Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) is an animated short film about a boy, Gerald McCloy, who speaks through sound effects. The film is based on an audio story by Dr. Seuss originally published as a record for children.
The film was created for cinemas, moving away from the realistic animation style popularised by Walt Disney. The main concept was that cartoons don’t have to obey the rules of the real world. This, besides being original, reduced costs, because they didn’t need realistic drawings, but something more creative and expressive.
The animation studio behind Gerald McBoing-Boing was United Productions of America (UPA). The UPA had been founded after a strike by Disney workers in 1941. During its years of existence, which spanned the 1940s to the 1970s, its biggest success was Mr. Magoo.
As I said before, Gerald McBoing-Boing’s plot focuses on Gerald McCloy, a 2-year-old boy that, when he begins to speak, uses sound effects rather than words. The first thing that comes out of his mouth is “boing boing”, the sound of a spring bouncing.
Doctors can’t find a solution, and the other children make fun of him, leading his family to despair. Then a radio talent scout discovers Gerald and hires him as a foley artist—the person who creates sound effects for film and radio.
The short was so successful, even winning an Oscar, that the UPA produced three sequels. Years later, in 2005, Cartoon Network launched a cartoon TV show based on the same characters. In this show, Gerald still speaks through sound effects, but he has two friends that use standard words.
Some notes about the production
Gerald McBoing-Boing’s creator, Bobe Cannon, and its designer, Bill Hurtz, wanted to create a minimalist cartoon with little dialogue. For the original film, first, they sketched the actions. Then, they composed the soundtrack and they animated all the actions using the sound as a guide. Finally, they added flat and flashy colours.
The style is far from the realism of other cartoons of the time. The backgrounds have only a few lines, some of them are almost abstract. These drawings are influenced by modern painters like Picasso and Matisse. The composition uses forced perspectives and extreme angles, achieving striking shots reminiscent of German expressionist cinema.
Cannon had started his career working with well-known characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He was one of the founders of the UPA and vice president of the studio from 1949 to 1957, a job that he combined with collaborations with Disney and Tex Avery.
Cannon loved ballet and he saw cartoons as a form of dance. When he designed his films, he thought of animation as if it were choreography. Maybe that’s where the idea of creating a character who expresses himself through sounds, rather than words, came from.