Thursday, 7 August 2014

342. Notes to You (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 341.
Release date: September 20, 1941.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig / Singing Alley Cat).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Manny Perez.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Porky's sleep is consistently disturbed by a loud alley cat who pesters Porky by singing joyfully to popular musical songs.

Many fans of the Warner Bros. shorts are at least familiar with the Friz Freleng masterpiece, Back Alley Oproar, released in 1948, starring Sylvester. It's a wonderful, hilarious short which had fast-pacing and musical numbers combined wonderfully, and it's a huge win.

A truly amazing short, there are those who aren't aware that the cartoon was merely an improved remake of this short: Notes to You, where the original story concept was conceived by Mike Maltese.

Instead of Elmer and Sylvester, Porky plays the role of the disturbed sleeper, and Sylvester's role is just a one-shot alley cat. For the time this short was released, it was a breakthrough in terms of Warner Bros. humour going as far as to the next level, thanks to the genius of Michael Maltese.

The storyline is merely simple: an alley-cat disturbs Porky's sleep. Only Maltese would go beyond a simple storyline by giving the cat an identity, such as his love for singing. Personally, I feel the short was the first time where Porky really had a three-dimensional personality, and not just the cute, straightforward stuttering character that he had been interpreted for the past six years at Schlesinger. Instead, Porky shows a much more darker side, he intents to kill the alley cat so long that he can no longer be disturbed. Porky is definitely cast perfectly as the disturbed sleeper, and Maltese certainly makes use of the character well, making him more prominent in the short, especially by taking Porky to a new level that no-one had attempted before.

From the start of the sequence, a typical Warners viewer will realise that the opening is almost identical towards the intro to Back-Alley Oproar. A lot of the alley cat's subtle bits of acting such as his cough, as well as gathering all the falling pieces of musical sheets, are all there in the remake.

The scenery, too, is identical, though the layout work here, compared to the Hawley Pratt layout contrast slightly. Though a lot of the animation is parallel, since the scene in the remake was animated by Virgil Ross, the latter short shows an improvement in terms of animation performance.

The cat warms up his vocal chords as he blows on the harmonica to prepare for his performance of Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville. Porky awakens and finds he is disturbed by the racket the cat is making, and starts to throw out pieces of items from his home. The cat manages to dodge the objects flying towards him, but one gag centers on an inanimate vase object which halts, and the cat struggles to dodge past it. Its a great little gag that never made it in Back-Alley. As the cat breaks down into finale, the vase flies past hitting him, from the other side.

One of the funnier gags in the short that doesn't rely on animation timing is the book-tossing sequence, at least if you read the titles from the book cover. The alley-cat still continues singing after being hit by the vase, and this time he sings Irish Eyes are Smiling. Porky attempts to find another plan to get the cat out of the way. By the window is a book titled "Dr. Fu Manchu" which references the infamous book series of the master criminal, Fu Manchu.

As Porky tosses the book outside, supposedly hitting the alley-cat off-screen, Porky turns to walk back to his head, muttering "Take that you old cat!". Just as he walks back, the alley cat throws the book back but this time with a different title: "The Return of Fu Manchu". It's a wonderful gag delivery, as the latter book title is accurate. Maltese's approach to the gag also makes it a lot more comical, for the gag feels like a homage towards the 1930s shorts of book characters coming to life, but in this short it is accomplished well in this bizarre twist.

And so, after a series of musical numbers; Maltese takes a little break from musical sequences, and gives Porky the chance to shine by his attempt to dispose the cat. He pours a bowl of cream by his porch to entice the alley cat, and if Porky's plan succeeds, he'd shoot the cat at the spot with his shotgun.

But, Porky is sleepy, and ends up snoozing while the alley cat slurps up the bowl of cream. Afterwards he clashes on a cymbal waking up Porky, and ends up on the run as Porky attempts to locate him outdoors with his shotgun.

The following scene is typical of Friz, when you watch a scene which requires some comical timing, as well as Carl Stalling's little music cliches to match the action of the animation, and without any popular song reference, in a short which is full of them.

Porky is looking out for the alley cat, and he tiptoes by a fence, looking for the alley cat. As he walks through an empty space from the fence, the alley cat mimics his movements. Carl Stalling does a steady job by defying Porky and the alley's cat's personalities with little musical themes. For Porky's tiptoe, Stalling orchestrates suspenseful music to emphasise the careful and sturdy pace he is going at. For the mimic scene, Stalling uses the xylophone touch to add a comical touch to the alley cat. It's a wonderful scene with great characterisation.

Note the three screenshots I've took for a small scene, which grabbed my attention in terms of animation, as well as Friz's timing. The whole scene is done by perspective animation, and the alley cat turning from one side of the fence to the other, is very cleverly animated. 

As he makes a turn, the fence turning in perspective is done rather rapidly to add depth to the scene as the alley cat is at gun point. The perspective animation takes at least 9 single drawings to move the fence in order to make the suspense look more dramatic. Not only does the timing have to be dead on, but the perspective turn is also very complex to do, and to combine the timing altogether is a pretty gutsy thing to do for Freleng, who proved ambitious when tackling a scene, and the results are rather rewarding.

A gag which is also notable for appearing in Back Alley Oproar is the sequence where the alley cat sings a lullaby to Porky to nod him off. At that point, Porky had caught the alley cat at gunpoint, and the cat quickly improvised at the spot by singing him a lullaby for him. Porky, looking shattered, mutters, "Now s-stop it N-n-n-n-n-ow, stop. Quit that". This is a deliberate gag set-up by Mike Maltese who lifts the energetic mood from the short into a peaceful, calm piece of character animation. The alley cat carries Porky all the way towards his bed, and lays him quietly. Until moments later, the alley cat turns on the radio where the alley cat acts out the conduction to the music of Frat. It's a hilariously-executed sequence, where Maltese cons the audience into believing that the alley cat has a change of heart, but instead makes a very ass move on Porky.

