tender-game tender-game

More Hubley Goodness

Remember when animation used to be lively? Full of verve? Even — dare I say it — playful? I’m back with another sterling example of the genius of John and Faith Hubley; this time it’s 1958’s The Tender Game, about the process of a young man and woman falling in love. There is a wealth of wonderful things to celebrate here, so let’s start with the music: Ella Fitzgerald sings the beautiful ballad, “Tenderly,” backed up and extended by The Oscar Peterson Trio. Um, wow. Bob Kurtz and I have been searching in vain for years for a clean recording of this track, which features these stellar talents at their jazzy prime. Apparently, this track was recorded during the same 1954 sessions Hubley had for his sadly uncompleted feature film, Finian’s Rainbow, where he not only had Ella and Oscar, but also Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra, and a host of other jazz and big band legends. But that’s another story…..

Then there’s the design. Abstract, offbeat, amorphous shapes, rendered in a style more far more painterly than cel paint, that somehow still manage to convey life, personality, and, especially, emotion. This is ably supported and abetted by fantastic character animation by the likes of Bobe Cannon, Emery Hawkins, Ed Smith and Jack Schnerk. (“Who?” I hear you cry.) Jack Schnerk was a veteran animator with a resume from both Hollywood and New York, and I had the pleasure of watching him work on Raggedy Ann and Andy in the mid-70’s. When I first saw this film, it was a 16mm print that Mike Sporn showed me from his private collection. As it unspooled, we got to the piece-de-resistance scene of the two lovers awkwardly sitting on the couch and eventually breaking down their defenses. It knocked me out then, and it still does now. Mike said, “Jack Schnerk animated that scene.” Milt Kahl it’s not. Charming, funny, honest, sensitive, and beautifully timed and observed it is. Cannon’s and Hawkins’ animation of the guy and girl trying to get each other to notice in the park is nothing short of breathtaking: funny, elegant, non-realistic, fluid, sensual, giddy, graphic, playful, expressive, and accessible — despite the abstraction, there is never a moment when we don’t know who is who or what they are feeling. The Hubleys were the absolute masters of this type of animation, and no one ever did more to marry the concepts of jazz, modern art, and the animation medium. This, and The Adventures of *, are my all-time favorite films of theirs.

I could go on and on, and usually do. But action, of course, speaks louder than words so hit the screen below and see what I’m raving about in glorious sound, color and movement.

  • As you say, a great marriage. O.P.’s piano dissonance matches that of the visuals. The TV show the short is excerpted from reminds me of another that aired in the 1970s on KQED in San Francisco. “The International Animation Festival” was hosted by Jean Marsh and featrured the canon of artsy modern cartoons–lots of Zagreb Studios and Canadian Film Board stuff but also American fare, like “Thank You Mask Man”. A fantastic series that was never rebroadcast.

  • Thank you so much for posting this. GREAT ANIMATION. “Playful” is the perfect word for it.

  • Rob T.

    The Tender Game has been my favorite independent animated short since I first saw it on VHS in 1995, at least if you count The Wrong Trousers as a featurette rather than a short. I reviewed it for the Internet Movie Database a while back, but “Cannon’s and Hawkins’ animation of the guy and girl trying to get each other to notice in the park is nothing short of breathtaking: funny, elegant, non-realistic, fluid, sensual, giddy, graphic, playful, expressive, and accessible” comes a lot closer to what I wanted to say than what I actually wrote at the time!

    I’d be interested to know if any of the scenes in The Tender Game are autobiographical, and also if there were any animated films that used “soft cuts” (as in the series of quick dissolves before the interrupted kiss and also the final embrace) before this one.

    Interesting that this rendition of “Tenderly” isn’t commercially available as a sound recording. I suppose you know about the CD of Hubley soundtracks that includes original music from Dizzy Gillespie (Voyage to Next), Quincy Jones (Of Men and Demons) and Benny Carter (several films, including Urbanissimo, Harlem Wednesday and The Adventures of *); probably the record company could only license the music written expressly for the Hubley films, which is why “Tenderly” isn’t here.

  • Thank you for posting this. I was the animation area chair for the most recent Film and History conference and there was some wonderful research presented on the Hubleys during one of our sessions. It’s nice to see more of their work.

  • Eric

    Glad people are enjoying this gem. Rob T., the earliest usage of dissolving artwork for animation that I can pinpoint is in the original 1940 Fantasia. As Yensid conjures up the colorful smoke butterfly, the smoke animation uses dissolves between the images. Since John Hubley was an art director at Disney around that time, he may well have stored the technique for future use when he thought it appropriate. I also have the Hubley CD soundtrack you mention, which is wonderful. John Canemaker also turned me on to a Box CD set called “Sinatra in Hollywood” that features all of Frank Sinatra’s tracks from FINIAN’S, including those with Ella, Louis, Hampton and more. Carl, I remember the Jean Marsh show you speak of, as well as “The Great American Dream Machine” on PBS and “Curiosity Shop” on ABC. On these shows I first saw the Hubleys’ EGGS, Zagreb’s THE SINGING PIG, Ryan Larkin’s WALKING, and Kaj Pindal’s WHAT ON EARTH? Ah, they don’t show ’em like that anymore…

  • That was really adorable and sweet.
    The colors were beautiful as well. And you were right about that bench scene. The implied awkward convo. The way that guy leaned in. And the way she tilted her head. Really touching. Really captures the often silly delight of a love at first sight so tenderly. And with such abstraction.
    I wish there was a way to see a sharper version of this.

  • Wonderful and inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

  • John Hubley told me that he devised the dissolve technique for Fantasia, and he told me how they did it when we reworked Art Babbitt’s mime for The Carousel feature with 4 fr dissolves. Babbitt wasn’t pleased to have his timing altered. The technique used in Tender Game is different. It seems to be standard 8 fr dissolves.

  • I’d like to echo what others have said and express my admiration for the bench scene between the two characters. The nervous and awkward body language is perfectly exaggerated (as it is in some other scenes). Thanks for pointing me towards this.

  • Kel

    Hubley’s work is not seen enough. I’ve never seen “Adventures of *”. Will that one ever be posted?

  • I dare say there is almost a tactile quality to this film.

  • That was so real. I loved it.

  • Oscar is underrated in the jazz world. But he’s a genius in our eyes.

    And coupled with the Hubley’s animation……..a masterpiece!!