Thursday, 20 February 2014

316. The Haunted Mouse (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 315.
Release date: February 15, 1941.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Black Cat), Walter Tetley (Haunted Mouse).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Sid Sutherland.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: An exhausted cat travels to a ghost town, where he ends up heckled by a spirited mouse.

What perhaps most Warner enthusiasts have been hoping for, the first appearance of Michael Maltese, whose first writing credit appears in this cartoon. He is, without doubt, the strongest writer at the studio, and quite possibly the greatest cartoon writer whose lived?

He was excellent at using play-on words for strategy sequences, creating very human and believable characters in his writing, as well as writing excellent stories, period. Who else would create a bizarre but tour de force ending of the Father's Day presentation in A Bear for Punishment, or have a singing cat alley pester an annoyed Porky or Elmer in Back Alley Op-roar/Notes to You, and a whole lot more.

Maltese spoke about how in his early years in the Story department, he had been rejected by his gags from the "Kansas City boys", especially Bugs Hardaway, who claimed Maltese wasn't contributing material. I'd be curious whether Maltese wrote the story himself, or if this was all contributed with several other story men.

Not to mention, Leon Schlesinger was also becoming more relaxed with the system between the shorts, and thus allowing the directors and artists to show more creative freedom. Porky no longer appears in every black and white Looney Tunes short, whereas other directors are given more fresh freedom by directing one-shots as well as Porky cartoons, without having them being forced to Bob Clampett, who also would produce a few one-shots this year.

It's fair to say that by around late 1940 as well as into 1941: Tex Avery had started to gradually started to turn out more fresh shorts, rather than relying on spot-gag cartoons, which had been his standard trademark around 1939 and 1940.

I suppose the success of Bugs Bunny would have inspired Tex to produce more Bugs shorts, as well as creating alternate characteristics, but this short is a slight different turn for Tex, especially for Warners.

As mentioned in the synopsis, the plot of the short is of a famished cat who ends up being heckled by a spirited mouse, possibly due to subtle hallucinations. The concept as well as the plot itself feels like a entry that Tex would have produced in the late 40s at MGM, when he started to produce more bizarre stories and not relying too much on parodies on a certain topic, or especially spotgags. No doubt that Tex always used parody and spot-gags throughout his career, the short itself feels like he's paying homage towards the earlier bizarre and entertaining stories he turned out in his earliest Warners shorts.

You could also say this was one of Tex's shorts where he was attempting to create several more wisecracking personalities who outwit their nemesis, like Bugs. Previously he used the fox with a Bugs personality in Of Fox and Hounds, and would not long use the same persona in The Crackpot Quail. Hell, he has the early Bugs persona, where he kisses the cat in the lips, shouting "Guess who?".

You would say it is featured with the mouse, but the mouse is more of a menace than streetwise. He does have the streetwise personality when he gives the cat a spirited bowl of cream (which vanishes) and then starts to trick the cat, after he complains of an empty stomach, "I was sure hungry for that milk, 'cos my stomach's empty!", in the sequence animated by Scribner.

The sequence itself feels it shows some minor Mike Maltese contributions, especially with the interactions as well as the dialogue, "Holy cats, it IS empty!". Though, despite perhaps being a type of Bugs Bunny personality, the mouse is missing the streetwise Brooklynese voice by Mel Blanc, as the voice actor is Walter Tetley. Tetley, who was a child impersonator actor is mostly remembered for Sherman in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show as well as Andy Panda, doesn't sound too ideal for the role as it feels the personality would be better off as an assignment for Blanc, though that's just personal thoughts.

Also note the use of double-takes that is featured in several of the sequences, and double-takes have been a prime formula for Maltese in gag setups (not only cartoons in general), and perhaps his contributions are evident for those sequences.

Excluding the double take in their first encounter, two prime examples appear where the dumb cat is seen yelling through a mouse hole at the cat.

The spirited mouse shouts out, "Hello jerk" which causes the cat to retaliate and ordering the mouse to step outside. The spirited mouse reappears and yells back, trying to fool the cat as well as to get the audience laughing. Another sequence is also evident where the cat, believing he has caught the mouse in his paws with the spirited mouse inspecting. Note the scene is one long shot, where two pieces of action appears at once. It both works off well in terms of delivery though the timing is quite slow, with not too much energy.

