Dir.: Ernest Pintoff & Gene Deitch
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9
When talking about animation, it's easy to get caught up in believing that the more complicated and slicker the animation, the better the film. Especially in regards to popular animation, where the gold standard seems to be "Disney" or "Pixar," and then everything rather dribbles down from there.
But applying such a standard is only taking into account one element of animation: that of the high quality (which is generally attributable to higher expense) of the animation itself, where it is considered to be smoother, glossier, closer to reality, and therefore, arguably more excellent than animation that is rougher or of a lower quality.
Such a standard does not take into account the other elements contained in an animated film: character design, screenwriting, direction, musical score, art direction, backgrounds, voicework, and a multitude of other variables that can determine the success of a cartoon. And what I consider to be the most important variable of all: whether the film succeeds in relating the story it is attempting to tell the audience.
There are loads of Disney cartoons where the animation is uniformly excellent, but where the humor is perhaps a tad too safe, to the point where one often wishes they had been a little more adventurous in their storytelling choices and the manner of their gags. By the same token, there are plenty of examples of other shorts by other studios where perhaps the animation is a good deal stiffer than in a Disney short, but the jokes in the cartoon leave the audience breathless with laughter (if indeed the intent of the cartoon was to leave the audience in that state).
When UPA came to be in the late '40s and really hit the industry hard in the early '50s, the minimalist approach that they introduced in much of their animation really turned everything that was thought about the art form on its ear. Animation was for a few solid decades fairly dedicated to the style to which the world had grown accustomed. There were differences, of course, between the cartoons produced by the major animation studios, but there was a general reliance on rather smooth animation done in a funny animal style, and few variations from that form. There was constant evolution in the form, naturally, owing to changes in society and culture, with a big nod to technological advancement over those decades. But when John Hubley and his artists took the stage and started showing the world that there were other ways to tell a story in an animated film, all bets were off.
Terrytoons, a studio that made its name doing funny animal cartoons since the silent era, was itself influenced heavily when UPA came along. While their films were already notoriously lower budget and therefore rougher than some of the other studios, Terrytoons, the home of Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle, were one of the first theatrical animation studios to make a big leap into television. They found themselves with a big hit on their hands with Tom Terrific on The Captain Kangaroo Show, very simplistic animated segments but with inventive action and charmingly memorable characters. This success would expand to other shows like Deputy Dawg and Hector Heathcote in the '60s, even while continuing to release theatrical cartoons where the animation became increasingly limited and lower in budget. [The later Heckle & Jeckle shorts are barely watchable. See my review of Sappy New Year here.]
But before all this, Terrytoons put out a cartoon in 1957 called Flebus. It was unlike anything they had attempted to that point, and it was created and initially directed by a man who came over from UPA, Ernest Pintoff. Gene Deitch, who had been put in charge of the studio in 1956, had also worked for UPA, and was less reluctant to change things up at Terrytoons than its founder, Paul Terry, had before he sold the studio to CBS in 1955. Pintoff, who was also a jazz musician, also created the score for Flebus, but credit was given to studio composed Philip A. Scheib, due to union rules. Pintoff, for personal reasons, left the production of Flebus in mid-flight, and while he is credited as the director, Deitch himself stepped in to complete the film.
Just from the images I have posted here, you can see that Flebus is radically different from most cartoon shorts released in 1957. This is not Bugs Bunny or Goofy. This is bare bones character construction. Simple lines, single (or rarely, double or triple) colored backgrounds, limbs that move stiffly if at all, and the barest amount of facial expression. There is a narrator to relate details of the story unseen onscreen, and the dialogue is childlike and spare.
The film starts out with a small man wearing a hat as he walks in front of a maroon background. His body is about two-thirds of a square, and out of one corner of the square protrudes a large nose that runs from what would be the top edge of the square. A smile has been drawn below the nose, and he has two beady eyes which never vary; no whites are ever seen, just the pupils. His legs betray the most animation on his body, as his arms mostly hang limp at his sides. As he walks, in reaction to the narration, he will turn so we can see his body from the front as he waves as the camera.
The narration, as are all of the character voices in Flebus, is done by Allen Swift, a popular voice actor in the '50s and '60s, best known for The Howdy Doody Show and The Underdog Show, where he voiced the villain Simon Bar Sinister, amongst others. Swift's narration is done in a Brooklynese type voice, kind of tough but always open to the audience. As Flebus walks along, Swift reads...
"This is a story about Flebus. Flebus was a nice guy, and he had lots of friends." When Flebus is called "nice," the little man turns briefly to smile at the camera, and then just as quickly returns to his forward motion across the maroon background. A second man shaped much like Flebus but with a flat green hat and a mustache meets him. Flebus says, "Hi, friend!" and the man responds, "Hi, Flebus!" Flebus then says, "Bye, friend!" and the man responds in kind. The man departs and Flebus carries on his way.
