What’s the greatest short cartoon ever made? We animation fans can debate this one endlessly, but for me the only possible choice is One Froggy Evening, a Chuck Jones masterpiece described by Steven Spielberg as “the Citizen Kane of animated films”. It isn’t just that it’s uproariously funny, it’s that it’s so very funny while amounting to little less than a Greek tragedy, as a humble construction worker, blinded by visions of fabulous wealth, is humiliated, left penniless, and ultimately destroyed.
The action begins with our unlucky protagonist working demolition, and prying apart the stones of an old building. Within the hollow cornerstone, dated 1892, he finds an old metal box, a sort of time capsule. Inside that is some sort of formal document, and a frog, somehow still alive, who crawls out, sits listlessly on the open lid, croaks, and looks balefully at the worker. Our friend with the pry-bar is at a loss. Then, inexplicably, unbelievably, the frog reaches back into the box, pulls out a little cane and top hat, stands up, and starts high-kicking as he just belts out old Vaudeville tunes, and other popular songs that would have been current at the time he was buried inside the building.
From there, the whole story plays out without a single word of dialogue, while only the frog opens his mouth. He sings in a wonderful baritone voice, clear as a bell, and he has a great entertainer’s chops. He performs ragtime, classics from the American Songbook, old Irish tunes, and even Opera, as he hoofs away, wide eyed and exuberant, back and forth in front of the box. Among the tunes is Michigan Rag, which sounds just like a genuine period piece, as are the other numbers in the frog’s repertoire, but was actually written for the cartoon. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it:
Everybody does the Michigan Rag!
Everybody loves the Michigan Rag!
Every Mame and Jane and Ruth
From Hoboken to Duluth
Romp, bomp, stomp the Michigan
Ride, glide, slide the Michigan
Jump, hump, pump the Michigan Rag!
That lovin’ raaaaaaaaaaag!
Yup, the frog is a dynamo. A sensation. But there’s a catch…
The singing and dancing amphibian, given no name in the cartoon, somehow acquired the handle Michigan J. Frog.
The Library of Congress has deemed this little cartoon to be of such cultural significance that it has preserved a print in the National Film Registry.