Monday, 21 March 2016

Dancing Fifi

Tex Avery’s fascination with long shots of a little insect on a stage goes back to his Warners Bros. days in Hamateur Night (1939). He featured fleas in other films but when he gets to The Flea Circus (1954), he combines the idea with the mass procreation gag that ended Little Johnny Jet, Bill Thompson’s Droopy voice and the song “Clementine” that appeared in Magical Maestro. In other words, a lot of Avery ideas are at play here (a muffled sound gag in this cartoon was further explored in his next short, Dixieland Droopy).

One thing that’s unique to The Flea Circus is the design of Fifi, the little French girl flea who steals the heart of Pepito the Clown flea (who finally wins her by saving her life). My assumption has been that Ed Benedict was responsible but there’s no design or layout screen credit in this cartoon. Fifi’s involved in a neat dance scene to the tune of Applause by Ira Gershwin and Burton Lane, lifted right off the soundtrack of the MGM musical Give a Girl a Break (1954).

Here are some of Fifi’s poses, with the chorus line in the background.

You’ll notice Fifi and the chorus aren’t in step and aren’t always singing at the same time. They catch up to each other every once in a while. During this scene, Fifi may move from one frame to the next then hold. The chorus may move in a different frame or the same one. It means their actions aren’t always in sync. I didn’t notice until writing this post and froze each frame.

Here’s what I’m talking about. This is one second of animation, slowed down. Only once are all characters held for two frames, everything else is on ones with Fifi, or the chorus, or both, moving. All the characters start out in the same position.

Did Mike Lah animate this scene? He seems to have done a number of dance numbers at MGM. Walt Clinton, Bob Bentley and Grant Simmons are the other credited animators.


  1. Avery seems to have set it up so that Fifi 'leads' the background dancers for the most part in performing routine They follow a frame or two later, thereby emphasizing her role as the 'star', even if it's only subliminally to the audience. Just try to imagine anyone taking the time (or having the budget) to do that today.

  2. Good eye! As insanely subtle as this out-of-sync touch is, it's the kind of subliminal detail that characterizes great old school animation. This is the kind of deliberate creative choice that adds one more layer of believability to the image, even if the viewer is totally unaware.