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Even the most casual cartoon fan is aware of the dominance of the Walt Disney Studio in the arena of feature-length animation during the classic studio era, but few remember the challenge to that dominance posed in the late 1930s and early 1940s by their greatest rival, Fleischer Studios. Producer Max Fleischer was one of the pioneers of the form and had created such popular characters as Betty Boop and Koko the Clown. With brother Dave Fleischer often directing, the studio also turned out the wildly popular Popeye cartoons in the 1930s. Distributed by Paramount Pictures, the Fleischers had enough muscle and support in the late-1930s to mount their first feature film, Gulliver's Travels (1939). It was a terrific undertaking, made doubly challenging due to an expensive move during production from their New York studio to a new, custom-built facility in Miami, Florida. Gulliver's Travels was successful enough with critics and at the box-office to earn Max and Dave the go-ahead from Paramount to produce a second feature. Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941, aka Hoppity Goes to Town), a parable about a troupe of big-city insects trying to find a better life, is notable today as the first animated feature to be set in modern day and not based on a classic story. Ultimately, however, the behind-the-scenes machinations of the production were sometimes more compelling than the on-screen travails of the cast of bugs and, sadly, the failure of Mr. Bug Goes to Town led directly to the ouster of the Fleischer brothers from their own studio.
Dave Fleischer's initial idea for a second animated feature was to adapt La Vie des abeillies (The Life of the Bee), the famed 1901 essay by Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. After finding that the rights were not available, a platoon of Fleischer story men set about fashioning an original scenario. After establishing a huge, gleaming city of skyscrapers, the movie opens as the camera focuses in on a colony of insects living in a garden alongside a busy street. A broken fence allows human pedestrians and children access to the garden, where the bugs are in danger of being trampled. Hoppity the grasshopper (voiced by Stan Freed) returns home from his journeys to witness the danger firsthand; discarded matches from humans cause entire insect houses to burn down, for example. The unscrupulous C. Bagley Beetle (voiced by longtime animation story man Tedd Pierce) has a safe haven and offers to sell the space to Mr. Bumble (voiced by Jack Mercer, who also played Popeye at Fleischer Studios) in exchange for his daughter's hand. Bumble's daughter is Honey (voiced by Pauline Loth), Hoppity's sweetheart. Hoppity, meanwhile, tries to reverse the fortunes of a human couple, Dick and Mary (voiced by Kenny Gardner and Gwen Williams). Dick is an aspiring songwriter and if he makes a sale, the couple can move to a private home with a garden. Hoppity's attempts are foiled by Beetle and his cronies at every turn. With its lanky "everyman" hero and populist storyline, Paramount executives decided to call the film Mr. Bug Goes to Town as a play on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), the Frank Capra classic starring Gary Cooper.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town is packed with captivating visuals. The opening shot is often praised and justifiably so; it consists of a breathtaking camera move on a sweeping cityscape. The city (unnamed in the film, but obviously based on the former New York environs of the Fleischer staff) is mostly an elaborate forced-perspective three-dimensional model, painstakingly made up of dozens of skyscraper sides and thousands of tiny windows. The overall design of the film charmingly takes the bug's-eye view - humans are seen mostly as just hands and feet. People are animated via rotoscoping (transferring live-action film frames to drawings), but the effect is done tastefully and is well-integrated (Gulliver's Travels features an overuse of the technique since all shots of the title character are rotoscoped). The background artists for Mr. Bug had a field day, playfully incorporating discarded objects from humans as bug accessories, such as a woman's compact for a circular bed or a harmonica as a pipe organ. Some found fault with the designs of the bugs themselves, however. In his book Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Wings Books, 1994) Charles Solomon quotes Mr. Bug writer Cal Howard, who complained about the character designs: "You can draw a bug and make it cute as hell - as cute as a bug's ear, in fact, but I thought those character designs were gruesome. Hoppity has a big, bloated head stuck on a skinny body."
