The Deeper Meaning of Michigan J. Frog

The most critically acclaimed cartoon, indeed what is considered to be the “Citizen Kane” of this genre, is “One Froggy Evening.” It was created in 1955, with a story by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones. It’s protagonist was latter named Michigan J. Frog.

Without further ado, please view it here on YouTube. But, if you prefer that I tell you the story, here is a run down of the plot. A building is being destroyed. A construction worker discovers, in its 1892 cornerstone, a box. He open it, whereupon out pops a singing frog. The frog, Michigan J. Frog, wears a top hat, carries a cane and sings popular songs from the turn of the century, like “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Hello Ma Baby.”

The construction worker becomes excited by the possibility of getting rich by having the frog sing in front of audiences. He brings the frog to a talent agent, but when the frog is in front of the agent, he wont sing. Back home the frog sings again, so the construction worker rents out a theater. But when the frog is in front of the audience, again he wont sing.

Finally, after much frustration, the construction worker puts the frog back in the box and seals him up in the cornerstone of the new building. A hundred years goes by, it is the year 2056, and the new building is destroyed by the another construction worker in a space suit, who then finds the old 1956 cornerstone with the box in it. The box is opened and out pops Michigan J. Frog. The construction worker with the space suit then has the same plan to exploit the frog’s singing. The cartoon thus has an ironical, running gag, Twilight Zone type of ending.

What Does It Mean?

Here is Roger Ebert’s take on it: “There are tragedies in conflict here: (a) a frog who is a song and dance star, who has been locked in the dark for decades but cannot perform in public, and (b) a worker who dreams of wealth and is considered a fool and a liar. The story of “One Froggy Evening” involves an endless loop of frustration.” (Roger Ebert, cf. Chuck Jones: Three Cartoons (1953-1957))

I think that Mr. Ebert is perceptive in his analysis. He contends that the story’s form is that of a double tragedy, but I myself would contend that the types of frustrations involved here are more likely to be the provence of comedy. It could also be argued that since this tale is dripping with dark irony about human aspirations, that is is really what is known as a dark comedy.

But let us proceed to analyze the symbolic meaning of this cartoon parable. There is beauty, culture, ideas and truths of past ages intended for one’s own ears only. We might very much wish to share these things with other people — whether our interests be love or money — but are only able to so, to varying degrees. Indeed, sometimes our appreciation for various ideas or aesthetic experiences is simply incommunicable to a larger audience.

Yes, it’s true that the frog’s music is not high art, but simply Tin Pan Alley ditties. (Although at one point he sings an aria from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.) But still, such music can be wonderfully entertaining. It can lift one’s spirits, allowing sunbeams of joy to breakthrough clouds of worry and concern.

The construction worker might have simply enjoyed the frog’s fine singing. He might have regarded it as a divine gift, for him alone or perhaps to be shared with a few friends. But, out of greed, he decides to exploit the frog. He seeks to bring people into the auditorium by appealing to their lower nature, i.e., by offering them free beer.

But when the curtain rises for the performance, the frog becomes mute, which I think symbolically means that…

 

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