Monday, 10 December 2012

222. The Night Watchman (1938)

Warner cartoon no. 221.
Release date: November 19, 1938.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starrring: Mel Blanc (Mouse Leader / Various Mice), and Margaret Hill-Talboot (Thomas Cat).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Tommy Cat is sent to night watch the kitchen during the night as his father is too ill and ends up  being invaded by tough mice.

Chuck Jones - storyboard behind for
"Sniffles and the Bookworm" c.1939
This cartoon has reasons for its importance. Evidently, this is Chuck Jones' directorial debut where he left the Clampett unit from directing black-and-white Porky cartoons and is now directing coloured Merrie Melodies cartoons as he has replaced the Frank Tashlin unit. The reasons for that importance as it feels like another step in the challenge of this blog. I'd consider Chuck Jones to have been probably the most acknowledged animator of the whole 'Looney Tunes' regime - and perhaps as acknowledged as Tex Avery.

For many years; he's been the 'go-to' guy for interviews - he's created more Warner Bros. characters than any other WB director - and he's even merchandised through DVD sets, books, and has his own exhibition, etc. Of course - as this is Chuck Jones' start - his cartoons are lightyears away from the Chuck Jones we all came to know and love. His cartoon bore the Disney resemblance, the pacing, cuteness and innocence, etc. before he went on to become a really wonderful director with pacing - and also a master at facial expressions and timing. With that asides - he would also become famous for cartoons that had visual storytelling with little or no dialogue - a lot of those visual storytelling resembled in many his earlier cartoons but they mostly flawed. He would later master that by around the late 1940s. With that said - its very rare for a director like him who had a streak of roughly 15 years of very excellent cartoons - which is a very long streak compared to most cartoon directors.

A rather interesting story aside which was what Greg Duffell told me (through the words of Ken Harris). Chuck Jones had Tashlin's old unit which of course consisted of the animators Ken Harris, Bob McKimson, Phil Monroe, AC Gamer, background artist Art Loomer and also -- Rod Scribner who was a junior animator at the time. Chuck used all the guys from the Tashlin animator, minus Scribner. He thought that Scribner's work was too exaggerated and wild so he was transferred over to the Hardaway-Dalton unit. Another note aside is this is the last story credit for story man Ted Pierce but wouldn't return again around 1941 (credits in 1942) working for Chuck Jones' and also helped his career with funnier cartoons - I'd say.

The cartoon begins as it is a rainy night outside - of course the rain is a rather use of cheap effects animation. The owners of the house (unknown) flicker out the lights as it is bedtime. As we pan though (notice the really dodgy camera move as the camera was trucking in). We look inside and find a cat-box where the owner is 'Thos. Cat' who is the night watchman of the house.

We find to discover that the night watchman of the house is very sick with a hot water bottle on his bed as he coughs. Being too ill to work - he gives the responsibility to his own son: Thomas Cat. "I'll guess you'll have to watch the kitchen tonight, son. I'm too sick to get up".

He passes over the watchman hat and badge to his own son as his duty begins. Jones begins as he uses some rather gags that are only caused by clumsiness and also done physically (which doesn't make it work too well). They're rather cutesy gags as he slams his foot to his other leg which causes him to fall; and he spins his hat whilst saluting to his father. The swirling hat animation was rather solid. So, as Thomas walks away - his father warns "Be very careful sonny" before he crashes into a wall. Looks like Ted Pierce is rather engaged with some physical gags which he loved using. Afterwards - he ends up crashing into what looks like a milk crate with smashed milk bottles. His foot is caught in a milk bottle - after he few steps he stamps his foot firmly and breaks the bottle free. That part gives the animation a good use of weight and is done solidly.

Thomas Cat then enters the dark room which is presented with excellent atmosphere with colours. As he walks through with his torch on - he looks around trying his best to do his duties. After a few steps - the lights then flicker on as Thomas quickly turns up and he spots a tough rodent loitering. He calls Thomas over:

Tough Mouse: Hey bud, come here.
Thomas Cat: Who?
Tough Mouse: You.
Thomas Cat: Who me?
Tough Mouse: Yeah!
Thomas Cat: Ohh.

An awful lot of lines that were divided up there - which is probably the first use of Chuck's slow pacing here - with dialogue. Thomas Cat then attempts to step away but the tough mouse shouts out to him firmly: "Come here!" Thomas Cat backs down and tiptoes over to the Tough Mouse.

He asks, "Yessir?". The mouse asks, "You the night watchman around here, bud?". Thomas replies, "Yessir, no sir, but my dad is and he's sick..." the tough mouse then interrupts as he blurts out: "So your pa's sick, eh? (Tuts) Ain't that a shame? Hey, fellas the watchman's sick!" At the corner we find a group of mice where they tut back and respond, "Now ain't that just too bad!" Looks like a use of humour is used to try and keep up with humorists for cartoons like Tex Avery. The tough mouse then plays that old trick where he points at Thomas' shirt and Thomas looks down. He socks poor Thomas and pulls the button out of his dungarees. He stands there, mellowly, flipping the coin: "Well let's eat, c'mon slugs". All the other rodents stampede over poor Thomas.

