Wednesday, 20 August 2014

348. The Cagey Canary (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 347.
Release date: November 22, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery (uncredited).
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Canary Bird), Sara Berner (House Keeper).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A scheming cat attempts at every opportunity to capture the canary, under the peril of a canary who takes advantage of the cat, by whistling.

This has been debated by several enthusiasts and historians with contradictions clashing over whether this is a Tex Avery or Bob Clampett cartoon. I'm not going to nitpick over this theory, but the overall product feels more like Tex's standards than Clampett.

In all fairness, this is more of a Michael Maltese written-cartoon, with many gags and circumstances executed from his own ideas. Tex was likely more involved on the animation side, as by this point of his career he was focusing on making funnier cartoons with sharper animation timing.

Mike Maltese's story agenda is very straightforward for this cartoon: it's the simple cat-and-canary cliche, where the cat has been threatened to leave his house if anymore mischief takes out of out him, leaving the canary taking advantage of him. A straightforward cartoon idea, it allows Mike Maltese to create fresh, new gag ideas  that could be improved upon earlier cartoons that have used the formula before.

The storyline is simple: once the housekeeper spots the cat attempting to capture the canary in its bird cage, the housekeeper encourages the canary to whistle if any more havoc happens, and thus kicking the cat out of the house, into the rain. The "whistle" advice from the housekeeper makes a great plot device, whenever dealing with a brain-over-brawn formula. Pre-dating the Sylvester & Tweety shorts, with the series somewhat inspired from the cartoon, it's a great start from what Maltese has to offer.

And so, after the warning given to the cat: the canary begins to use the whistle as bait to prevent the cat from further mischief. On the other hand, the cat will stop at nothing. Each time the cat attempts a scheme to capture the canary bird, the bird whistles in time to prevent the cat any further.

The gag is usually concluded consistently with the cat zipping speedily back to his rug, and mimicking his snoring effect. Tex manages to blend the gag well in by creating some great, frantic timing of the cat zipping back to position, which is fun when emphasising the fear of getting caught.

Note that the cartoon is another source of Tex setting his focus on creating all-round funny cartoons. His use of timing is looking slicker in action scenes, but it doesn't stop the cartoon from dragging a little, at least in the first couple of minutes, where you expect some sidetracking from going from one gag to another, as such slightly slow-paced scenes of the cat scheming in his rug, but it's only minor glitches.

After a couple of sequences which start off a tad slower, the sequence involving the fly begins to kick up the cartoon a couple of notches. The cat entices the canary to follow him through the corner of the wall, but only leading the canary to a trap, inside a pickle jar. Just as the cat is about to finish off the canary, a passing-by fly randomly flies at the moment, distracting the cat's focus on the canary. The fly buzzes and dances in synchronisation to Yankee Doodle, which is a decent collaboration from Carl Stalling and Tex Avery who executed that subtle gag to the dickens. The fly land on the cat's nose, causing the cat to wriggle his nose slightly, but only to have his other hand blocking the jar, cover his face. A chance for the canary, the bird whistles loudly for his life, and thus leaving him on a lucky escape.

Mike Maltese adds the fly to make a great plot device in sparing the canary from what would be moments from death. What also makes the scene truly well-executed is its character animation, animated by Rod Scribner. Scribner starts to slowly appear in full-form, with his loose, wriggly animation becoming more manifested. Not only is the cat very loosely handled, but the expressions are perfected by Rod, who really explored the character's inner emotions in his animation.

After the close call of the canary who was trapped inside his jar, now he turns to exploit the cat, and proving he is not vulnerable. Mike Maltese plots out another gag set-up, with its execution perfectly delivered, as its outcome is perennially funny in a lot of ways.

The canary catches the cat's attention by holding up a little piece of paper with an attractive woman illustrated inside. The cat, makes a lustful take as he answers to the picture with a wolf-whistle, but double-takes when he realises the set-up the canary created.

The expression of the cat covering his mouth is just priceless in how its drawn, and it perfectly captures the emotions and exploitation the character feels. And so, the cat hides under his rug as he shakes worriedly. The canary drops the piece of paper from his hands, only to land on the floor for a passing-by fly from previously, who is swooned over the picture.

After the canary's sneer scheme towards the cat, the jokes turn to him. After a series of gags, Mike decides to turn the gag a little more gripping than the previous gags. The cat sits himself on the floor casually eating a box of crackers, in order to seek attention from the canary--again.

The canary looks at the crackers with an awed expression, and watches over the cat eating crackers. The cat offers him a cracker, and the canary helps himself with delight, with his cheeks covered with pieces of crackers. At the hope of regaining a friendship, the canary offers to shake its hand, but the cat turns maliciously towards to the cornered canary.

