by Stacey Osbeck
Forty years ago, on June 22, 1979, The Muppet Movie was released in the U.S. Before that, no other feature length film had incorporated puppets and people with the puppets as the main attraction. It explored the origin stories of already beloved characters and tied them all together in a road movie headed for Hollywood. “Rainbow Connection” received an Oscar nomination and would in time become Kermit’s signature song, the carefree musings of a frog with a banjo in the swamp he called home.
As luck would have it, a Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise), lost in a rowboat, crosses paths with Kermit and shows him a listing in Variety: open auditions for frogs. Fame and money doesn’t hold much sway over Kermit, but the agent’s suggestion that he could make millions of people happy does. This dream to bring joy to so many motivates Kermit to leave the swamp, journey across the country and get to the casting call in time.
At the El Sleezo Cafe, an establishment frequented by rough rabble rousers, an announcement is made that the vacationing dancing girls will be replaced by a comedy routine. Enter Fozzie Bear, waka-waka. Seeing that the crowd may rip him to pieces, Kermit leaps on stage and the two pull together a dance routine. Kermit’s true colors come through here. His desire to make people happy goes beyond entertainment. He’s willing to risk life and limb to help someone he has no connection to, ultimately turning that stranger into a friend.
Kermit suggests they team up and work an act together. They hop into Fozzie’s Studebaker and off they go. The two spot an eight foot tall yellow bird hoofing it and offer him a ride. Big Bird thanks them but he’s on his way to New York, hoping to make it big in Public Television.
An amicable shaggy dog can listen to your troubles while he tickles the ivories. He sings a catchy tune about wishing for something better to come along. So of course, Rowlf the Dog is on board for Hollywood.
They stop at a county fair with a pie contest and ribbons for prize chickens. Kermit becomes captivated by the local beauty pageant queen as she receives her crown, the lovely Miss Piggy. When their eyes meet across the crowded fairground, it’s clear to both of them that this is fate.
Miss Piggy, her flowing blonde hair is always done, her voice angelic (when she’s not angry). She peppers conversation with French (mon capitaine, moi) and dreams big Hollywood dreams of becoming a star—but she’s a pig. A pig who maybe wasn’t dealt the ideal hand, but is doing the best she can with what she’s got, like the rest of us. All these traits wrapped into a big personality may account for her skyrocketing popularity with audiences during this time.
The gang encounters more than Muppets on their trek out west. Steve Martin, the insolent waiter, who after opening the bottle of sparkling wine asks Kermit if he’d like to sniff the bottle cap. Richard Pryor, a balloon salesman, persuades Gonzo to buy the full lot to woo his plucky girlfriend. Bob Hope, the ice cream man, serves honey flavor for the bear and dragonfly ripple for the frog. It’s not just the small time acts across the country they pick up, it’s that there’s a character around every corner.
The evil Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) has seen Kermit’s talent and aggressively recruits him to be the company spokesperson for Hopper’s French Fried Frog Legs. Kermit flat out refuses to get ahead or enjoy fame at the expense of others, especially when those others will be battered and deep fried. Doc Hopper’s single-mindedness knows no bounds. He even employs Professor Krassman (Mel Brooks), who has made huge strides in the field of frog mind control, to get Kermit to be the face of his company.
The Muppet Show taped in a TV studio under controlled circumstances. The Muppet Movie, however, was filmed out in the real world creating some logistical nightmares. While all the puppeteers crouched below eye line in that tiny Studebaker, a little person drove it by viewing a monitor and steering from the trunk.
Kermit relaxed comfortably on a log in the swamp for his opening musical number. Below him, Jim Henson huddled in an underwater diving bell, crafted just for that scene, equipped with a monitor so he could watch what he was doing and rubber sleeves to maneuver while keeping the space watertight.
The film ends with an extravaganza of all Muppets together, singing. They’d never needed nearly so many hands before. A casting call through the puppeteers’ guild brought in an additional 137 performers. Director John Landis and a young Tim Burton answered that call. Both wound up working the final scene in the six foot deep Muppet pit.
Like Jim Henson, who as a boy enjoyed playing in the swampy Mississippi Delta, Kermit too left his home to go out into the wider world and make people happy. Each Muppet had their own talents and specialties, but without Kermit’s encouragement they may not have ever reached for more. Kermit also never judged whose act was worthy of the big time and who should get left behind. If you believed in your dreams, he believed in you. And for that more than anything the Muppets owe Kermit a big thanks, or as Miss Piggy would coo, merci beaucoup Kermie.
[Editor’s note: Fathom is presenting The Muppet Movie on the big screen July 25th and July 30th in select theaters. Get your tickets ASAP, s’ils vous plaît!]