After a while of singing mostly classical or traditional piece of music, the cat begins to sing classic popular tunes, starting with The Umbrella Man. Friz Freleng stages the scene wonderfully and the alley cat's dance is entertaining, as it matches the spirit of the song. Not to mention, the song is quite possibly one of the most catchiest tunes ever written from that time period.

The next little scene, is rather comical and cleverly combined by Mike Maltese when it comes to a popular song and blending it in a gag in the right place. The cat opens the front door singing the very popular song of its time, and still popular today: Jeepers Creepers.

Porky rushes to the door to slam the door, but the door slams back open when the alley cat finishes off his song. Noticing Porky's black-eyes, the cat sings out one of the song's lyrics "Where d'ya get those eyes?". This is an amusing little visual gag based from the song's lyrics, that is rewarding itself.

And so, as the alley cat once again begins to sing a different tune (Make Love to a Guitar), Porky believes he'll never hear the end of the alley cat unless he takes drastic action. Looking out the window, he pulls out his shotgun and fires at the alley cat off-screen. The ending sequence is constructed and paced rather clumsily.

The scene with the alley cat dying didn't feel it needed to be there, for it made the climax of the shooting scene look anti-climatic, and thus it slowed down the ending slightly.

The alley cat sings Aloha Oe, though parodied as Farewell to Thee as he chokes during the death scene. Porky walks away from the scene, feeling slightly guilty for shooting the cat: "I didn't wanna do it, but I had to.

He was driving me n-n-n-n", and at the point of the stutter: Porky discovers that the cat's nine lives still live on as spirits as they sing Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. It's an entertaining way to conclude the short, as it raises even more problems for Porky, and it's certainly as inventive as how Maltese would have concluded a short, but I can't help but believe that the ending to Back Alley Oproar was more superior than this short. Possibly due to the dark comedic ending, where Elmer Fudd accidentally kills himself, but still finds himself disturbed in the after life, making the dilemma more hilariously executed. For this short, it would definitely not be fitting to have Porky Pig die accidentally, as it would seem out of character to do so, if that was how the cartoon was going to originally end.

To get this over and done with, Back Alley Oproar was indeed the better short, but with that aside: this is also a rather groundbreaking short in terms of the wacky humour the Warner Bros were known for. Who'd on earth, other than Mike Maltese would create a story idea of an alley cat singing music in the middle of the night, disturbing Porky? A very bizarre concept but it's what makes the Warner shorts truly special. Porky certainly shines in the shorts and Mike Maltese explores a lot more further towards the character, in a way, refreshing the character by making the character still appealing amongst audiences, whereas beforehand he was underplayed in almost every cartoon since 1939. This is one of the highlights of this year, and Friz Freleng is proving he is capable of producing cartoons at Tex Avery's standards, or perhaps beyond his standard, when it comes to characterisations. Overall, it is a very entertaining short with some very slick timing, music and an original concept so nice, it was used twice.

Rating: 4/5.


  1. Maltese told Joe Adamson that his original ending for "The Haunted Mouse", which was rejected by Avery, was to have the cat die and come back as nine ghost cats. He saved the idea and used it here to much better effect, because we now get the absurdity of the nine cats singing different parts of Sextet.

    Aside from being able to be rougher with Elmer than with Porky, the other major boost the remake had was the decision to eliminate the middle section, and make "Back Alley Oproar" a completely musical cartoon -- the non-musical middle here gives 'Notes' the same sort of A-B-A feeling as Raymond Scott's musical pieces, where the front and back sections were in harmony but the middle part goes in a different direction. The remake flows musically from start to finish.

  2. First off: Nice blog. I've recently gone on a huge Looney Tunes binge and it's nice to read a solid, in depth reviews of the shorts I've watched.

    "Back Alley Oproar" looks better and the ending gag is better handled but I actually prefer "Notes to You." I think Porky makes a better straight pig...than Elmer. It's the subtle little touches like the "you cut that out" line while the cat is singing him to sleep that make him funnier. And while the animation looks better in the remake, I think the extra effort devoted to Porky's facial expressions add to the comedy in the original. He just looks so darn tired.

    I also slightly preferred the singing and song selection in the original. Though I did love seeing Sylvester in the rowboat.

    The ending could have been handled better in "Notes" though. It's a bit confusing. Wikipedia says "As the picture irises out, a crash is heard (presumably, Porky, at his wits' end, jumped out of the window)." I believe what actually occurs is that Porky slams his window to drown out the caterwauling, but he does it too hard and breaks the window. Freleng focused on squeezing in as many cats as he could in the final shot and and as a result only a sliver of the window sill was showing. That, combined with the iris effect coming in a second too soon, really hurts the final gag. I think it would have worked a lot better if the audience could have seen the window slamming shut as the screen went to black followed by the shatter and maybe a an (audio only) "aw n-n-n-nuts" by Porky.

    p.s. Keep up the good work. It;s nice to see that these old cartoons still have fans.

  3. Oh, and one more thing. Just to follow up on J Lee's comment:

    "He saved the idea and used it here to much better effect, because we now get the absurdity of the nine cats singing different parts of Sextet."

    I may be remembering this incorrectly, but I believe that only 7 of the cat's nine lives are shown at the end. And I believe one of the voices sounds a bit "off." So you have the professional sextet singing their parts perfectly, and you have the original cat singing along with them in his inimitable fashion.