Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941)

Director: Dave Fleischer

Through the 1930s and 1940s there would be only one studio in the industry that attempted to rival the feature length animated film of Walt Disney Studios, that being Fleischer Studios. Taking a detour from the retelling of fairytales in the like of Disney films or the prior Fleischer picture Gulliver’s Travels (1939) this picture would be a contemporary story set in modern day New York City and features the studio’s finest quality of work. Sadly, due to internal struggles between the Fleischer brothers and poor timing of the film’s release this feature would fall flat finically, leading to the closing of one of the finest animation studios in cinema history, leaving this film as a legacy of what the studio was capable of.

Mr. Bug Goes to Town is an animated feature about a community of bugs living in a patch of grass in New York City who are at risk of losing their homes, and the one grasshopper that is determined to find them a new place to settle down in. Returning for lengthy trip away from home Hoppity the grasshopper discovers his home community known as “the lowlands” is not as he left it. The “human ones” are beginning to trample all over their land, putting everyone’s home at risk of destruction in this world of unseen insects. Determined, Hoppity attempts to find a new home for everyone to move to that is accommodating and safe for all his friends and neighbors. However the wealthy, deceitful C. Bagley Beetle of the safer “highlands” endeavors to benefit from the bugs’ woes and in the process force Hoppity’s sweetheart, Honey the Bee, to marry him by making Hoppity’s fail at being the hero. The solution for the bugs’ problems comes in the form of a young human couple who once owned the garden the bugs lived in as they build a safe rooftop garden that proves to be the land of milk and honey for this entire community of bugs far away from the dangerous human foot traffic that once plagued them.

Despite the title this animated feature is not a parody of the 1936 Frank Capra picture starring Gary Cooper Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. This feature appears as an original work, which was in fact heavily inspired by the short story “The Life of the Bee” by Maurice Maeterlinck which the studio did not get the rights for. The resulting feature would be a rather contemporary film that features a different look at the world of city living seen from the viewpoint of a community of insects on a small patch of grass within a busy block which due to a broken fence has become a shortcut of the careless human pedestrian traffic.

As mentioned beforehand nearly all of the feature length animated features, which only really consisted of Disney and Fleischer films, were set in fairytale times of a make-believe past with the exception of the Disney recent release of Dumbo. For Fleischer Studios to place a heavy investment in such an untested story could be considered a gamble, however, one can consider the world of anthropomorphic bugs to be in line with the target audience of cartoon-loving children with a decent enough story for adults to enjoy.

The devious C. Bagley Beetle
Directed once again by studio head Max Fleischer’s brother, Dave Fleischer, this feature proves to be a promising step in the right direction for the animation studio creatively. The animation appears far improved form that of Gulliver’s Travels. Heavy use of rotoscoping would be utilized for the animation of the humans in the film, which Fleischer disconnects from the world of the insects by never really showing their faces. This style of animation and presentation gives the humans a radically different feel from the more brightly drawn bug characters. The insects have a great deal of heart and provide a ensemble cast that allows you to care not just for Hoppity and Honey, but for the entire community who are being hindered by C. Bagley Beetle and his two goons. The story is filled with action, suspense, and even romance, which is giant leap from the overly simplified tale told in Gulliver’s Travels, where all the characters are dull and flat.

The animation would be augmented by the use of filming models and actual objects as background of the cell drawn animation. This was a practice that Fleischer Studios was beginning to use more often to achieve a 3D like quality to rival the Disney usage of the multi-plane camera in adding depth to their shots. This is most apparent in two segments in the picture, the first the opening credits where it takes a moment or two for you to realize that colorful background of the city is actually not drawn animation, but rather models as the camera moves through the cityscape. The second being when a Hoppity and friend fall into an empty water pale, where the pale sways with the use of filming of an actual pale. Depending on how one looks at these segments one can love them or dislike them, but seeing that this style did not continue to be used in the future very much shows that it was jarring to most audiences.

At the time of production of Mr. Bug Goes to Town the Fleischer Studios had borrowed money from Paramount to build their new facilities in Miami, FL in order to rival the Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. However brothers Max and Dave Fleischer would begin to have creative differences starting in 1940 and got so heated that the two would refuse to even speak with each other, signaling to Paramount that the future was not bright for their Fleischer investment.

The film’s production would be a costly endeavor for the Fleischer’s with this, their latest Technicolor spectacle. The voice cast would be mostly those of story men at the studio including the voice of the main character Hoppity (Stan Freed). Some supporting characters would be supplied by recognizable names in the field of cartoon voices at the time, including Jack Mercer, most famous as the voice of Popeye the Sailorman, and even an uncredited appearance by Pinto Colvig, best known for providing the original voice of Disney’s famed character of Goofy.

Originally scheduled for a November release date Mr. Bug Goes to Town would be held back as to not compete with Disney’s late October release of Dumbo. However this decision would have the film land with an unlucky release date of December 5, 1941, a mere two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into World War II. The film would be pulled from wide release until mid-February and by that time audiences were not interested in going to see an animated feature.

The film would be a huge financial bust for Fleischer Studios. Due to the money owed the brothers signed the company over to Paramount even before the film flopped and went separate ways while Paramount moved the remaining animators to California in 1942 renaming the company Famous Studios where they continued to produce Popeye and Superman cartoons to compete with Disney and Warner Bros. animated shorts.

The title of Mr. Bug Goes to Town was meant to be a parody by name only of well-known film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town simply to drive in interested business. Nearly a decade after the picture flopped in theaters it would be re-released under a new title of Hoppity Goes to Town, naming the film after its main character, and later still be entitled Bugville for certain home video releases. As years would go on this Fleischer feature would fade into the background of animated cinema history as Disney dominated the market, however it would prove to be a hidden gem for animation devotees and students of cinema. Despite poor care over the years the picture still has a small, but strong following of admirers leaving a lasting impact on the then  number two animation studio at its peak and great downfall all at the same time.

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