Sunday, 16 March 2014

318. The Cat's Tale (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 317.
Release date: March 1, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Mouse / Black Cat).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Herman Cohen.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A small mouse is fed up of being chased continuously by a cat at every opportunity, and requests the black cat to take the perilous task in giving up chasing mice and making amends with a local bulldog.

As 1941 slowly becomes a turning point for Warners as they're striking out funnier and wackier stories, this short is one of the prime and underrated examples of that. Being a writing credit for Mike Maltese, it's without doubt this is certainly is his own conception story wise.

The short focuses on a black cat and a mouse, as with previous cartoons--you'd expect the short to be a wacky episode involving a cat-and-mouse routine, but Maltese takes the short a different turn. The short begins with a predictable mouse chase around the house, in which the mouse quickly makes it back in the mouse hole.

Breathless, he is fed up of the cliche of being chased by cats, and then decides to create a diversion from mentioning the word "showdown", "That's it! I'll give him a showdown!".

Maltese creates a naturalistic personality of the mouse, where he proclaims "What am I a man or a mouse? I am a man!", therefore having identity as the theme of the short. This does lead to a fitting final line conclusion (spoiler) where he admits to being a mouse after his plan does awry, which is what makes Maltese a brilliant cartoon writer that way. With this, he walks to the cat and attempts to negotiates a truce to end the mice-cat feud, whereas the cat feels vulnerable the same way, "Well, dogs have always chased cats".

The whole alternate conflict the cat and mouse indeed is a very funny setup, as it does indeed bring in personality situations, such as the mouse being overconfident, and cat being naive and vulnerable. However, the sequence itself where they are discussing on ending their feud has a major flaw, which is the pacing of it. It is very dull in terms of action. Much of the sequence just shows shot to shot of the mouse and the cat responding back to one another, with the occasional two-shot scene.

Despite great voice acting from Mel Blanc in portraying the mouse and the cat, much of the dialogue itself feels repetitive, and going in a 'auto-pilot' mode. It takes roughly two minutes of the short for the mouse to explain how he is tired of being chased, as well his diversion for the cat to create a truce with the local bulldog, much of the dialogue is not needed and I feel it would have worked a whole lot better if the sequence had shortened it to the most necessary dialogue as well as creating action to broaden the action. The cat expressing his real emotions such as being attacked by dogs is gold in terms of acting, though the "Course I ain't yellow" dialogue is certainly overdone.

The following sequence with the confrontation of the bulldog, Spike, has a lot more endeavour in terms of delivery and comedy. Whereas the confrontation with the mouse and the cat lacked action, this sequence is brilliant at that level, as the bulldog is indeed very threatening.

The cat's timidness are very amusing, as he consistently keeps jumping to the top of the fence, speaking timidly to Spike. Keeping the sequence pumped up as well as suspenseful is Freleng's use of comic timing for the sequence. To start off, it begins with a Tex Avery-ish sign gag, warning about Spike; with a disclaimer being split, sign by sign.

When you watch Spike's action, he chews the bone like a typewriter, which is amusing comically as well as creating a threatening image. Also, the black cat's take is very amusing in terms of timing, and only Friz could have mastered that subtle spin before the cat climbs to the top of the gate, unseen.

Unfortunately cannot create a GIF of the cycle, as I've had a bit of issues with QuickTime Player, though I hope a screenshot will receive satisfaction.

The sequence itself is slightly plodded with dialogue, much like the sequence earlier but the action is fulfilling as well as creating more personality for the black cat, and having the circumstances of being battered. Then the sequence evolves into the cat being clumsy by knocking his bowl on top of his head. The suspense worsens as the gate closes, and the cat realises the chains were loose the whole time. The black cat stutters: "He ain't chained!".

For the sake of others, the sign gag itself is common in cartoons as it gives the suspense a funnier delivery, and Friz who usually had his own style with timing, appears to be very Avery-ish. Though, Freleng usually followed the style of humour of the Warner shorts, like Tex and Chuck Jones in his career, though he did it great, and in my opinion, did a better job!

Speaking of more of Friz's own comic timing, since Maltese is certainly experimenting with creating comedic circumstances and giving the mouse and cat formula at a odd streak, Freleng certainly takes advantage of the potential of the short as well as experimenting with his own timing, some of it very complex.

Two complex pieces of timing which come to mind would be the very first shot of the cat and the mouse chasing each other inside the home. The very first scene you'd expect it to be a Tom and Jerry formula-like story.

