While Steve Stanchfield takes a well-deserved break after a whirl-wind trip to LA this past week (he’ll be back next week with BIG news), I’ll fill in today by posting this fascinating email I just received from another “Steve” – Cartoon Research reader Steven Losie:
Recently, I had the chance to do some original research on old Hollywood films – “Mr. Bug Goes To Town” being one of them. Your readers might be interested to know that two commonly held beliefs concerning the film are probably bunk. Namely:
1) The film’s box office failure wasn’t a result of Pearl Harbor, and…
2) The film’s first commercial release wasn’t under the name “Mr. Bug Goes To Town”.
What’s the evidence?
I’ll start with the trade mags. According to the December 3, 1942, issues of Variety and Film Daily, “Mr. Bug Goes To Town” would be having its first screening the following day–three days before Pearl Harbor, consistent with common knowledge.
But this wasn’t its general release premiere. This was an invitation-only press screening. In Variety, it was listed under the “Tradeshows” section. Film Daily announced that the New York City screening that day would be held “at the 20th Century Fox projection room.” Like today’s press screenings, this was a pre-release event held regionally to give critics a jump on their reviews in time for the film’s imminent commercial debut, and for exhibitors to decide whether or not to book the film.
Based on this preview, trade mags Variety, Film Daily, and BoxOffice all published reviews of the film the following week. All three gave “Mr. Bug” positive notices, and predicted a hit.
“Mr. Bug” wasn’t heard from again until the end of the year, when Film Daily announced a special December 30th New York screening for “the children of movie press folks.” Three days later, an ad ran in the L.A. Times listing “Mr. Bug” among Paramount Pictures’ films “Coming Soon”. By the end of 1941, the public at large still hadn’t been given a chance to see the film.
And the Fleischer brothers still hadn’t been given a chance to see if their film was a hit. According to several latter-day accounts, both Max and Dave were gone from their namesake studio by the end of 1941 and, thus, before the film’s commercial release. Paramount then took over their studio. If this timeline of events is correct, then this had all the makings of an awfully awkward Hollywood premiere for the Fleischer/Paramount collaboration.
So what did Paramount do? They released “Mr. Bug” first in the UK instead. According to the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail, and others, on January 23, 1942, the film premiered at London’s Carlton Theatre. But not under the name “Mr. Bug Goes To Town”. It premiered under a different name. That name? Why, “Hoppity Goes To Town”, of course.
As way of explanation, according to the January 29, 1942, edition of The Guardian:
“One of the peculiarities of difference between the English and American languages has just cropped up in the case of a film, the original title of which was Mr. Bug Goes To Town. . .[W]hile in the American language ‘bug’ is a generic term for all kinds of insects and carries no unpleasant implications, things are very different in this country, where the word has acquired a specialised meaning associated with slums and other unpleasant things.”
The film was fairly successful at the Carlton, playing there for four straight weeks. But back in the States, Paramount all but disowned the film. Its American premiere, according to the L.A. Times, came on Thursday, February 12, 1942, at the Paramount Theater, under the original “Mr. Bug” title. L.A. Times critic Edwin Schallert published a mixed review the following day.
The film’s debut was so momentous that “Mr. Bug” wasn’t even the main attraction at its own American premiere. It was the second half of a double bill with “Sullivan’s Travels”, a film that had premiered two weeks earlier in New York City. Worried that I might have missed an earlier premiere date, I combed through all contemporary L.A. periodicals I had at my disposal, but could find no evidence of any earlier public premiere in the area, and the L.A. Times review date of February 13th almost certainly confirms it. For further confirmation, Variety also listed the film with a “Week of 2/12/42” release date in its “Film Booking Chart” section over the following months.
After only seven days, “Mr. Bug” disappeared from L.A.’s Paramount. The next day, February 19th, it first appeared in New York at the Loew’s State Theatre, and was reviewed by all the major New York newspapers the following morning. This time around, it was the main attraction, but again, it only played for a single week.
As for the “Mr. Bug/Hoppity” issue, this brings up an interesting aside alluded to earlier. Since the “Hoppity” name came about years before commonly believed, you might want to check your remastered Japanese DVD release of “Hoppity Goes To Town”. (I don’t have one.) It’s possible it’s a remastered TV print prepared by NTA in the 1950s. But it might also be an original 1942 overseas print, a hidden treasure contemporary with the American “Mr. Bug” print recently remastered by the UCLA Film Archives.
It also puts it into perspective: the film possibly wasn’t renamed by NTA or anybody else during subsequent re-releases. It’s likely that the re-releases were just made using an overseas print, perhaps because it was more readily available in either Paramount’s or someone else’s archive, and, thus, the alternate title has propagated ever since.
