One of my favorite classic animated shorts from the definitive Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies collection: One Froggy Evening is an approximately seven-minute long Technicolor animated short film written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, with musical direction by Milt Franklyn. The short marks the debut of Michigan J. Frog. This widely popular short contained a wide variety of musical entertainment, with songs ranging from "Hello! Ma Baby" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry", two Tin Pan Alley classics, to "Largo al Factotum", Figaro's aria from the opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The short was released on December 31, 1955 as part of Warner Brothers' Merrie Melodies series of cartoons.
Steven Spielberg, in the PBS Chuck Jones biography Extremes & Inbetweens: A Life In Animation, called One Froggy Evening "the Citizen Kane of animated film." (Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 5, Disc 2) In 1994 it was voted #5 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field. In 2003 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The film is included in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2 DVD box set (Disc 4), along with an Audio commentary, optional music-only audio track (only the instrumental, not the vocal), and a making-of documentary, It Hopped One Night: A Look at "One Froggy Evening".
A mid-1950s construction worker involved in the demolition of the J. C. Wilber Building finds a box inside a cornerstone. He opens it to reveal a singing, dancing frog, complete with top hat and cane. The box also contains a commemorative document dated April 16, 1892. The man tries exploiting the frog's talents for money - but as it turns out, it will not perform in front of anyone else. It merely devolves into croaking. The man frantically tries to demonstrate the frog's abilities to the outside world—first by trying to get an agent to accept him, then by renting out a theater for it to perform in—all to no avail.
Eventually, the man becomes homeless—after spending all his money renting the theater—and is living on a park bench, where the frog still performs only for him. A policeman overhears this and approaches the man for disturbing the peace, but after the man points out the frog as having done the singing, he takes the man in. He is committed to a psychiatric hospital along with the frog, who continues serenading the hapless patient. Following his release, the haggard man spies a construction site and joyfully hides the box (with the singing frog again enclosed) in the cornerstone of the future "Tregoweth Brown Building". He then tiptoes away to freedom. The timeline then jumps to 2056 (100 years and at least one day after the cartoon's debut). The Brown Building is being demolished using futuristic ray guns, and the box with the frog is discovered yet again by a 21st-century demolition man, who gets visions of dollar signs, starting the process all over again....
Ironically, it is revealed in a 1995 sequel, "Another Froggy Evening", that the Frog's croaking noise is actually Martian for "Would you like to hear me sing?" This sequel is actually a prologue which shows that Michigan J. Frog has lived for centuries, from the caveman to the space age — and with the same result for both the frog and its hapless finder.
The cartoon has no spoken dialogue, in fact no vocals at all except by the Frog, otherwise relying on pantomime and other visuals, sound effects and music. The songs include ragtime and Tin Pan Alley hits with a dash of opera, showing the Frog's versatility.
The singer was uncredited, and for years his identity was shrouded in some degree of mystery. Various names were proposed in the past, but the Looney Tunes Golden Collection unequivocally credits the vocals to baritone Bill Roberts, a Los Angeles nightclub entertainer in the 1950s.
The Frog had no name when the cartoon was made, but Chuck Jones later named him Michigan J. Frog after the original song. The character became the mascot of The WB television network in the 1990s. In a clip shown in the DVD specials for the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Jones states that he started calling the character "Michigan Frog" in the 1970s. During an interview with writer Jay Cocks, Jones decided to adopt "J" as the Frog's middle initial, after the interviewer's name.
The DVD points out that the names of the buildings in the picture, as shown on the cornerstones, are names of Warner production people on the cartoon. A plate-glass window likewise is adorned with the layout artist's name.
The date on the cornerstone in which the Frog was sealed predates most of the songs he sings. Papers found in the box with him state that it was sealed in 1892, but "Hello! Ma Baby", for instance, was not written until 1899.
A production shortcut can be observed in the final scene, in which the futuristic demolition worker finds the Frog in the box. The wide shot of the worker shows modern metal fencing in the background, while the closeup shot of the Frog has the background of rubble identical to the first scene.
