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|
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.
|Ted Pierce at work: hinted profanity!|
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.
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"?
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.
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.
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.
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.