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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Toon Gothic: The Sad Case Of FINNEGAN'S FLEA (1958)

Stills courtesy of Jerry Beck

Finnegan's Flea
Director: I. Sparber
Release Date: April 4, 1958
In short: The tragic tale of a hapless ex-con who befriends a singing flea

Let's play a game, shall we?

Try to imagine what cartoons would have been like had Alfred Hitchcock taken over an animation studio, hired Rod Serling to write the stories--maybe had Charles Addams freelance a gag or two. I can't say for sure, but I imagine they'd be much like the output of the Paramount/Famous studio from the mid-'50s to early '60s.

It's probably overly simplistic to divide classic American animation into two separate, distinct schools of thought--the "New York School" vs. the "Hollywood School"--especially since there was so much overlap between the two. There's no denying, however, that the New York studios had that certain something, that determination to see the dark, gray clouds lurking behind the bright Technicolor rainbow, that set them apart from their Disney-influenced counterparts on the other coast. To put it mildly, these people would have kept Freud's appointment calendar full for years.

What "edge" the California-produced cartoons did have came to some degree from transplanted New Yorkers like Mike Maltese and Joe Barbera, who broke Warner's and MGM respectively from their massive case of "Disney envy." (Though both MGM and Warner's did get a great deal of help from a certain Texan who shall remain nameless). Both studios developed a brassy, smart-aleck approach to cartoons--but even these were tempered a bit by California cheeriness.

Thousands of words have been written about the Fleischer studio--online and in hard copy--and their cartoons of the early '30s, which seemed part film noir, part opiate-induced haze. My favorite man to quote at times like this--Leonard Maltin--boiled down the Fleischer attitude to just three words: "gritty", "urban", and "ethnic." Even in the Popeye cartoons, one could almost see the grime coating the walls of buildings--everything was a vast array of smoky grays, dingy whites, and a generous amount of sooty black. The world the Fleischers portrayed in those cartoons was not some timeless, fairy-tale land, but one obviously affected by the Depression--shabby and worn.

Though Fleischer's successor, Famous Studios, has long had a reputation as a watered-down, emasculated version of Fleischer, more of the grittiness of the Fleischer days carried over than most people realize. If anything, it surpassed its predecessor in the area of "dark humor." One of the earliest Popeyes released by the newly-reorganized studio actually ended with Popeye murdering--unseen, thankfully--his irritating pest of a "friend", Shorty. (To the tumultuous cheers of cinema audiences, no doubt--Shorty was not the most appealing character ever created).

Critics like to point to the seemingly bland Casper The Friendly Ghost in particular to prove that Famous was Fleischer's without teeth. But dear friends, as we'll see in subsequent reviews, even our good friend Casper has a dark streak. For one thing, few people realize these days that in the earliest Casper entries, we were given glaring reminders that he was supposed to be a dead child--at least two early cartoons show him by his own tombstone. Not exactly kid-friendly. (Harvey Comics, in order to tone down this gruesome aspect of the character, later retconned Casper--he had been born a ghost. Somehow I think even a six-year-old would have a hard time accepting that as credible).

The Noveltoons and the later Modern Madcaps were generally a showcase for "one-shot"
characters, a way of "auditioning" characters that might click in series of their own (much as Warners' Merrie Melodies had once been). As such the artists and writers were given a little freer rein--whereas most of the established series degenerated into formula very quickly, the "one-shot" cartoons were a bit harder to predict. The line between "hero" and "villain" blurred, if it existed at all--particularly by the mid-Fifties. The protagonists were usually put-upon little nebbishes eager to escape their humdrum, Kafkaesque existences, who would go to the most extreme lengths to do so (one even went so far as to try to do in his nagging hulk of a wife--only to replace her with someone just as horrible).