With a few contributions that feel more or less like the works of Maltese, the rest of the sequences just appear to be more or less of Tex's own contributions as well as his own gags, which show a lot of comic movement, with Tex taking advantage of some invisible gags. One of the more funnier and humorous gags appear when the cat can be seen tickling the cat invisible, and ends up breaking down with laughter.

Then with the more visual gags, this appears where the mouse grabs the cat's tail and then kicks the cat in the booty, at least how it appears to look on screen. A similar gag Tex would have used in his MGM cartoons, but the action as well as the timing is mild compared to what he could achieve.

With more fun from the haunted mouse as well as more Tex contributions, a typical and predictable hotgag then turns up, which is quite possible one of the oldest gags in general, like the banana skin. This then ends with the cat yelling in mid-air, though like the reaction better in Of Fox and Hounds, which showed great timing of the shock.

Despite having particular gags through the short that aren't too satisfying, by having gags that don't feel too greatly timed, as well as a lot of talkie scenes, it ends in a satisfying albeit dark matter, which is definitely what Maltese would have contributed to.

The cat dies, and becomes a spirit like the mouse, which therefore makes him a threat. Since the cat was not a threat to the mouse, having the cat die like the mouse becomes a lot more fulfilling as a gag, ending with great justice. This then leads the cat to abandon the ghost town, by changing the population name of the sign from '100' to '99' with that Tex-oriented gag.

And so, The Haunted Mouse feels more of a Tex product than it does with Michael Maltese's own contributions, at least in terms of story. The gags themselves appear more of Tex's own contributions whereas with Maltese, parts of the dialogues as well as building up to a factor would be his. Though, Tex being the director having a lot of control over his pictures, it would make sense a lot of contributions of the short were his own. By the time the short was released, did the story credits still get rotated or was Maltese actually assigned to the short? I suppose it is hard to tell. You can read more about Maltese's view on Tex in an interview in Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, by Joe Adamson, as well as Hollywood Cartoons. Overall, the short was average as a typical Warners viewing, but it was also a decent step for Tex as he is building more and more fresh material as well as more bizarre and funnier concepts.
Rating: 2.5/5.

Monday, 17 February 2014

315. Sniffles Bells the Cat (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 314.
Release date: February 2, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Margaret Hill-Talbot (Sniffles / Other Mice)
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Sniffles is used forces of persuasion by his friends to bell the cat, which he reluctantly accepts which would almost cost his life.

Sniffles Bells the Cat...that title is totally predictable, don't you think? With that title, you can already guess that Sniffles will bell the cat by the end of the cartoon, and the title itself is very cutesy-ish too. Well, never judge a book by its cover, which is why we are here to review this short...

This short is quite possibility the definition and prime example of a Chuck Jones cartoon from his earliest years, which of course means sluggish pacing and cutesy concepts. Whereas Sniffles is already a cutesy character by Chuck himself, and the situations Sniffles faces are usually mundane--this short definitely has a lot of those comments combined here.

You could say using the title itself is a form of poor pacing, as the audience would already know that Sniffles attempting to bell a cat will take the entire cartoon running time, which gives Chuck the excuse to pad the cartoon with molasses timing as well as a lot of verbosity in the dialogue sequences. It's still quite clear Chuck wasn't yet ready to step out of his own comfort zone, as he still was already focusing on creating perilous situations for Sniffles, as well as creating and experimenting (with little effect) of the character.

As it may appear unusual in a Chuck Jones opening for a 1941 cartoon, it opens off with a chase sequence as the mice are seen running away from the cat escaping into their home just in time. There is no sluggish pacing, or exposition, it starts straight off there and it already starts off fresh. Then it cuts towards the sequence where the mice complain about quiet and cunning the cat was, which then leads to Sniffles suggesting to bell the cat. Then this results in a sequence with no brevity, but just padded dialogue and pacing that in fact takes up almost half of the cartoon's length. Sniffles' reluctance to bell the cat and the mice's use of persuasiveness are realistic in storytelling, but its use of repetition and unfocused pacing really slows the entire short down, and leaving the action sequences with the cat to perhaps appear rushed.

However, Chuck also appears to be focusing on his expressions and artistic tendencies than he is concerned of the dialogue, which does stand out as artistically pleasing. Chuck's use of pantomiming where the mice point to Sniffles is believable and well planned, as Chuck was a master of pantomime in animation. Notice the use of Jones' unusual piece of staging from Sniffles' point of view of the mouse holding the bell, which stands out as symbolic, and the mice's expressions of persuasiveness are solid. Though, the shots of Sniffles' reluctance (possibly animated by Bobe Cannon) appear to just stand out as unfocused and unneeded.

