AMERICAN ANIMATION: John Sutherland Productions


John Sutherland Productions / Public Domain

In the late 1940s and 1950s, United Productions of America (UPA) came under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for their subversive politics. At the same time, a new animation studio was on the rise. John Sutherland Production – named after the former Disney animator and voice of Bambi – positioned itself as a bastion against Communism by instructing viewers on the virtues of Individual liberty and free enterprise. Often, these projects were commissioned by various conservative institutions – including Harding College, the US government, and various private businesses – with an investment in unfettered capitalism.

Despite being its political opposite, John Sutherland Productions often aped the modernist and minimalist aesthetics of UPA. As the studio head, John Sutherland himself focused on the stories and scripts of his films, paying little to no attention to the art direction and animation. He was also willing to hire former UPA animators – such as Bill Melendez and Bill Scott – and gave them relative creative freedom. As a result, the subversive styles pioneered by leftist artists were appropriated and repurposed for corporate and government propaganda. It makes for an interesting contradiction between form and content, to say the least.

In a brief survey of John Sutherland Productions, we can see their steady adoption of the UPA style while they continued to promote capitalist values at the behest of conservative institutions.

Make Mine Freedom (1948) – Produced for Harding College, Sutherland’s more famous production depicts the sinister Dr. Utopia trying to trick American workers with the promise of ISM.

A is for Atom (1953) – General Electric uses animation to depict complex and microscopic scientific concepts in order to show convince views of the wonderful non-military uses of atomic energy.

It’s Everybody’s Business (1954) – Presented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this instructional short makes a connection between the Bill of Rights and modern capitalism.

Destination Earth (1956) – By the time John Sutherland Productions was making this short for the American Petroleum Institute, they had embraced UPA’s modern graphics in the process of endorsing laissez-faire capitalism.

Rhapsody of Steel (1959) – In their most expensive and acclaimed film, John Sutherland Production partook in US Steel’s campaign against imports and alternative building materials. It is a culmination of the studio’s work graphically and politically.

If you want to learn more about America’s Cold War propaganda during the fifties, be sure to check out Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Kenneth Osgood, 2006) from the 2AD Memorial Library.


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