Friday, 22 July 2016

406. The Aristo-Cat (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 405.
Release date: June 19, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Cat / Madam / Meadows  / Bulldog / Hubie), Ted Pierce (Bertie).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Rudy Larriva.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Meadows, the butler, quits his job after a series of practical jokes from the pampered, family cat - leaving him helpless and a victim of two trickster mice: Hubie and Bertie.

Animation by Ken Harris
The Aristo-Cat is a prime example of an innovative idea of cartoon storytelling, but happens to lack substance and creativity. Ted Pierce pitches a narrative that would prove to be a landmark in the short-lived Hubie & Bertie series. The concept focuses on two mice who take advantage of gullible cats by deceiving their minds.

As a formula, it writes itself, as well as a step in the right direction for potential comedy. While Pierce set the standards and characterisations within this cartoon, it's lacking gags and creativity.

Chuck Jones once mentioned in a Greg Ford and Richard Thompson interview that Pierce was, "good at structure, and it was a humorous structure---but it wasn't gags" - which is the gist of this short: a solid story premise, but the result are only moderately funny. Ted Pierce has written many wonderful cartoons that showcase his work better, but the results in this short, show several missed opportunities with the story he conceived. Michael Maltese would use the formula to a greater advantage in later shorts, like the Oscar-nominated Mouse Wreckers.

Pierce's sense of story structure is put to good use in the opening scenes. Pierce's opening is largely exposition, as it follows the perspective of the butlers' daily routines, and the burden he endures from it. One of his principal duties is to take care of a pampered, spoilt cat (an early prototype of Claude Cat) who takes pleasure in creating practical jokes on the butler, Meadows.

Ted Pierce at work: hinted profanity!
As far as Ted Pierce gags go; the practical jokes performed by the cat are more harmless and mischievous in contrast to Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. While it might not be savage, it shows a clear portrayal on the cat's pampered life - that sets in motion for what what is come.

These pranks include the cat squirting grapefruit juice that fires directly onto Meadows' face; or sliding a bar of soap across the bathroom hall for the butler to expectedly slip over. The results repeatedly end with the cat laughing at Meadows' misfortune.

This leads to the straw breaking the camel's back, as Meadows resigns from his position as butler and storms out the house. Struck by the recent circumstance, the cat turns vulnerable and frightened as he helplessly calls out to Meadows in a large, secluded mansion. The transition from a spoilt cat into a helpless one is beautifully portrayed with rich character animation; which makes a great satire on the pampered upper-class being unable to look after themselves and deal with independence.

Without doubt, John McGrew's avant-garde layout & colour styling is a visual tour-de-force, and the most perceptible element of the short. Since much has been analysed on the geometry and graphicness of the designs, and rightfully so; I feel the colour styling is utilised better to depict mood and tone.

This is evident in the transition of the cat's mood from indulge to panic-stricken. The scenes of the cat relaxing inside his bathtub depict the use of blue to emphasise the easy life the cat lives, with the light touch of colours to enhance the mood. The design and pattern is kept simple and consistent, like the life the cat lives.

For the fast-paced scenes of the desperate, helpless cat - the colour and layout styling shows a greater contrast in atmosphere and emotion. The heavy emphasis of red enhances the cat's predicament beautifully and effectively.

The use of pattern becomes more complex and abstract, seen as a clever portrayal of the confused cat having to face a reality that's more intricate from the easy life. Notice how the blend of red and blue colours on the shelves of books perfectly conveys the action of the scene. The cat is cornered by the shelves of books, feeling trapped and uncertain ("Good grief. I'm all alone. Who'll take care of me? Oh, I'll starve to death!"): perhaps this could be a visual metaphor that the cat is "marooned"?

Chuck Jones creates his own dynamics as far as experimentation goes. The opening sequence of Meadows entering the cat's bedroom is paced in a very cinematic style - channeling a little from Frank Tashlin. This featured a string of quick cuts of Meadows opening the door, a POV shot, opening the curtain, etc. , all complete with elaborate effects animation - like the door swinging open.

More intriguing effects occur again in the cat's panic-stricken episode. While a lot of the colour styling and layout are evident in the medium-shots, the close-ups have an alternate, compelling effect.

As the cat yells "Meadows!" in close-up; the backgrounds animate in perspective of the camera movement, which captures the mood elegantly and sharply.

While the first half of the short was all about exposition, the second half is primarily when the narrative structure goes into a different path. This leads to the cat and the cartoon's first exposure of Hubie and Bertie. Uncertain of what a mouse looks like, the cat backs away from Bertie, terrified.

Perturbed, Bertie tests the cat's vulnerability as he pathetically says, "Boo"...causing the cat to corner behind a curtain. He then calls Hubie over, where the catchphrase is first heard: ("Hey boid, come 'ere!").

