Saturday, 8 July 2017

418. An Itch in Time (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 417.
Release date: December 4, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), Mel Blanc (Cat / Dog), Sara Berner (A. Flea) (Thanks Keith Scott).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A dog must resist himself from scratching; despite been tortured by a hillbilly flea.

An admirable quality of Bob Clampett is his ability to turn basic narratives into something innovative and spontaneous; which is conspicuous in An Itch in Time. The short follows a relatively straightforward scenario: a dog must resist himself from scratching, or otherwise, he'll be given a flea bath - much to the dog's heartfelt dislike.

Such a concept might be beneficial for a Disney cartoon featuring Pluto - except it'll likely be hampered by awkwardly slow-paced sequences of Pluto struggling. In the hands of Clampett, not only does he feature the dog's burden but also some insightful perspective of the flea - in wild and unconventional ways!

Of the Looney Tunes cast; Elmer Fudd takes the role of a housemaster - but he's rather underplayed throughout the cartoon. Elmer sporadically appears throughout the cartoon to keep a watchful eye on his dog. Elmer's supporting role still plays a pivotal part in the narrative's angle - as his intimidation is shown from the dog's viewpoint.

The principal character of the short, is A. Flea; whose characterisation fits perfectly with Clampett's outlandish style. The flea is portrayed and dressed like a country bumpkin and consistently sings the irritatingly catchy song, Food Around the Corner. Written by Bob Clampett himself, its intentionally unsophisticated by adding character to the unrefined flea.

Sara Berner, whose voice is sped-up for the character, provides an obnoxious performance that fits with Clampett's vision of the character. Such a personality makes the dog's heavy burden all the more hilarious in scenario.

The flea's main desire is to find food; as seen from his actions and his song. He uses the dog's skin as an opportunity to find some meat - which he discovers through a telescope by yelling "T-Bone!" in Mel Blanc's voice. Not only is Blanc's delivery sublime - but the extra touch of the flea applauding in a juvenile fashion fits with the unsophisticated persona to a tee! The memorable appearance of the flea would eventually merit a second appearance in the Bob McKimson short; A Horsefly Fleas (1947).

Rod Scribner was always a reliable choice to embellish Clampett's zaniness on the screen. His talent is utilised uniquely in several close-ups of the dog, earlier in the cartoon. For example, when the flea leaps on top of the dog's snout - his nose bounces and jiggles vigorously; unparalleled by Clampett's wild timing.

To escape from a vulnerable position; the flea softly sings a lullaby inside the dog's ear. The following close-up is a greater contrast of the wild animation seen in the previous shot. The close-up of the dog drifting off sleepily from the flea's lullaby contains much slower action.

Such subtleties would be a challenge for any skilled animator. Rod Scribner not only pulls off the slow movement convincingly - but even uses the opportunity to draw exaggerated poses of the dog yawning - featuring Scribner-esque teeth. There's also a lolw-key background colour change; as indicated from both frame grabs. The second close-up enhances the sleepy atmosphere fittingly.

Elmer going by the book! 
By the time Elmer enhances the bath caution; the dog attempts to put up with the escapades from the flea. Clampett's exploration of dynamics and struggle are priceless right down to the frame. The dog anticipates a scratching action several times, but only to be watched over by Elmer. A striking close-up of Elmer reading a Looney Tunes comic book is lavish not only in detail, but by emphasising his warning.

Animation by Phil Monroe.
In a short sequence; the dog attempts to cheat his way from scratching, by strategically kicking a domestic cat to clawing his back. Animator Phil Monroe displays sharp timing on the clawing action - as well as some very funny poses of the dog at a climax of relief. But, such luxuries aren't possible when Elmer Fudd glares down at the pets.

Bob Clampett experiments with gags of the dog's torment from scratching - that he takes an approach that's outlandish and absurd; but also bizarrely believable from that standpoint. Not only is the dog's burden beautifully captured in painstaking drawing seen in several close-ups; but also in scenes that's dependent on the ink and paint department.

The dog's resistance from scratching becomes increasingly difficult, to the point when the dog starts to change colour. At first, the dog's body turns blue - until the colours get more absurd in the process; including a tartan look. 