This might not be news to you, but all this information was new to me!
And I thank you for taking the time to document it for all of us (Steve sent me all the clippings cited above to back up his research). Mr. Bug Goes To Town is one of my favorite animated films – and its neglect is a huge oversight in he history of animation. I’m always glad to help set the record straight.
Fascinating post! Personally I would have preferred the Mr. Bug reference, paying homage to Jimmy Stewart (Mr.Smith Goes to Washington) However,I can also see where the “bug” word in England could pose problems.Interesting that a word we in America basically take for granted would have such negative connotations overseas Thanks again for the post!
Title is more of a homage to “Mr Deeds Goes To Town” with Gary Cooper.
Just look at “Shag” next time you’re not thinking of a type of carpet. 😛
This is great detective work, Jerry. Now the question is whether Mr. Bug got a fair shake in the marketplace or did Paramount dump it? It would have been embarrassing if the film had been a hit and Paramount had fired the people who made it. The film’s success also might have made the Fleischers more attractive to other studios and they could have ended up competing against Famous Studios.
Dumpage seems likely. If the film had been a big hit, would that have given the Fleischers legal grounds as well as a financial incentive to put up a fight?
I’ve read that in modern Hollywood it was (and still is?) common for new executives to shut down or bury projects by immediate predecessors. On the one hand, it’s a way to imply the predecessors’ work was too bad to release. On the other, it’s insurance against the potential embarrassment you describe.
The jig saw puzzle of the cancellation of MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN seems motivated by many issues, not necessarily related the the understood issues of Pearl Harbor. Paramount had made it known that MR. BUG was slated as its Christmas 1941 release and was finished well ahead of schedule and ready for distribution prints a month ahead of time.
As required of the Consent Degree of 1938, studios were required to offer exhibitors a preview of films to be released to accept or reject them. This came about after the Degree abolished the policy of Block Booking, a program package of films originated by Paramount from its beginning. While Block Booking was supposed to have been stopped, Paramount continued doing it in violation of the Decree. While there were positive reviews as found in FILM DAILY, exhibitors unanimously stated they didn’t want it, saying it wouldn’t do business. Exactly WHY they vetoed it is not clear. I make the argument that the title, MR. BUG is already repelling, suggesting a story about a roach. A more compelling title might have been MR. HOPPER GOES TO TOWN. The negative connotation of the title may have had something to do with the re-titling of HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN.
Part of the trouble associated with the rejection of MR. BUG may have been in the way it was presented without any fanfare. Given the tremendous success of the SUPERMAN cartoons that were just coming out, their reputation would have been a strong selling point that was never exercised. It would be interesting to know if there was ever a trailer produced, or if one exists at this point in time. That would have helped sell the picture.
The fate of Fleischer Studios was without doubt hung on the success, and in this case, failure of its final feature. As a result, Max Fleischer ended up being the “Fall Guy” for the decisions made by Barney Balaban, who ordered the film and approved its financing, totally some $700,000. While the motivation to produce GULLIVER’S TRAVELS was clearly to cash in on the Disney market–Balaban’s motivation, this was the intention again in Balaban’s mind. Realizing that Fleischer animated features were second place, Balaban followed the release patterns of Disney, purposely planning the Fleischer releases between the Disney releases in order to insure business in the full knowledge that they could not compete with Disney release during the same period. This was why GULLIVER was withdrawn from domestic release in February, 1940 with the release of PINOCCHIO.
1940 became crucial in the history of MR. BUG for this reason. 1940 saw two box office failures from Disney. Both PINOCCHIO and FANSTASIA did not make the immediate profits that had been realized by SNOW WHITE. Balaban was certainly in the position to know this, as all film executives knew how well releases of the competition played in their markets. If Balaban had second thoughts about a second Fleischer feature release based on the two Disney failures, he had time as late as October, 1940 to cancel before full production went into force. He did not, and continued with the plans for MR. BUG as Paramount’s grand Technicolor animated spectacle for Christmas 1941. All signs indicated that Paramount was going forward with a General Release the end of December. But the theater operators all refused it. This adds more mystery, suggesting that they might have been told to reject it. But by WHOM? Was it related to Paramount’s violation of the Consent Decree? Hardly since MR. BUG was being offered for preview along with a number of other pictures slated for release. Or was it retaliation for some other reason? Either way, there seemed to have been political influences since ti made no business sense for Paramount to engineer a loss of $700,000 three weeks after a long planned release. In the long run, Max Fleischer ended up being the scapegoat when in fact he delivered the picture in accordance to the contract–the film that Balaban ordered!
Well, that clears a lot up, putting more questions to why Max and Dave left Paramount……………
Now all of the Fleischer history books are out of date.
If it has the slug “A NTA release,” then, quite obviously, it’s not from a Paramount retitling.
