abstracted style he’d been playing with for years to delirious extremes. It’s the highest expression of the UPA house style, and hints at the kind of abstract art he’d make later in his career.
But not at UPA. By 1952, the Hollywood blacklist was in full swing, and John Hubley’s name had come up. Rather than be forced to leave, he resigned. Unable to get work under his own name, he set up Storyboard Studios under a front, and began a new career in advertising. In 1953, he was given the chance to turn Finian’s Rainbow into an animated feature, to star Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. He worked on this throughout 1954, hiring Faith Elliot to return from New York to Los Angeles to work as his assistant. Some of the storyboards and a few recordings survived (John Canemaker tracked them down), but the production was shut down when funding dried up over Hubley’s refusal to testify before HUAC. In February 1955, John arrived to find the studio he’d been working at abruptly padlocked. Soon after, John and Faith travelled to Europe on what she later described as a “trial marriage.” By 1956, John had divorced his first wife, married Faith, and moved his studio to New York. John and Faith Hubley had begun a collaboration that changed the art of animation.
At this point, John had been burned three times by commercial animation: during the Disney strike, at UPA, and by Finian’s Rainbow. Faith had never had anything but distrust of commercial projects to begin with. So as a condition of their marriage, they made a pact: They would make one serious film a year, for themselves, and do whatever they had to do to support it. Many people make this kind of one-for-them-one-for-me promise at the beginning of their careers; almost no one keeps it. John had been working in animation for nearly 20 years when he decided it was time for personal projects—and he and Faith kept their bargain, producing innovative, avant-garde films at a breakneck pace. John continued to work in commercials, and Faith worked in various parts of the film industry, including as a script supervisor on 12 Angry Men, but the goal was to support their own work. Here’s how John described the importance of this bargain to Ford:
…if you believe in this media as an art, and you believe yourself to be an artist, and you want to make films as an artist, you have to go ahead and do it; you have to make what you want to make, have control over it, and make it on your terms. The old struggle of art versus commerce and whether the artist can control creativity or be told what to do by the money people is one that we realize every artist is up against. Faith and I decided that we would separate the two functions and never let the necessity of earning a living interfere with the production of one film a year. In other words, make the living doing other things and always keep one film a year where you don’t have to worry about economics. (Well, you do worry about economics, because you’re pouring money into it and you can’t expect to get it back.) But it’s very important to do it, because it feeds your whole creative life.
From the beginning, they produced animation like no one had ever seen. John had a commission to create a short film for the Guggenheim; he and Faith worked together to create a completely unique look. They settled on wax resist, a technique that uses paraffin and watercolor to create intricately textured drawings that allowed for, as Hubley told Culhane:
…getting this wonderful texture on this thing and then double exposing it in over backgrounds that were also painted in the same technique, really a rich combination of the action with the texture painting. It’s like a painting coming to life.
The finished film, “The Adventures Of An *,” is visually amazing; “beautifully controlled chaos,” as Greg Cwik has aptly described it. Thematically, too, it’s different from anything either of them had done before, and more personal. It traces a child from birth to adulthood, showing how society gradually beats down the child’s playfulness and imagination, until his own child restores it.
As Faith later described it to McGilligan, “For us, on a personal level, it was like starting over, because we were a new couple, newly partners, with this new baby.” John and Faith made their children part of the family business. John’s most successful ad, for Maypo Cereal, used his son Mark as a kid who is hell-bent on getting his cowboy hat back, until his father coaxes him into trying Maypo cereal. Using a real child’s voice instead of an actor’s was charming and new, and the commercial was a huge hit.
Given the interest in children’s perspectives that they’d already begun to explore with “The Adventures Of An *,” it was only natural that John and Faith would make several of their own films using their children’s voices. Mark and his younger brother Ray appear in 1959’s “Moonbird.” When two younger daughters arrived, Emily and Georgia, they recorded them for 1968’s “Windy Day” and 1974’s “Cockaboody”. These films are all spectacularly charming and were very well-received: “Windy Day” was nominated for an Academy Award, and “Moonbird” won one.