The background changes to broad expanses of yellow mixed with short swaths of orange or green. Flebus walks a little differently and more happy this time, with his body giving the impression of him hunching his shoulders as he moves. He steps up to a lady of similar shape and size, only with three spring-like measures of hair and a blue hat. (Once more, no actual clothing beyond the different hats is to be seen.) Flebus says, "Hi, Mildred!," she being apparently more important than the previous fellow that he just called "friend". "Hi, Flebus!" she replies, and then Flebus produces a tall flower to present to her. She accepts it happily, and Flebus bids her adieu in the same manner as he greeted her, and she responds in kind.
Flebus' walk changes slightly again, with his usually limp arms bent at the elbows as they seem to pinwheel around and around as he moves swiftly across a background of alternating shades of orange. The narrator begins to read again...
"Flebus was a nice guy! And when he met new people, he would offer them an ice cream cone... or a fish... or a flower." Flebus, during the narration, has indeed met a new lady and offers her each of the items, confusing her less and less with each offering, none of which he takes. "Sometimes," the narrator reads, "he would do tricks! Or make funny faces! Or flip!" Flebus does each of these acts in front of the lady, and she finally breaks down and laughs. She reaches forward and plants a couple of big kisses on his face. "Ha! Everybody liked Flebus!" says the narrator. And the lady says goodbye to Flebus, and he says "Bye!" to her.
The narrator continues, "And Flebus was very happy!" Flebus gives the camera a smile as he walks again. "Very, very happy!" Flebus walks a little bit taller with this addition and continues moving forward. A man named Frank far in the background (thus changing the pattern up a little again) waves and greets Flebus, and Flebus replies to him. Not looking where he is going, the story finally takes a turn. "Then, one day, he bumped into a stranger!"
Flebus does just that, bouncing off the body of a character almost three times his size, a taller rectangle of a man wearing a blue crown on his head. Our hero greets the man and holds out his hand for a shake. "Hi, I'm Flebus!" he offers happily. The man, with a large gruff voice responds rudely with a single, drawn-out, "SO?" The man continues, "I'm Rudolph!" and then he bops Flebus over the head with his meaty fist. Flebus is undeterred by this, and offers Rudolph his customary ice cream cone. There is no response, not even a smirk. Flebus does a one-hand stand, and there is still no reaction. Flebus pulls out a flower (where does he keep all these cones, flowers, and fish? Must stink to high heaven...) and Rudolph takes it, finally smiling. The narrator, however, knows the true story: "But Rudolph was still unfriendly!" and then the large man raises his fist, with the flower still grasped in it, and bops Flebus over the head again. "And he walked off with Flebus' flower."
We get our first real change of perspective in the film with a closeup of Flebus' face, his mouth a straight line as he tries to comprehend why someone would not like him. "Flebus was very sad," says the narrator, "and he couldn't understand why Rudolph didn't like him. Everybody liked him!" Flebus bumps into a lady who greets him, and he, naturally, greets her back. Then he asks her, "Did you see that big new guy in the neighborhood? He took my flower and he wouldn't be my friend!" She asks, "Did you give him an ice cream cone?" and then "Did you do a trick for him?" and then finally, "Maybe he likes fish?"
Flebus hadn't tried this and we can another closeup of his face, this time smiling as broadly as it can. Flebus blinks his eyes, and then the film takes an abstract leap in time. A small image of the sun appears in the middle of Flebus' face, and then grows and grows until it takes up the entire frame and then the scene switches to the next day. Flebus walks along his maroon background again. A man in the background, named Sam this time, does the usual call-and-response greeting with Flebus, and then our hero walks right into Rudolph once again. Flebus offers Rudolph a fish, but the large man growls, "Man, I hate fish!" and bops Flebus over the head once more. Then he adds, "And most of all, I HATE YOU!!!" and then bops Flebus three times over the head in quick succession, pounding the little guy down to the ground until we briefly just see his red hat.
Flebus pops back up, and the narrator reads, "By now, Flebus was getting a little concerned." We get another closeup of his face, with a deep frown appearing underneath his nose and close-set beads for eyes. "He couldn't understand why Rudolph didn't like him." A lady tries to greet her friend Flebus, but the little guy just passes her straight by, with the fish still tucked underneath his arm.
"That night, Flebus couldn't sleep," reads the narrator, and we get our first taste of an actual setting, with Flebus lying in a bed (no blankets, though), with the moon hanging in the sky above him and stars surrounding the bed. Flebus starts to sleepwalk with his arms stretched before him, and we hear the plaintive cry of Flebus saying, "He doesn't like me!" Flebus takes pills to help him sleep, but has horrible dreams (with his feet kicking the air), where he tries desperately to be nice, screaming his greetings over and over, but getting no one to say something back. The nightmare builds until we are released to the next day by another sunburst that fills the frame.