While a successful MR. BUG certainly might have changed things for Max or Dave, by Dec. 1941 the two brothers were not going to be working together under any circumstances—no matter what the outcome.
The title for it’s release in Argentina and Latin America (I provided a clip of Fernando Martín Peña presenting the film) is CASTILLOS EN EL AIRE, or “Castles in the Air”.
The Pearl Harbor argument never seemed likely to me. The Wolf Man was released December 12, 1941, and was a considerable hit, sparking the 1940s wave of Universal horror films. If that could do well, a colorful, pleasant film like Mr. Bug ought to have been a sure thing.
You’re right about that! I wasn’t up on my movie knowledge like I thoguht I was! Like the kids say.MY BAD! Thanks for steering me straight!
Fascinating post! This is all news to me as well.
My question is, where did the title “Bugville” originate? And for what reason? My “Mr. Bug” DVD bears that title, with no explanation for the change.
Also–it would be interesting to see a discussion of the film itself, which is on many levels a remarkable piece of animation, especially for its day.
Any info on the general critical and public reaction of the time?
Did it make ANY impact at all?
The Japanese R2 DVD release that was made available courtesy of Ghibli appears to use a print similar to the one used for the 80’s VHS releases though obviously much cleaner and includes the 1970’s NTA logo at the start.
A most interesting and informative read. Thanks, Steven, and thanks, Jerry, for posting it!
There were other occasions where U.S. movie titles required revision to work around English sensibilities. Al Jolson’s feature “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” went to UK cinemas as “Hallelujah I’m a Tramp” (“bum” being slang for “posterior,” as any Monty Python fans around here already know).
That it premiered in England might explain the reference to English currency (“Quid”), in the song “Katie Did”.
Oh, bugger! Wow. As someone who snapped up Cabarga’s ‘The Fleischer Story’ in 1976, I realize it now needs another addendum. Even more time has passed of course, so we’ll probably never get the real story on why the movie was released so shabbily. We can speculate, but not know.
Simply incredible to have this come to light after all these years. And it certainly opens a new perspective on what title should be on this film should Mr. Stanchfield decide to press forward with making a Blu-Ray release.
While Hoppity may have been scuttled by Paramount, being on a double bill with one of the brilliant Preston Sturges’s most successful films, Sullivan’s Travels, is not quite like being dumped in the trash.
This pairing actually makes some kind of sense since a major plot point of the film has Hollywood director John L. Sullivan convicted and sentenced to a chain gang but ultimately redeemed when the prisoners are shown a Disney cartoon, Playful Pluto.
For many years many of us have known this as “Hoppity Goes to Town:, rather “Mr.Bug” Seeing the latter (in 1980’s Leonard Maltin book “Of Mice and Magic”) as a hgih school teenager, was a title wake up call…:)
Came across this film on a distributor’s letterhead here at the National Archives at Denver and had never heard of it before – thanks for the backstory! https://catalog.archives.gov/id/22347033
It is July, 2017, and I would like to know the status of the restored version’s release. Saw it on TCM a couple of years back and would like to get a copy.
The reason I looked up this website is because I’ve seen this movie under a THIRD name. In Dec. ’17 the new “Punch TV” network has run ‘Mr. Bug’ under the title “Bugstown.” I wasn’t sure it was the same movie until I started watching it. I can’t remember the last time I saw this movie on T.V., but it was probably in the early 80’s. And then it was titled “Hoppity Goes to Town.” Back in the 60’s a local L.A. movie host told the story about the Mr. Bug/Hoppity name change. I liked Mr. Bug and I loved Fleischer Studio animation. Incl., of course, Popeye and their version of Gulliver’s Travels .
Wonderful article! Thank you so much for sharing all of this information!
My grandfather, William Robert “Robbie” Little, was one of the main cartoonists on both the 1941 “Hoppity Goes to Town” (his preferred title for the film) and 1939 “Gulliver’s Travels”, becoming at some point in that time frame the head of Paramount Pictures Cartoon Studio’s Art Department. In at least one interview, published after he was honored by the “Fleischer Studio Retrospective” exhibition at the Museum of Cartoon Art in Rye Brook, NY, he lamented the Hoppity film did not get the recognition it deserved, or that Gulliver’s Travels (which was nominated for an Academy Award) had gotten, and blamed it in part on coverage of the start of WWII. He considered “Hoppity Goes to Town” a better film than “Gulliver’s Travels”. So, whether that was a key factor or not in how the film was handled by Paramount, which was contracted then by the government to make numerous military instruction films, news stories and public service films, we may never know, but at least one person who worked on the film thought the war had a major impact.
Mr. Bug only grossed $241,000 in its limited theatrical release.