by Brandie Ashe
The Acme Building and Wrecking Co., Inc. is in the process of demolishing the J.C. Wilber Building when a crowbar-wielding employee (who inexplicably wears a fedora and casual clothes) pries open the cornerstone and finds a small metal box. Inside the dusty box are the dedication papers for the building, dated 1892, and a small green frog. As the confounded construction worker watches, the frog leaps onto the lid of the box, flashes a sudden smile, reaches back into the box for a tiny top hat and cane … and bursts into a perfectly-pitched, thoroughly choreographed, high-stepping rendition of “Hello Ma Baby.”
So begins One Froggy Evening, the 1955 Technicolor masterpiece directed by prolific Warner Bros. animator/director Charles “Chuck” M. Jones. The cartoon is a fable of Aesop-ian proportions, juxtaposing the human’s greedy desire for fame and fortune at the frog’s expense with the amphibian’s inability/unwillingness to perform for anything other than his master’s sole pleasure. But forget all of that heavy stuff for a moment—what’s really important is that One Froggy Evening is seven minutes of inspired, efficient humor.
Jones was a great lover of the written word—in the documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009), he fondly recalls once moving into a house filled with books, upon which he and his family of voracious readers immediately descended “like a locust fury.” It’s easy to see Jones translate that love of reading into the cartoons which he directed—by virtue of short running times and the need to tell a full story in as little time as possible, the best entries in Jones’ impressive filmography almost read like brilliantly-composed poems. What’s even more remarkable is that in an animated short like One Froggy Evening, Jones goes so far as to throw all dialogue out the window; with the exception of the songs, the entire cartoon is told through its visuals in a glorious pantomime of manic, expressive moment.
It’s the little touches in this cartoon that mark the biggest laugh-out-loud moments: the skeptical side-eyed glances that the characters shoot at the camera (as if to say, “Can you believe this?”); the frog’s normal, realistic “froggy” movements during his downtimes—so starkly contrasted with his precise, miraculous dancing prowess; that full-bodied baritone, courtesy of Bill Robinson (a nightclub singer who remained uncredited for years), belting out an incongruous mixture of ragtime, standards, and even a Rossini aria. In an increasingly maddening series of events, the man does everything in his power to prove that the frog really sings—he takes it to a talent agent, only to find himself out on the street when things don’t go to plan; he bankrupts himself renting out a theater to showcase the frog’s talents, and can only entice an audience by offering free beer. But every single time, he is stymied in his efforts to profit from the frog’s abilities: he either takes too long in trying to fetch someone’s attention, or something inadvertent happens, like a curtain rope breaking.
This speaks to a much deeper philosophy that is at work in One Froggy Evening—something more profound than the mere attempt to solicit laughter from the viewer—for the most hilarious element to the story is also the most disheartening and pathetic one, when you stop to think about it. On the surface, the cartoon appears to be a simple cautionary tale. Its lesson: greed is bad; greed will get you nowhere. At heart, however, the story is little more than a treatise on futility. The man continually tries to convince people that he is not crazy; he really does possess a singing, dancing frog, and other people—like the policeman who eventually carts the man off to a “Psychopathic Hospital”—obviously hear it singing, but no one actually sees it do so. So what can a man do when that performing frog simply refuses to perform in public … other than wonder if he just might be as crazy as they say?
Adding to the cartoon’s overwhelming sense of exasperation is that we, the members of the audience, realize that the frog is an unparalleled talent; when the increasingly desperate protagonist periodically stares at the uncooperative frog in disbelieving horror, we can practically hear him begging us to validate his story. But, like the frog, we are rendered mute, and in that sense, we share the man’s helplessness. It’s an endless, fruitless cycle of frustration, doomed to forever repeat itself—and from the scenes framing the cartoon, in which the frog is discovered by the newest in what is likely a long series of owners, we get the sense that is has been repeating for millennia. It is, sadly, a somewhat easy notion to relate to, at least from an adult perspective, because isn’t that cyclicality just the nature of life sometimes? And isn’t that thought just the slightest bit depressing? (Deep stuff for a mere “kids’ cartoon” …)
One Froggy Evening remains one of the most beloved products of the Golden Age of Hollywood animation, and one of the most memorable. Film director Steven Spielberg once even christened this cartoon the Citizen Kane of the genre. When the list of the fifty best cartoons ever produced was compiled in 1994, One Froggy Evening sat at number five, behind fellow Chuck Jones-helmed classics What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, and Disney’s Mickey Mouse ‘toon The Band Concert. In fact, Jones’ work comprises a full twenty percent of that list, something unmatched by any other artist or studio. Less than a decade later, in 2003, One Froggy Evening was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally significant” film (along with What’s Opera, Doc? and Duck Amuck).
And that frog? Even though he wouldn’t make another cartoon appearance for forty years—when Jones directed a 1995 “prequel” called Another Froggy Evening—the character became an icon, parodied in films and on television, even gaining a name (Michigan J. Frog) and eventually becoming the mascot of a (now-defunct) television network.
Such is the power of animation and its enduring appeal, to young and old alike.
How One Froggy Evening made the Top 100:
Bill Riley No. 3
Sam Juliano No. 16
Frank Aida No. 20
Bobby J. No. 40