Freleng works hard at timing the scene in order to achieve that, as well as before the story takes off at a surprising start for a 40s audience. The camera pan is very effective, and the staging is very complex though it would only take a genius like Friz to tackle it out. Not only is the staging complicating, but it involves the cat and mouse chasing each other around the house going through several different rooms. Complicating to animate, as well as laying it out, but the effect of it certainly pays off. Another sequence in mind is the unseen chase sequence of Spike and the cat chasing inside the house. Instead of a typical action chase, Friz chooses to be different by relying on Treg Brown's use of sound effects as well as the complicated camera movements. It is still very effective and entertaining that way, also adding to some suspense. Only the master of timing could pull off a sequence like that technically.

To conclude the short, the black cat returns with bandages from his injuries. The mouse, filing his nails with confidence, asks if the plans with Spike went fine. The black cat, enraged remarks coldly, "He just couldn't see it your way!". The mouse, going into a double-take then hesitates and realises the cat will still chase him, the same way as the bulldog will still chase the cat.

Maltese uses a motif to conclude the story, with Friz assisting from repeating animation from the beginning. The mouse and cat go back to its usual routine, with the mouse remarking some of the dialogue from the beginning:

"How do ya like that? The same thing again! I won't put up with it anymore! I'll tell him once more, it's got to stop!". Then, with Maltese's motif being significant, the mouse speak rhetorically: "What am I a man or a mouse?", which leads to a double-take as the mouse realises he is a helpless mouse, ending the short with a fitting conclusion to a funny story by Mike.

The Cat's Tale is certainly a breakthrough short for developing funny and mainstream stories by creating an odd turn for what would be a cat-and-mouse formula story. It's a formula that Maltese has told a few times, such as in Herbie & Bertie shorts; and he could write excellent stories that way. He certainly has contributed a great deal to improving and broadening the humour in the Warner shorts, writing completely unique and realistic characters. However, when watching the short from beginning to end; it felt as though the short was missing an edge or a climax. The sequences and the dialogue went on too long, and I felt a lot more could have been followed such as a string of gags, of the cat's attempt to make peace with Spike. I suppose the short was an experiment for greater stories and formulas for Maltese. Overall, I felt the short was very entertaining story wise as well as some of the dialogue, and being a underrated effort for Freleng.

Review: 3.5/5.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

317. The Crackpot Quail (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 316.
Release date: February 15, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Tex Avery (Dumb Hunting Dog), Mel Blanc (Quail).
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A dumb dog is seen hunting after a quail, but finds that the quail outsmarts him too easily.

At this point in Tex's career at Warners; he was definitely trying out new material that hadn't been achieved with animated characters, especially with personality. Having already used the street-smart Bugs Bunny in A Wild Hare or the cunning fox in Of Fox and Hounds, Tex has another turn with an alternate and a queer choice for a potential character: a quail.

Combined, he also creates another slow-witted dog character who represents Willoughby in Of Fox and Hounds, though with an alternate design, whereas previously he was designed big to represent Lennie Small.

One typical viewer would be balked at how the quail could be another incarnation of Bugs Bunny, by using the word, "doc" and sharing the same wits. In the introduction sequence, when the dog and the quail are introduced: the dog is oblivious to his identity which is echoed from the Elmer/Bugs introduction in A Wild Hare.

This causes the quail to remark quietly in the dog's ears, 'You know what doc? YOU'RE RIGHT!'. It is a formula for Bugs Bunnthat has been used over and over again which works well as it creates a very surrealistic and three-dimensional character. I am curious whether an audience suspected of the sequence echoing from Bugs' 1st appearance, especially considering its popularity.

How Tex creates additional personality to the quail (perhaps as a way to not resemble Bugs too much) is he appears to use a lot of creativity as well as personality in giving the quail a continuous problem with the plume above his head. Other parts it pays off from the gags, whilst other times its execution fails. Let's get to the positive side.

Tex, being the expert of takes and reactions gives the quail's plume a spiked reaction when cornered by the snarling dog, prior to the stick throwing sequence. The plume reaction is animated wonderfully as well as beautifully exaggerated that the gag had its own advantage.

Another sequence occurs during the pond sequence where the dog accidentally sniffs his way underwater, and is approached by a fish as well as the quail disguised as one. This leads to the dog and the quail's plume communicating with one another.

Stalling creates a funny melody during the plume pattering in rhythm to The Umbrella Man. The communication is gold, as the plume is given life and realism through personality animation. The plume forms to a question mark, curious of whose identity he is communicating before going into a double take. Then this results in the quail's plume wiping his eyes like a windscreen, which again concludes the sequence well.

