Need a really special gift for the animation freak in your life? Look no further than the Warner Bros. cartoon classic from 1955, One Froggy Evening. This Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies six-and-a-half-minute short is now playable on any size screen you’ve got, anywhere you go, all day every day. I saw it at every neighborhood theatre when it first came out, was first in line when VHS was all the rage, now I own it on Amazon. According to the Library of Congress, One Froggy Evening is a National Treasure – a “culturally significant” work. In 2003 the LOC declared the film to be worthy of preservation by the National Film Preservation Foundation. The cartoon is an icon of animated filmmaking and a cross-cultural point of reference of fascinating proportions.
The storyline was conceived by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones. Its team of animators captured a multi-layered range of human foibles and packed the adventure with excerpts from eight songs that were either classics by 1955 or have become so along the way. Baritone Bill Roberts was hired to do the voice of its main character, Michigan J. Frog. Bill can also be heard in the background of The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) singing, “A Picnic in the Park”. For One Froggy Evening, his bright and virile voice enlivened eight fantastic melodies of different persuasions, beginning with a Tin-Pan Alley favorite from 1899. The story involves an average-looking laborer involved in the demolition of a building erected in 1892. He has reached the building’s cornerstone and is going at its lid with a crowbar. Inside is a small tin box – what must be the time capsule. Out pops a frog with a hat and cane that begins dancing and singing, “Hello, my baby! Hello, my honey! Hello, my ragtime gal!” The man looks around, places the frog back in the box, and sneaks away from the site.
So? Who wouldn’t abandon his job – take off with a singing frog – and run to the biggest theatrical agent in town? The frog turns mute, except for a single drawn-out deal-breaking croak. They’re thrown out of the office. Outside the door, the frog bursts into “The Michigan Rag” – the only original song in the film, written by Jones and Maltese. The man persuades the agent to look. Again, all the frog has is a croak. They’re booted into the street – the perfect moment and setting for the frog to resort to the sentimental Irish favorite from 1866, “Come back to Erin”. Undeterred, the man decides to rent an abandoned vaudeville house and showcase the green phenomenon himself. The nimble songster – who eventually becomes known as Michigan J. Frog – is rehearsing Eubie Blake’s 1921 Broadway show-stopper, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, along with two other music hall gems, “Throw him down, McCloskey” and Egbert Van Alstyne’s greatest hit from 1906, “Won’t you come over to my house and play like you’re my little girl?”
It’s opening night. Again, in front of anyone else – this time a theatre filled with curiosity seekers, the kind who will believe a frog can sing and dance if the signs outside say so – the frog goes mute. The act is a bust.
Now penniless, the man and his frog have nothing but a park bench to call home. But the frog is in great voice for Rossini’s best known aria, “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville. Too bad the nearby patrol officer arrived after the final note. No, the cop doesn’t swallow the man’s explanation about his talented companion. It’s off to the Psychopathic Hospital with both of them. The frog seizes the opportunity and breaks into a melodramatic rendition of the 1930 smash hit, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”.
By 1955, this popular “jump blues” number by Sam Stept (“Don’t sit under the apple tree”), Sidney Clare (“On the good ship Lollipop”), and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Bee Palmer, had enjoyed a quarter century’s worth of royalties from multiple recordings by the best singers in the business and frequent employment in the movies as either mood music to enhance a relevant situation or as a complete number in a nightclub scene – the best example being the rendition by Gladys George in Lullaby of Broadway (1951). Turner Classic Movies rates the film (another drawn-out saga about the heartaches / the heartbreaks of life on the Great White Way) with only two-and-a-half stars – probably because of the neutered chemistry between its featured stars, Doris Day and Gene Nelson. These days, the melody of its title has become an iconic way to exit a scene involving potential gossip. The best of these is found in MGM’s 1939 comedy extravaganza, The Women – starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell.
Eventually, the disillusioned short-term impresario finds a new construction site. Inside his box, the intuitive frog reprises “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” as the man quickly dumps the green traitor and his carrying case into the building’s cornerstone. As with many fantastic tales, a hundred years go by. The building, dedicated in 1955 is being torn down. The story begins again.
“Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” has been around for nearly 85 years. A recent version by The Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band proves the song’s enduring appeal and potential. One Froggy Evening is headed toward its 60th Anniversary in 2015. And the illusive baritone, Bill Roberts, has secured immortality in the pantheon of the American Songbook.