The next sequence we find a range of gags where the mouse raid the kitchen by eating all the food with a whole army of mice against poor, meet Thomas. In the background of these shots we hear the music to The Latin Quarter - a popular song written by popular song writer Harry Warren. First, a group of race race over to a plate of a slice of cheese as they nibble it over.

Then they race over to a watermelon and after gobbling they walk out extremely fat. That scene with the watermelon being gobbled is rather gorgeous, syrupy pacing. Then another mouse plugs a bottle cork inside a banana and uses the weight in an attempt to pull the banana. After that struggle - the banana is forces out but the mouse ends up flying out. A mouse about to eat a drumstick ends up with a banana inside his body where his body looks like a shape of a banana which was a rather cute, funny gag.

A mouse walks into the scene and finds some pretzels scatted outside of its own box. He starts from one end of the pretzel and works his way through and the gag is he moves his body so much that his stomach even looks like the shape of a pretzel afterwards. Now that was very clevely animated. Chuck Jones had two of the best animators of the Studio at the time - or he must've been a very privileged director. The last gag of the mice infesting the kitchen where we find a a mouse working his way inside a jar full of olives and ends up turning so fat that he ends up jammed inside with his head popping out. These are fine gags so far - as they are certainly cute and innocent - but these remind me of the certain-eating gags that Avery used a year earlier when directing Ain't We Got Fun.

Thomas Cat then runs at the scene as he is doing a poor performance of being a night watchman. Rather passively, he attempts on shooing the mice out of the kitchen: "Hey, don't do that - please don't eat all the food. I'm supposed to protect the place, remember?" Of course - none of the mice listen, and they know Thomas Cat physically or verbally couldn't stop them so they carry on eating.

Meanwhile, Thomas walks past the gas oven where a chef mouse is cooking a pancake. The chef orders to Thomas, "Salt" as Thomas foolishly passes over the salt forgetting his own duties. After shaking the salt, he orders for pepper and Thomas hands over the pepper.

Then Thomas walks over with a plate as the pancake is placed on the plate. Thomas ends up playing as a waiter by accident as he delivers the pancake to the tough mouse leader. Thomas suddenly realises his own goofy move and halts further movement and then turns back trying to do his job, "Hey, I'm supposed to be the night watchman around here". The chef angrily ignores him and shouts "Keep going" as Thomas is too soft to be aggressive. Thomas walks over to the mouse leader as he gives him the pancake. "Thank you sonny" he says and then socks him out of the scene. Boy, Ted Pierce sure likes to give Thomas beatings. As he is about to enjoy his pancake - he then orders for some entertainment - "Bring on the floor show".

Entertainment is brought on as we begin with a mouse drummer starts to drum using matchsticks (with some smear animation that even we have seen exactly from Freleng's and Tashlin's cartoons - so its the same animator: either Harris or McKimson). The curtains rise and we find a mice group as they sing In the Shade Of the Old Apple Tree - notice how the fingers also smear, too. An old song, that predates the popular songs of the cartoon's era.

The name of the vocals group that sing this song is rather unknown but I've heard it used in some of the other cartoons in musical numbers. There are a group of mice that pantomime the birds singing which we hear in the lyrics. So, even Jones uses a use of early musical numbers which shows the cartoon's dated reference to singing old songs - but Chuck would wear that out - but was also well-known for some musical cartoons he created - or even musical sequences.

As the song number finishes off - Thomas Cat wakens up after being knocked out and he assertively tries to warn the mice to quieten down the racket being made. The music and atmosphere only appear to get even worse, or louder just after the song has concluded. The mice then have a jamming session using funnels to perform jazz music. Each time the shots keep going on - Thomas Cat would only say 'Quiet' again but he gets more assertive each time.

The music continues to get even worse as Thomas Cat gets more stressed by the minute as the jazz music keeps on being played. But, as the drummer mouse performs his next move - he runs over to a lampshade where he turns on the light. At that point - Thomas Cat finally bursts and shouts "QUIET!" aggressively. Notice how that one small scene it shows that even Jones exaggerated from the beginning as he wasn't completely tight with drawing. I like how his hair just jags and even the amount of winkles included as he shuts his mouth - from the shock of his own behaviour. The 'quiet' sound was just the perfect touch as Chuck knew that no-one could do it better than Mel Blanc. All the other mice then turn their heads over and find the shouting coming from their enemy - the night watchman. Jones is engaged with quick pacing shots and also 50% shades in those shots.

As the mice see Thomas Cat as a threat towards their fun - the tough mouse leader walks over to sort him out. He walks over as he threatens Thomas, "So, a heckler, eh?" He socks poor Thomas that he ends up rolling back - feeling defeated. Thomas Cat walks out as he ends up sobbing and acting like a baby. He tries to meekly threaten the mice by shouting, "You can't do this to me. I'll tell my brother. Wait 'til I grow up".

