Monday, December 29, 2008

C. Bagley Beetle, the villain of the second Fleischer feature, "Mr. Bug Goes to Town."

About a week ago a writer from "the Villager" in NYC called me for an interview as he was writing a piece on Sammy Timberg, the composer of many of the tunes and scores heard in the classic Fleischer cartoons. It was a lay-out day, which meant as I was speaking with him, I was laying out pages for three of our four newspapers.

His story is here and please go take a look.

After he concluded his interview, he thanked me profusely but didn't reference me once in the story. Naturally. Note to the reporter: I've been in this business since 1975 and here's a good rule to follow – don't waste some one's time with an interview and then not reference the source in some way. It's rude.

Well, such is life. The reason for the story is the screening in NYC at the Film Forum is a 35mm print of Mr. Bug Goers to Town. I wish I could go as the film looks magnificent on the big screen.

Although the film has some flaws, I think it's a great animated feature that shows the evolution of the Fleischer style. Despite being in Florida, the hearts and minds of the Fleischer studios were definitely stuck in New York City and this feature shows it.

It carries on several key Fleischer elements: the urban setting, the use of pop music – several of the songs by Hoagy Carmichael were hits – the big versus little theme and a 3-D model. its use of rotoscoping to clearly identify the bug world from the human world is done much better than in "Gulliver's Travels."

Hoppity may be a bland hero, but the villains are a lot of fun as are the supporting characters.

There is one "fact" repeated in the story about Timberg referring to Mr. Bug's release and the sinking of the Fleischer Studios and that's the oft-quoted idea that Mr. Bug was released on Dec. 7, 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked.

First we have to understand how films were released at that time. The way a film is opened wide didn't exist then. The studios didn't make up thousands and thousands of prints and blanket the country at the same time. They were far more conservative with the number of prints and released a film in a far more gradual basis.

Films worked their way through cities and states. "Freaks," now considered a horror classic, for example, was released slowly throughout the country before it hit New York as MGM was fearful new York critics would hate the film. Their reviews could contribute to its premature box-office demise.

Take a look at this ad for Mr. Bug that appeared prior to the films release:

Look at the bottom where interested movie patrons were asked to inquire at their local theater about when the film was going to be playing.

Variety reviewed the film at a Dec. 4, 1941 trade screening and I have to wonder if the first public screenings came just three days later.

I wonder if there is a record of movie grosses at the time of the attack – did they drop across the board? I would imagine if there had been a trend it wouldn't have applied to just one movie.

I do know the New York Times didn't review the film until its Feb. 20, 1942 edition. Time magazine put in a review in its Feb. 23, 1942 issue.

A Christmas time release had definitely been originally planned as one Minneapolis department store its window display centered around the movie, Variety reported.

A February release couldn't capitalize on the school kids being out on Christmas break. Nor could a February release help sell the merchandise tie-ins as limited as they were.

Now whether or not Paramount sabotaged the film's release in order to tighten its hold on the Fleischer Studio and to fire Max and Dave was the reason for the delay in releasing the film – the NY Times and Time reviews would have come out to coincide with the film's general release – has often been the subject of speculation. It's interesting to note that Paramount brass would have been willing to lose its investment in the film just to make sure Max didn't stage some sort of financial recovery.

Remember there were no ancillary markets for motion pictures in 1941. You had a first run, a second run and then into the vault. If a truly successful film could warrant a re-release as RKO did with "King Kong" several times.

What saved Mr. Bug from oblivion was the sale Paramount made to the theatrical arm of NTA, the company that bought television rights to many of the Paramount shorts, including the Betty Boop cartoons. Paramount also sold rights to "Gulliver's Travels" to the company and both films were re-released to theaters.

Re-named "Hoppity Goes to Town," the film was in theaters in 1959. In the VHS era, NTA released the film on tape. The film, to my knowledge, has not received a legitimate DVD release. Amazon carries a version titled "Bugville."

If you're in the NYC area, catch a showing of this film.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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