Thursday, 28 March 2013

257. Little Brother Rat (1939)

featuring SNIFFLES.
Warner cartoon no. 256.
Release date: September 9, 1939.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Margaret Hill-Talbot (Sniffles), Mel Blanc (Owl) and Berneice Hansell (Mice).
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: At a house party - Sniffles' aim is to collect an owl's house. But has trouble as he encounters a defensive owl, and a hungry cat.

Knowing this cartoon had its original opening and closing restored for the Mouse Chronicles set -- the original titles itself capture my interest. We already know that Sniffles is now an established star by this point, as there is a separate card which reads 'featuring Sniffles' - which was likely used in other cartoons which sacrificed by Blue Ribbons.

What's also most revealing is, we can see the illustration of Sniffles is almost identical to the 1939 booklet which was posted in Cartoon Brew a few years back. The pose is exactly the same, though the proportions and colours are drawn differently. I do wonder whether Sniffles cartoons that bear his name in the titles: Sniffles Bells the Cat, Sniffles Takes a Trip, etc. would feature the 'featuring Sniffles' card.

The full moon is out tonight, and we find some rather decent background colours of the farmhouse at night. Its always typical for a animated cartoon to have a full moon in background shots. But then again, I suppose it helps make the backgrounds look more appealing. As we truck in inside; the black cat is snoozing by the fire.

Sniffles' cue enters as he is seen making a dangerous attempt to pull off the cat's whisker. He runs off with the music cue in the background...I honestly don't know. A Stalling piece perhaps?

The cat chases Sniffles but pauses as soon as Sniffles rushes inside the mousehole. Chuck Jones constructs the shots of Sniffles rushing which requires a lot of geography and staging in each separate shot, and so many backgrounds pop up for these quick shots that it makes the pacing of the journey feel realistic.  There is some very decent arcing of Sniffles making a turning point from the wall; animation-wise. The fear that overcomes Sniffles makes the turn look very realistic.

After a whole montage of Sniffles escaping through different areas of the farmhouse; Sniffles arrives at the mice's headquarters underground and he arrives back with joy about holding a cat's whiskers. It turns out there is a party going on, and Sniffles is anticipating in a party game.

All the other mice turn amazed at hearing Sniffles caught the cat's whiskers: 'Gee, Sniffles really got it', 'Sniffles got it!' says the mice in the crowd. All of the mice guests are voiced by Hansell here.

The judge of the party game reassures Sniffles with surprise, 'Did you really get it Sniffles' and Sniffles shows the evidence. The judge of the game (Scavenger Hunt) crosses a mark on the list of the items Sniffles has so far collected. From looking at the list; Sniffles is in the lead; and after the cross he has one more item to win: an owl's egg. The judge replies enthusiastically, 'Gee, Sniffles, all you've got to get is an owl's egg and you win!'. Sniffles responds reassuringly, 'An owl's egg?' The judge nods. 'Gee Willikers!' and so Sniffles dashes out of the party room in search for an owl's egg.

After the party sequence - the cat steps out from the farmhouse and is on the lookout for Sniffles for pulling out one of his whiskers. He turns and finds Sniffles is seen walking and about to make a turn outside the house in a point of view shot. The cat looks at Sniffles with a taste of revenge and follows.

In a silhouetted shot; Sniffles runs into a mousehole through the fence but the cat just sits and watch. The silhouette produces a rich atmosphere of the cartoon itself. Up inside a barn house - an owl is seen fast asleep.

I'm sure interested to knowing the music cue in this sequence - which can be heard in Sniffles Takes a Trip. During a camera pan - the camera moves to the owl's blue egg - and to Sniffles tiptoeing. The owl opens up his eyelids tiredly, before yawning. Some very solid personality animation of the eyelids slightly opening; which shows some real weight on the eyelids opening which was handled tenderly. At that moment, Sniffles tiptoes over and quietly observes the owl's egg. I love the fact the owl's egg is blue; and hell--its a much more effective colour than an ordinary owl's egg. Sniffles carries the owl's egg to carry away with him. At that moment, he is standing face to face with the owl.

There is a beautiful point-of-view show of Sniffles who is staring at the owl's glaring eyes, which sparkles. Chuck's approach to establishing the shots is really effective. Sniffles quickly attempts to hide the egg behind his back. The owl asks smugly: 'Well, having fun?' and he looks around Sniffles: 'Having fun?'. Solid timing of the owl slapping Sniffles' hand so the egg is revealed.

At that moment; Sniffles is in peril. The owl already knows Sniffles is attempting to steal the owl's egg. Instead of attacking or hurting Sniffles, he continues very smugly and acts surprised: 'An egg, a very pretty egg, too. I once had an egg. It was pretty too'.

Then the owl starts to turn cold and frightening towards Sniffles: 'It looked a lot like your egg'. He walks slowly towards Sniffles so he would walk backwards; 'And shall we put the egg back in the nest? Before a certain little mouse gets himself--HURT?!'

