The debut of the short subject Rooty Toot Toot seventy years ago this month is as much a groundbreaking moment for animation as the first full-length feature, animated shows on prime-time TV, and the advent of computer-generated imagery.
It tells a darkly comedic tale that would seem daring even for live-action films of the time, and it tells this tale in an ingenious way that creatively stretched the possibilities of the medium.
The film was produced by United Productions of America, UPA Studio. The studio was founded in 1941, in the wake of the animators’ strike at the Disney studio. Several artists who left the studio desired to create animation that was less realistic and more stylized.
This became the distinguishing foundation for UPA. The artists established their own, more modern graphic style, abandoning rich character design for bold caricatures and substituting sparse, geometric shapes for lush backgrounds.
The UPA style would influence animation at other studios, establishing the look for the industry during the mid-century.
In addition to visuals, the artists at UPA also expanded boundaries with their stories. One of these was most definitely Rooty Toot Toot, a story about a jealous lover and murder.
The short uses a popular song, “Frankie and Johnny,” as its basis with Frankie, who finds herself on trial for shooting her piano-playing boyfriend, Johnny. Slick attorney Honest John (voiced by legendary voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft) represents her, and a seductive singer named Nellie Bly is brought in to testify (voice actress Anette Warren voices both Nelly and Frankie).
With its demonstrative flashbacks, the trial moves at the whirling pace of its song, coming to the jury’s decision and then a twist ending.
Through all of this, Rooty Toot Toot is groundbreaking in many ways. The distinct look of the short is as stylistic as anything UPA produced. Each character is a defined by particular shapes: Frankie, all thin lines and just a hint of red color in her hat and dress; Honest John, in his white suit, is a pear shape, and the judge is like a globe with arms.
The backdrop of the courtroom is like a sparse stage play with few details and a jury and courtroom full of spectators who barely move.
Like all UPA’s films, it is in stark contrast to the lavish animation that had been such a standard of every major studio in the decades prior. However, even with this, Rooty Toot Toot uses its style to emphasize the action and humor throughout the short. When Johnny is shot, the bullets fly through the door and his needle-like frame with cartoon grace, and as Nelly Bly wrings her hands, her arms twist like braids.
Rooty Toot Toot tells its story in song, from the player piano that rolls out the opening credits to the concluding “slam” of “The End,” the music by Phil Moore, the first black musician to compose for the Hollywood studios, is infectious.
At the helm for the short was legendary director John Hubley, one of the artists who left Disney during the 1941 strike. The animators who worked on the film were various fellow legends: Art Babbit, Pat Matthews, Tom McDonald, and Grim Natwick.
Rooty Toot Toot was released on November 15th, 1951, and was embraced by critics, receiving an Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated Short Film.
In the seven decades since its release, appreciation for Rooty Toot Toot continues to grow as successive generations discover it. In 1994, it was voted number 41 in Jerry Beck’s book The 50 Greatest Cartoons.
Artistically and thematically, Rooty Toot Toot is something truly special. As author Adam Abraham wrote in his book, When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA: “Clearly Rooty Toot Toot cannot be mistaken for a Donald Duck or a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. Sex, jealousy, murder, infidelity, and a general air of prediction are new to the animated lexicon.”