Monday, 8 August 2016

409. Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 408.
Release date: July 17, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Harland C. Evans (Fats Waller cat), Leo Watson (Scat singing), Clifford Holland (preacher), Eddie Beal, Carl Jones, Audrey Flowers, Eddie Lynn (singers), Mel Blanc (Rubber band). (Thanks to Keith Scott).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Rod Scribner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A Fats Waller-caricatured cat is led to temptation in a jazz nightclub, followed by a surreal

Animation by Bob McKimson
While the cartoon is suppressed underneath the Censored Eleven package and is today remembered for its racial stereotypes; I feel a disclaimer is always necessary. The short indeed contains racist imagery, although as a reviewer I understand the context, and always intend on writing an unbiased review. As to why the characters are portrayed as cats, I don't know. Now, onto the review!

While Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs primarily celebrated the African-American jazz culture; Tin Pan Alley Cats appears to demoralise it. The short is depicted as a moralising tale on clean living, with the protagonist being a Fats Waller caricatured cat - and Waller, in reality, is infamous for his upbeat lifestyle.

The moral is enforced in the short's opening sequence where the Waller caricature is being warned by a street preacher from entering the jazz nightclub. The preacher warns him he'll be tempted with "wine, women, and song" should he enter the nightclub. As far as historical context goes, today it would be considered a lifestyle; especially since the rule-of-three phrase has been modernised today as "sex, drugs, and rock n'roll".

Bob Clampett was notorious for sometimes missing deadlines and going over-budget; and the cartoon appears to be a prime example of that (which shall be discussed further shortly). Nevertheless, the short utilises some of Clampett's quality in an economic factor.

For example, the opening overlay shot depicting the docks at night is alluring in atmosphere, whilst cutting corners as far as animation footage goes. An off-screen chorus singing By the Light of the Silvery Moon enhances the mood elegantly.

Then, the scene cuts to the Waller cat's introduction in a cocky walk cycle beautifully animated by Bob McKimson. McKimson uses the keeps the action entertaining in an economical way. He uses clever cycles such as the cat's eye on an attractive womanly-figure feline (perhaps a design counterpart of So White), only to be discouraged by an intimidating, broad boyfriend.

The establishing shot of a street featuring the nightclub and the mission not only contrast each other in atmosphere, but in colour, too. Michael Sasanoff, who was likely painting backgrounds for Clampett at this point, paints the scenario inventively to create a juxtaposition in mood. The emphasis of fiery colours for the nightclub brings spirit and excitement; whilst the mission uses moody colours to create a more macabre look.

Whether the cartoon was a casualty of Clampett falling behind schedule or going over-budget; we'll likely never know. Animation re-use was a common practice amongst many directors from several animation studios; especially if it saved dollars during the Great Depression. Sometimes, re-use worked if it was subtle, or otherwise, practical (like crowd scenes). Clampett, however, uses re-use animation here in a sloppy fashion.

Once the Fats Waller cat enters the nightclub - he engages in some razzmatazz as he performs the popular song, Nagasaki, in an almost entire sequence complete with retraced animation and a reused soundtrack from Friz Freleng's, September in the Rain (1937).

The staging and animation is an
almost spot-on match. 
Some scenes scattered around the sequence is replaced with new animation; like the shot of a roast chicken frightening the customer by coming alive and doing the jitterbug. A short I'd nominate as the most unsettling stereotype in the cartoon.

True, 1943 audiences wouldn't have had the slightest notion the sequence was lifted from a 1930s Depression-era cartoon, but as far as continuity goes: it's very inconsistent. As both cartoons were produced six years apart; the Schlesinger studio had a very different style to producing cartoons compared to 1943. The policy of featuring popular songs in a Merrie Melodies was still enforced, even if it had toned down; but the animation style and timing were more conservative. And so, the recycled sequence reappearing during Clampett's energy driven era as a director feels very out of place.

Re-use animation is enhanced further in a surrealistic sequence taken from Clampett's earlier masterpiece, Porky in Wackyland. Since then, Bob Clampett has extended his talent as a director further, and whether or not this was Clampett's intention; he has many missed opportunities. The thought of Clampett enhancing surrealism further than what he'd accomplished in Wackyland, would've been a fulfilling experience.