The more painful it becomes for the canine; the crazier the colour choices get. The animation itself is primarily secondary in comparison to the ink and paint work. It's a very unorthodox method - but Bob Clampett enhances the pain convincingly.

Clampett's cutting style is used to an advantage as the shots of the dog struggling coincides with the flea's antics in the jungle of fur. The gags involving the flea searching for meat are hysterical in its execution. To begin with, the flea harmlessly pours ketchup and mustard on the dog's skin.

Over the course of the cartoon; the gags become more sadistic and silly - that the result is riotous. Whilst searching for more meat inside the dog's fur; the flea uses tools such as a pickaxe and a jackhammer. Whilst intercut with the dog's reactions; his struggles are much more justified.

In preparation for the cartoon's climax; the flea begins to use explosives inside the dog's fur. The gag becomes far-out when the dog scents smoke rising from his rear end. This results in a series of airbrush fireworks rocketing from his bottom - a Clampett approach of a gag indeed.

Clampett's love for edgy albeit juvenile humour goes unnoticed in a lot of his cartoons. One of his more famous dirty gags appears during the dog's frantic scratching frenzy across the living room. At one point, he halts and informs the audience, "Hey, I better cut this out. I may get to like it." Such a kinky confession is a symptom of Clampett's boyish charm.

One of Clampett's more obvious samples of juvenile humour appears early in the cartoon - during the flea's introduction. The flea pulls out a telescope to scout for potential flesh. The following shot is point-of-view from the telescope.

The flea moves across to discover a lavishly drawn rear-end of the dog. The effect of the flea double-taking and vibrantly looking back at the dog and whistling features some nice timing. An intriguing assignment I imagine for a character layout artist drawing out such lavish albeit crude detail.

Some samples of Clampett's timing blending neatly with comical action is evident during the scene of the flea escaping the dog's biting chops. The action itself is timed to Raymond Scott's Powerhouse - which was becoming a trendsetter of Carl Stalling's musical compositions.

Much later, during the dog's scratching spree - Clampett explores some fast intercutting - of an approaching Elmer Fudd. This follows into a hilariously exaggerated skid; that's so intense the dog ends up gripping its nails onto the rug.

The dog backs away as Elmer advances towards him. Once the characters are off-screen; an unseen crash is interpreted through a camera shake. Elmer walks back into the scene; with the reluctant dog attached to a door ripped off its walls.

And so; the cartoon reaches an incoherent ending. Elmer ends up scratching himself, presumably from the flea, which follows up some smear animation of Elmer scratching himself pose-to-pose.

After both characters end up slipping inside a bathtub - they are unexpectedly carried away by the flea onto a dinner plate; labelled as a blue-plate special. This leads to the flea: "They'll be no more Meatless Tuesdays", in the same rhythm of his song - delighted over not having to ration.

Such a spectacle comes as a complete surprise to the domestic cat - seen earlier in the cartoon. Losing the will to live, the cat remarks: "Well, now I've seen everything" - and commits suicide on the spot. This holds my nomination of one of the nuttiest endings in a Clampett cartoon. The gag itself has been used several times, like Horton Hatches the Egg, but ending the short abruptly during that scene - is both dark and hysterical in shock value.

For a relatively basic narrative, Bob Clampett is always full of surprises! His carefree, wild approach to cartoon filmmaking are exceeded here. His exploration of angst on the dog is a personal highlight - from both an artistic and comical perspective. The characterisation of the flea is ingenious albeit deliberately corny. The flea's uncanniness and obnoxiousness still holds up as memorable - even if Clampett's song is the prime reason. The short's ending felt a little contrived, but what Clampett does is what's given - enough to let it slide by!

Ratings: 4/5.


  1. I wonder if this cartoon inspired Tex Avery to make "What Price Fleadom"(1948)

  2. As I just said on youtube, this short was ahead of its time and feels like a classic episode of Ren and Stimpy

  3. The ending with the cat killing himself is cut with it going right to the ending card after the cat says his line. Ugh, I can't stand political correctness.

  4. Was this cartoon ever in the Public Domain?