For those unaware, almost a decade of my life was spent teaching animation history, affectionately dubbed “cartoons for credit,” at Chicago’s Columbia College. It’s not unusual to find me popping in a thematically paired seven-minute marvel before each evening’s feature. While looking for something to open last night’s home theatre presentation of Frogs — payback time for an ecologically unsound Ray Milland by a band of renegade croakers — it didn’t take long to pull Ub Iwerks’ innovative Fiddlesticks off the shelf.
Two milestones in one from animation pioneer Iwerks: Fiddlesticks was his first solo effort after semi-amicably parting company with Walt Disney in 1930 and the first all-talking cartoon shot in the then-revolutionary two-strip Technicolor process. Upon making the break, Iwerks accepted an offer to work for Disney’s rival, Pat Powers’ Celebrity Pictures. Powers set Iwerks up in his own studio where the animator introduced the world to Flip the Frog.
Originally named Tony, Flip would go on to appear in 38 cartoons, over half the output of Iwerks’ studio. With only four shorts produced, the prestigious M.G.M. liked what it saw and agreed to act as distributor. All of the subsequent cartoons were released in black-and-white.
From the opening pan left, we are introduced to a horizontal universe with nothing to offer in the way of depth construction. Our hero begins by hopping lily pads, a realistic trait that is quickly eliminated as Flip spends the rest of the short walking (and dancing) upright. A couple of buttons and a red bow tie further undermine Flip’s resemblance to a real frog. Without a plot to speak of, this Paleozoic venture into sound and color had only its star (and animator) to rely on.
Flip’s sole raison d'être in this short is to entertain two audiences: a woodland nightclub populated by insects, skunks, and rodents and those watching in the theater. Credit Iwerks with completely avoiding repetition; Flip may cavort a bit too long, but he never makes the same move twice.
Chuck Jones was the first to observe Iwerks is Screwy (Skrewi) spelled backwards, but as Leonard Maltin pointed out, literal-minded Iwerks’ idea of far out was having a character opening the hood of a V8 to reveal a six-cylinder engine. Seated at the piano, Flip is accompanied on the violin by a Mickey Mouse look-alike and frequently interrupted by the well-aimed spit from a tobacco-chewing robin. This is about as funny as the short gets, but as with the pioneering efforts of the Lumieres, Iwerks was more interested in capturing movement (and building character) than narrative storytelling.
Flip the Frog: Fiddlesticks (1930)
There are few things more charming at this point in cartoon history than the joyful dance that Flip, the mouse, the piano, and its stool put on. Flip and his 88’s carry on a rather perverse relationship. During a pointedly weepy interlude, Flip offers up a handkerchief to blow its keys. The compassion goes one step further when the frog’s sudden romantic advances (he begins to sensuously “play” the piano’s leg) cause the baby grand to give the toad a well-placed boot. Flip responds accordingly by knocking its keys down its anthropomorphic throat.
Long on charm and seamless execution but lacking in character personality and development, Fiddlesticks is a Disney cartoon without Uncle Walt’s flair for personification and storytelling.
Gather the kids around the computer no matter how old they may be, and enjoy!