June is here. No special cartoon related holidays. But as old expressions go, June is associated with – June Bugs. No, not wascally wabbits, but the six-legged kind. It thus seems appropriate to enter a new chapter in exploration of the life of the cartoon insect. We covered ants last year. so we move on to a new species that’ll really put the bite on you – that denizen of the doggie world, the common flea.
Most animators never seemed very concerned with depicting the flea with anatomical correctness. What’s to depict? Not much of a distinctive physique – just a tiny black dot. So, artistic liberties seem to have always been the norm. The earliest appearances of the critters bear a certain commonality in appearance to standard humanized bugs of other species, quite frequently walking on two legs with traditional rounded heads. Later animators would let their imaginations run wild, abandoning insect traits altogether, and practically transforming the creatures into miniature large-headed people of every description.
Bobby Bumps’ Pup Gets the Flea-Enza (Bray Studios, 4/23/19, Earl Hurd, dir.). is the earliest surviving flea epic I’ve encountered, and a highly interesting time capsule proving that history does indeed repeat itself. One might think the script concept was written yesterday given present current events, as the film may be the only cartoon preserving a twisted glimpse of domestic life during the Spanish flu epidemic/pandemic of 1918. Bobby reads a newspaper article, announcing the latest scientific findings that animals are subject to the flu. Bobby is way ahead of the medical practitioners, telling the audience, “Gee, I’m glad I’ve got Fido pertected.” Sure enough, Bobby’s dog is outfitted with an item hardly any American these days hasn’t attempted to learn to cope with – a medical face mask! It isn’t any easier for Fido to get used to the thing than for most people of today’s generation – as Fido realizes there’s no way to enjoy his favorite bone as long as the cloth doohickey remains in place. Fido finally rips it off and chows down – epidemic or no epidemic. No sooner has his cover dropped to the floor, than a flea (depicted already in surprisingly traditional cartoony insect fashion, walking on two legs) peers around a corner. Fido rears backward in evasive action, finally finding the discarded mask and applying it again. “Curses, Foiled!” responds the flea. But a local cat sees Fido hiding behind his thin veil of protection, and rips the mask away. The flea leaps right into Fido’s nose, sending him into a fit of uncontrolled sneezing. Bobby responds to the sound, asking, “Where’s your mask?” In perhaps one of the first instances of cartoon swearing, Fido responds, “Damcat got it!”Examining Fido’s tongue, Booby decides a doctor’s visit is in order, and plops Fido into a child’s wagon (marked “Ambulance”) fastened to the back of Bobby’s tricycle. Fido receives an examination – though Bobby fails to note tha he’s taken Fido to a horse doctor, so of course, the flea is never noticed, and the wrong diagnosis made. Fido is taken home and bedridden. A too-hot hot water bottle causes him to leave his bed, and Fido, wiser than the medical profession as to his true malady, accepts his situation by beckoning “C’mon, gang” to his bed. As a caption tells us, fleas are great mathematicians – they can multiply rapidly – and one such brainiac has now grown to twenty-six. They enter the pantry together, finding the cat. The fleas must by now favor a change of diet, as they surround the cat and converge on him. As the cat scratches and squirms, Fido advises him he’s got the “fluenza”. “Fluenza your eye. It’s “flea-enza”, you contaminated frankfurter”, yowls the cat. The cat chases Fido outside, across the yard, and then socks him, sending Fido flying through the bedroom window and back into his bed. Bobby returns and asks what’s the matter. Fido responds, “Nothing, except that I got up too soon, and had a setback.” In an unusual coda, a little mouse appears in the corner of the frame during the last shot, and writes Earl Hurd’s signature on the background for the iris out.