Another example, GRATEFUL GUS--released the same year as today's spotlight cartoon--
concerns a bank teller who "borrows" some of the bank's assets and makes off for warmer climes (he took the bank's slogan "Let The 3rd National Bank Finance Your Trip" at its word). Eager to get away, he made the mistake of giving an overly cheerful little hobo a ten-spot in order to get rid of the pest, and would soon live to regret it. The hobo becomes the man's servile shadow from then on, to the man's inevitable downfall. The film's moral, if any from this period can be said to have any, is "no good deed goes unpunished." If, that is, you can call giving a homeless man stolen money a "good deed."

Today's entry, FINNEGAN'S FLEA, has been playing and replaying on the edge of my conscious mind like a persistent fever dream ever since I saw it for the first time--and, as it turns out, the last time--when I was six. Typically (and unfairly) dismissed as an inferior copy of Chuck Jones' ONE FROGGY EVENING, it goes further than Chuck would have dared. ONE FROGGY EVENING saddened me as a child. FINNEGAN'S FLEA nearly gave me post-traumatic stress disorder. If ever there were an argument that not all animation is for kids, this cartoon is Exhibit A. It plays something like an animated TWILIGHT ZONE episode--so much so one almost expects to see a caricature of Serling narrating.

So, as Serling might have said, submitted for your approval: consider the case of an ordinary man who meets an extraordinary flea...

We open with a medium shot of a shabby, unshaven-looking man behind a counter (drawn in the UPA-like style the studio had adopted by that time). He wears a battered hat and a trenchcoat held closed with a safety pin. His skin has a bluish tint. His wide eyes stare expressionlessly at the audience. A few strands of long, scraggly hair poke out from under the hat.

"Is he...dead?" an off-camera voice asks. The scene cuts to a long shot to show that we're in a neighborhood bar. The patron who asked the question is standing at the other end of the counter from the shabby, staring fellow. He's wearing a brown overcoat and hat.

"No, just frozen, he is--poor fella..." says the Irish-accented bartender, who has a round head with a small patch of hair in front, parted in the middle--a look a bit more appropriate to the 1890s than the 1950s. "Suffered a severe shock thirteen years ago on this very spot--and hasn't moved since..."

As he says this, the scene changes to a side view of the "frozen" man in question, in medium shot. An arm and a hand--the bartender's--emerges from the right of the frame and grabs the man's nose, opening his mouth. The bartender continues speaking, off-camera: "...And 'tis I who must feed him like a baby, and fetch him an occasional drop of the dew, to keep up his strength..." The bartender drops a whole pretzel into the man's mouth--presumably swallowed without chewing--and literally pours a mugful of beer down the unfortunate fellow's throat.

Cut to a long shot of the other side of the bar again. "Feed him?" says the incredulous customer. "If I wuz you, I'd throw the bum out!!"

We change to a close-up of the bartender, who looks up into the air, his hands clasped under his chin: "'Twas I--have mercy on me poor soul--who with only the best of intention, brought poor Finnegan to his present sad state." The camera pans left to poor "frozen" Finnegan, using the same shot we saw in the first few seconds. "For Finnegan was not always the poor derelict you see here...let us go back to the time of his youth, at Alcatraz..."

We dissolve into flashback as the bartender narrates. We see a long exterior shot of the infamous island prison. "...where Finnegan was doin' twenty years," the bartender continues. "To break the monotony, he got himself a hobby--knuckle-cracking. Specializin' in rhumba rhythms..." During the bartender's monologue, the scene dissolves to an interior prison corridor, and tracks closer to a cell door. It dissolves again to reveal a much healthier, pinker--and chubbier--Finnegan, whose head is completely bald. He's sitting on the floor--a fold-down bench and a sink are immediately to his right, the cell door to his left. The camera tracks closer as Finnegan cracks his knuckles--one at a time, over and over, to a lively rhumba beat--just as the bartender said. He continues this for several seconds until he hears something strange...

"The rhythm of the rhumba,
Has got a fascination...

A baritone voice Finnegan can't locate is singing along with his knuckle-cracking rhythm. "The cell's haunted!" he says. He jumps up and braces himself against the cell door. "It's the ghost of Novak who went to the chair!" He tiptoes to the right of the screen toward the still-singing voice.

