Why Flip? | TRIUMPH OF SPIRIT OVER CIRCUMSTANCE | 1930-1932

THE STOCK MARKET CRASHED ON TUESDAY, 29 OCTOBER 1929.

Black Tuesday marked an irrevocable change in the economic fabric of America. President Hoover promised his country that the six months following the crash would be the worst. He was wrong. By the end of 1929 the effects of the crash sent reverberating shock waves through Americans’ lives. They felt the impact when they lost their jobs and the bank that held the family savings crashed. The United States population in 1929 was 120 million. Unemployment grew from 1.5 million in October 1929 to 7.5 million in September 1930 to 13 million in 1932. Proud Americans found themselves earnestly pleading for help and desperately searching for assurance somehow they would survive. According to T.H. Watkins in The Great Depression the era would begin as a time of horror and end when America attempted to make real the possibility of hope and validate the best that was in us as a society.

In the crucible of the great Depression, Americans began to lose identity and hope as they suffered. In Creative Suffering Paul Tournier distinguishes between suffering itself and the reaction of the sufferer to his suffering. The reaction of the sufferer can take one of two paths: choosing a destructive reaction or choosing to be open to the possibility of a creative reaction. Understanding and creatively expressing pain can move the sufferer from sinking gloom, through a creative response and into a bereavement that is both active and serene. In the face of deprivation, courage is collectively galvanized and isolated gestures of hope and justice are celebrated and grasped for as brief moments of epiphany.

THEIRS WAS A HOPELESSNESS THAT NEEDED A GUIDE.

Cartoonist Ub Iwerks offered Flip the Frog as an answer to Americans’ desperation, allowing Americans to look at themselves as never before. In the midst of his audience’s hopelessness, Flip the Frog’s character reminded viewers how to overcome present circumstance by walking through their suffering. Flip saw and reflected the world for what it was, he made his audience laugh, and he reminded his audience in the depths of their despair why they should laugh at all. In his brief three-year lifespan, Iwerks evolved Flip from a woodland frog into a socially responsive city boy who refused to let his spirit be defeated by his circumstance.

The mind behind the Frog, according to Walt Disney, was “the greatest animator in the world.” The creative journey that brought Flip to life had its roots in 1924 when Iwerks reunited with friends Walt and Roy Disney in Hollywood. In the cartoon studio, Iwerks introduced bleeding edge animation techniques. He refused to be restricted by rudimentary methods, and offered a new animation style embracing a fluidity of motion that alarmed most production studios.

Before he brought Flip to life, Iwerks passed through the character development of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and saw the first Mickey Mouse cartoons through to completion, according to Iwerks’s biography The Hand Behind the Mouse. From the rise and fall of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Iwerks extracted lessons that he would later apply to the character development of Flip. Criticism from Charles Mintz of Winkler Productions criticized Oswald for his jerky and repetitious action, the flat nature of his character, and the unrelated gags that hinted at but failed to offer a clear underlying story.

Iwerks further developed his personal animation style in Mickey Mouse’s debut Plane Crazy. In Mickey, Iwerks brought character depth to an otherwise single-dimension medium. Iwerks instilled humanity in Mickey by illustrating internal motivations through external actions, a technique known as Stanislavskian animation. Iwerks was the first cartoonist to experiment with character development and emotional complexity that reached beyond physical gags.

Pat Powers and MGM studios approached Iwerks with the opportunity to step out on his own. Iwerks left the Disney brothers behind to join MGM. Once there, he got stuck on the idea of a frog. Iwerks debuted Flip the Frog in Fiddlesticks (released August 1930), the first ever two-color Technicolor sound cartoon and MGM’s first cartoon venture. Fiddlesticks generated little critical or audience response. Iwerks learned from Oswald’s dissolve and from experimenting with Mickey’s development that Flip would need to offer depth, emotional complexity, and substance of some kind in order to build a rapport with his audience. Iwerks ushered Flip out of the woods in The Soup Song (released January 1931) and covered his webbed fingers with gloves and his webbed toes with shoes. By the release of The Office Boy (released July 1932) and Room Runners (released August 1932), Iwerks left Flip with few remaining frog features, save his bulging cheeks. A frog could not suffer, empathize, and respond as a human could, so Flip became more human.

