When “The Godfather” was first shown in downtown Seattle in 1972, a strange little cartoon appeared with it. That cartoon was a two minute retelling of a crude old joke: “The Crunch Bird.” To the surprise of many people who worry themselves over such things, it won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Subject of 1971. Here it is:
Ted Petok, who died in 2010 at the age of 93, was a small-time Detroit cartoonist, who submitted his short subject to the Academy with little hope of winning, almost as a joke. His son Bill said, “Nobody was more amazed when he won than my dad.” At that year’s Oscar ceremonies, the award for Best Animated Short Subject was presented by Cloris Leachman and Richard Roundtree. When Petok accepted the award, he said, “Oh boy, ‘Crunch Bird,’ my Oscar!” It was the only memorable speech of the night, including Charlie Chaplin’s. The twelve-minute standing ovation Chaplin received — the longest in Oscar history — was memorable, but who remembers what the hell he said? I don’t.
There were two other animated short subject nominees that year, both of them from Canada. “Evolution” (just under ten minutes long) and “The Selfish Giant” (twenty-six and a half minutes long). Here’s “Evolution,” which is no great shakes, but is certainly more interesting and ambitious than “The Crunch Bird.” And more fun, too.
“The Selfish Giant” is more ambitious still, but no fun at all. Its sentimentality is so revolting, I could not bring myself to insert a link to it. If you want to see it, you’ll find it on YouTube — be prepared to feel your teeth rotting from the sticky sweetness. (I could endure no more than five minutes of it.) It’s based on the Oscar Wilde children’s tale. Wilde is best known these days as an early martyr to gay rights. He’s also remembered for his buoyant flippancy and epigrammatic wit. What most people forget is that he wrote poetry and stories of the most nauseating sentimentality and sententiousness.
When I first saw “The Crunch Bird,” its very mild naughtiness was sufficiently startling that I’ve never forgotten it . . . yet, as you can see, it’s very thin material. The animation is atrocious and the voice characterizations poor. Still, I have a soft spot in my heart (and perhaps in my head) for it. In 1972, it seemed to me wonderfully adult and debonair. Of course, it’s neither of these things, but what of that? I’m more interested in the idea that I thought its slapdash crumminess was an indication of sophistication — and apparently, enough Academy voters felt the same way. For that reason, it offers an interesting little insight into the era. Moreover, that it was the co-feature with my favorite picture of all time also gives it reflected glory and always reminds me of the thrill of seeing “The Godfather” for the first time.