The Case of The Muppet Movie

Well, it’s no secret that we here at The Black Case Diaries are BIG fans of alliteration. So, last week we departed from Musical May, and this month we are heading into…Jim Henson June! Usually, June is the month reserved for June Tunes, but we decided to shake things up this year. This week, we’re covering a Jim Henson film that is near and dear to our hearts. 

From 1976 to 1981, The Muppet Show dazzled audiences everywhere with its chaotic charm. Jim Henson was known everywhere as an innovator, and master entertainer. He took the rigid medium of puppetry, which was known to cater almost exclusively to children, and turned it into something for everyone. So, in 1979 when the Muppets were at their peak popularity, Jim Henson produced their first ever full-length feature film. It was a beautiful musical journey of how The Muppets met and came to be, with a variety of high-profile cameos speckled throughout. 

So this week, we’re moving right along, out of the swamp and on our way to Hollywood! It’s time to explore the Magic Store with The Muppet Movie! 

In the late 1970’s, Jim Henson was one of the busiest men in show business. Caroll Spinney, the man that brought Big Bird to life, called him “the hardest working man I’ve ever met.” In 1977, as Henson juggled The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, holiday specials, and live performances, he started working on The Muppet Movie. 

The film would be incredibly ambitious. No one had ever made puppets the main actors of a feature film before. Of course, Jim Henson could have turned an episode of The Muppet Show into a film. But, instead he did something much more challenging. This film would be the reverse of The Muppet Show. Instead of live actors coming to visit the muppet characters, the muppets were venturing out into the living world. 

Jim Henson brought this idea to Lord (Lew) Grade, the chief of ATV, which was the home of The Muppets. Grade was enthusiastic about the idea, and granted Henson an 8 million dollar budget (quite steep at the time). Filming started in 1978.  

SUMMARY

  • After being discovered by an agent in a swamp, Kermit the Frog decides to head to Hollywood to chase his dream of becoming a professional performer. Along the way, he meets a struggling bear comedian named Fozzy, a talented dog pianist named Rowlf, a beauty queen that happens to be a pig, an alien plummer, and many more! As the group heads to California, Kermit must also escape the clutches of an evil restaurateur that intends to use Kermit to sell deep-fried frog legs! 