Cut to a medium shot of Finnegan creeping along the cell wall. "Is that you, Novak?" he says nervously.

The scene dissolves to show a tiny flea among the stone blocks of the cell, jumping up and down to the rhythm of the song as he sings. He's portrayed in typical cartoon fashion as a little jumping dot. As he finishes his song with a perfect vibrato, his shape changes to something like a short,
wiggling piece of spaghetti. Finnegan's hand comes into the left of the frame and picks the flea up.

Cut to a medium shot of Finnegan, who holds the flea in the palm of his hand. "A singin' flea," he says, chuckling a little. "Very clever!" (Takes it pretty calmly, doesn't he? I'd be wondering if I'd finally gone "stir crazy.") "Hey 'Charlie,' know any other songs?"

Indeed "Charlie" does--he launches into a rendition of Maurice Chevalier's "Louise" (a Paramount song, naturally. All the popular music this flea knows, by a not-too-strange coincidence, is owned by Paramount. Wonder if they had him under contract?) As the flea sings, the camera follows as he bounces away from Finnegan, who's seated on the wooden bench. As the flea sings the last word of his song, he vibrates in mid-air, turning into wiggling spaghetti again. We then cut back to Finnegan, who has his hands clasped beneath his chin as he listens adoringly.

The flashback is momentarily interrupted--with a slow dissolve, we're back at the bar, where the bartender continues his narration. The scene switches quickly from a long shot of the bartender, the patron, and Finnegan to a repeat of the "feeding" scene earlier in the picture.

"And so, with Charlie to entertain him, Finnegan forgot his cares..."

We dissolve back to the younger Finnegan in his cell, as Charlie bobs up and down singing "It's A Hap-Hap-Happy Day", sounding a bit like Al Jolson. The aforementioned song was a standard in Paramount/Famous cartoons, having been written for Fleischer's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. Paramount/Famous used it so much it could be considered a "theme song" of sorts for that studio's cartoons.

As Finnegan sits on his bench, enraptured by Charlie's singing, an arm comes in from the right and snatches him out of frame. Charlie stops his singing and becomes still, alone in the empty cell. He jumps out of frame in the direction of the cell door. We cut to an exterior view, where the tiny flea watches Finnegan being dragged off.

"Then one fine spring morning, Finnegan walks out of prison a free man," the bartender/narrator tells us in voice-over. As he says this, we shift to a view of a guard's arm dragging Finnegan down the corridor (the arm is all we see of the guard--less to animate that way). Finnegan looks back toward his vacated cell.

"Charlie! Oh, Charlie..." he cries. We cut back to the flea sitting next to the bars on the cell door, as a tear falls.

"And so, Finnegan went back to the only trade he knew," the bartender says. In other words, pool hustling. Dissolve to the interior of a pool hall. It's very simplistically rendered--all we see are Finnegan, the table, and his mustachioed opponent against a simple red background. Finnegan's in "civilian" clothes now, in a green jacket and hat, while his opponent on the other end is wearing a brown vest and hat with a checkered shirt.

"Ah, but his hand had lost its skill," the bartender says, as we see Finnegan tearing the felt on the pool table when he tries to make his shot. Cut to the exterior, where Finnegan is the one
being "hustled"--out. He's given the "bum's rush" so quickly, his feet don't touch the ground for several seconds as he walks along.

Dissolve to a shot of Finnegan standing outside a brick building that's apparently a flophouse.

There's a sign on the building that reads ROOMS. Finnegan has his coat, now more ragged, pulled close to him. He has his hand out as a man with a white mustache comes into frame, gives him a dime, then passes out of frame. With enough money for the night, Finnegan turns around and goes inside. The camera trucks up for a quick shot of a red sign that reads BEDS 10 CENTS.