The difference between an adult’s idea of how a child talks and the way children actually talk is immediately apparent; all of the films feature the strange leaps in logic and imagination that are difficult to simulate, but that children have easy access to. “Windy Day” is a particular standout: Emily and Georgia try to make their way through a story about a princess and a dragon, but are constantly derailed, usually by Georgia. (Halfway through, Georgia says, “I want to make up another play. I’ll be a kangaroo and you’ll be a giraffe. And we’ll think of taking our children for a ride.”)
The films each have their own look, but they share a certain hand-drawn aesthetic that suits the material well—although it must have taken a great deal of careful planning to create films that look so casual. In a similar fashion, the films sound as though the Hubleys simply left a tape recorder running while their children played, but were actually made in a recording studio, with parental prompting. As Emily revealed in a joint interview with Georgia for Chickfactor, her frustration that Georgia doesn’t want to perform a play in “Windy Day” was genuine:
…in the taping, in the recording studio, Georgia was getting bored; we had already done it a couple of times. She didn’t want to do it anymore—now I get to set the record straight—and my parents kept telling me that we had to do it again. So in the sound check it’s me going, “Come on Georgia, we have to do the play now.” and Georgia’s going, “I don’t want to, I don’t want to.” And I’m making her do it. It makes me look like such a nag.
But it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. Emily told me over the phone that they both enjoyed being the center of so much attention; as an added bonus, “They bought us milkshakes, and they never gave us milkshakes.” Actually seeing the finished films was less fun. Georgia told me via email about the experience of watching “Windy Day” for the first time:
I can recall transitioning from being a 6-year-old free-spirited chatterbox one minute, and discovering what stifling embarrassment felt like the next. For all of us—I was so mortified that I thought the entire family was humiliating itself… It is beautiful, though.
Emily and Georgia told Chickfactor that they still can’t bear to watch “Windy Day” (“Just cause it’s us,” said Emily), but they have more appreciation for Cockaboody, which was made years after it had been recorded. In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Ray Hubley revealed another reason he’s come to appreciate “Moonbird” in the years since it was made:
When my brother and I were in the recording studio playing around in the floor and arguing and having fun, my dad was play-acting being the bird. And when he ended up drawing and animating the bird, it’s absolutely my father’s gestures. The way he runs. The way he shakes his head.
Not all their films featured children’s voices: 1958’s “The Tender Game” shows love blossoming to the music of Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Trio; 1962’s Academy Award winner “The Hole” stars George Matthews and Dizzy Gillespie as construction workers discussing the possibility of nuclear war. In every film, the Hubleys visibly push the technical and thematic limits of the medium, moving, to use John’s phrase, “beyond pigs and bunnies.” This wasn’t a gradual shift in their interests, but a deliberate aesthetic project, which John outlined in a 1975 article for The American Scholar:
Artists around the world are defying the old “linear shape” order in graphics. Let’s hope they also defy the limitations of the fairy tale and confront contemporary issues. May be we fortunate enough to see the development of visuals that are generated by dramatic and psychological imperatives—to continue to reveal human vulnerability and to increase the understanding of human relationships.
Still, bills had to be paid and children raised. The Hubley Studio gradually did less and less commercial advertising, taking work instead from the Children’s Television Workshop—much of the animation in early episodes of Sesame Street and The Electric Company is theirs. (Faith later referred to these segments as a different kind of advertising, “selling education to children.”)
Their own children weren’t just voice talent, as Faith explained in 1973: “Our kids have all worked here; they can draw, paint and do voice. It’s been like an atelier.” The Hubley children grew up with a normal middle-class arts education (“piano and music theory lessons…, some arty summer camps…, dance lessons, and later, riding”). But it was supplemented by personal education from their parents in family drawing classes, which Emily recalled for Chickfactor:
…freezing out on the beach in the middle of winter, drawing, like, a stick on the beach. You’d have all the sand blowing over your pad. Can we go inside yet? Oh no, we’re not done yet. Our parents’ stuff would be all beautiful and we’d all stomp back to the car going, “Mine really sucks!” Everyone would be in a horrible mood ’cause they hated their pictures.