The name Roy Seawright may not ring like a household word in animation circles. But you know his work. If you remember back to your childhood, watching Pete the Pup on the Little Rascals, upon smelling a skunk, have his eyes pop out like balloons, then spiral in randomly opposite directions. Or if you recall Oliver Hardy with his head caught in a trap door, and Stan Laurel stretching Ollie’s neck entirely out of proportion. Seawright was the animated effects expert for Hal Roach during the studio’s golden days of short subjects and early feature production. One of his early efforts for the “Our Gang” series was Thundering Fleas (7/4/26 – Robert McGowan, dir.), something of an “all star” affair, not only featuring the gang, but a young Oliver Hardy, Charlie Hall as a musician, a rare cross-over-the-tracks cameo by studio veteran Charley Chase (with a fake handlebar moustache), and an appearance by Jimmy Finlayson as a justice of the peace (without his trademark moustache!). Featuring quite a lot of traditional 2D animation, the proprietor of a street-corner flea circus shows off his star performer, Garfield the magnificent. (Were flea circuses real? Apparently, some used real fleas on tethers, while others were entirely illusions with mechanical contraptions – see the Wikipedia page on the subject for reference.)
After riding a bicycle and lifting barbells, Garfield sees something more appealing than his celebrity life – Farina’s dog. Finding his star gone, the curcus owner offers a dollar to the member of the gang who can locate Garfield. The search is on, on every dog in town – except Farina’s, who has gotten loose, and while everyone is busy looking elsewhere, topples over the container housing the rest of the circus, and inherits the whole cast, ushered on board by Garfield. The gang meanwhile has acquired bottles of fleas, but none of them are identified as Garfield by the owner, so nobody gets the dollar. Farina asks to keep one of the other kids’ bottles, hoping to train one of the fleas to ride a bicycle. Meanwhile, his dog is spreading trouble, infesting the pants of cop on the beat Oliver Hardy. The gang members attend a wedding ceremony scheduled for the afternoon, and not only does Farina’s dog finally show up, but Farina drops his own bottle – and the fleas are everywhere. The gang races for their last hope – a sack of flea powder out in the barn. But in a final animated gag, Garfield avoids the effect of the secret weapon – by donning a gas mask.
Cat, Dog, & Co. (Hal Roach/MGM, Our Gang, 9/14/29 (silent with synchronized music and effects track), while including considerably less animation, provides similar opportunity for a running gag. A woman teaches the gang about kindness to animals – of course prompting several of its members to overdo it. While Wheezer and another toddler sally forth to set loose every captive animal in town (pet shops, poultry markets, etc.), fat kid Joe Cobb encounters a flea which he talks a little girl into not destroying. In micro-closeup, the flea appears in animated form, announcing, “Hooray. A friend! I’ll stick to him.” And spends the remainder of the film sneaking up Joe’s trouser legs, and periodically feasting on fresh fat juvenile. By the end of the film, having narrowly missed being squished by a frustrated Joe who realizes he should have known better, the flea takes up more traditional residence on the back of Pete, who whirls around in a scratching fit for the iris out.
Entering the early days of talkies, at least one character had to view fleas as a re-cur-ring problem – Mickey Mouse’s ever-faithful mongrel Pluto. In his farmyard days, before the high-tech world of flea powders and extermination collars, Pluto was often susceptible to invasion, and frequently populated with an army of the critters.