Sniffles makes a take and dashes back to place the egg back. Funny to have the mother with a Blanc voicing it as a male character...but then again, I'm sure no-one would've noticed as Blanc performs it rather subtly. Sniffles returns as the owl walks out with Sniffles to assure he isn't harmful. 'Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against mice. Why some of my best friends are mice'. After acting rather calm towards him - he yells at Sniffles: 'BUT I DON'T LIKE YOU!'. He tosses Sniffles out of the barn - 'GET OUT!'. The whole sequence with the owl and Sniffles I suspect was likely Ken Harris' animation.

Afterwards - there is a really solid vertical pan as well as the staging in animation of Sniffles falling down (after being tossed out) and is about to lag on the cat. Chuck sure is using a lot of technical qualities which adds weight and appeal to the overall look of the cartoon. Sniffles then lands on top of the cat - who's body hits the ground but Sniffles springs up to the top.

Now, the comic timing is definitely clumsy but Chuck wouldn't have been ready for that kind of timing. Sniffles climbs on top of the entrance of the bird house but finds himself dangling to keep his balance before he enters inside properly.

Inside the owl's house; as he continues to snooze; Sniffles makes it back inside and the camera pans to the nest is empty; missing an owl's egg. The camera pans to find Sniffles is seen walking away with the bird's nest.

He accidentally trips on a nail attached to the wooden plank on the floor. The egg cracks off-screen and then a baby owl makes an appearance, and hoots. Sniffles reacts to the owl hooting and here, Sniffles appears to change height in the animation. He ties up the egg (after placing the owl inside). Afterwards; there is a little cute moment where Sniffles hears the sounds of a 'hoot' and believes he has seen another owl. He unwraps the blue cracked egg to see, but finds the owl (somehow) has got out of the egg which is a cartoony concept.

After discovering that the owl has escaped from the egg. Sniffles is then prepared to right the baby owl to go inside the egg. After dust covers up the screen for a mere few seconds - it turns out the baby owl has outwitted Sniffles as he ended up inside the egg. Sniffles steps out and points with his finger to order the baby owl to enter.

Afterwards; Sniffles wraps up the baby owl inside the egg but the owl's legs crack open from the egg shell and walks out of the scene. Sniffles dives over for the legs and picks him up to his nest before he leaves.

After sliding down the drainpipe - the baby owl has followed Sniffles once again with his 'hoot' sounds. Sniffles turns, and in another point-of-view, the black cat makes an appearance. The glaring eyes read that the baby owl and Sniffles are in danger. This leads to Sniffles about to run for his life, but makes a turning when he realises the baby owl is really in more danger than Sniffles as the cat is approaching him silently. He runs back to collect the owl until the cat starts to chase both Sniffles and the owl.

The owl from at the top of the birdhouse looks down to see whats the commotion. After looking down, the owl begins to fly down to stop the chase. The chase scenes here are done in silhouette, which makes it look very intriguing as well as Chuck Jones' sense of pacing with the shots--which you won't often find in many chase sequences of the 1930s.

The owl then picks up the cat and flies him off to dump him elsewhere. Sniffles is still running frantically, but as he turns, he trips and lets go of the owl by accident. Afterwards, the adult owl congratulates Sniffles for saving the baby owl, 'And as a token for our gratitude, we would like to give you this egg'.

He hands over the baby egg to Sniffles to keep--which would mean Sniffles (likely won the competition, depending on how much other mice have had luck with searching for the egg). The adult owl says bye before flying away. After waving goodbye to the owl; the egg itself opens with the baby owl still inside hooting. Sniffles makes a trip and looks at the egg mysteriously. The concluding gag is a little charming and shows how the baby owl keeps on following his steps. The final scene was animated by McKimson.

Overall comments: Being that most of Chuck's pre-1942 cartoons are considered way too cutesy, slow-paced, and for lack of a better word: 'off'. This is a cutesy, slow-paced cartoon and an exception that I would consider a pass. Knowing the whole story itself, you already know its a cutesy cartoon which isn't anywhere as ambitious as Tex was with humour, but I consider this to be the perfect, cutesy cartoon. In some aspects, I find that a lot of this cartoon really do give a shine for some illuminating film shots as well as film techniques which really shows that Chuck Jones definitely had known with filmmaking -- at least the technical side of it. The way that Chuck has displayed the shot settings really creates a nice illusion to the cartoon which you wouldn't find too much in the early WB cartoons; and Chuck's staging really stands out: with his silhouette shots as well as staged point of view shots.

Its got a really straightforward storyline without any complexity, which I suppose, can be a good thing. The owl character, I find, to evidently be the highlight of the whole cartoon. For a cutesy director of the time, it shows even Chuck had guts to use Mel Blanc's angry persona for the character. Of course, the owl is the only resemblance of the cartoon where it wouldn't be cutesy; but its one of those 'threatening' characters which you probably would see in many of those cartoons. I also admire the colours of the backgrounds as well as the cartoon itself, particularly the blue egg which looks more appealing than a normal egg. Overall, I will say this is probably one of the best 'Sniffles' entries as it makes the perfect, cutesy cartoon...along with Lost and Foundling as my favourite. Though, when you see the Sniffles cartoons when Chuck was funny--Sniffles was still annoying, though with a (Gabby Duck/Little Blabbermouse persona).

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