Dissolve to the interior. Beds are placed haphazardly in the large room inside--Finnegan's in the center, surrounded by a room full of snoring derelicts. He's lying sideways on a bare mattress,
fully clothed, his hat still on his head. He's using a newspaper as a "blanket." The camera trucks in closer, and the scene changes to a slightly different angle to show Finnegan asleep. As he's sleeping, we hear a voice--a familiar one--sing "It's A Hap- Hap- Happy Day." Yes, it's Finnegan's old friend Charlie...

Finnegan absently scratches himself, then wakes up to realize it's Charlie he hears. Sitting up on the mattress, he reaches into his coat.

"Charlie!" Finnegan says. We change to a close up of Finnegan cradling Charlie in his hands.

"Oh, Charlie, Charlie, how drab life has been without you!" We shift again to Charlie jumping down Finnegan's arm at the right of the screen, still singing. He hops onto Finnegan's newspaper "blanket," which just happens to be a copy of Variety. As the camera zooms in, we see a headline, TV IN NEED OF NEW TALENT.

"TV!" Finnegan says. "Charlie, this is our big chance!" He puts Charlie inside an empty matchbox and closes it.

Dissolve to the exterior of the "Less and Lesser Booking Agency". We see Finnegan through the window holding the matchbox as he approaches the booking agent's desk. This is pretty close to a direct copy of a similar scene in ONE FROGGY EVENING, if not as elaborately drawn. As with the scene in the Chuck Jones cartoon, we can see him talking, but can't hear him.

Cut to a closeup of the bald, mustached agent, who has a big cigar in his mouth. He's got his feet up on his desk and faces the audience. He has one eye open as he listens to Finnegan's spiel, which indicates he's either mildly interested or incredibly skeptical. "....And he sings, dances, talks, does impersonations....", we hear Finnegan say.

The agent completely changes his expression to one of excitement. He's much more easily convinced than Jones' hard-boiled agents. He leaps up, leans forward, looks in the general direction of the matchbox and says, "Where?"

"There!" Finnegan says just out of view, his arm pointing to the open matchbox. The agent looks again.

"'Him' who?"
"The kid is not here!" the agent says.

We cut to a medium shot of Finnegan on the other side of the desk, leaning over to look at the now-empty matchbox. He checks the inside of his coat--first one side, then the other. As he's doing so, he hears a voice singing Bing Crosby's "Please", Crosby-style, complete with "buh-buh-boos." Finnegan cups one ear to hear better--Charlie's outside.

Cut to a side extreme close-up view of the agent as Finnegan comes into frame from the right.

"It's him!"
"Him who?" the agent says again.
"'Him' Charlie!"
"Where?" the frustrated agent asks as Finnegan off camera left. Cut to an exterior shot of the two of them at a window facing an alley. "There!" Finnegan says, pointing down to an area just offscreen.

We cut again to show a dachshund, on whom Charlie has obviously hitched a ride, then again to show the frantic Finnegan and the agent as they run down the street after it. Finnegan runs off-screen to the left as the agent follows. The next scene shows Finnegan holding the dachshund belly up, as the agent looks on.

Cut again to a front-view closeup of the agent. "The kid is good, yes?" Finnegan says. "There's no denyin' it, no??" The shocked agent (his pupils have shrunk to tiny dots of surprise) rapidly nods "Yes," then "No," to Finnegan's questions.

Cut to a shot of the two of them and the dog as disaster strikes--Finnegan sneezes. "Where's Charlie?" the agent asks...Alas, he's gone again.

Dissolve to another scene, apparently a considerable time later, as Finnegan prowls the city calling "Charlie!" First we see him in a "worm's eye" view, with a skyscraper looming behind him.

We then cut to a fire hydrant as a shaggy brown mutt approaches. Finnegan emerges from behind it and says, "Charlie??"

Then again to a woman at a bus stop, with a tiny long-haired dog on a leash. We only see the bottom of the woman's dress as Finnegan crawls behind her toward the dog. "Charlie??" he says.The woman's high-heeled foot comes down hard on poor Finnegan's head.

Dissolve to a dejected Finnegan as he walks through a park, his hand holding his coat closed. He hears a voice singing...

"Here we are,
Out of cigarettes..."

