Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Bug Parade: Trusting One's Comedic Insects

Release date: 10/11/41

The version we see is the Blue Ribbon re-issue of 7/12/52

Availability: NONE

You can watch a better-than-average TV version HERE.


The original credits for this cartoon may or may not have had Fred Avery listed as supervisor. Like many Warner Brothers cartoons, this one lost its original credits when reissued 11 years after its first run, at which time Avery was winding down his time at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Bug Parade was the last thing on his mind then, unless he happened to go see a movie in mid-July 1952 and saw it as part of the program.

Bug Parade was probably titled The Bug Parade in its 1941 release, in a reference to the 1925 silent war film The Big Parade, King Vidor's epic drama of the First World War. The punny title hung on a cartoon with no connection to that cast-of-bazillions film. It would have gotten a laugh from older theatergoers who might have seen the original run, or the film's 1931 reissue with a musical score. 

We open with a complex display of insect transit, as our narrator, who sounds like Robert C. Bruce but may not be him, comments in that sunny, condescending tone we've come to expect.
"The Garden of the Moon," a winsome tune by Harry Warren, Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer (and from the 1938 picture of the same name) underscores this ground-level pageant. Narrator promises us of "little-known facts in the lives of these tiny creatures."

"First, the musta domestica, or common house fly..."
 "Wait a minute," narrator cries as he, like we, become aware the scene is upside-down.
Camera obliges.
Narrator notes that the fly's ability to walk on the ceiling is due to tiny
suction cups supplied by Mother Nature. So, of course...
Dissolve to an image that terrified many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who saw this cartoon over and over on TV...
"Although the fly appears to have two eyes, our microscopic lens shows that they
are composed of thousands of smaller eyes."
 Fly's utterance of "I seeee you" still evokes a chill.
 As do those countless eyes all blinking at once.
 Horseflies, narrator tells us, are noted for "their impossible speed."
 "Here is the vespa germanica, or wasp..."
Carl Stalling's music cue is "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight,"
always a gateway to gags of a bawdy nature. Narrator goes on about the
wasp's tiny waist, which causes the insect to strut her stuff...
 Girdle malfunction occasions some delightful drawings.
"The queen bee is noted for her ability to lay many eggs
at one time." We know what's coming.
 The "whew" of effort spent is always funny.
The vibe of this cartoon is more sedate and collected than prior spot-gag cartoons.
The energy of Avery's earlier and later cartoons isn't here.
 Tree spider noted for its ability to snare victims much larger than self in web.
 Indeed. Poses of bovine struggle ensue...
 "This is hard to believe, isn't it?"
 ...and back to sein kampf.
 The firefly "is supplied by Mother Nature with 
its own source of illumination."
 Unlit bug "didn't pay my light bill last month."
 "Caterpillars are interesting little fellas...
...they propel themselves by use of numerous little legs."
 Handshaking and greeting orgy occurs.
 Orgy repeated with opposite hands. It goes on juuust too long in that Avery way.
Moths, narrator informs us, are known to be attracted to flames. What appears to be the
narrator's hand (in a rare on-screen appearance) attempts experiment.

 Moth arrives, disgusted by the fire.
 Angrily accosts narrator:
 "Whaddaya tryin'a do, stoopid--start a fire?"
 James Cagney-esque wave of disgust makes routine 2.88% funnier.
Grasshopper is exhorted by narrator to show off its hopping skills.
 Cycle of hopping plays out...
 Then blank screen.
 Camera searches to no avail...
 dollies up to bird in tree.
 When asked if he's seen grasshopper, utters immortal line...
 "'s a possibility."
 Is jounced about by devoured insect.

Centipede gag. You know what's about to happen.
 But then it goes somewhere unexpected--always a delight in these spot-gag shorts. 
Extra pod has a mind of its own, so the head pod detaches (in the vein of early talkie cartoons like the Flip the Frog Ragtime Romeo [1932]). There is a purpose to this detachment, unlike the tame sight gag of the Ub Iwerks film...
 Centipede kicks errant part of self... satisfied that it's been injured... to rest of body...