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Jim Henson wanted to direct The Muppet Movie himself. But, he was eventually persuaded to allow an experienced filmmaker to come in and take charge. Henson had never shot film, and the producers chose director James Frawley to take the helm. Although this was incredibly frustrating for Henson, he seemed to work well with Frawley. Frawley was familiar with directing quirky material, like episodes of the TV show, The Monkees, and Henson liked his sense of humor.  
    • Frawley performed a screen test, which helped him understand the characters and how they worked, and whether or not they would fit into the real world.
    • In a USA Today article, the director said, “We shot them in and among cows — real locations though — trees, farmland and cars to see if you accepted their reality mixed in with real reality.” 
      • Frawley admitted to not understanding their mechanics and process at first, but he was soon an ally to the muppet performers. Jim Henson had worked with directors in the past that did not understand the physical demands of puppeteering. For this film, performers would often stand in small, claustrophobic places while holding their arms above their heads. In some scenes, they hid in underground cylinders, covered with plywood and dirt. Frawley was sympathetic, and would often shout, “Muppets relax” between takes, so the actors could rest.  
    • Making a groundbreaking film meant solving a lot of problems. Frawley felt that the most difficult scenes to shoot involved driving. The scenes inside the Studebaker forced up to four puppeteers to squish together under the dashboard with their monitors since there was no room for an actual driver. Frawley had the car rigged, so a stunt driver could operate it from the trunk, while watching the road on a monitor! 
    • But the sequence that Frawley felt was the most difficult of all, was the opening shot of Kermit singing in the swamp. Originally, Jim Henson wanted the scene to be in a real swamp, but quickly abandoned the idea. Instead, he shipped in trees from Georgia, and turned a water tank into an incredibly realistic swamp set.
      • Henson had a diving bell made to sit in the four-foot tank. He squeezed inside, and was sealed in. A rubber sleeve at the top allowed him to reach up and control Kermit with one hand, and a wire allowed him to operate Kermit’s banjo movements. Except for a headset that allowed him to communicate with the outside world, and the oxygen being pumped in, Henson was essentially buried alive. The scene took 5 days to shoot. At one point, Henson was sealed in for over three hours. 
      • Any time a muppet was shown with their feet, a creative solution was required to make it happen. For example, one sequence when Kermit walked across the sand in a ghost town, the camera was ground level as someone operated two green legs from above.
  • This movie was written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, the head writers for The Muppet Show. Back when Jim Henson first pitched the show, Juhl was the main writer. But, the network hired comedian Jack Burns to take the head writer title, because he was a more well-known comedian. So, Juhl understood Henson’s frustration when he wasn’t named director of The Muppet Movie. For years afterward, Juhl continued to write muppet content, and is responsible for many of the jokes that we associate with the muppets today. 
    • Juhl and Burns wrote a film that was a nod to old Hollywood. There were elements of classic movie musicals, buddy films, and slapstick comedy. But, Juhl also made sure to incorporate elements of Jim Henson’s own life. Jim Henson had left Mississippi (where there are a few swamps) to achieve his dreams in Hollywood. Like Kermit, he gathered up a group of coworkers and friends that shared his dream of wanting to bring more light into the world. He also fought to escape the clutches of the advertisement business. 
      • In Brian Jay Jones’ biography on Henson, he points to the climactic scene in which Kermit faces Doc Hopper at High Noon, as a true Jim Henson inspired moment. 
      • “Yeah well, I’ve got a dream, too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, Well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kind of makes us like a family.” 
      • Jones wrote that Juhl could have lifted those words verbatim from Jim Henson’s mouth. 
  • Filming took a total of 90 days, with many shots done on location in California and New Mexico!
    • The entire film was done in camera with no after effects added. Every scene was choreographed so that the actors knew exactly where to be. It’s a complicated process, because the muppets need to appear autonomous, which means that puppeteers cannot ever appear. 
    • “Simple is good,” was always one of Jim Henson’s philosophies. But, it seemed as if his definition of simple would fluctuate. Writer Jerry Juhl said, “We always used to kid Jim that after telling everybody that ‘simple is good,’ he would turn around and try to produce the most complicated work in the world.” 
      • One notable example of this would be the scene in the film when Animal consumes chemicals and grows a gigantic head. Although some suggested filming the scene using the regular-sized Animal puppet with miniatures, Jim Henson instructed his crew to build a 60-foot Animal head instead, controlled by Frank Oz. 
  • When you’re watching a Muppet movie, you’re witnessing a series of complicated maneuvers by people so talented, that it all looks seamless. Only two characters in the film were operated as suits. Sweetums, the ogre muppet that works at the used car lot, and Big Bird! 
    • Another example of these maneuvers was the scene that included legendary actor Orson Welles. As the group is about to appeal to Welles to become rich and famous, the five or six puppeteers were wheeled on a dolly across the stage and objects in the foreground were used to help conceal them, such as chairs and couches.
  • In the finale we see many of the muppets all together under a rainbow. When watching you may not even think about what kind of an amazing feat this is. You see the muppets as actual characters, but in reality they must be moved by puppeteers. In this final scene there are more than 250 Muppet characters with 137 puppeteers hiding. The scene took an entire day to shoot and several of the puppeteers were called to help from the Puppeteers of America. In the beginning of the day Henson and Oz gave a crash course in the art of cinematic puppetry.
    • We will include in the blog a picture of how they organized where each puppeteer would stand with their characters by numbers written on the ground.
The Muppets.jpg

The Muppet Movie released in America on June 22,1979! It was a critical and commercial success, just like Jim Henson knew it would be. It was one of the most profitable films of the decade. 

MUSIC

  • The music and lyrics were written by Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams.
  • In an interview with Stephen Deusner, Paul Williams said “Jim instructed us never to write down to children. That was never the point. We were writing the story and the characters. I think the special thing about the Muppets is that they encompass every age.”
  • When Williams was asked about working with his co-writer he said that, “The way Kenny (Ascher) and I write, it’s almost like we’re one consciousness. I probably write about 85 percent of the lyrics and a little bit of the melody as I’m singing, and he writes 85 percent of the music and a little bit of the lyrics. It was a perfect collaboration for The Muppet Movie.”