Cut to a bum sleeping on a park bench, from which the voice seems to be emanating. Yes, it's Charlie.

Finnegan comes into frame from the right, pulls the still groggy bum to his feet, and strips the guy's coat off. "Charlie!" he says. As we cut to a shot of Finnegan running down the street with the bum's jacket, he says, "This is it, kid! The big time!"

We fade to black and fade in to a view of the "WTV" studio building, seen from the bottom looking up. The camera zooms in closer on the sign's bright orange letters.

Fade to the interior, as we hear Charlie singing an operatic aria to a roomful of TV executives.

There are about two dozen of them seated at either side of a ridiculously long conference table, as the camera zooms in closer. There are almost no background details--just a beige wall and a blue floor.

It just occurred to me..how did a bum like Finnegan get past security with what would seem to be a cock-and-bull story about a singing flea? Did Charlie perform for the guards?

We fade to a shot of Finnegan and the agent, who are at the far end of the table with what presumably is the network president. The president is a man with a head like a football, a little brown hat perched on top. He has a scowling expression. (I think network executives are required to have scowling expressions--it's part of the job description). Finnegan is seated to the executive's left, while the agent stands. Charlie is in his blue matchbox right in front of Finnegan.

We cut to a closeup of the executive as Charlie finishes his number. As Charlie hits a high note, he jumps up in the air, and gradually comes down as the notes get lower.

Cut to the beaming Finnegan and the agent, and then back to the executive, who smiles (though oddly, he still has the scowl) and says, "Bravo! Bravo!" He applauds lightly.

"Gentlemen, a star is born..." the executive says.

Cut to a closeup of the agent. "Fifty thousand bucks a show, or we don't sign!" he says.

"Make it seventy-five," says the executive, "after all, what is money?" (This is a TV executive talking? What is he, delirious?)

Cut to a shot of Finnegan and the agent, as the executive's hand comes into frame with a contract. The elated Finnegan signs.

Cut again, to Finnegan running down the street with Charlie, on top of the world. "C'mon, Charlie! Let's celebrate!"

We cut to the interior of a bar--which, as you've probably noticed if you've seen this, is the same bar in which we open the story--as Finnegan comes into frame from the left and skids behind the counter.

"Bartender, champagne!" Finnegan says. Between the words "bartender" and "champagne" we cut from a medium shot of Finnegan and the bartender to a closeup of Finnegan, his arms spread wide in the air.

The scene changes to a closeup of a bartender, who's still wiping the glass he was cleaning when Finnegan came in. He's got a smirk on his face. "Sure, now! And where would a tramp like you be gettin' money for champagne?"

Cut back to Finnegan on the other side of the counter. "Money?" he says. "I struck it rich! I got a gold mine! Here..." he holds up Charlie's matchbox and dumps the flea out onto the counter.

Ducking down so he's peeking just over the edge of the counter, he points to Charlie.

Cut back to the bartender, who's looking toward the left of the screen in the direction of Finnegan and Charlie. "A flea?" he shouts. We cut again to see the palm of his hand come down on the counter, crushing poor Charlie.

"Charlie!" Finnegan says. It proves to be the last thing he ever utters. His dreams shattered with one swat, he stiffens like a statue and goes into catatonic shock, assuming the frozen position he had at the beginning of the cartoon.

Dissolve back to the present-day, more disheveled-looking Finnegan. The view then changes to show Finnegan, the bartender and the customer in medium shot.

"...And so, for thirteen long years, has Finnegan stood at my bar--his hopes, his future wiped out
by a swat of this stupid right hand," the bartender concludes. As he says this, we dissolve to a closeup of the bartender. On the words "stupid right hand", the bartender waves his hand, looking at it with a contemptuous expression, gritting his teeth.

We cut to a repeat of the earlier "feeding scenes", as the bartender says, "But...on the other hand, Finnegan's stomach will never be empty. I'll be seein' to that!"

With that, we leave poor Finnegan and the guilt-ridden bartender, their fates intertwined for what promises to be eternity, as the cartoon irises out.