A typical example is The Mad Dog (Disney/Columbia, Mickey Mouse, 3/5/32, Burt Gillett, dir.). Mickey tries his best to keep Pluto clean, giving him a thorough scrubbing in a washtub (with enough force to spill half its water onto the floor), and running towels through Pluto’s ears. But when Mickey starts vigorously scouring Pluto’s rear end on a washboard, Pluto has had enough. He leaps out, and engages in a tug of war when Mickey tries to apply the bath towel. Mickey winds up dunked in the tub, while Pluto accidentally swallows the cake of soap. Pluto’s digestive system transforms the bar into a non-stop stream of bubbles, and foamy froth around the mouth. Mickey’s pursuit of Pluto leads out into the street, where an aged female cow (Clarabelle’s mother?) panics at the sight of the bubbly Pluto, and calls in a distress call on a police phone at having sighted a mad dog. An angry mob pursues Pluto, tossing rocks and cans at him. As Pluto becomes cornered in a fenced yard, Dog Catcher Pete makes his appearance (developed in model to the point where he is easily recognizable, but not yet having his signature voicing by Billy Bletcher). Remedy for a mad dog in those days didn’t bow to any concerns of the humane society – standard protocol was to shoot on sight. As Pluto faces the barrels of Pete’s cocked shotgun, we find that, despite all of Mickey’s efforts at improving Pluto’s hygiene, Pluto is crawling with fleas – drawn with moderate realism, but with rhythmic unison hopping – who leap off from him in all directions and disappear through a hole in the fence, like rats deserting a sinking ship! Mickey intercedes, and he and the pup engage Pete on a wild chase involving most of the contents of a fruit wagon, a four-story long ladder, and a lamppost, finally landing Pete headfirst through the roof of his own doggy wagon, helples to the slurps on his face from the dogs within. Mickey and Pluto return home at full speed, and Pluto gladly hides out, of all places, in the washtub. To make the scene complete, under the closed front door hop in all of Pluto’s fleas, who climb the washboard and hop back onto their host, leaving Pluto scratching despite still being soaked in soapy water, and Mickey affectionately hugging him, infestation or no infestation.
Pluto wasn’t the only starring canine with periodic flea problems. A strange scene appears in Bimbo’s Initiation (Fleiscer/Paramount, Talkartoon (Bimbo and Betty Boop), 7/24/31 – Dave Fleischer, dir. (animator credits unknown, thanks to the heartless editing of U.M. & M. TV). Normally, because Betty’s “boyfriend” Bimbo (yes, they both started out as canines) always walked on all “twos”, spoke fluently, and wore clothes, one rarely thinks about him as a dog. But this once, it is called to our attention. Trying desperately to escape from the secret initiation ceremony of a mystic order whose meeting hall in in the sewer, Bimbo faces a world of contraptive nightmares designed to amuse the membership and place the initiated into mortal peril. (This may, incidentally, mark one of the earliest instances of the Fleischer Studio fleshing out a truly cohesive script for a talkie, rather than depending on a series of random gags or breaks to musical numbers.) One sequence has Bimbo leap upon a bicycle in a gymnasium room in attempt to get away – only to find the cycle is tethered to a belt driving a wheel full of small artificial hands, which deliver a repeated spanking upon Bimbo’s rear end. Bimbo finally frees the bike from its moorings, and races around a room with a swimming pool in it. Looking back at his rear end, he realizes the friction of the spanking has set his fur on fire – and an endless array of fleas are abandoning the blazing butt by jumping with parachutes! Bimbo finally jumps into the pool – which in miraculous fashion instantly deep-freezes as if made of glass, Bimbo cracking through the water’s surface head-first.
Ub Iwerks too would give brief screen time to the flea in Flip the Frog’s The Village Barber (MGM, 9/27/30), A shaggy black terrier visits Flip’s establishment, and gets the shave-and-a-haircut of all time – with Flip shearing him as bald as a sheep at a county fair. As he plows through the fur in the dog’s back with an elctric razor, a flea appears out of the remaining dense brush (in standard cartoon “buggy” form, walking on two legs). He gives a hail to others behind him – and an entire family of fleas leaves with their belongings hastily packed into miniature suitcases.
And Dick Huemer, at Charles Mintz Studio for Columbia, would provide a fun gag for the pet dog Yippy of his pet creation Scrappy, in The Dog Snatcher (10/19/31). Yippy has just been sent “up the river” to do a stretch in a maximum security dog pound for being without a license. Thrown into a cell for solitary confinement, Yippy finds he is not quite alone. As he howls a rendition of Vernon Dalhart’s famous record hit of a few years earlier, “The Prisoner’s Song” (“If I had the wings of an angel…..”), a sextet of fleas appear from within his fur on the last bars of the number, to finish the tune in high pitched humming voices. Each flea is dressed in prison stripes and hat, and they march linked in unison as if a miniature chain gang – until Yippy produces an insecticide spray gun and spritzes them, transforming the six little convicts into six little graves with headstones!