Georgia added, in an email to me, “Sibling rivalry does not come to mind in this case, mostly frustration and self-hatred.” But whether they were happy with their own artistic skills or not, Emily has fond memories of working in the studio:
I remember coloring (with deliciously toxic-smelling Magic Markers) art for various Sesame Street and Electric Company segments, for People People People, and there’s one ugly background John let me color in Of Men And Demons. (He fixed much of it.) So we knew about the basic process—how the action was animated on separate levels and exposed on the sheets. We also cleaned prints in the little cutting room—again those toxic vapors.
To be clear, they weren’t pushed toward the arts, besides understanding that they were important. Faith had been pressured to become a dentist, and John’s relationship with his mother was strained, so they were determined to allow their children to pursue their own interests. Mark, whose first word was “horse,” rode at the Claremont Riding Academy. When Georgia wanted to learn to play drums, Faith let her use her animation studio as a practice room, noting, “There were noise complaints from the neighborhood, but she kept them from me as long as she could!” The children grew up loving all types of movies, animated or not; Emily recalls prints of Duck Soup, It’s A Gift, and The Magnificent Ambersons around the house. Politics were also a constant in the Hubley household. Ray told the Chicago Tribune, “In our house, it was Hitler, McCarthy and Disney, and not necessarily in that order.” Emily recalls participating in civil-rights and Vietnam moratorium events and watching Nixon resign with her father on a tiny black-and-white television: “I didn’t think I’d ever seen him so happy.”
The family faced a series of personal and professional crises in the mid-1970s. In 1974, Faith was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and after a mastectomy and radiation, given six months to live. At roughly the same time, John was hired to direct Watership Down, a project he worked on for roughly a year, commuting back and forth between New York and London, before being fired by producer Martin Rosen. (Faith, uninterested in the project, and not wanting to waste any of her limited time on something she didn’t care about, passed on the film to begin with.) In 1977, while the Hubley Studio was well into production of A Doonesbury Special, John died on the operating table during what was supposed to be a routine bypass operation. No one believed Faith could finish the film herself, and she simultaneously faced cancer, grieved for her husband, and dealt with the same kind of sexism she’d dealt with years earlier at Columbia. Here’s how she described it in 1988:
There’s something about accepting mortality that gives one courage. It certainly stood me up straight.
Finishing Doonesbury without John was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my whole life. I had to deliver one sequence at a time to NBC and go to censors and committees, and all the time suffering from cancer. They were trying to fire me because I was a mere woman. Garry [Trudeau] was very, very supportive. It was just a very horrendous period.
But, to be serious, I felt I had no choice. I could not afford to be afraid. I could not threaten to commit suicide, because I was already dying. Every neurotic behavior pattern was just cut off.
After John’s death, Faith had even less tolerance for artistic compromise, because “now I felt I could waste no time.” In her solo films, she addressed issues of women’s rights, environmentalism, child abuse, and spirituality. Her visual style changed, too, both because she’d always had a distinct drawing style, and because, as Emily put it, “She consciously wanted to express herself in a way that would defy comparison with the films they made as a couple.” She continued making films at the same breakneck pace she and John had established. One highlight of her early solo career is “Enter Life,” which has been playing on a loop at the National Museum of Natural History since 1982.
