“Independent Filmmaker Showcase”: Featuring the offbeat animated comedy “Special Delivery”

By on April 24, 2018

In her introduction to Night Flight’s “Independent Filmmaker Showcase” — which originally aired on May 23, 1987 — announcer Pat Prescott tells us to stay tuned for several short films, namely Friday & Clyde, Baby Upchuck, Beats & Rhymes, and an Academy Award-winning short Special Delivery,” which she describes as “the offbeat animated comedy,” produced by Derek Lamb for the National Film Board of Canada.

Watch this episode now on Night Flight Plus.

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In the 1980s, “Night Flight” was one of the few places on cable TV where you could regularly see short films like this charming little 7-minute animated black comedy from 1978 about the death of postman in mid-winter, which apparently made such an impression on our viewers that many still remember this little Hitchcockian saga from the very first time they watched it on our airwaves, all these decades later.

Special Delivery — co-written, co-directed and animated by John Weldon and Eunice Macaulay, and narrated by Sandy Sanderson — not only took home the Oscar for the “Best Animated Short” at the Academy Awards in 1979, but it snagged the top prize at the Zagreb World Animation Festival (a.k.a. Animafest Zagreb), a film festival entirely dedicated to animated film held annually in Zagreb, Croatia.

Since this short was distributed by the Canadian government, an English and a French-language version, titled Livraison spéciale, were released.

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This slightly macabre, morbid-themed little cartoon — which we think is right up there with another of our favorite NFB animated shorts, The Big Snit, which won the Oscar for the Best Animated Short Film in 1986 — reminds us that not all government-funded short films, animated or otherwise, need to be delivered to our eyeballs with an educational or moralistic message, although maybe there’s a moral to this little story after all?

This black comedy tells the noirish tale about a lazy man named Ralph Phelps and his wife Alice, and what happens during a cold Canadian winter’s day. Ralph decides to ignore his wife’s request — as she leaves for her Judo class at the gym, a great little detail — that he shovel the snow off the front steps to their suburban home before he heads off to work.

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When Ralph returns later, he finds that his laziness has actually resulted in the death of their postman, who has apparently slipped on the icy steps and fallen backward, breaking his neck on the concrete sidewalk right outside their front door.

Poor Ralph, what are you going to do when your wife returns?

Read more about Special Delivery below.

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Ralph’s and Alice’s happy little Canadian lives are suddenly turned upside-down through a series of odd events and strange little consequences, setting off a chain reaction resulting from both of their decisions along the way, particularly Ralph’s and his attempt to conceal the mailman’s body before he wife gets home.

We see Ralph imagining the ensuing investigation by the police before he projects even further into the future, when he’ll probably be facing a potential wrongful death lawsuit; he suddenly remembers how a neighbor was sued when a mailman broke his leg, the narrator telling us “a broken neck was probably considered as bad as ten broken legs.”

“Ralph, fearing the wrath of the letter carrier’s union, carried the body into the house,” the narrator intones with the proper amount of Canadian gravitas in his voice.

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The animation is actually great fun to watch, the simplistic and sparsely-used colored pencil line drawings continually moving, re-forming and morphing from one crude image to the next — to make chairs, tables, people, houses, cars and everything else — as the scenes change.

We also loved the mostly-silent monotone sound overall, and the limited use of organ music, providing the animation’s only soundtrack music, which reminded us of the way old 1940s-era radio sketches used to sound, back when you really had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

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There are witty, clever transitions along the way that are almost like a symbolic depiction of Ralph’s and Alice’s worlds unraveling, like a loose thread being pulled by an unseen hand as they both make one bad mistake after another.

We loved how the animators inserted a scene of “Dutch courage,” as Ralph takes a swig from a bottle of “Old Rope” whiskey to prepare himself for the task ahead, as well as some surprising full-frontal nudity.

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Ontario, Canada-born John F. Weldon was a seasoned comic-book illustrator turned animator, director and music composer who joined the NFB in 1970. For the next 33 years, Weldon worked on more than fifty films and directed and animated more than twenty. He retired in 2004 and devoted himself thereafter to songwriting and comic art.

England-born Eunice Macauley began her animation career when a Christmas card she created for fun landed her a job as a tracer at Gaumont British Animation in 1948. During her long career, she worked on twenty-five short films and received numerous awards. She retired in 1990, and passed away in 2013, three days after her 90th birthday.

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The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) have had more success at the Oscars than just about any other organization.

According to the NFB’s website, there have been twelve competitive wins (among its more than seventy nominations), as well as an honorary award in 1988 to mark its 50th anniversary and “its dedicated commitment to originate artistic, creative and technological activity and excellence in every area of filmmaking.”

Watch Special Delivery and other short films in Night Flight’s 1987 “Independent Filmmaker Showcase,” now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.