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Hugo The Hippo Gets A New Lease On Life
by Adrian Mack
March 13, 2012

If you’re built the right way, you’ll feast on every phantasmagoric frame of Hugo the Hippo. Bill Feigenbaum’s obscure but prized 1975 animated feature—coming to the Pacific Cinémathèque on Sunday (March 18) in a crisp 35mm print shipped by the director himself—is a magic funhouse of retro kitsch. The film features voice talent by Robert Morley, Burl Ives, and the great Paul Lynde, hopelessly catchy songs performed by Jimmy and Marie Osmond, and the kind of funky, post-psychedelic feel that usually prompts people to wonder what the feigenbaum they were putting in the Tang back in those days.

Actually, contrary to what you might read on any of the fan blogs devoted to the widely bootlegged film, Feigenbaum wasn’t on anything when he made Hugo. “That’s crazy,” he tells the Straight in a call from New York. “I don’t know where they got that from. Some of the scenes, like where the hippo’s getting turned on by the fumes of vegetables, maybe that’s where they got it; I dunno.”

Yes, possibly, although the entire film—which tells the story of an orphaned hippo in Zanzibar and the child who befriends him—is a trip. It’s also hard-edged at times, as when Hugo’s family is slaughtered by Zanzibar’s finance minister, Aban-Khan (yes, finance minister, voiced by Lynde). But it’s also sweet and lyrical, and the appeal isn’t only to vintage pop-culture hounds: the Straight’s test audience (in this case, a six-year-old girl) also dug the shit out of it.

“It was really popular everywhere else but the U.S. when it came out, because 20th Century Fox did a terrible job of advertising and promoting,” Feigenbaum says. “You know, they had a premier at a drive-in in Texas, which is not exactly the right thing to do.”

It turns out that the backstory to Hugo the Hippo is every bit as strange as the film. Multiple Emmy winner Feigenbaum began his career hand-drawing the backgrounds to black-and-white TV commercials before becoming, in the ’60s, the on-air advertising director for NBC, where he mounted the first ad campaign for Star Trek.

After going freelance, Feigenbaum was roped into Hugo the Hippo by a client who raised the money from perfume giant Fabergé (where Cary Grant sat on the board of directors: “Just a terrific guy,” he says). Meanwhile, despite being a wanted defector, the film’s producer bribed the Hungarian government and moved the production to Budapest. (To add to the film’s improbable provenance, Roger Moore, of early James Bond film fame, was an uncredited executive producer.)

“That was a great experience,” Feigenbaum says of his two-and-a-half years behind the Iron Curtain. “And every week, the animators would sneak into my office, ask me to help them escape, but I didn’t want to get into that. It was a little too James Bond for me.”

As for the voice talent, Feigenbaum eagerly describes the inimitable Lynde as “fantastic, one of the best people I ever worked with”, while he’s equally fond of the “crazy man” who came to read Morley’s part in London. “He shows up late for the recording session with a pink suit—the guy’s about six foot two—and a poodle,” Feigenbaum says with a chuckle.

Speaking of poodles, 10-year-old Jimmy Osmond also impressed the director when the stormin’ Mormons (“a very nice family”) entered the frame en masse after negotiations with the Jacksons collapsed.

Feigenbaum also notes that Mama Osmond had the lyrics to at least one song changed to remove a reference to Hell, but still. Looking at the whole hallucinatory package today, you could hardly call Feigenbaum’s vision compromised. Rather, it took a clueless studio to bury the director’s four years of hard work in an era that was light on animated features.

“Not like now, you have a new one every week,” says Feigenbaum, who has at least lived to see Hugo take on a new, if belated, life. “My timing was about 40 years off.”

Sure, but it’s been well worth the wait.



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