After their father’s death, the Hubley children started to come into their own. Mark, who’d loved horses since before he could speak, learned to train them; he’s currently president of a horse farm in Kentucky. When Ray was head of the film society at Kenyon, he booked his mother’s old friend Dede Allen as a speaker, and got hired as an apprentice editor on The Wiz. From there, he moved up to assistant editor on Reds and worked in the editorial department on many of Brian DePalma’s films from the 1980s—Dressed To Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way—before editing a long list of films that includes Dead Man Walking. Georgia Hubley’s career has been well-documented elsewhere; she met then-music-critic Ira Kaplan in 1980, and since their first show in 1984, they’ve been the core members of Yo La Tengo, releasing a long series of critically hailed albums and creating soundtracks for films as diverse as Junebug and Adventureland.
But Emily took up the family business. In high school, she produced an animated short, mostly, by her account, as a way to travel to Los Angeles for a semester. At Hampshire College, professor Tom Joslin convinced her to make another. Georgia had trained as a painter; Emily wanted to write, but Joslin helped her get a grant for the film she made right after college, “Emergence Of Eunice.” She worked at the Hubley studio with Faith (as did Georgia, off and on), and in 1984, the two sisters collaborated on “The Tower,” a film built around one of Georgia’s paintings. Emily’s style is different from either of her parents’, but like them, she’s put her career together from a combination of personal work and work for other people, including her contribution to Hedwig. In 1995, after many years of working on her mother’s projects, she brought her mother into one of her own:
I told her how much I had enjoyed, as a young teen or whatever, walking with her on the beach, and how she had allowed me to blather on about whatever my thoughts were about my life, and that she had made me feel like I was becoming an adult. And at this time my daughter was young—5 or so—and I asked Faith to pretend she was walking with Leila (imagining that she might not be around when Leila was a teenager) and sharing that growing-up girl experience with her.
The result was “Her Grandmother’s Gift,” a semi-autobiographical piece about menstruation scored by Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan.
Faith made her own autobiographical film the next year, “My Universe Inside Out,” which made its way to Sundance in 2000. She died in 2001, 27 years after she’d first been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
In 2008, Emily directed The Toe Tactic, a live-action feature incorporating animation. Starring a rogue’s gallery of independent film stars—Lily Rabe, Kevin Corrigan, Jane Lynch, David Cross, John Sayles—the film marked a return to the kind of family project the Hubleys had done in their studio’s heyday. Ray Hubley edited it, Yo La Tengo did the score, Faith’s paintings hang on the set, Mark and his son appear as extras, and Emily’s niece Hillary Hubley has a role. It did the festival circuit (A.O. Scott liked it), and is available on DVD from Kino. Since then, Emily’s kept making animated shorts at a faster pace than before, including the lovely “And/Or”:
Back in the UPA days, the films John Hubley made were practically guaranteed an audience. They played before feature films in theaters all over the country. But the market for theatrical short animation collapsed in the 1960s, before John’s death, before Faith’s solo career, and before Emily had animated a single frame. Today, except for Pixar and Disney employees, the odds of making a short animated film that plays before a non-festival audience are basically zero. And yet every few years, Emily Hubley makes another film on her own terms, the way her parents agreed to half a century ago. And they do make it to theaters: In Los Angeles, the Cinefamily is screening a comprehensive retrospective of John, Faith, and Emily’s films September 26-28. (Many will be in 35mm, which is now as rare an occurrence as the chance to see animated shorts in a theater.) It’s unlikely that Emily Hubley’s work will ever reach the kinds of audiences that golden-age animators did. The infrastructure is gone. But as the Hubley family story shows, that’s almost never the right thing to worry about. Here’s Faith Hubley again, in that 1988 interview: “You can’t really lose your life’s blood agonizing over the state of money or distribution… All we can do is our best work. My choice as a working artist is not to play to the marketplace. It’s not because I don’t know how. I’ve chosen another path.”
This concludes our Movie Of The Week coverage on Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on how the film navigates the divide between its theatrical and cinematic sides, and Wednesday’s staff Forum on its portrayal of glam and punk, fame and infamy, the American dream, and more. Next week, we’ll take on Preston Sturges’ sexy 1941 romantic comedy The Lady Eve.