Anyhow, the Fats Waller cat falls into a hallucination where he enters a surrealistic fantasy that has taken him "out of his world", literally. The cat's first exposure to the fantasy is indistinguishable to Porky's experience. The character spends most of the time exclaiming in his animated counterpart's phrase, "Wot's the matter?", which isn't enough to save the sequence entirely.

Many unusual creatures reappear, from the critter's tender flute playing of William Tell Overture to the Al Jolson duck shouting, "Mammy", across the scene. Michael Sasanoff at least attempts to revitalise the sequence with some altered background designs, and the use of colour to utilise the surrealism effectively.

Again, occasional new animation resurfaces around the sequence; like the Waller cat exclaiming, "Wot's da matter wiv 'im?" as he watches a critter chopping car tires with an axe. The gag itself fits in with the short's historical context; considering the World War II tire rations.

Animation by Rod Scribner.
However, the re-used animation of the surrealistic world wasn't a total loss of opportunity. Clampett makes room for innovative gags that is freshly animated to make up ground - and that fits in the style of Clampett's energy. This is evident in the first scene of the surrealistic world.

The Fats Waller cat exclaims, "Where is I at?", in which a giant lip emerges and responds, "You is out of dis world!". As the cat turns and shouts, "Was that you?"; the use of the Kitzel reference: "Hmm, could be" and flipping its lips was certainly not unknown of Clampett in that present era.

For the climax of the Waller cat's surrealistic episode; Clampett also blends in some more original material that's fitting to his style. Whether Clampett had no alternative but to recycle animation from his earlier cartoon due to budget constraints is still unknown; but the finale itself is inventive and, indeed, far more surreal.

The Fats Waller cat watching a parade of rubber bands is a prime example of Clampett's charming use of corny puns. Mel Blanc adds to the delivery hilariously with his infamous 'armpit' sound effects - adding a dimension to the eccentricity of the surreal concept.

The concept gets even stranger as the Fats Waller cat encounters his national enemies, Tojo and Hitler in odd proportions, bumping each other's asses. This is soon followed by Stalin dancing the Cossack, whilst giving Hitler's rear and shouting "'Ay!" the right delivery of the dance. It's a great portrayal of emphasising the Fats Waller cat's desperation of escaping the fantasy with the addition of fearsome dictatorships.

Clampett also has his moments of brilliance as a visionary. In a sequence where the Fats Waller cat scats with another jazz musician, he declares, "Send me out of this world!". The Fats Waller cat floats in mid-air, as the trumpet blows around him - causing the size to increase on impact.

This is beautiful visualisation of the cat's entrancement of the music empowering him - and the result of a metaphor of the cat being, literally, "out of this world".

The innovative concept comes into play again, as the Fats Waller cat returns to reality. And so, the Fats Waller cat rapidly exits the nightclub, completely reformed from his traumatising hallucination. He joins the street preachers as he pounds on the drums to Give Me That Old Time Religion. With his catchphrase being a running joke of the cartoon; the street preachers use the catchphrase "What's the matter wiv 'im?", in unison, as a response to the apparently-reformed cat as the short ends.

Not only has the cartoon not aged well because of the stereotypes and suppressed distribution - but also the heavy re-use of animation. Without going too much in depth about the stereotype, what I find the most baffling is that the characters were all turned into cat form (corrected: see comments below), which feels uncalled for, and doesn't desensitise the caricature. The lacks the vitality of what made Coal Black a Bob Clampett tour-de-force. Although it remains uncertain whether the short was a punishment for Clampett's budget problems; it's a high possibility Clampett hadn't that intention. Whatever opportunity Clampett made use of in the short - he uses it well; especially the new material for the hallucination sequence. With directing issues asides; the short has some fun elements to it, but overall, could've been a lot more superior.

Rating: 2/5.


  1. Leaving aside the need to tie it up to the title (Alley Cat), the slang term "cat" was very much in use in African-American culture in the 1930s and 1940s (thanks to, inter alia, Cab Calloway), and to a certain extent (as demonstrated by this cartoon) had leaked into the broader culture as well. I think these are the reasons Clampett chose to use cats.

  2. Referenced in Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, too: "It takes us cats to catch them rats!"

  3. Like Walt Disney's later "ARISTO-CATS", the word "cats" was used as jazz or swing era slang for someone "hip to the jive", as phrased in the TOM AND JERRY cartoon, "ZOOT CAT".