Hell’s Fire (MGM/Ub Iwerks, Willie Whopper, 2/17/34) has been visited multiple times along my many trails, and provides Iwerks another chance for a flea cameo. Within its visit of Willie and his dog to Hades inside a volcano crater, Willie’s dog takes time out to scratch a flea. The flea is depicted as little more than a jumping dot with a red shell (are they confusing them with ladybugs?), and hops off Willie’s dog onto the back of Satan’s three-headed hellhound. Each respective head of the hellhound takes turns nipping at its own fur in different places to find the flea. The bug is finally chased off. Heading back to where it came from, it fails to reboard Willie’s dog, who gives it a menacing sneer – so instead, it hops upon the wayward soul of Napoleon Bonaparte. In his classic “hand inside his shirt” pose, Napoleon scratches furiously at the flea inside his clothing. The flea finally hops out again, and Napoleon reveals his hidden hand – toting a fly-swatter, with which he clobbers the insect.
Barnyard Amateurs (Terrytoons/Educational, 3/6/36) has Farmer Alfalfa hosting a radio amateur hour in the style of the reigning king of radio’s Original Amateur Hour, “Major Bowes” (who would be regularly lampooned, with his gong to usher unsuccessful acts off and variations on his radio catch phrases (“All Right, All Right”), by most of the major studios, including Warner (Into Your Dance), Columbia (Major Google), and Disney (Mickey’s Amateurs)). The final act on the program, arriving with a classy police mororcade escort, is Professor Shmearcase and his famed Fleas – an all flea swing band, playing miniature instruments and held on the palm of the Professor’s hand. The fleas, while still walking on two legs, are a little more insect-like than usual, with hairy legs and arms, perghaps more resembling cartoon ants of the day. While their playing is lively, two dogs listening to an old-fashioned radio set with a large Victrola-style horn just shake theor heads at each other amd refuse to participate in the fleas’ “Hop Hop” dance. At the conclusion of the act, Farmer Al asks the listening audience, “If you have enjoyed our little opry, please, send me your votes.” The dogs oblige – by tossing tomatoes into the horn of their radio, which come out of the microphone at Farmer Al’s studio to smack him in the face, in tempo with the “NBC” musical chimes.
A couple of curiosities are of note concerning this production: Animation quality varies considerably from shot to shot, with several scenes without dialogue having all the visual “earmarks” of being the work of Terry’s old -school long-time director John Foster. The Professor, for example, looks much like the two top-hatted spooky gentlemen Van Buren Studios’ Tom and Jerry take for a taxi ride in “Wot a Night”, and moves in the same awkward-jointed fashion. The two dogs that throw tomatoes bear striking resemblance in gestures and expressionless faces to the “Waffles and Don” Aesops’ Fables. And Farmer Al goes through several stock expressions we’d seen in use at least as early as 1928 at Van Buren. However, these are contrasted with some fine animation in Farmer Al’s dialogue sequences, that is precisely lip-synced despite some rapid-fire vocal deliveries – indicating that directing duties must have been split with another better-trained staffer for synchronized sequences (I leave it to your speculation who). Another almost unique feature of this film is the use of a copyrighted song by Phillip Scheib’s orchestra (a practice which had been virtually abandoned by Terry since about 1931 to save on paying for musical royalties).