Hubie performs the same actions - leading to both mice exploiting the cat's confused state and raiding the food in the house freely. As they feast in a block of cheese, the cat asks timidly: "Could you, sir--? Uh, I mean, would you--? Would you please give me a little of that cheese? I'm simply famished!". Correcting him that cats eat mice, the pair decide to deceive the cat into "locating one" of the wrong kind.

While the sequence is pivotal in setting the agenda of the remainder of the cartoon; the pacing and structure is pretty sloppy from both Chuck and Ted. Rather than take advantage of more opportune gags the mice could've pulled on the cat; their first encounter comes across as dull and repetitive in action.

The scenes of Bertie conversing with the helpless cat suffers from too much filler - especially as he repeats the same question: "You dunno what I am?" and "You dunno who I am?". Those issues could be said the same way with the opening sequences; as the exposition and build-up took up almost half of the short's plot - giving constraints for more creative gags in a limited cartoon length. An important sequence as pointed out, it's padded longer than what it needs to be. On a side note, it's interesting to see how Chuck Jones would swap coat colours on Hubie and Bertie in their later appearances.

And so, the mice trick the cat into identifying the bulldog as a mouse. Although skeptical, the cat is intimidated by its sheer size and strength; but the mice's manipulation convince him so. Despite timing constraints with the plot; the awkward encounter between the cat and the bulldog lives up to the standards of Chuck's knack for conceiving great pantomime.

The sequence is largely dominated by Chuck Jones' sense of pantomime and personality animation. Bobe Cannon's character animation show beautiful lines of action, in which both characters communicate and read clearly.

The face-to-face encounter of the two foes is a hilarious presentation of Chuck's genius in sincerity, mood and characterisation. Stalling's music creates some appropriate suspense as the cat and dog raise their jaws slowly, a turn at a time.

Intimidated by the bulldog's superior size; the cat sheepishly leaves the slices of bread on his head, and attempts to discreetly tiptoe away. The tip-toe action is a beautiful piece of character acting, as it's sincere right down to the frame. Chuck's knack for innovative, hysterical facial expressions is laid bare in that one pose. Stalling's mastery in rapidly changing music depending on mood and pace is all evident here.

After taking a savage beating from the bulldog; the cat crashes through a window and is faced upon an open book. Opening his eyes, he discovers the true identity of mice based on the book illustrations. Chuck's build on suspense is riveting as well as highly entertaining. While the cat's menacing glare at the mice is beautifully expressive, Hubie and Bertie's troubled and sudden exit is priceless.

Unfortunately, the short goes downhill again, during the chase sequence. The action as depicted makes a dull, viewing experience which doesn't live up to the fast-paced standards Chuck had finally accomplished on action scenes like Super-Rabbit.

While the cat's mistake in biting his own tail in bread slices is slightly amusing; the unseen violence of the dog pounding the cat inside the doghouse, isn't. The violence interpreted by the shakiness of the doghouse looks wooden and sloppy, timing-wise. The action dissolves into a match cut of the cat's bed reacting wildly.

The cat awakens from his bed, relieved and recovered from what was a nightmare all along ("Gosh, what a terrible dream!"). Spontaneously, Hubie & Bertie and the bulldog also arise from the cat's blanket, responding: "Yeah, wasn't it?"--ending the cartoon with a rude awakening.

From an artistic point-of-view; it's a visual masterpiece that's beautifully abstract and representing some of John McGrew's very best work. McGrew was known for producing his layouts in colour sketch; to show the background artists what he envisioned, and his use of colour styling in this short is completely carried out and utilised. It's a pity that a visual experience of a cartoon is hampered with a relatively thin story from Ted Pierce. Although the premise and concept is original, and shows promise of comedic values; it hasn't yet been properly managed - resulting in some sluggish pacing and filler. The short remains only moderately funny with Chuck Jones' true genius appearing sporadically. Despite being the first attempt at handling such a formula, Hubie and Bertie's debut wasn't a wasted opportunity at all--as Michael Maltese would enhance the characters and the formula by the late 40s.

Rating: 2.5/5.


  1. Chuck was still doing 'quiet' cartoons into 1943, though with sharper timing and better personalities than what he had been doing in the 1938-41 period. But there's still a lot of open space between the gags that would be filled in far better a few years later. This was one of those sparse efforts, and really kind of foreshadows the problems UPA would have post-Hubley, where the groundbreaking designs of the cartoons was more impressive than the story the designs were wrapped around.

    1. I agree, "Wackiki Wabbit" is a prime example of 'quiet'. In 1944, I feel Chuck was directings shorts with a funnier premise; although it was slightly hampered with sloppy animation (i.e. "Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears").

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