The reviewer for Time magazine called Mr. Bug Goes to Town "a workmanlike effort designed for youngsters" and went on with non-effusive praise, writing, "Its color and atmosphere are first-rate; it is in good taste and not overdone." This critic had more to say about the score: "...the best of Mr. Bug's attributes is the music. The background music (by Leigh Harline, who composed most of Snow White's good music, Pinocchio's music and melodies) is notable. One tune by Sammy Timberg (Boy, Oh Boy), five by Hoagy Carmichael (lyrics: Frank Loesser) are hummable. We're the Couple in the Castle has already become a nationwide hit."
One factor in the poor box-office showing of the film was bad timing: it opened just two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Americans subsequently had little interest in seeing movies that month, especially something as jolly as Mr. Bug. Paramount tried to recoup their losses, reissuing the picture soon after as a second-feature and bearing the new title Hoppity Goes to Town. (It was under this title that the picture later played on television and was known for many years.)
Modern critics usually comment that Mr. Bug Goes to Town was a missed opportunity. In Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, (Plume, 1987), Leonard Maltin called the film out for its "...shallow characters and weak story line. Hoppity is a happy-go-lucky type with an insipid voice, and his girl friend Honey is a bland heroine. The plot elements... are too hackneyed to enlist an audience's involvement. And, once again, the film is plagued with a passel of undistinguished songs." Maltin has high praise for certain sequences, particularly the closing one, but, "unfortunately, one great sequence cannot sustain a feature-length film, and that's exactly the problem with Mr. Bug."
Similarly, Charles Solomon wrote that the film featured some excellent sequences, but "...these entertaining moments are separated by long, pedestrian scenes that allow the audience's interest to wander." Solomon also feels that "the early Fleischer films had a charming innocence that easily won the viewer's affection, and innocence Mr. Bug lacks. There's something too obviously calculated about the comic bits involving Mr. Beetle's inept henchmen, Swat the Fly and Smack the Mosquito, just as the romantic scenes between Hoppity and Honey reveal the artists trying too hard to be touching. This self-conscious quality makes the entire picture seem effortful."
Despite the success of Gulliver's Travels in 1939, the Fleischers were heavily in debt to Paramount when Mr. Bug opened, due in part to the move of the studio to Miami, and also partly because of the high production cost of their ongoing series of cartoons based on the Superman character. Complicating matters was a family feud: Due to personal reasons, Max and Dave were not speaking to each other, communicating only through memos. To secure the advances for the production of Mr. Bug, the Fleischers had to agree to hand over undated letters of resignation to Paramount. As expected following the film's failure, the studio activated the letters and terminated the brothers. The studio in Miami was closed, and Paramount continued production on the Superman and Popeye cartoons back in New York, under the name Famous Studios. Paramount hired several key Fleischer personnel to take over, including animator Seymour Kneitel, Max's son-in-law. The new regime lasted for several years.
Interestingly, while the Fleischer's feature Gulliver's Travels fell into Public Domain early on and has been repeatedly duplicated on poor-quality video releases for years, Mr. Bug Goes to Town has remained under copyright. That has not stopped rampant duplication and distribution of this feature too, but the issuing parties are incorrectly assuming that it is in the Public Domain.
Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer; Shamus Culhane (uncredited)
Screenplay: Dave Fleischer, Dan Gordon, Tedd Pierce, Isidore Sparber (original story); Dan Gordon, Carl Meyer, Tedd Pierce, Graham Place, Isidore Sparber, Bob Wickersham, William Turner, Cal Howard
Photography: Charles Schettler
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Kenny Gardner (Dick, voice), Gwen Williams (Mary, voice), Jack Mercer (Mr. Bumble/Swat, voice), Tedd Pierce (C. Bagley Beetle, voice), Carl Meyer (Smack, voice), Stan Freed (Hoppity, voice), Pauline Loth (Honey, voice), The Four Marshals (Chorus Interpretations, voice), The Royal Guards (Chorus Interpretations, voice)
by John M. Miller
Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin, 1987, Plume.
Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, Charles Solomon, 1994, Wings Books.
Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story, Stefan Kanfer, 1997, Da Capo Press.
"Fleischer in Florida, Part 2 - Up, Up, and Away!," Steve Fritz, Newsarama.com, 2009.