Sunday, 16 March 2014

318. The Cat's Tale (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 317.
Release date: March 1, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Mouse / Black Cat).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Herman Cohen.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A small mouse is fed up of being chased continuously by a cat at every opportunity, and requests the black cat to take the perilous task in giving up chasing mice and making amends with a local bulldog.

As 1941 slowly becomes a turning point for Warners as they're striking out funnier and wackier stories, this short is one of the prime and underrated examples of that. Being a writing credit for Mike Maltese, it's without doubt this is certainly is his own conception story wise.

The short focuses on a black cat and a mouse, as with previous cartoons--you'd expect the short to be a wacky episode involving a cat-and-mouse routine, but Maltese takes the short a different turn. The short begins with a predictable mouse chase around the house, in which the mouse quickly makes it back in the mouse hole.

Breathless, he is fed up of the cliche of being chased by cats, and then decides to create a diversion from mentioning the word "showdown", "That's it! I'll give him a showdown!".

Maltese creates a naturalistic personality of the mouse, where he proclaims "What am I a man or a mouse? I am a man!", therefore having identity as the theme of the short. This does lead to a fitting final line conclusion (spoiler) where he admits to being a mouse after his plan does awry, which is what makes Maltese a brilliant cartoon writer that way. With this, he walks to the cat and attempts to negotiates a truce to end the mice-cat feud, whereas the cat feels vulnerable the same way, "Well, dogs have always chased cats".

The whole alternate conflict the cat and mouse indeed is a very funny setup, as it does indeed bring in personality situations, such as the mouse being overconfident, and cat being naive and vulnerable. However, the sequence itself where they are discussing on ending their feud has a major flaw, which is the pacing of it. It is very dull in terms of action. Much of the sequence just shows shot to shot of the mouse and the cat responding back to one another, with the occasional two-shot scene.

Despite great voice acting from Mel Blanc in portraying the mouse and the cat, much of the dialogue itself feels repetitive, and going in a 'auto-pilot' mode. It takes roughly two minutes of the short for the mouse to explain how he is tired of being chased, as well his diversion for the cat to create a truce with the local bulldog, much of the dialogue is not needed and I feel it would have worked a whole lot better if the sequence had shortened it to the most necessary dialogue as well as creating action to broaden the action. The cat expressing his real emotions such as being attacked by dogs is gold in terms of acting, though the "Course I ain't yellow" dialogue is certainly overdone.

The following sequence with the confrontation of the bulldog, Spike, has a lot more endeavour in terms of delivery and comedy. Whereas the confrontation with the mouse and the cat lacked action, this sequence is brilliant at that level, as the bulldog is indeed very threatening.

The cat's timidness are very amusing, as he consistently keeps jumping to the top of the fence, speaking timidly to Spike. Keeping the sequence pumped up as well as suspenseful is Freleng's use of comic timing for the sequence. To start off, it begins with a Tex Avery-ish sign gag, warning about Spike; with a disclaimer being split, sign by sign.

When you watch Spike's action, he chews the bone like a typewriter, which is amusing comically as well as creating a threatening image. Also, the black cat's take is very amusing in terms of timing, and only Friz could have mastered that subtle spin before the cat climbs to the top of the gate, unseen.

Unfortunately cannot create a GIF of the cycle, as I've had a bit of issues with QuickTime Player, though I hope a screenshot will receive satisfaction.

The sequence itself is slightly plodded with dialogue, much like the sequence earlier but the action is fulfilling as well as creating more personality for the black cat, and having the circumstances of being battered. Then the sequence evolves into the cat being clumsy by knocking his bowl on top of his head. The suspense worsens as the gate closes, and the cat realises the chains were loose the whole time. The black cat stutters: "He ain't chained!".

For the sake of others, the sign gag itself is common in cartoons as it gives the suspense a funnier delivery, and Friz who usually had his own style with timing, appears to be very Avery-ish. Though, Freleng usually followed the style of humour of the Warner shorts, like Tex and Chuck Jones in his career, though he did it great, and in my opinion, did a better job!