 ...and in a final gesture of masochism, squishes the misbehaving pod...
 ...which it abandons.
This dark moment has more inspiration than anything else in Bug Parade, and is such an odd departure from the norm that it's worth lingering on for a moment. Avery never tried another gag quite like this. The self-harming aspect is fascinating and troubling. It's one thing for a character to detach another's appendage, harm it, and return it to its owner. But doing so to one's self is a strange concept that is undersold here, as if its creator knew it was too weird to call attention to, but too good to leave out.
Next is "the common cootie"--a louse bug that was a pestilence to World War I soldiers. They caused misery in an already hellish situation. They spread various typhus diseases, including one known as "trench fever." In short, great fodder for an entertaining Hollywood color cartoon.
 Mel Blanc-voiced pest rhapsodizes:
 "Millions and millions of soldiers..."
 "...and they're mine... all mine!"
While we walk that one off, a goofy-looking and beautifully designed cartoon snail calms our battered senses.
Narrator notes that snail "carries his house on his back."
That F.H.A. gag, which I explained in an earlier post on this here blog, must have
laid 'em in the aisles in post-Depression, pre-war America.
Before we go on, it's always bothered me that this background painting has such a visible and obvious join line on it, yet that divide is not used in the animation. That jagged line is distracting, and if the gag was any good, that would be more of an issue. Anyhow: termites...destructive.
 Blanc voice shouts "TIM---BER!"
 Rule of Three Gag Trifecta at work here. Third tree...
 ...caroms termite into the beyond. His impact is beige-on-beige and does not read well. The tree? Yep.
Whaddaya we got next? Silkworms. Narrator stops his spiel to ask about worm inactivity.
 A falsetto mass of voices squeaks "Look!"
 Camera obliges.
Mildly amusing, eh?
A suite of ant gags follows.
 Black ant and red ant encounter one another...
 ...address one another as "Red" and "Blackie."
 Dissolve to an anthill, as narrator enthuses about strong work ethic, etc.
 Ants emerge...
 they say "bread and butter" as they pass between a blade of grass,
This is an old superstition you can read up on HERE. Warning: knowledge of its meaning will cause you to adopt this quaint custom, like it or not.
Avery ends these spot-gag cartoons on a dramatic note. This is one of the better sequences, due to great animation and character design.
 A seafood moment.
 Camera's downward pan reveals hidden still life with jug.
Spider, who looks like a union of Jerry Colonna and Chuck Jones' version of The Grinch, chortles about his love of little flies.
 These drawings are much fun to look at; hence a whole lot of 'em.
 The money shot.
This could be a Van Beuren cartoon (albeit with better animation, backgrounds, music and voice work).
Except it isn't. And in an inspired switcheroo, we learn the spider's love is literal. He and the she-fly have a make-out session aside a stump of stale bread.
 "I told you I loved little flies," spider says as iris and cue-mark bring down the curtain.
The Bug Parade is on the slightly better side of the spot-gag curve. This concept had worn thin by 1941, and Avery dropped them altogether during an inspired streak at M-G-M from 1943-8. It might have been a relief to get away from the format for a few years. 
The fatalism of the centipede episode, which contains a dark and complex comedic idea, is the biggest payoff this middling cartoon has for modern viewers. Those expecting great wrap-up insights from me will be disappointed here. I think I've said my fill about these spot-gag cartoons. I'm glad to have survived the majority of them--we have one more (although it was completed by Bob Clampett). Once an innovation, the format had played out, as can be seen in wartime efforts by Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Norman McCabe, in which the dead horse is beaten into a frothy pulp.
As the final Warner Brothers cartoon completed by Avery, The Bug Parade is a milestone, but in a format that had become a millstone to its maker.

Up next: Deconstwucting Wabbit Twouble: Is it weawwy a Wobert Cwampett cartoon?


  1. Along with the modular bug that can amputate it's rear, the cow trapped in the spider web bit's also one where it's unexpected enough in first viewing to get a laugh (we still sorta have one more Avery spot gag effort to go at Schlesinger's with "Crazy Cruise", but you can see by now they filled the role for Tex that the Road Runner shorts would 12-15 years later for Chuck Jones, in being ones that could be churned out quickly because they were cartoons with stand-alone scenes that didn't need a strong story narrative. Moving over to Metro, with its far more relaxed annual release schedule, only "Batty Baseball" comes close to the spot gag formula in the early going, while it may or may not be notable that when Tex finally returns to the genre, with the Droopy/Spike competition cartoons, it's right before he takes his sabbatical from MGM due to overwork, and when he returns, the straight-out spot gag efforts return with a vengence).

    1. I always enjoy getting comments from you, JLee. Not to split hairs (or hares), but there is a technical difference between cartoons like "The Bug Parade" and the episodic Road Runner and Droopy/Spike cartoons you cite. The latter has established characters, and thus protagonist/antagonist. There's more to engage the audience because of this important factor.
      Avery did return to the spot-gag format with his "Tomorrow" cartoons and "Field and Scream." As you note, those come from the post-sabbatical period, when Avery was likely looking for an easier path, and that old familiar format served this purpose, as it did at Schlesinger's... cartoons with less planning and brainstorming, no commitment to one character or setting, and it gave the animators different things to draw. I imagine the spot-gag pictures were more fun to do than the regular story-driven cartoons for those reasons.

  2. While today the format (and some gags) may be frayed and tired, trade publications at the time saw things differently. The Film Daily dubbed the cartoon "witty." The Motion Picture Daily said "cleverly contrived for laugh purposes...short and snappy." Showman's Trade Review declared the cartoon was "replete with subtle gags which should make it popular with adult audiences" and praised the Merrie Melodies series as "the most entertaining on the cartoon market." The Motion Picture Herald, as in other reviews, simply outlined the plot "with the emphasis on comedy."
    The few reviews I've seen from theatre managers were favourable.
    This being the case, it's no surprise the West Coast studios continued to engage in spot-gag shorts for a while longer.

  3. For what it's worth, the 1953 Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1940-1949 motion pictures has the following for the title and the credits - note that it IS "The Bug Parade," and Avery isn't listed, though Monahan is:

    THE BUG PARADE. c1941. 1 reel, sd. (Merrie Melodie) Leon Schlesinger Productions.

    Credits: Producer, Leon Schlesinger; story, Dave Monahan; animation, Rod Scribner; music director, Carl W. Stalling.

    © The Vitaphone Corp.; 21Oct41; MP11663.

    1. Thank you for this information. The Blue Ribbon reissues often lopped words off the film titles. I suspected such foul play, and history proves me right!