By Phil Hall | February 4, 2011

BOOTLEG FILES 361: “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” (1941 animated feature from the Fleischer Studios).

LAST SEEN: The full film is available on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A commercial release and bootleg release took place.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: People incorrectly assume it is a public domain film.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It has been commercially released, though people keep bootlegging it.

There are some projects that get off on the wrong foot and are never able to get into the proper groove. A notably disastrous case in point was the 1941 film “Mr. Bug Goes to Town,” which put a once-innovative studio out of business while nearly destroying the cause of animated feature films.

“Mr. Bug Goes to Town” was designed to be the second feature film created by the Fleischer Studios. Despite their success with short films, siblings Max and Dave Fleischer were eager to expand their artistic vision beyond one-reel offerings, and by the late 1930s they sought to produce works of greater length and depth. Except for Walt Disney’s independently financed operation, no other Hollywood animation company was attempting to make feature films.

Fleischer Studios got off to a bad start with their first animated feature, the 1939 “Gulliver’s Travels.”  The Fleischers put themselves under an excessive financial strain, going as far as to set up an expensive new studio in Florida. But critics and audiences compared their work unfavorably to Disney’s groundbreaking “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and the Fleischers found themselves heavily in debt to Paramount Pictures, which distributed “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Paramount was willing to take a chance on a second animated feature, but there was a major caveat attached. In order to receive Paramount’s financing for a new feature film (as well as additional animated shorts, including the Popeye series), Paramount had the Fleischers sign undated letters of resignation that the studio could use if things went from bad to worse. Needless to say, things went beyond bad to worse – and by May 1941, Paramount seized control of the financially ailing studio. However, the Fleischers (who, at this time, were barely on speaking terms with each other) were allowed to stay in control of production.

So what was the film that helped fuel this disaster? The project was called “Mr. Bug Goes to Town.”  Now, you may be wondering, who is Mr. Bug and why is he going to town? Well, it is a complicated story.

Initially, the studio desired to make a film version of Maurice Maeterlinck’s “The Life of the Bee.” However, the Fleischers could not obtain the rights to that property – so, they decided to create their own insect-inspired story. They also sought to borrow on populist themes that were successfully exploited in hit movies like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

“Mr. Bug Goes to Town” takes place in a corner of an unnamed city where a garden lies adjacent to a small house. Its insect inhabitants know the garden as the “lowlands” and life had been happy for years. But the insects find themselves in a precarious situation because a broken fence has opened the garden to the careless traffic of “the human ones.” These bipedal baddies routinely drop matches or smoldering cigars into the garden and trample their way through the lives of the insect community.

At this point, Mr. Bug enters. That is the formal name for Hoppity, a grasshopper who returns home after being away for a number of years. Hoppity has the tall, lean frame that one associates with Capraesque heroes like Gary Cooper or James Stewart, though he seems a bit more frenetic in facing difficulties. And, indeed, Hoppity is up to his antennae with problems.  The resident bad insect, C. Bagley Beetle, lusts after Honey, Hoppity’s bee girlfriend. Beetle has a pair of stooges, Swat the Fly and Smack the Mosquito, who constantly try to put Hoppity in harm’s way.

Then there is Dick and Mary, the humans that live in the house besides the garden. They are trying to move out to a better place, but they are stifled because Dick’s career path – he’s a would-be songwriter – is not producing enough cash to facilitate a change of address. So using the unique logic of the cartoon world, Hoppity takes it upon himself to help the humans, with the belief that they will help the insects move to a safer place.

Admittedly, the core concept of “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” is not very encouraging. But the Fleischers and their creative team were unable to spin any cinematic alchemy from this idea. The resulting production was a bizarre mess that fails at every imaginable level: unattractive production design, monotonous characters, a too-predictable story, anvil-subtle slapstick and some fairly awful tunes created by (of all people) Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael. In watching “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” unfold, it is unimaginable to ponder how anyone at either the Fleischer Studios or Paramount could think audiences would embrace such nonsense.

Initially, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” was set to premiere in November 1941. Unfortunately, Disney released his animated feature “Dumbo” in October 1941, and the film created a major sensation.  Paramount was rightfully worried that the Fleischers’ output would be dismissed in comparison to the Disney project, and the film’s opening was delayed to December 5, 1941, with the hope that enough time would have elapsed to avoid comparisons between the two animated films.

To Paramount’s surprise, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” opened to favorable reviews. To America’s surprise, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor two days after Hoppity showed up in theaters. This inconvenient distraction did not help Paramount, which soon found itself with a considerable commercial flop as wartime audiences put their minds on more important matters.

Paramount, having rid itself of the Fleischers, renamed their operation Famous Studios and used the operation as its in-house animated department, with an exclusive focus on shorts. The failure of “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” discouraged other animation studios from pursuing feature-length films. Only Disney grimly pushed ahead with this format, even though this would help to create significant debt for Uncle Walt’s fun factory for many years. It would not be until 1959 with UPA’s “1,001 Arabian Nights” before a U.S. studio would challenge Disney with an animated feature.

Paramount dusted off “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” in 1946 as “Hoppity Goes to Town,” but the film bombed for a second time. Unable to find any commercial value for the property, the studio sold it (along with most of its animated output) to UM&M TV Corp. in 1955; National Telefilm Associates later bought UM&M, and they later became Republic Pictures. For many years, the film would be a staple of syndicated kiddie programming on independent TV stations around the U.S.

Although many of the Fleischer Studios’ films have fallen into the public domain, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” was always under copyright protection. Republic Pictures issued the film on VHS video and laserdisc, but it has yet to present it on DVD. However, that did not stop a number of cheapo public domain labels from using faded 16mm dupes as the source for issuing the film on VHS video and DVD. Complicating matters even more was Legend Films’ DVD release under the title “Bugville.” The full film is also easy to locate online, thanks to Net-based bootleggers.

Some film critics have attempted to push “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” as a forgotten classic. Well, trust me, this is not a classic – and, indeed, this is one film that is best left forgotten!

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. boyplunder says:

    Hoppity goes to town has entertained many children I have introduced it to as my children grew up. This is a charming, beautifully animated film. I have always considered this one of the best animated films of its time, but its untimely release has much to do with the Fleischer’s design style as it does circumstance. This film should have been made and released around 1938. 1941 was just too late to make its mark. The quality of Disney offerings was too far advanced for the Fleischers to battle. I love to see Hoppity from time to time, and my teenage children still enjoy it on a wet Sunday afternoon.

  2. WhenTheFedsComeCalling says:

    Maybe I’m biased because I love the Fleischer’s animated output, above all others; but I really enjoy ‘Mr. Bug goes to Town’. I find it quite charming in a simple, character-based way that Disney sometimes loses in it’s high-gloss. Just my 2 cents. Big fan of your articles, Mr. Hall!

  3. Chris Sobieniak says:

    Though I already mentioned this earlier, the film got a DVD release in Japan as part of some Studio Ghibli movie collection of films that had inspired it’s people.

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