The Bootleg Files: The Crunch Bird

BOOTLEG FILES 758: “The Crunch Bird” (1971 Academy Award-winning animated short).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was part of a Goodtimes Home Video VHS release at one point.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It seems to have fallen through the proverbial cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Only in an anthology of Oscar-winning shorts.

Here is a great question for Oscar trivia buffs: which Academy Award-winning production had the shortest running time? If you are reading this column, the answer is a bit obvious: it is “The Crunch Bird,” the 1971 winner of the Best Animated Short Subject Oscar, which only ran a mere two minutes.

How could a tiny two-minute film win the Oscar? Well, it was due to a combination of unlikely factors, including “The Crunch Bird” itself.

“The Crunch Bird” opens with a woman walking happily down the street. The character is animated in the exaggerated style typical of this era: an oversized head with an equally oversized mane of red hair, a ridiculously truncated torso and two long, skinny legs. A narrator informs the viewer was looking to buy her husband Murray a birthday gift, but her options were limited: Murray didn’t play golf, go fishing, read books or enjoy television.

“In fact, Murray did little but go to business and pay bills – especially his wife’s bills,” the narrator explains as Murray’s bedraggle image appears in a thought balloon above the woman.

The woman gets an idea: she will buy Murray a pet. But what kind of a pet would be right for her husband?

In the pet shop, the woman rejects the shop owner’s suggestions of buying a dog, a cat and a monkey. But the woman is intrigued by a vaguely dyspeptic bird sitting along on a perch. The shop owner identifies the animal as a Crunch Bird, but warns that it is too dangerous to have around. To prove his point, the shop owner says, “Crunch Bird: the chair” – and the bird flies to a wooden chair and starts chewing on it with a beak full of razor-sharp teeth. The chair is immediately reduced a pile of sawdust.

The woman is impressed with the novelty of the bird and brings it home as a surprise for Murray. (Murray is animated like his wife, with an oversized head, truncated torso and skinny legs.) When Murray comes home, he is extremely depressed – all he did during the day at work was pay bills, mainly his wife’s shopping bills. Amid his anguish, he pauses and is baffled by the unexpected presence of the avian gift. The woman explains the bird is a pet for Murray – and at this point, dear reader, the description of the film’s plot has to stop because it will give away the cartoon’s memorable closing gag.

The voices of the characters in “The Crunch Bird” were provided by an actor named Len Maxwell, who gives Murray and his wife vaguely Yiddish-sounding accents while the pet shop owner sounds like a mild version of Frank Nelson, Jack Benny’s long-time comic nemesis. The animation was credited to Joe Petrovich and the short’s directing and producing credits went to Ted Petok.

Petok was a Detroit-area cartoonist and commercial artist ran a studio that specialized in hand-drawn cel-animation television commercials. During a lull in business, Petok teamed with Maxwell and Petrovich on “The Crunch Bird,” which was based on a hoary old joke of undetermined origin. (It might have been a Borscht Belt routine, hence the vaguely Yiddish-accented couple.)

Petok was encouraged to share the film with movie theaters in Detroit, who agreed to show it ahead of their feature presentation. Audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive and “The Crunch Bird” was soon circulating among cinemas as a short offering ahead of the feature films. On a dare, Petok submitted the film for the Academy Award competition for Best Animated Short Subject and was one of three films that received nominations – the other two were Canadian productions “Evolution” and “The Selfish Giant.”

To Petok’s surprise, the Academy voters preferred his two-minute hastily-made film to the more polished Canadian fare and “The Crunch Bird” scored the Oscar. Petok never managed to top this career peak achievement – he created other shorts, including a sequel to “The Crunch Bird,” and he animated brief films for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” as well as public service announcements and television commercials. But he stayed active and well-respected in his industry, passing away in 2010 at the age of 93.

“The Crunch Bird” turned up in 1982 as part of the barely-seen Hanna-Barbera TV show “Jokebook,” albeit with a major change to its final line of dialogue. Unauthorized dupes of “The Crunch Bird” can be found across YouTube and other video sites. While it is hardly a classic in animation, it is a triumph of being in the right place at the right time with the right project.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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