And even odder, for once the song is one of Fox studios’ own in-house hits (Fox was the distributor for Educational Pictures shorts, and would within a few short years swallow the whole company under its studio corporate umbrella, taking the Terry contract with it). The song – “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, one of Shirley Temple’s latest hits, performed by a tiny tot who would much rather be home than performing. As far as I know, this may have been the only Fox song ever featured in a Terrytoon. Despite the fact that Terry probably received a substantial break on the royalties from the studio for plugging the song, and could have likely continued to cut similar deals through his studio affiliation in the same manner as Leon Schlesinger for Warner Brothers, Terry declined to use any further Fox songs in his cartoons – with the result that the vast majority of Fox’s latest song hits periodically found their way into the competing product of Charles Mintz at Columbia, who was obviously willing to pay the price for use of the music library, considering that Columbia was not generating any substantial music library of its own. Odd, to say the least.
Circus Daze (MGM/Harman-Ising, Happy Harmonies (featuring the newly redesigned Bosko and Honey), 1/16/37 – Hugh Harman, dir.), marks a new milestone for the flea, not only for their first new prominence as a major driving force for the story since Bobby Bumps, but for sheer number of insect actors on the screen. During a trip through the circus menagerie, Bosko’s dog Bruno spots two monkeys swatting at a flea one has picked off the back of the other. Bruno can’t resist following the little guy, and trying to stomp him with his paw whenever possible. But the flea runs Bruno round and round in circles, until, not looking where he is leaping, Bruno jumps through an opening in the canvas – and right into the glass enclosure of the world’s largest flea circus. All the fleas are set loose – and fall into the bell of a tuba being played in the clown band, whose noisy blasts dispense the fleas everywhere. Some animation is amazingly detailed with heavily dotted overlays that make the entire shot appear to be infested. Another amazing moment is a detailed sequence of a massive elephant in complete panic, contorting every which way and performing somersaults in an effort to scratch himself silly. After leaving the performers in complete chaos, Bruno is given the boot by the circus roustabouts, landing on the sideshow high-striker and ringing the bell.
In Dog Daze (Warner, Merrie Meodies, 9/18/37 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.), a dog show is transformed into a vaudeville revue. A St. Bernard “Booze Hound” stumbles his way into a trunk of stage props and winds up on roller skates, crashing into another crate with a flea circus. (Ah, Friz. You’ve been looking over your shoulder at those MGM boys, haven’t you.) While making no effort to duplicate the infestation animation of “Circus Daze”, the opened flea circus does succeed in chasing off the stage a little pup performing a recitation, whose voice (provided by Bernice Hansen) gets more and more speeded up like a chipmunk as he realizes what is happening to him, the recitation descending into “doggerel”. (Even this gag is a reworking of Freleng’s previous recitation for Kitty in “I Haven’t Got a Hat”.) Back in the theatre wings, the St. Bernard realizes that his brandy cask has busted open, and the remaining fleas are thoroughly soused – closing the cartoon with an off-key quartet rendition of “How Dry I Am.”
Hamateur Night (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 1/28/39 – Fred (Tex) Avery, dir.) – Avery’s spot-gag salute to the vaudeville amateur show, presents as one of its acts “the world’s smallest entertainer – Teeny Tiny Teensy Tinny Tinny Tin.” The stage spotlight focuses on a dog standing motionless on stage, following a black dot from his back that hops to center stage. Dissolving in for an extreme close up, the camera reveals a female flea (standard buggy design, but wearing a small white skirt), who recites in speeded-up voice juvenile fashion, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, then giggles. As with all reject acts on this program, a trap door opens from nowhere below her, and she drops out of the picture. Except, while other acts on the program have met with a crash fairly quickly upon falling, Teeny seems to take forever to reach bottom, with the show’s MC taking time out to attend to his fingernails before the crash is finally heard.