SONGS

  • The Rainbow Connection
    • There are a lot of magical moments in this film, but the opening of “Rainbow Connection” is other-worldly. It starts in the sky, as the orchestral opening music fades away, to make room for the humble sound of a banjo. The camera comes in from a wide shot, reminiscent of the opening of “The Sound of Music.” This first song of the movie sets up our main protagonist Kermit so that we see him as a true character and not a pile of fabric. 
    • At the film’s premiere, Jim Henson’s 14-year-old son, John, burst into tears. When asked about it later he said, “I cried in the opening. I still do.”
      • The inspiration for The Rainbow Connection was “When you Wish Upon a Star.” Both songs deal with inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
      • The Rainbow Connection is essentially an “I want” song. Linda Holmes from NPR wrote this about the song, “His ‘I Want’ is not just for his own dreams to come true. It’s for those who believe in the enchanting myths that we’ve all written together to be proved right. Someday, he hopes, we will find a thread that makes all this make sense. You know. Life. It’s almost a ‘We Want’ song.”
    • Jim Henson decided that when the audience first sees Kermit he would be sitting on a log. When Williams and Ascher asked Henson what Kermit would be doing, Henson thought briefly and said Kermit would be playing a banjo. Williams and Ascher built from there.
    • Performed at the 1980 Oscars
      • It was named in 2017 by Billboards Andrew Unterberger as one of the 100 Greatest Award Show performances of all time.
    • The song hit number 25 on the Billboard Chart and stayed in the top 40 for seven weeks! 
    • Since then the song has been covered by many artists. It’s wise lyrics may not be grasped by younger listeners but it has the capacity to be appreciated by all. It has been covered by Willie Nelson, Sarah McLachlan, and Jason Mraz.
  • Movin’ Right Along
    • This song comes just as Kermit is able to “convince” Fozzie to come with him to Hollywood. It sets up the beginning of their journey together.
      • This song also shows the audience the chemistry between Fozzie and Kermit, two best friends hittin’ the road together. It sets up the film as a “buddy” and “road trip” movie. It also shows how creative the characters are, as they are singing the song and writing it in real time! 
      • This song is filled with funny asides and is a plucky tune pounded out on banjo. Movin’ Right Along is an absolute jam. It also has a great cameo from Carroll Spinney’s Big Bird! 
    • In January of this year The Muppets social media uploaded a video of current day Kermit and Fozzie singing the tune together via a phone video call as Fozzie does a quick road trip. We will link to the video if you would like to view it.
  • Never Before, Never Again
    • This song really shows Frank Oz’s range, as Miss Piggy sings a love ballad while noticing Kermit for the first time. This song is filled with silly moments of the two Muppets being in love and spending time together, although only in Miss Piggy’s imagination. 
  • I Hope that Somethin’ Better Comes Along
    • This song is unique in that Henson duets himself! In order to accomplish the performance the two tracks were recorded separately and then composited together. 
    • The Muppets constantly walk a line between entertainment for children and adults. It’s tough to say if anyone has ever done it as well as they have. This song has the most grown-up jokes, as Rowlf and Kermit lament their lady troubles.
    • Rowlf the Dog was a very special character for Jim Henson. He was as much Jim as Kermit the Frog. When Jim Henson passed away, Rowlf only made a cameo appearance in The Muppet Christmas Carol, because Brian Henson didn’t want to recast him. 
  • Can You Picture That?
    • Shortly after Fozzie and Kermit meet up, the two encounter Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (aka the heroes of the film). Hanging out in a church, which they hope to turn into a coffeehouse. Once the band finds out about Kermit’s troubles with Doc Hopper, they decide to help by disguising their car. 
      • This is also the introduction of Scooter, Kermit’s eventual stage manager! 
    • This song is filled with trippy lyrics, and hilarious Animal moments, not to mention it absolutely rocks harder than almost any song ever. 
  • I’m Going to Go Back There Someday
    • When The Muppets break down in the desert, all dreams of Hollywood seem to have been lost. Sitting around a campfire, Gonzo performs one of the most poignant songs of the film. 
    • When Dave Goelz first took up the Gonzo puppet, he was a quieter, more emotional character. He was always very emotive, more so than many other Muppets. As The Muppet Show progressed, so did Gonzo’s character. He became more confident, and hardly afraid of failure as the resident daredevil.
    • But, when it comes time to perform this song, we see the complex emotional side of Gonzo that’s more akin to his original character. “I’m Going to go back there someday,” describes how it feels when you think you have finally achieved your dreams, just to have them fall apart.
    • Just after this song, Kermit goes and has a conversation with his inner self. He feels responsible for everyone’s misery, and wishes that he never left the swamp. Then, he realizes that they came along with him because they believed in the dream, and he owes it to himself to keep trying to achieve it.
    • Kermit says, “I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone. I promised me.” And he looks up just as a shooting star strikes across the desert sky. 
      • The shooting star has been recreated for several other movies in honor of Jim Henson. It was a Christmas tree light rigged to a wire. When Frawley gave the signal, it shot across the other desert stars.
    • After Henson’s passing, I’m Going to go Back There Someday was one of the songs performed for his funeral at St. John’s Cathedral in New York City.
  • America
    • In one of the funniest and most off-beat moments of the movie, Fozzie Bear sings an off-key version of America The Beautiful. The rendition is charming and warm, with Fozzie singing along to the swelling music at the end. This is the kind of moment that really appeals to younger audiences, children that are listening to the songs, but also singing along. It’s also a great representation of the silly shenanigans that often happen on a long car ride. 
  • The Magic Store
    • This song is the big finale, a moment of celebration for our heroes that finally found their way to fame! The group sings to the audience, detailing their paths from being awkward kids in school, to successful entertainers. It’s a song for the audience, inspiring them to follow their dreams, too. 
    • The group starts to perform “The Rainbow Connection” together. Then, the ceiling breaks open and a rainbow appears, distracting everyone with its beauty. The music seems to stall for one haunting moment, except for two notes gently played on the piano. Then, Kermit turns to the camera, and tells us what he learned: Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

