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By Phil Hall | October 18, 2013

BOOTLEG FILES 502: “Marvin Digs” (1967 animated short directed by Ralph Bakshi).

LAST SEEN: The film is online at YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A half-forgotten sign-off to the Paramount animation output.


Last week, this column focused on “Rabbit Stew and Rabbits Too!”, one of the final short films produced by the Warner Bros. animation unit. This week, we’re looking at another short that represented the end of another studio’s animated output. However, this film also offered something of a transition away from old-school animation into an edgier and more irreverent form of expression.

Although the theatrical short subject market had all but evaporated in the 1960s, Paramount Pictures continued to produce animated shorts for release in cinemas. In 1967, the animation unit had a shake-up when the studio replaced department head Shamus Culhane, a veteran animator, with former Terrytoons artist Ralph Bakshi. But Bakshi’s time at the studio was limited to a mere eight months and he only directed four shorts – the studio shut down its animation production in December 1967.

“Marvin Digs” was part of something called “GoGo Toons,” a series of cartoons that aimed for somewhat off-beat humor. Indeed, “Marvin Digs” veered considerably from the run-of-the-mill Paramount cartoon in a social commentary on the growing hippie subculture and love-and-peace philosophy of the flower child movement.

Even from the opening credits, it is obvious something very unusual is happening with this production: the trademark Paramount mountain logo is covered with flowers and illustrated in Fauvist colors, while a light rock tune (courtesy of The Life Cycle) and psychedelic title credits open the cartoon. The viewer is introduced to the cartoon’s hero, Marvin, in a dream sequence. Marvin is a short young man that appears to be made out of hair. In his dream, Marvin produces flowers that magically transform into young women wearing mini-skirts. Marvin also soars through the air amid a swirl of butterflies.

However, the dream comes to an end and we find Marvin in his bedroom. A placard reading “Love” and a guitar can be found along a wall; a poster of a soup can (an obvious nod to pop art hero Andy Warhol) is part of the room’s decorations. Marvin’s mother calls him to wake up, and Marvin gets dressed under his blanket, slipping on a sweater (that disappears under his hairy mane) and donning a cap.

In the kitchen, Marvin’s father is grousing about how the current youth generation has no work ethic. The father is startled to see Marvin and points to the miniature hirsute youth, asking his wife for an explanation. She replies that Marvin is his son. Before leaving for an all-day session at the beauty parlor, Marvin’s mother asks her husband to paint their apartment.  Marvin’s is tasked by his father to go to a local store to buy paint.

Marvin walks through his neighborhood, passing out flowers to everyone he meets. He manages to stop a fight between a dog and a cat by giving each a flower. However, his floral welcome to a pair of gossipy matrons and a humorless cop is not accepted with gratitude. Marvin also passes three hippie teen pals, who are hanging out with nothing to do.

Back at home, Marvin’s father falls asleep on the couch, leaving Marvin with the full brunt of the paint job. Marvin takes a cue from a TV news broadcast in which the city’s mayor urges citizens to “treat your city as you would your home.” Inspired to show off the artistic vibe of his generation, Marvin recruits his lay-about friends to join in a massive painting effort. When the father awakes, he is horrified to find that not only has Marvin and his pals painted the apartment in a Peter Max-worthy explosion of psychedelic colors, but they also painted the exterior of their apartment house and the neighboring buildings in the same groovy hues. Marvin refers to the work as a “paint-in” (a riff on the then-current expression “love-in”).

The mayor and a police battalion show up, and Marvin’s father is hysterical with worry that he will be arrested. However, the mayor praises the youth for his artistic originality. As the cartoon closes, Marvin’s father begins to bond with his son, albeit with a weird babble on what it is like to be young. “Say, son, did I ever tell you about the time I was your age?” the father says. “You know, I was your age once. Oh, that was a long time before I’m the age I am now.”

In later years, Bakshi would disown “Marvin Digs,” claiming that Paramount prevented him from bringing more mature language and situations to the work. In some ways, Bakshi has reason to be upset – despite its psychedelic framing, the animation is closer in style to the UPA cartoons of the 1950s than to the pop art offerings of the mid-1960s. The voice performances by Dayton Allen (playing both Marvin and his father) and Corinne Orr (as the mother) are mundane and old-school. And the wrap-up, with Marvin hailed as a municipal beautification hero by the mayor, was at odds with a subculture that actively loathed government authority figures.

But at the same time, “Marvin Digs” offered a clue of where theatrical animation could have traveled if the studios allowed their cartoon output to continue. The cartoon offers a very rare acknowledgment of both the hippie subculture and the growing generational gap of the era – and when Marvin’s aghast father initially refers to his son as “that ball of hair,” more than a few audience members would recognize something similar was taking place in their homes. Fortunately, Bakshi had the drive to continue on his own, ultimately changing the direction of the animation genre with his groundbreaking 1971 feature “Fritz the Cat.”

“Marvin Digs” has yet to be made available for commercial home entertainment release; Paramount has not been in any rush to put its 1960s animated shorts on DVD or Blu-ray. A copy of the film can be found on YouTube, and many contemporary viewers have commented positively on the film’s retro charm. And even if Bakshi would prefer to forget the film, today’s cartoon lovers will enjoy its positive vibes and good-natured celebration of a time when young people genuinely believed that they could change the world for the better with a message of love and flowers.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Chris Sobieniak says:

    “And even if Bakshi would prefer to forget the film, today’s cartoon lovers will enjoy its positive vibes and good-natured celebration of a time when young people genuinely believed that they could change the world for the better with a message of love and flowers.”

    Well, there’s that. At least it has an ending that’s satisfying even though it seemed like a trope we’ve all seen before when it comes to generational gaps.

    Warner Bros. tried a film with a similar unusual approach with “Norman Normal” in 1968 (the cartoon itself was based on a song by Peter, Paul & Mary).

    It’s a shame it didn’t last too long, surely if the theatrical short division of studios were left in the hands of creators themselves and less on the marketing behind them, we might’ve seen something on part with what developed in the indie route in the 70’s or from those other studios like the National Film Board of Canada. It just didn’t have time to bloom.

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