So, at that moment - Thomas' guardian angel then steps out his own body and gives Thomas some real advice and real encouragement. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, how about your poor old daddy that trusted you. You aren't gonna let him down, are you?" Thomas finally gets some courage and looks rather fierce and strong. His guardian angel firmly asks, "Are you a cat or are you a mouse" as Thomas responds he's a cat.

So his guardian angel concludes, 'Well alright then, get back in there and act like one'. That sequence with his guardian angel is Ken Harris animation as you can see the slow head-tilts on Thomas and the angel which is his trademark. After a good lesson from his guardian angel - Thomas finally has reach as he walks over to the tough mouse ready to sock him for good. His guardian angel copies his pose as he enters back into Thomas' body again and Thomas continues with courage.

Thomas walks over to the tough mouse leader - and before the tough mouse is about to sock him - Thomas beats him to it. This causes the mouse's stomach to spin around many times (with his feet still standing) which must've been rather fun to animate - even if these are controlled by Chuck's drawing and timing. You can hear some of 'Yankee Doodle' as Thomas walks on.

Thomas socks the leader out of the scene that he leaves his trousers to stay before stretching out which is rather loose of Chuck in that period. Thomas then socks the other mice out of other scene (as the animation smears as well). One mice hides behind a flour bin rather cowardly as the mice now feel threatened by the night watchman. Thomas managed to knock out the mice from the flour bin before finishing off the other mice who are in front of him. Thomas finds a group of mice standing a few steps away from him as it's Thomas against a group. As Thomas takes a step further - the mice steps back. Stalling uses the brass instruments for these music cliches of the stepping scenes which he is well-known for. After a pattern of stepping back - Thomas quietly says, "Boo" which is a little bit exaggerated as the entire group flee straight into the mouse hole in a millisecond.

Thomas Cat managed to complete the job as he has successfully made his own achievement. He clears his hands with gratitude. Afterwards - he pauses and thinks whether the next plan is really what he wants.

After a use of brain wave he dashes over straight to the mouse house and runs past a plunger.After running past the plunger - he grabs it out and runs straight over. This is some rather fast-pacing over there but those speed lines are rather (as I say) 'under-developed' as I say they look much better airbrushed. Thomas Cat uses the plunger to squeeze the tough mouse leader out of the hole. The mouse leader begs for any more beatings "No, no - cut it out". Thomas points to his finger - as the mouse leader looks - he socks him and pulls the button off his dungarees (even though he only had that one strap). Thomas flips the button like a coin proud and has given him his perfect justice and revenge. The mouse covers himself with embarrassment as his boxer shorts are seen.

Overall comments: Of course, being that this cartoon is Chuck Jones' first directorial effort. It is a rather Disney-esque cartoon (and story) in its own way. I have to say though, I think this cartoon at least deserves a pass. It's a simple story that is rather suitable for a cutesy cartoon. At least - Chuck knew that the audience would lay sympathy for Thomas Cat and our enemies were relied on the rodents. Most of the cartoon has some slow-paced animation but there is a lot of fast-pacing shots, although this is Chuck Jones' first cartoon so he couldn't have found his own style yet - even if he started off with the slow-paced cartoons. Of course, as you will know - the signs for his cuteness here is the design of Thomas Cat himself - he would later evolve into a mouse named Sniffles - as they both resemble each other but they're both different species. When watching the cartoon - you will notice that the cartoon doesn't rely on too many gags but it appears that punching is the cartoon's main gag of the cartoon.

Nevertheless, I think that Jones made a pretty decent debut and the cartoon is at least serviceable. With that aside - the cartoon has some very good animation by all the animators that worked for Jones' unit at the time (McKimson, Harris, Monroe and AC Gamer animating for him). Jones talked about how he was very controlled with his character layouts in his earliest cartoons that he felt he 'over-animated' them - and you can tell that Chuck Jones is definitely the dominant artist of his early years. Speaking of character layouts, notice that Chuck's own character drawings (evident in the cartoon) are actually the exact same style when he was drawing character layouts for Bob Clampett in the Porky Pig cartoons. The style there was only used in about the first six of his own cartoons that he directed until that style appeared to have been wiped out when he directed 'Old Glory' but you can see the style there. Jones made a fine start - even though his other cartoons would be much more cuter, slower-paced and weaker than this cartoon - but this is of course; Jones became a genius of cinema entertainment.


  1. Met Chuck back in the 90s - was a wonderful guy. I remember when he did a drawing of one of the characters in his first cartoon. wonder if its in display??

  2. LooneyTooneyfanpl26 December 2012 at 10:49

    I had got a Dubbed 1995 fake outro of this cartoon recorded in Polish TV called TV Puls (they presented the all of Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies cartoons in 2011-12).