THE BOOTLEG FILES: A HERB ALPERT & THE TIJUANA BRASS DOUBLE FEATURE Image

BOOTLEG FILES 372: “A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature” (1966 Academy Award-winning animated short by John & Faith Hubley).

LAST SEEN: The film can be seen on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There could be a few reasons for this.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Hopefully, it will turn up in a DVD anthology.

The other day, I found myself reviewing a list of cartoons that won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In looking over the list, I easily recognized the titles of the Oscar-winning shorts from the category’s inception in 1932 until the late 1950s. After all, these titles were mostly created by the major animation studios (Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, UPA) and they were an integral part of the TV rerun culture.

However, I found it difficult to recall most of the Oscar-winning animated short films made from the 1960s and after. But that should not have been a surprise. During that period, the theatrical market for short subjects had all but evaporated, and most of the major film studios either shut down their animation departments or severely cut back on the creation of new short films. Thus, the animated shorts that won the Oscar during the 1960s and beyond (with a few exceptions) were never a part of the TV rerun culture and are mostly unfamiliar to the average moviegoer (not to mention the sub-average movie critic).

One of the Oscar-winning animated films that I never saw had one of the most awkward titles imaginable: “A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature.” I never knew that Herb Alpert had anything to do with cartoons, and I was curious how anyone could squeeze a double feature into a short. So, I decided to do some investigating to find out what this cartoon was all about.

For starters, Alpert and his jazzy band had nothing to do with the short beyond providing the tunes for the soundtrack. The creators of the short were John and Faith Hubley, the acclaimed husband-and-wife team who also won Oscars for “Moonbird” (1959) and “The Hole” (1962).

Details behind the creation of the film are somewhat hard to determine, though it appears that Paramount Pictures hired the Hubleys to create animated interpretations of “Spanish Flea” and “Tijuana Taxi,” two popular tunes from Alpert’s 1965 album “Going Places.” The Hubleys had a track record of incorporating jazz scores into their work, so it seemed like a natural fit to have them interpret Alpert’s playful instrumentals.

(For the record, the correct title of the film is “A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature.” Many sources refer to the short as “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature,” but that is not what is presented on screen.)

The film begins with a wonderfully weird title sequence. A longhorn bull with a trumpet-shaped snout runs about the screen, blowing musical notes into the air while Alpert’s distinctive trumpeting fills the soundtrack. The bull runs and dances through the titles, knocking the lettering down. Eventually, the title presentation is completed and the bull races away.

The first offering in the “double feature” is “Spanish Flea.” The eponymous insect lives in a studio apartment-style residence within a giant flower situated in a grassy field. The flea’s neighbors are a donkey and a chicken, and the flea’s routine involves giving each of his neighbors an unwelcome bite on their respective backsides.

However, this routine is upset when a bulldozer chases the donkey and chicken away. Almost instantly, a construction company arrives and erects a giant hotel.  A gaggle of guests enjoy a party at the hotel’s pool, while the man behind the project – a diminutive character who arrives in a limousine with a large, pink-haired floozy – makes his presence known.

The flea takes a liking to the new neighbors. The partygoers are all terrified and the hotel owner (who received a flea bite while making out with his floozy in a tight cabana) orders the property to be moved. The bulldozers arrive and take the structure into a distant field. The donkey and chicken return to their field, while the flea gives them one last bite before retiring for the day.

The second half of the “double feature” is based on “Tijuana Taxi.” Set in a Mexico where nearly every male wears a sombrero, this interpretation finds a musical band eager to take a taxi to the airport, where they need to catch a flight. Alas, the taxi driver is not very efficient when it comes to directions or vehicular safety – he drives with one hand on the wheel and the other on a roadmap, which he reads when he should be watching the road.

The taxi takes a zany journey through Tijuana: it twice runs over a supposedly blind beggar wearing a large cast on his leg, zooms through a marketplace full of pedestrians, and interrupts a bullfight. In the funniest gag, the taxi crashes into a general (complete in Santa Anna-style finery) who is riding his horse through the city square. The general winds up riding on the roof of the taxi (he eventually falls off and topples down a ridiculously long public staircase) while the happy horse joins the passengers in the back of the cab.

The taxi makes its way to the airport, but a too-efficient guard demands that the driver produce all of his paperwork before the vehicle can proceed. By the time the taxi reaches the runway, the band’s airplane is off in flight. However, the taxi driver has a solution: he begins to shake his car, which suddenly takes on flapping wings. The band, the driver and the general’s horse fly off into the Mexican skies.

“A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature” is a fast, breezy and wonderfully silly romp. The slapstick moves at an uncommonly brisk speed, to the point that the film often seems like prime Chuck Jones rather than the Hubleys’ more deliberately paced shorts. The jolly animation is full of quickie throwaway gags (the smile on the general’s horse is too brief and too priceless), and the visuals offer a perfect complement to Alpert’s feel-good jazzy instrumentals. And credit should be given to the animators who made this funfest happen: Gerard Baldwin, Phil Duncan, Emery Hawkins, Barrie Nelson, Rob Scribner and Ed Smith worked from the Hubleys’ script and perfectly timed their comedy to the various riffs of the Alpert music.

“A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature” was very well received when it was released. Besides its Academy Award, it was also selected as the U.S. entry in the Cannes Film Festival’s short subject category. And with Alpert’s popularity at its peak in the mid-1960s, it was a welcome presence in movie theaters across the country.

So whatever happened to the film? Well, it seems that it abruptly fell into obscurity after its award-winning release. Even Alpert reportedly had problems locating a print for his own collection. It has never been released on any home entertainment label, and it was considered something of a holy grail for animation lovers and Oscar completists before a video based on a slightly battered print was posted on YouTube in 2009.

With luck, a properly restored version of this short will turn up on DVD and Blu-ray, either as part of a retrospective of the Hubleys’ canon or as part of a collection of Oscar-winning animation. Until such time, I would strongly recommend that you click this link, which will take you over to the film on YouTube – trust me, this is one trip that you need to take!

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 videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Dave says:

    There’s a third, uncredited Tijuana Brass tune in the film: Sol Lake’s “Mexican Shuffle” plays under the film’s opening credit sequence.

  2. Chris Sobieniak says:

    Thinking of another Hubley project from the same year, I hope the National Film Board of Canada will put “The Cruise” up on their site someday.

  3. shawn spindel says:

    we all this world loves you herb

  4. Doug Brunell says:

    Nobody will believe this, but I am a huge Herb Alpert fan. All of my music from him is on vinyl, too, so take that. I am going to be seeking this puppy out.

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