STARRING

MUPPETS

  • Jim Henson: Kermit the Frog/ Rowlf/ Dr. Teeth/ Waldorf/ Swedish Chef/ Link Hogthrob 
  • Frank Oz: Miss PIggy/ Fozzie Bear/ Animal/ Sam the Eagle/ Marvin Suggs/ Motorcycle Guy
  • Jerry Nelson: Floyd Pepper/ Crazy Harry/ Robin the Frog/ Lew Zealand/ Camilla/ Blue Frackle
  • Richard Hunt: Scooter/ Statler/ Janice/ Sweetums/ Beaker
  • Dave Goelz: The Great Gonzo/ Zoot/ Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/ Doglion/ Nigel/ Pig
  • Steve Whitmire: Fletcher Bird

GUEST STARS:

It isn’t The Muppets without some guest stars. The puppeteers on set were thrilled to work with the large group of celebrities that agreed to appear in the film, from Bob Hope to Richard Pryor. 

  • Charles Durning as Doc Hopper (He looks a little like Colonel Sanders)
    • At one point on set, Jim Henson and Frank Oz got into an argument about Hopper. Henson believed that they should redeem the character. He believed that of any villain, and was once quoted saying, “Our villains are innocent, really–and it’s that innocence, I think, that is our connection to the audience.” Oz reportedly responded with, “bullshit.” 
  • Austin Pendleton as Max
  • Edgar Bergen as himself and Charlie McCarthy (you know, that monocle puppet)
    • Of all the celebrities, this was the most revered by the muppet cast. Edgar Bergen was a trailblazing puppeteer that paved the way for Jim Henson and every other performer on set. Writer Jerry Juhl said that watching him perform was like being a child again. 
    • Bergen was ill while filming The Muppet Movie, but agreed to do it anyway. It would be the very last footage of him, as he died that fall. Jim Henson spoke at his funeral, and the film is dedicated in Bergen’s honor. 
  • Milton Berle as Mad Man Mooney
  • Mel Brooks as Professor Max Krassman
  • James Coburn as El Sleezo Cafe Owner
  • Dom DeLuise as Bernie the Agent
  • Elliott Gould as Beauty Contest Compere
  • Bob Hope as the Ice Cream Vendor
  • Madeline Kahn as El Sleezo Patron
  • Carol Kane as Myth
  • Cloris Leachman as Lord’s Secretary
  • Steve Martin as the Insolent Waiter
  • Richard Pryor as the Balloon Vendor
  • Telly Savalas as El Sleezo Tough
  • Orson Welles as Lew Lord
    • Lew Lord is a nod to the head of ATV, Lord Lew Grade!
  • Paul Williams as El Sleezo Pianist
  • Scott Walker as the Frog Killer

AWARDS/ HOW IT WAS RECEIVED

  • The movie grossed almost $66 million in its initial release. Lew Lord certainly made back his 8 million dollar investment. Thanks to the film’s success, several other muppet films followed. 
  • It was nominated for two Oscars, for best song and best score. It won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film. 
  • When Jim Henson’s agent Bernie Brillstein saw the film, he said, “Kermit was Jim. Jim believed in the entire world.” 

The Muppet Movie was another triumph by Jim Henson. He took his team of dreamers and continued to push the boundaries of his medium. He found artists that truly understood his vision and songwriters that captured the true magic of The Muppets and what they represented. The Muppet Movie works for many reasons, but one of the most notable is because of how much every single person that touched it believed in its message. This film walks the line between silly and sentimental, displaying a truth that will stick with audiences of all ages. 

The Muppet Movie is beautiful. It’s magic personified. And the best part is that it’s for absolutely everyone: the lovers, the dreamers, and you. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, and Carlos!

You can now buy us a Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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