All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Ub Iwerks was a genius. His draftsmanship as an animator is legendary. From 1922 on, he worked with Walt Disney and remained with him, until 1930. During that time, Iwerks created “Oswald the Rabbit” and “Mickey Mouse”. From 1930 to 1937 he headed up his own studio, producing several series of animated shorts, including his own creation, “Flip The Frog”. Nonetheless, Ub Iwerk’s claim to everlasting fame will always be the fact that he created Mickey Mouse, and animated Mickeys first films, as well as the first “Silly Symphonies”, almost single-handedly. Amazingly quick and prolific, Ub was capable of turning out several hundred drawings a day. Once you see an actual animation pencil drawing by Ub Iwerks, you will recognize his style, from that time on. His lines were spontaneous, decisive, abbreviated, and alive.
Ub was said to have been Walt Disney’s closest friend, all through the Oswald years, and the first year of Mickey. Then there was a falling out between the two men, and Ub accepted an offer from Pat Powers to open up his own studio, under the banner of Powers's Celebrity Pictures. The films he made there, were distributed by MGM.
Iwerk’s new character was “Flip the Frog”. Flip lacked Mickey’s geometric structure as well as his charisma. He did get a little rounder and less froglike as time went on. As a collector, I Flipped, whenever any Flip related object showed up, which was not often. This page will show you most of the Flip collectibles that are generally known, and some that are not. After 40 years of hunting Flip the Frog, this is what I got. It’s, mostly, all in this one box, below.
The showcase is dominated by a composition figure in the centre, origin unknown. Clearly the sculptor was inspired by the bisque figure of Flip with his hands on his hips, or visa versa. Which came first, the doll or the bisque? There is also a smaller composition figure with moveable arms, There are two of those included here. This same pose was also rendered in celluloid, in two sizes. They are in the big celluloid case. And there was also a set of 3 smaller bisque musicians, playing instruments. They have become stones in the Great Pyramid of Bisques.
Buried in this case, as well, are four variations of a Flip doll. These dolls were produced in England in 1930 by Deans Rag Book Company, and appeared before any commercially manufactured dolls of Mickey. They came in seven sizes, the largest being 16” inches. The smallest size, which was made of velvet, is the nicest one, in my opinion. As the doll increased in size, the green velvet was replaced by green mohair, resulting in a frog as fuzzy as a teddy bear. The red faced doll came later. The logic of its color escapes me.
In the front row, starting on the left, is a tin clicker, then a set of English advertising cards that chronicle the six steps in the process of brewing a cup of "Lyon's Tea," from “hope “ to “satisfaction”. In front of that is a small German wood jointed doll that looks quite generic, perhaps not really flip. But, surprisingly, he has all the information as well and the name “Flip the Frog, deeply incised on his feet. Then, there is a porcelain napkin ring, and, at the far end, an ashtray, and finally, five tiny candle holders for use on birthday cakes.
Also hidden here is the single volume of the Flip Annual, which appeared just one year. Here too, is a set of jigsaw puzzles, and the nicest and most colorful of a never ending series of Flip ceramic planters, most of which were black and white. I’ve always liked that piece a lot, with its iridescent colors, liked it enough to have more than one, so I can include it in this group shot, without fishing its double out of the box.
Here is another Porcelain piece that couldn't fit into the case, this rather large and impressive set of porcelain bookends. These were also made in England and are early, dating from Flips froggy days.
In the back of the case, is the Flip coloring book. The cover of this is quite extraordinary. Below, is a second copy, which is actually the first edition. The later book has a row of type across the moon, suggesting that Flip is “your movie star”. That’s not the only thing that is suggestive about the cover. Was the not so subliminal symbolism of its soft core imagery created unconsciously, or was it an inside joke?
Can Freudian lightning strike twice, in the same place, by accident? When we open the cover to view the title page, this is what we see. Hmmm! Whatever the intent, there is a certain consistency.
The most desirable Flip toy known is definitely the one, below, the Flip the Frog Tin Drummer. It is similar to a series of Mickey variations, but all original. Wait! On second thought I take that back. I just realized he's using Mickey's five fingered hands. Both graphically and condition wise, he is perfection. This toy was worthy of removing from its showcase to photograph on its own. When one operates a plunger on his posterior, Flip beats the drum rhythmically. I discovered this iconic object, many years ago. Neither I, nor the seller, had any idea how rare it was going to turn out to be.
The first Flip the Frog cartoon, “Fiddlesticks” was released in August 1930, when Mickey was only two years old. The short was the first sound cartoon to appear in color. It was two color Technicolor as opposed to the three color Technicolor of Disney’s “Flowers and Trees”, which appeared two years later in July of 1932. The subtle difference between two colors and three allowed Disney to claim, on a Technicolor technicality, that Flowers and Trees was the first Technicolor cartoon.
Fiddlesticks had everything going for it, everything except a story! It is just a string of tediously tepid gags set to music, and while Flip fiddles around, displaying his repetative repertoire of froggy moves, the actual “fiddle” is played by a mouse who looks suspiciously like Mickey. The audacity of this similarity is the only thing that’s funny about the cartoon.
When I was a kid, Walt Disney seemed like a god. Later, when I learned that Ub Iwerks actually created Mickey, the news was almost scandalous to me. And my esteem of Disney dropped a notch. I never zeroed in on Walt’s creative gifts, again, until years later, when I saw Flip the Frog in action. It was then that my assessment of Walt’s genius went up a lot. Whether Walt could draw or not became secondary to the fact that he really knew how to telll a story. Ub, did not!
In 1933, Iwerks signed a deal with “Cinecolor” to produce a series of “ComiColor” Cartoons. Some of these retold Fairy Tales are bizarre, and even kind of creepy. The most outrageous one in terms of concept and imagery was “Balloonland” . Over the years I have had the opportunity to purchase several ComiColor posters. “Balloonland” was the one I chose.
The film is both amazing and disturbing. The concept of being a living balloon filled with air and menaced by the Pincushion man is unnerving. One prick and you will pop! And the horrifying Pincushion man has just the prick to do the job. The Imagery of the Pincushion man, himself, is the most surreal and outrageously phallic in the history of animation. The body length lethal appendage, protruding from his crotch, is kept neatly tucked in his mouth when it is not out, doing damage. If you agree that the coloring book cover of Flip riding a paintbrush is subliminally suggestive, you won’t believe your eyes, when you see the Pincushion Man. This might well be the most bizarre cartoon ever created.