The canary, attempting to whistle, struggles as crumbles of crackers spit of his mouth, making the whistle more difficult. This is perfectly conducted in tension, and buildup, as the struggle for the canary to whistle really looks believable, especially with the pieces of crackers flying out of his mouth.

As the cat stays cornered, the canary swallows his mouthful, and then proceeds to whistle: and succeeds. Scaring the cat once more, the cat friskily places the canary back to his cage and rushes back to his rug. Instead of mimicking his snore, the cat begins to grow more impatient, judging by his testy posing. Tex takes that pose to great advantages, and thus turning each frisky routine to the next build-up, and this expression alone suggests for drastic measures for the cat.

As the cat begins to call for drastic measures from a series of failures in capturing the canary: he turns to the housekeeper. The housekeeper, asleep and snoring, is seen as an advantage for the perilous cat. Note the snoring animation cycle is amusingly handled, thus making her characteristics spot on. Not to mention, she's snoring in rhythm to Pop Goes the Weasel, expressing Tex at his most subtle moments.

The earmuffs become a climax in the story mountain and its another healthy device from Maltese's plot, for it allows the canary to be in grave danger, making the rest of the cartoon appear more suspenseful, and gripping that way.

To test if the earmuffs are ear-proof, he bursts out into a giant whistle, as he leaps his entire body in the air and whistling loudly by the housekeeper's face. Tex's sharper timing is also evident in the scene, for after the cat's giant whistle, the cat simply vanishes from the scene, and appears by the edge of the wall outside her bedroom. This would have to be carefully laid out in order to meet the timing to Tex's standards, such as having his body appear in mid-air in order to make the timing appear somewhat obvious.

As the canary realises he is in grave danger from the casual, smug look from the cat and hearing no calls or responses from the housekeeper, the canary frantically rushes for his life around the house, attempting to create more noise and havoc in order to awaken and alert the housekeeper. To make the frisky scenes appear more tangible, the canary flies around various objects of the house, such as turning on the stove for the kettle to boil, or the alertness of a cuckoo clock, or even a simple alarm clocks. Those are great devices to help emphasise the panic represented in these scenes. Maltese would use those devices for a similar sort of sequence in later cartoons like Kit for Cat.

Tex Avery stages the majority of the action-chase sequence to capture the frantic chase surrounded in a domestic matter. The angle is staged at an extreme down-shot of the cat and the canary chasing, who in design from the angle look more dynamic from previously. It's a great piece of staging that adds to the rather claustrophobic look of the house, and making the chase appear more frantic.

Just as the cat is chances away from capturing the canary, his luck all collapses once he skids with a frantic take, from off-screen which from an audience's perspective is a negative connotation. The camera pans to reveal the canary has removed the earmuffs from the housekeeper's ears, and thus leaving the cat in the high jump.

The cat quickly zips out of the door,l leaving his mark through the front door before the housekeeper can punish him. The canary, sweeping with hands with a sorted relief, finds however he is no longer wanted from the housekeeper, who from her ankles taps her foot consistently with disgust.

Feeling afraid, the canary zips through the house leaving another mark from the front door. Outside in the pouring rain, the cat and the canary both shelter inside a barrel. Feeling rejected, the canary walls out of the barrel, advertising to the audience in a forth-wall crack, "Ladies and gentleman, would any of you in the audience be interested in a homeless cat and canary?". It's a great send-off to the entire cartoon, and plus Mel Blanc adds to the charm of that forth-wall making the canary's voice more masculine compared to his appearance.

Though this is considered to be a Tex/Clampett short, I'd like to give this cartoon to Mike Maltese whose brilliant gag sensibilities and unique plot devices, dominate the entire short. I'd still consider the short to be Tex Avery, when you're looking at it from an animated perspective, but its plausible Clampett finished off whatever was leftover for him. Maltese has the knack of centring on a straightforward formula idea, and yet combing that into an all-round excellent cartoon. The formula would go on to become several series of various characters, most notably Sylvester & Tweety, which showed the cartoon short met with great expectations. It's an all-round delightful cartoon which is very well executed in term of its story and climax, as well as for the inventive gags Maltese conceived himself. The only small problems with the short, are that it drags slightly in some sequences, but the brilliant sequences pay off those minor flaws.

Rating: 4/5.



  2. Michael Maltese later worked mostly for Chuck Jones' unit...and the cat here, in fact, looks like a rangy grey cousin of Claude Cat, especially when he sulks or starts to lose his temper. Compare it to Maltese's later work on 1949's "Mouse Wreckers" or 1954's "Feline Frame-Up" and see if you don't agree. If nothing else, we see here what Tom and Jerry would have looked like if Tex Avery had directed one of their pictures.

  3. They should make a restored version of this cartoon. That would be GREAT because Scribner's animation would look 1,000 times better (picture I mean, not in movement, he was a master at that (: )