The story may have been inspired by the real-life tale of Ol' Rip, a horned toad which was claimed to have survived 31 years sealed in the cornerstone of the courthouse in Eastland, Texas. The cornerstones in both cases had been laid in the 1890s.
Some of the Frog's physical movements are evocative of ragtime-era greats such as Bert Williams, who was known for sporting a top hat and cane, and performing the type of flamboyant, high-kick cakewalk dance steps demonstrated by the Frog in Hello! Ma Baby.
In 1995 Chuck Jones reprised Michigan J. Frog in a cartoon entitled Another Froggy Evening, with Jeff McCarthy providing the Frog's voice. The cartoon had a sequel of sorts in an episode of the Warner Brothers series Tiny Toon Adventures, with the Frog falling into Hamton J. Pig's possession. Another cameo of Michigan J. Frog was in an episode of Animaniacs when a scene from MacBeth is recreated. Michigan J. Frog, wearing his top hat, is placed into a boiling cauldron along with other cartoon characters.
Airings of this cartoon on ABC and the WB cut the part where the man creates a "Free Beer" sign to rope in audience members into seeing the singing frog. The humor of that piece showed a bunch of drunks bullcharging into the theatre. The way it is cut on both channels makes it seem that the audience came in because of the "Free Admission" sign the man creates before the "Free Beer" sign. The uncut scene where the man first shows "Admission: $2", then "Free Admission", then "Free Beer" is shown on the Merrie Melodies compilation video. The short appears as a bonus on the Little Giants VHS, with the "Free Beer" scene intact.
The compilation movie Bugs Bunny's 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales cut the ending sequence where the demolition worker from 2056 rediscovers the singing frog and makes off with it, in the hopes of exploiting it the same way that the man from 1955 had tried. The compilation's edit makes it appear as if the cartoon ends with the original construction worker abandoning the frog, and running off.
Several of the songs performed by the frog were written after he was presumably sealed into the cornerstone, dated 1892 including:
"Hello! Ma Baby"
Words and Music by Ida Emerson and Joseph E. Howard (1899)
"The Michigan Rag"
Words and Music by Milt Franklyn, Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones; written for the cartoon but similar to George Olsen's hit song "Varsity Drag" from the musical Good News (1927) "Come Back to Erin"
Words and Music by Claribel (pseudonym of Charlotte Alington Barnard) (1866) "I'm Just Wild About Harry"
Words and Music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, written for the musical Shuffle Along (1921) "Throw Him Down, McCloskey"
Words and Music by John W. Kelly (1890) "The Michigan Rag" reprise
"Won't You Come Over To My House"
Words by Harry Williams Music by Egbert Van Alstyne (1906) "Largo al factotum"
Composed by Gioachino Rossini for the opera The Barber of Seville (1816) "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone"
Words and Music by Sidney Clare, Sam H. Stept and Bee Palmer (1930) "Hello! Ma Baby" reprise
The two men who find the Frog are the only persons who see him singing. However, the theatre audience probably heard him behind the closed curtain and the police officer definitely heard him singing in the park. (The Frog stops singing before he can be seen either by the theatre audience or by the police officer.)
One Froggy Evening was referenced in Mel Brooks's 1987 film SpaceBalls, in a scene where John Hurt plays a man who collapses as a small alien bursts from his stomach, recreating a similar scene Hurt performed in the 1979 movie Alien. Hurt says "Not again!" before dying, and the alien sings "Hello! Ma Baby" as it dances across a counter and out a window. After seeing this, Lone Starr & Barf leave without eating.
Michigan J. Frog was later reincarnated as the mascot of The WB Television Network from its outset in 1994 until its merger with UPN in 2006 to become The CW. The last image seen on the WB was a profile of Michigan J. Frog when the network signed off.
In an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, a character that looks extremely similar to the construction worker is shown living in a car with his wife and son. The original cartoon was also used as a part of the plot of Son of the Mask; directed by Chuck Jones & distributed by Warner Bros. on December 31st, 1955.