As to where the gags do not come to advantage, would be for two prime examples. One of the biggest ones off-hand is seen in the introduction where the quail first appears in the screen in full figure. As though Chuck Jones' molasses timing was enough to endure in a Warners short; Tex appears to fall as a victim in this short where he shows some useless piece of character animation of the quail being distracted of his plume, which is seen to be ruining his image. He licks his mouth to straighten it out, but it keeps flopping on his face, and this just goes on again. It would have worked if it was animated subtler, and also, only seen once, and not at roughly 30 seconds.

You'll notice that the quail also happens to whistle throughout the short, and tends to whistle in dialogue when he notices his plume is about to collapse. It can be seen as very naturalistic, and gives the quail a three-dimensional bit of personality there, but repeating it over and over again doesn't give him more of an identity other than a Bugs Bunny-esque character. For reader's sake, it is worth mentioning that Tex's own vision was to have the quail make a razzing noise each time, and it was used when it was released in theatres, but reissue prints replaced it with a whistling noise. Of course, having the razzing noise would've have shown a lot more of Tex's quirky humour in shorts, though personally I believe the whistle is better off as it is, considering how its more subtle than a razz effect, and notice how the breath effects are seen through his beak; which is what you'd expect in a whistle. Why the razzing noise was omitted in later releases, I don't know.

Watching the short on the animation side, Tex sure does like to let his animators explore the possibilities in animation, by creating very intriguing angles as well as obscure techniques. Note the perspective animation of the dog which shows him sniffing the quail's tracks. It's also a visual gag which is very subtle, as not only does the dog stretch as he sniffs, but note how comparing the size of the quails, that he appears to leave a track which is stretched wide out.

In terms of comic timing; Tex indeed starts to experiment with what he would become the master of, rather than relying on radio references, which is similar to what he did in the previous short. There is a chase scene which shows the dog and the looney quail in rushing from tree-to-tree and spot to spot.

Stalling's music cliches certainly add the touch, but in terms of timing and animation, the airbrush effects create an effective piece of movement where you cannot see the quail's legs as well as even the dog's.

It wouldn't be enough for Tex as he also creates a personality run cycle for the character, which he would love to exaggerate. Here, the dog pretty much has the exact same cycle as Willoughby in Of Fox and Hounds, where he was running in the most bizarre case. This shows how Tex appears to be desperate to have a change as well as a desire to create some wacky timing and animation.

Personally, one of Tex's more flawed gags in his career happens to be a recurring gag which happens throughout the entire short. At the beginning, when the dog looks at the advertisement for Barko's Dog Food (reference or just a corny pun?).

Desiring to catch a quail, he rushes and foolishly crashes into a tree, which leads the camera to pan beyond his appearance, and then back to the dog, who points: "A tree" in a cretinous voice.

The first time the gag actually is worth a laugh, especially for the timing as well as the delivery of the retardation of the dog. But, being a continuous gag, he doesn't hit the tree one, twice or thrice--but a total of four times.

To achieve great comedy, one must understand the patience as well as the pacing/construction of a sequence before slapstick could be achieved. Having been hit four times just kills the moments or the opportunities the short could have had. Though, one could say that it pays off well to the climatic chase sequence, which it does to an extent; and it can't make it totally flawed. The chase sequence is quite possibly the most visually fulfilling Tex has achieved up to this point in his Warner career; and he is showing great uses of speed where only the dog's head is visible. This then results in quite possibly one of the longest crashes in animated history.

The camera pans to a very long path with the crashes still creating, in which we expect an incredible amount of damage was caused. The crash as well as how the scene is setup is very entertaining and well-executed, especially how the dog reacts to it in the end, with the ending line: "Lots of trees!".

It is evident how Tex had deliberately set up the recurring gag to create one big laugh for the audience. It does pay off well, but the fact of having it just been a repeat earlier on bothers me a little, even though I'm sure it was a hoot for the audience of its time.

As all reviews must come to an end, I felt this short showed Tex Avery having a desire to try and experiment what he would master. It is clear he has been experimenting a lot more comic timing, than he was trying to make corny punchlines or corny puns. Whilst a part of the short at least steals some of A Wild Hare, it goes beyond what the former had, as the short appears to go a lot faster and comical. The quail/Bugs Bunny comparison is a little erratic, though no harm was obviously done as Tex already appeared to be in love with a street smart personality, which at the time was pretty much unheard of in animated cartoons. Overall, the short at times is quite enjoyable in terms of personality animation, as well as what Tex had to other, but its's already been mentioned.

Rating: 3/5.