It doesn't stop from where Sniffles shows reluctance, the poor pacing and padding still goes on as Sniffles is forced outside the mouse hole, holding onto the bell. Whilst the mice promise to let him back in unless he bells the cat, Sniffles then walks away in a state of confusion and nervousness. The character animation may be quite solid, though even Disney could easily quicken the pacing.

This leads him to faint, and you'd expect this to be the end of the long-paced sequence, but it does sort of move forwards, but only progressively.

This results in Sniffles standing in a corner and with his simple mind, rehearses on how he would advertise the bell to the cat, which is just adds up to another sequence of more sluggish pacing, and this gives a less supposedly suspenseful sequence of the cat pursuing Sniffles.

This is without doubt, one of Jones' worst piece of pacing he has done to cartoon running times in general, and this is an awful lot more mundane than the other bland sequences with Sniffles from previous shorts. It isn't until he continues to his rehearsal does the cat turns up, resulting in a double take for Sniffles, that it finally starts to pace up the cartoon as it should have done a lot earlier on in the short.

Not to mention, this doesn't mean Chuck creates some fresh and inventive sequences, as he certainly had an original concept in the short...a shell game. The cat rushes inside the kitchen, noticing three different teacups standing, and suspects Sniffles is hiding inside there.

The sequence, most likely animated by Ken Harris, shows some very strong character animation as well as very solid proportions and careful drawing. The movement is very rich, and almost very human for a cat, especially the hand movements. A sequence what every animator should be proud of for animating.

During the shell game as the cat picks up a few empty shells, when he picks up the cup with Sniffles featured inside, this is presented in a pantomime form. We all know which cup Sniffles is hiding from, and this creates suspense as well as hope our protagonist will not be eaten, perhaps from a young child's point of view.

The sequence is also sometimes associated of a similar sequence which was featured in the Disney film, Cinderella, which was released some nine years later. Compared to this short, the shell sequence in the Disney film is rather wacky, peppy and entertaining (being Ward Kimball's animation), whereas in this short it is presented in Jones' own interpretation which is suspenseful and slow. Stylistically the sequences are nothing alike, whereas the short appears to be artistically demanding, and in the Disney version it is for humorous circumstances. However, it's most likely the sequence in Cinderella was purely coincidental.

Other uses of repeated formulas by Chuck can be seen in the first screenshot where he shows the mice in the background as silhouettes, which is indeed intriguing staging and showing that the guard mouse sands out, but this occurs in a not-so needed sequence. Another formula that Chuck has used, and appears to have been overlooked from historians or enthusiasts, is that Chuck appears to enjoy using sequences which show small, vulnerable characters like Sniffles at the brink of death, by sitting on top of the cat's nose.

Though this was sort of seen in shorts like Sniffles Takes a Trip (Sniffles sitting on a crane), but it appears to be used in alternate circumstances, where a character double-takes at a dangerous situation, and by using a lot of gloss on the antagonist, to make the cat stand out as very menacing and threatening.

 As though all must come to a finish, the sequence then quickens up again, where Sniffles is seen rushing through the scenery. Just in one of the shots, he runs through the bell knocking it over and landing straight at the cat's neck, which is what the audience and the reviewer had been expecting throughout the running time, judging on the title.

Just as Sniffles makes it inside the mouse hole and slamming the door. This means that Sniffles is alive and we would have to indulge more of his annoyance until Chuck gets bored of the character, which is not yet.

The other mice then ask Sniffles with astonished responses as to how Sniffles did the task, which as we all know happened by pure luck. Just as he makes up tales of how he accomplished it, he crosses his fingers with superstition. This could also be a subtle breaking the forth wall moment, as this suggests only the audience know of Sniffles' lies.

To conclude the review, the short is not only very predictable in terms of the title, but as mentioned its simply one of Jones' poor sense of timing which is very unfocused and third-rate. A lot more could have been accomplished with the sequences of Sniffles and the cat, though having plodding just lost the spark of the overall concept. Despite plodded pieces of dialogue, the shell game remains the best sequence of the short in terms of its freshness as well as excellent character animation. Having previously worked on a short where he attempted comedy again with Bugs Bunny, the short clearly shows how he still doesn't want to make the drastic move just yet.

Rating: 2/5.