I only have one question--how did the bartender come to know Finnegan's story? Finnegan never had time to tell him.


As this cartoon is so often compared with ONE FROGGY EVENING, it's only fair I examine the differences.

While Chuck's cartoon was a tale of the perils of greed, there doesn't seem to be a moral of any
sort in FINNEGAN'S FLEA. Finnegan was just a poor schlub who found a friend and a way to improve both of their lives, only to have his one hope dashed through no fault of his own. As such, he's a more sympathetic character than Jones' unnamed construction worker, as we see he has a sensitive, compassionate side. Because Finnegan has a much easier time convincing others of the flea's talent than the money-blinded slob of Jones' cartoon did with Michigan J., we're fooled into thinking this version isn't as harsh, only to be slapped in the face by its utter cruelty in the end. As such, it has a much more profound effect psychologically, as we're driven to empathy not only for Finnegan's loss, but for the tremendous burden the bartender must carry with him. (Even if it's handled in a funny way).

It's also darker in the way it portrays Finnegan's life. Jones' construction worker had a job, which he threw away to pursue a pipe dream. Finnegan had nothing--he went from jail to a filthy flophouse and utter miserable poverty (which is potrayed with a surprising amount of realism for a simple cartoon--Finnegan's life isn't pretty). He actually looks as if he might escape it, and we end up rooting for the poor fellow even though we know how it ends. Jones' character had no hope of realizing his dreams--we knew it from the onset, even if we didn't know the outcome of the story, because we knew the guy would be done in by his own greed, and the laws of the cartoon universe. The frog would sing for no one but him, and he stubbornly refused to realize it. For the construction worker, the frog was a millstone around his neck he was gladly rid of. Finnegan lost the only friend he had, money or no money.

Jones' cartoon is an artistic masterpiece, fully animated and told entirely in pantomime. The only dialogue of any sort we hear comes from the frog when he's in full performance mode. The minimally-animated FINNEGAN'S FLEA has no such luxury, but even if it did, the dialogue and narration are necessary, as it helps us to know the characters. What the cartoon lacks in artistic quality, it makes up for in characterization. We care for these simply-drawn individuals, and for a little New York studio like Paramount/Famous, that's a monumental achievement.

Granted, the way Finnegan's fate is handled is ridiculously broad--we're led to believe this poor, shock-ridden soul could persist for years on pretzels and beer, without any of the...er, messier needs one would expect the bartender to have to attend to. (And the less we think about that, the better, believe me). Curiously, though, it's cartooniness doesn't detract from the emotion of the story. It's not ONE FROGGY EVENING--but in this case, that's a compliment.

In a way, writing this has been rather therapeutic for me, as it was proof, first of all, that I didn't dream this semi-nightmarish little film. Second, having seen it again for the first time in decades, I can watch it from a new, adult perspective, and see after all that it is in fact just a cartoon. Which is all the animators really wanted us to realize.

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Brian said...

Thank you for this thorough discussion of Finnegan's Flea. I think this is much like the Twilight Zone's, "Time Enough At Last", which features another character that deserves better and doesn't get it. FF is the one cartoon from the Modern Madcap series that sticks in my mind to this day and I too have not seen this cartoon since I was about 10 or so. Where is the DVD release of this?

Rachel Newstead said...

Hi Brian,

Sorry to take so long to get back to you...I've taken a bit of an extended vacation from this blog. Given that it's almost summer, the last thing I want to be doing is spending my days staring at a monitor.

Anyway, to answer your question, you can find this cartoon as part of the new Harveytoons DVD collection (which is available at amazon.com, among other places.)


eu said...

OMG. I've seen this once when I was 5, and this cartonn had repeated in my mind for a thousand times. I have just seen the video on youtube again and this made me cry.

I'm brazilian!

thank u guys!!

Martha Hardcastle said...

I have my own story on Finnegan's Flea but I am so blown away by this, I just need to meditate a bit. I would love to offer my own view. Thanks so much.