Flebus takes a walk against an orange background, and he sees Rudolph standing in front of a red wall. Rudolph is tossing a ball in one hand, while still gripping the flower Flebus gave him in the other one. Flebus peers around the wall several times but ducks away each time that Rudolph turns around. (It should be noted that the background is purple when Flebus looks around the wall on a closeup.) Finally, Rudolph drops the ball where it rolls into the orange area, and Flebus runs up happily and retrieves it. He trues to give the ball back to Rudolph, but the bully bops Flebus over the head once again.
We get a huge change of perspective as Flebus walks towards the camera. The wall in front of which Rudolph stood becomes a rectangle that recedes into the distance, the wall and Rudolph becoming smaller and smaller the further Flebus walks, until they disappear. The narrator read, "Finally, Flebus decided to see a psychiatrist to find out why Rudolph didn't like him." Flebus walks up to an office door marked "DR." and pushes a buzzer.
The door is opened by our first figure to move away from the rectangular shapes of the rest of the citizenry of this world. The doctor has a triangular bottom, long arms clasped together, a mustache, and a pair of glasses with googly eyes balanced atop a rounded head and extended nose. The doctor politely invites Flebus inside, where the little man lies down on a couch. Flebus recounts everything that he tried to give Rudolph to win his friendship, but still can't understand why Rudolph hates him so much. At the doorway once more to see Flebus off, the doctor gives his diagnosis. He looks back and forth between Flebus and the camera, his pupils spinning around inside his glasses, and says, "The trouble with you, Flebus, is that YOU... ARE... NEUROTIC!" There is a closeup of Flebus' face once more, with his mouth just a straight line again, and his red hat falls over his eyes. He rushes off and the door to the doctor's office closes.
But the doctor has another patient. This time it is Rudolph, and the same steps are repeated. The bully lies down on the couch and recounts how Flebus tried to be so nice to him. "Why do I hate Flebus so?" he wonders. Again we are taken to the doctor's doorway, where he gives his diagnosis, this time closing his eyes halfway when he looks at the camera, as if thinking through the problem. "The trouble with you, Rudolph, is YOU... ARE... NEUROTIC!" Rudolph throws his hand onto his face in shock. The narrator says, "Rudolph was stunned!"
The scene shifts to a very forlorn Flebus looking down at the ground against an orange background, his hands clasped behind his back. He hears Rudolph yell, "Hey, Flebus! Flebus!" and when he turns around, Rudolph offers him his flower back. Flebus smiles a full-toothed grin at the camera, and accepts the flower. Rudolph yells, "I'M NEUROTIC!" and then bops Flebus over the head once again. "Me, too!" replies Flebus, and the pair shake hands in friendship. "And they were friends forever after!" says the narrator, but it seems there are conditions to this friendship. Rudolph is pulling Flebus along in a wagon, but when Flebus smiles and waves at the camera, the big guy turns around frowning. Flebus stops waving and ducks down, and this seems to appease Rudolph, who turns the wagon away from the camera to pull them off into the distance. Flebus pops back up to wave at the viewers as they disappear. The End.
What is most remarkable is how Flebus (the film) starts out so simply with just basic colors and shapes, but then slowly builds in the complexity of its compositions as the film progresses. The props and settings become gradually more complex as well. Certainly, the animation remains extremely limited in scope, but the filmmakers are able to play within the very strict boundaries they have set for themselves. The relationship between all of the characters, of course, remains extremely childlike, almost as if in a children's book, but the introduction of the psychiatrist also takes this film out of the realm of the child and flings it fully into the world of more adult concerns (and humor). In this way, it relates fairly close to that type of humor which was being explored contemporaneously by the comic strip Peanuts, as an example.
Notice must also be made of the use of backgrounds in Flebus. While my knowledge of this area is extremely limited, there have been writings about the psychological properties attributed to the various colors, and from just a glance, it seems that the design of Flebus' world was based around such a concept. I have pointed out the different backgrounds used throughout the film in the text, and when matching up the backgrounds to the action, there may have been some adherence to this line of thought. For instance, in the ball scene, Rudolph stands in front of a red wall, which can mean strength and masculinity, but also defiance and aggression, while Flebus is set in an orange background, which can mean warmth, passion, and fun, but also immaturity.
Had I more time, I might go back through and analyze each scene individually, but I also invite the reader to watch the film on their own (which you can do below) and see what it holds for you. And let me know what that is in a comment, if you don't mind. I am always interested to find out what the modern audience thinks about these old cartoons.
And in case you haven't seen it...