Speaking of more of Friz's own comic timing, since Maltese is certainly experimenting with creating comedic circumstances and giving the mouse and cat formula at a odd streak, Freleng certainly takes advantage of the potential of the short as well as experimenting with his own timing, some of it very complex.

Two complex pieces of timing which come to mind would be the very first shot of the cat and the mouse chasing each other inside the home. The very first scene you'd expect it to be a Tom and Jerry formula-like story.

Freleng works hard at timing the scene in order to achieve that, as well as before the story takes off at a surprising start for a 40s audience. The camera pan is very effective, and the staging is very complex though it would only take a genius like Friz to tackle it out. Not only is the staging complicating, but it involves the cat and mouse chasing each other around the house going through several different rooms. Complicating to animate, as well as laying it out, but the effect of it certainly pays off. Another sequence in mind is the unseen chase sequence of Spike and the cat chasing inside the house. Instead of a typical action chase, Friz chooses to be different by relying on Treg Brown's use of sound effects as well as the complicated camera movements. It is still very effective and entertaining that way, also adding to some suspense. Only the master of timing could pull off a sequence like that technically.

To conclude the short, the black cat returns with bandages from his injuries. The mouse, filing his nails with confidence, asks if the plans with Spike went fine. The black cat, enraged remarks coldly, "He just couldn't see it your way!". The mouse, going into a double-take then hesitates and realises the cat will still chase him, the same way as the bulldog will still chase the cat.

Maltese uses a motif to conclude the story, with Friz assisting from repeating animation from the beginning. The mouse and cat go back to its usual routine, with the mouse remarking some of the dialogue from the beginning:

"How do ya like that? The same thing again! I won't put up with it anymore! I'll tell him once more, it's got to stop!". Then, with Maltese's motif being significant, the mouse speak rhetorically: "What am I a man or a mouse?", which leads to a double-take as the mouse realises he is a helpless mouse, ending the short with a fitting conclusion to a funny story by Mike.

The Cat's Tale is certainly a breakthrough short for developing funny and mainstream stories by creating an odd turn for what would be a cat-and-mouse formula story. It's a formula that Maltese has told a few times, such as in Herbie & Bertie shorts; and he could write excellent stories that way. He certainly has contributed a great deal to improving and broadening the humour in the Warner shorts, writing completely unique and realistic characters. However, when watching the short from beginning to end; it felt as though the short was missing an edge or a climax. The sequences and the dialogue went on too long, and I felt a lot more could have been followed such as a string of gags, of the cat's attempt to make peace with Spike. I suppose the short was an experiment for greater stories and formulas for Maltese. Overall, I felt the short was very entertaining story wise as well as some of the dialogue, and being a underrated effort for Freleng.

Review: 3.5/5.


  1. The rhyming signs are a parody of the old roadside Burma Shave signs.

  2. And I gotta agree that there is a lot of dialogue...I do like the repeat of the mouse's self-assertion before he says "I'm a mouse"! Very odd variation on Merrie Melodie theme music, at least for the end.Steve C.

  3. Between the re-used chase, the chase in the house where we only see the outside of the house, and the Burma-Shave parody, Leon must have loved this short, if for no other reason than all the budget-saving tricks Friz pulled off to infer action, rather than animate it (or re-animate it).

    The cat is supposed to be a takeoff on Jimmy Stewart, while the idea of a mouse talking a cat out of chasing him had a bit of a forerunner 3 1/2 years earlier, with Freleng's "The Lyiin' Mouse". Tedd Pierce's story there simply had the mouse sucker the cat into freeing him from the trap -- in the latter version, Maltese and the studio's growing love of pushy characters who drive the action is in full play (though even with Bugs in 1941, the studio was still trying to figure out how to handle those aggressive characters).

  4. I wonder if this draws comparisons to "The Haunted Mouse," which Michael Maltese also wrote the script for?

  5. Features an alternate arrangement of "Merrily We Roll Along" heard at the end.