A few years later, MGM would provide the major breakthrough for the flea, to have his first chance at becoming the complete center of attention as a solo animated star. The Homeless Flea (MGM, 10/12/40 – Rudolf Ising, dir.) is an innovative and original concept that became a trendsetter among the industry, leading to follow ups both within MGM’s own ranks and from its rivals as well. This would mark the first film in which the subject flea is transformed into a personality with entirely human qualities. Remembering recent years past of the Great Depression, the flea appears in the classic guise of a tramp hobo – a personality quite appropriate for a species prone to wandering in search of a host home. He wears baggy pants supported by a suspender, a battered out-of-style hat much like Goofy’s, and carries his belongings in a bandana tied to a bindle stick, along with a rolled-up hammock to serve as his bedding. He wanders past a huge fence surrounding the yard of a nice looking countryside home, with a gate sign reading “Beware of Dog”. While the sign might scare away other visitors, it is the equivalent of an engraved invitation for this stranger.
Inside, a brown and white dog of mixed breed sleeps peacefully before the fireplace. Sneaking up on the dog from around a corner, just a few hops and a little rugged hiking bring Mr. Flea up to the dog’s back. As we dissolve, we are treated for the first time to the world from a flea’s eye view, as our hero pushes his way through thick strands of brown and white fur as if he were traveling through dense forest like a pioneer scout. Finding a spot with just the right distance between hair strands, the flea unwraps from his bundle a miniature axe. Applying several well-placed chops, one of the hair stands is felled with the sound effect of a giant tree falling in a lumber camp. The impact of the fall awakens the dog, and is followed by another crash on the opposite side of the flea’s camp. Then all is quiet again. The dog shrugs the whole thing off and goes back to sleep.
Back in camp, the flea has added nails to two hairs from which to support his hammock, together with a third nail supporting a framed sign reading “Home Sweet Home”. The camera pulls back to reveal all the comforts of a hobo jungle, including the felled hairs having been chopped into a spit from which to suspend the flea’s cooking pot, and the remainder chopped into kindling for a fire. The flea reclines in the hammock, lights a miniature cigar, and tosses the match onto the kindling. As he dozes off, smoke begins to rise from the fire. Cutting back to long shot of the dog in the living room, the dog’s face slowly turns a glowing red. He awakens, and after a brief pause to let realization set in, shrieks at finding his back on fire, and runs in panic around and around the living room. A tremendous detailed shot cuts back to the flea, with the entire background in fluid motion as the arching back of the pup in flight tosses and turns the entire hobo jungle, the flea barely remaining saddled in his hammock. The dog gains speed, and the trailing smoke nearly envelops the flea’s camp. Finally, the dog spots a goldfish bowl, and deposits his entire rear end in it. Again in dimensional close up in the flea’s world, the camp is submerged in a whirlpool of water, the flea and his “Home Sweet Home” sign spiraling in the waves.
The dog’s pain is soothed, and his vigorous sloshing slows to a halt. From his forehead comes a trail of water drops, as the half-drowned flea stumbles out of his fur and lands on the rug before him. Now aware of his adversary, a sort of “Mexican Standoff” ensues, with the dog shifting and circling to prevent the flea from jumping back on him, and taking dimensional swipes at the flea with his paw that at one point look like they will clobber the audience. The flea runs toward a lamp with a base of blown glass, latticed in multiple diamond-like lens-shaped squares. Standing behind it, the flea psychs the dog out, by making it appear that there is a miniature one of himself in every of the hundred or so glass diamonds (a gag no doubt inspired by a similar psych-out in Disney’s “Three Blind Mouseketeers” (1936), with one mouse reflected in fifty wine bottles). The dog is so scared he runs up the wall, onto the ceiling, then crashes into and ultimately through the grand piano. The flea eventually succeeds in diving onto the dog’s back, but the dog gets lucky, and his tooth catches the flea’s suspenders, leaving the flea dangling helplessly in a “put up your dukes” fighting pose below the dog’s jaw. The dog tosses the flea out the front door, kicks dirt in his face, then slams the door. Well, it’s all in a day’s experience for this flea, and it’s on to his next adventure – as he stands atop a fire hydrant, “thumbing” for a ride on the next bow-wow he meets.
Next Week: we encounter more fleas looking for a home – and “Food around the corner”.