When most people think about people behind The Muppet Movie, some iconic names and faces jump out for any fan. Obviously, there is Jim Henson, in his little underwater tank in the swamp, puppeteering Kermit for the iconic opening. And there’s Frank Oz and the rest of the Muppet players, all with their own memorable moments, playing their characters to the hilt. Even Sweetums gets his time to shine in the movie, in a great running gag, always being left behind by Kermit and the gang!
But, if you were to ask who was behind the camera, most people think that The Muppet Movie was directed by Henson himself, and that’s a travesty. The Muppet Movie wouldn’t be the iconic piece that it is today without the contributions of one James Frawley. James Frawley was hand-picked by Henson to direct the Muppets’ first film outing, and for a good reason: Frawley was precisely the kind of creative with a wild-streak through his work to make The Muppets succeed on the silver screen.
James Frawley got his start in the biz as a classically trained actor at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh and was soon performing with the likes of Lawrence Olivier on Broadway. But, he was drawn to the innovative world of downtown theater and joined the improvisational standup-news theater company The Premise in the early Sixties along with famed comedian and writer Buck Henry. It was with The Premise that Frawley got his penchant for a streak of anarchy in his work that ran throughout his entire career.
While in Los Angeles with The Premise, Frawley was approached by two young producers, Bob Rafelson, and Bert Schneider about a new project. They thought that Frawley was smart, funny and a good improviser and they wanted him to impart his skills to a group of four insane boys for a new sitcom they were developing. I am, of course, talking about The Monkees, who Frawley worked intensely with when they were initially cast, teaching them the art of improvisation and molding them into a sharp-comedic unit. Frawley even won an Emmy for directing The Monkees episode ‘Royal Flush” in 1967, and it was well-deserved. Frawley contributed to giving The Monkees an anarchic spirit, unlike anything that was on TV at the time.
Frawley also knew when The Monkees could be sweet and contemplative as well, as is evident in the episode “The Devil and Peter Tork,” which he directed and was nominated for an Emmy for. This is my favorite episode of the series and is always worth a look. It features excellent, grounded performances by all of The Monkees, who were not known for their acting, especially Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork.
The music/comedy/insanity grab-bag approach to The Monkees was an evident influence on Jim Henson’s work. One can draw a wiggly and wild psychedelic line from The Monkees all the way through to The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie that followed.
Although Frawley had a busy career after The Monkees, most notably directing episodes of Marlo Thomas’ groundbreakingly feminist TV show That Girl, it was primarily his work with The Monkees that made Henson seek out Frawley to direct The Muppet Movie. Henson made the right choice. James Frawley is one of the big reasons that we still watch The Muppet Movie to this day.
It took Frawley’s persistence of vision to imagine The Muppets inhabiting a vast cinematic world outside the Muppet Theater. In a stroke of brilliance, Henson and Frawley decided to test taking The Muppets out into a more natural environment, and what resulted were the wonderfully creative Muppet screen tests. Let’s take a look at these now:
These tests themselves manage to encapsulate so much of what we love about The Muppets – there’s the humor, the self-awareness, the pathos. It’s all there. I would argue that Frawley’s boldness to experiment and his delicate balancing of the emotions of the characters with the zaniness is precisely what makes The Muppet Movie work.
The spirit of these screen tests would leap to the overall tone and success of the finished film, which was nothing that audiences had ever seen before. The Muppets were always funny, but they were never quite as self-aware as in The Muppet Movie, which was definitely a trait of Frawley’s work that he brought to the table.
Frawley ended up settling down in the California desert after many years in Palm Springs before his death at the beginning of this year. In interviews, he said that he found the most significant amount of connection to life and nature out in the desert. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that some of The Muppet Movie’s best scenes take place in the desert, including the near-flawless Gonzo-sung song, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” and the iconic scene in which Kermit has a touching and galvanizing dialogue with a duplicate of himself.
According to Frawley, he used a variation on a “Method” approach when directing The Muppets, often directing the characters themselves as opposed to the Muppet performers underneath them. There’s a depth to The Muppets that might have resulted in this process that was rarely duplicated otherwise.
At his core, James Frawley was a playful artist with a strong sense of humor, but also an ability to urge his performers, whether they be Monkees or Muppets to slow down and take in what they were doing. Disney, the current owners of The Muppets, would be wise to revisit the work that James Frawley did on The Muppet Movie when looking at the directions that future projects could take. Maybe it’s time for The Muppets to take a trip back to the desert, sit around a campfire and contemplate who they are and why they’re here. I think James Frawley would have liked that.
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by Louie Pearlman