Flip’s character simplified struggles for his viewers in order to re-present their situation in a way that brought commonality to their experiences, he made hope real again, he demonstrated that things could be a great deal worse (they could be in a boxing ring with a bully), and Flip challenged his audience to prevent the overwhelming frustration from seizing their personalities and their spirit by modeling authenticity in their actions. Flip depicted the despicability of being dishonest about one’s condition in What a Life! (released March 1932). Flip’s response to figures of authority as foolishly absurd allowed viewers to feel empowered by Flip’s ability to outwit, outrun, and belittle the ones who otherwise reminded him of his desperation. And, in the situations when Flip does not triumph (when he is hauled off in a paddy wagon at the end of What a Life!) he handles his loss with exacerbated and humorous acceptance.

Through Flip’s character development, Iwerks demanded that audience members dig more deeply to discover how well they knew themselves and how clearly they saw the world around them. He was empowered by the world of fantasy, which afforded him a means to simplify his message and transform his audience’s anxiety into laughter.

CARTOONS TRANSFORM ANXIETY INTO LAUGHTER.

Watching cartoons inevitably returns the viewer to a child-like state. Moral dilemmas are oversimplified: there is good and bad, there is right and there is wrong. In this reminder, the viewer is morally instructed in the same way that a mother instructs her child. It is a lens that assumes no airs and conveys its message through simple reflection and the ability of animation to exaggerate, speed up, slow down, and emphasize the simple truths therein. Simple truths and simple reminders reinforced the durability of American values including resilience of spirit, resistance to authority, generosity, ingenuity and social fluidity. Flip’s character touched on them all. Iwerks responded to the suffering that galvanized the nation, straining it of complexity by offering opportunities for Flip’s audience to engage in simple observation where exaggerated physical actions displayed emotion, where questions of morality were clearly painted and resolved, or accepted for what they were.

Iwerks breathed new life into animation. On the heels of the cultural evolution of the 1920’s, Iwerks took cues from the cultural evolution of the 1920’s including the moral codes of Benjamin Franklin Keith’s Vaudeville Circuit and the quiet self-assurance modeled by the king of silent films, Charlie Chaplin. He carefully folded these ingredients into the world of fantasy.

Iwerks concentrated Flip’s responses in physical exaggerations as manifestations of his emotional character and in laughably playful blunders like Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin taught viewers the value of observation and response. Chaplin responded to hard times but moved through changing circumstance with a self-assured loose gait. Iwerks took many cues from Chaplin, ever imitating his comic antics in style and motion for Flip. Borrowing Chaplin’s _expression, signature top hat and cane, while daring his surroundings to change him, Flip too would carry on.

Iwerks also took moral cues from the code of morality enforced by Benjamin Franklin Keith’s Vaudeville circuit. Keith instructed through content of his shows and by way of the high standards of behavior he enforced in his theatre, using the circuit as an educational tool for his audiences and as a means of escape. According to Everybody’s Magazine Keith’s Vaudeville “is an enemy to responsibility, to worries, to all the little ills of life. It is marvelous acrobatic feats of performers who conceive immensely difficult things for the pleasure of doing them.”

Iwerks did his homework to create and develop Flip. He took cues from the cultural mores of the day, he learned from his own animation successes and failures, and he pushed the limits of animation. For Flip to survive, it would seem that Iwerks recognized his character needed to have the allure of Charlie Chaplin, who was able to ride his reputation to success well through the Depression. And, Flip’s character would need to build a relationship with his audience by meeting them where they were and encouraging them toward triumph. Iwerks did everything right.

WHY DID FLIP DISAPPEAR?

Flip the Frog's lifespan was a brief three years. It was brief because critics failed to see Flip for who he was and failed to note the innovation found in Iwerks’s creation. It was brief because the lessons Flip’s character taught his audiences were too complex to have been attributed to a cartoon in the early 1930’s. As such, Flip’s instruction has gone largely unnoticed. The experimentation in the cartoon medium that took place in Flip’s brief lifetime, the anthropomorphic and social development of Flip, and the lessons Flip’s character offered about the human spirit in its darkest hour beg recognition that has eluded him. Perhaps America survived the Great Depression because of changes brought by the New Deal. Or, perhaps America survived the Great Depression because of the reminders of who they were despite their circumstances: lessons that only a mother could teach her child and a Frog could teach a nation.

SEE FOR YOURSELF.

Revisit and explore the triumphant human spirit that brought Americans who endured the Great Depression out of horror and unto hope. Eight full-length cartoons accompanied by viewing commentary are available in the Showtime Gallery.

INTRODUCTION | SHOWTIME GALLERY | SOURCES