Sunday, 30 August 2015

388. A Tale of Two Kitties (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 387.
Release date: November 21, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Tweety, Catstello), Ted Pierce (Babbit).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Rod Scribner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Two alley cats, a direct parody of comedy duo Abbott & Costello, spend an entire day trying to catch a baby bird, marking the first appearance of Tweety.

If Clampett's previous cartoons were about establishing certain abilities he hadn't considered, this is the short where he has finally hit his stride. With the creation of Tweety, (named 'Orson' in the original model sheets), Clampett creates a hilarious interpretation of the character whom from the outside looks cute and vulnerable, but is otherwise a sadistic, threatening bird.

What is little known amongst the public today is Tweety is based on a Red Skelton character, the "Mean Widdle Kid". Clampett also gave credit to the infamous line: "I tawt I taw a puddy tat" to animator Phil Monroe.

The cats are a direct caricature of the radio comic stars, Abbott and Costello, here they are named 'Babbit & Catstello'..a little genetic but it's fine just the same. The parody might be a tad dated, but the personalities are immortalised in Warren Foster's superb writing and characterisation.

Foster, and like many of the great writers of Warner Bros, have the unusual ability of stretching a thin storyline and taking advantage of it by providing the best and most far-out gags possible. The plot is kept simple and to the point: a pair of alley cats set their target on catching a baby bird.

Clampett's subtle ways of teasing the censors are evident in Tweety's design, as in Clampett's cartoons he bares a naked resemblance. In the infamous Clampett interview conducted by Mike Barrier - he gives an anecdote on why Tweety ended up being covered modestly with yellow feathers. Once Tweety became popular, the censors commented: "Say, this birds looks NAKED!", prompting Clampett to alter the design slightly. Although Friz Freleng took over the Tweety character, and becoming one of his primary characters - is it plausible Clampett adapted that change when he was originally slated to direct Tweetie Pie?

Animation by Bob McKimson
As I stated briefly, I really like Clampett's own interpretation of Tweety in the handful of cartoons he directed of the character. Clampett plays fun with the idea that he has a dark horse appearance. From the cat's perspective, they see him as a "poor little, teensy-weensy, itsy-bitsy, defenseless boid."

In an alternate plan to catch the bird, Catstello jumps on springs from a jack-in-a-box in an attempt to capture Tweety. As he hops, he watches Catstello bouncing in and out of scene, thus marking the birth of his catchphrase: "I tawt I taw a puddy tat."

Alerted, every time he sees the cat he attacks him, as well as the props covering the cat's head to defend himself. He turns sadistic when he plants a piece of dynamite in the cat's underwater helmet - creating an unseen explosion. Tweety returns to his innocent nature, as he comments: "Oh, the poor putty tat. He cwushed his witty head." and grinning with delight of the thought. It's a hilarious little scene where it reveals Tweety's inner and sinister side - and on the other hand it's been a running gag on Clampett's Tweety shorts.

Another great sequence that shows a sadistic Tweety is quite possibly one of the most iconic scenes from a Tweety cartoon. Catstello has failed to catch Tweety once more, in a dynamite explosion, causing him to crash on top of a roof and land dangling on a telephone wire.

Animation by Virgil Ross
Tweety lands on the wire, taking the chance at taking advantage of Catstello. He plays This Little Piggy by pulling off the cat's finger hanging on the railway line, one by one. By the time Tweety gets to "This little piggy had roast beef", he has disposed Catstello from the wire, causing him to fall.

Tweety's line "Well, what do you know? I ran out of piddies" as he disposes Catstello is a clever and subtle nod to four-fingered animated characters, and the thought of the nursery rhyme being played by a cartoon character is deliberately ironic.

Note the little Harry Langdon caricature in Tweety's smirk, which itself adds to the irony of Tweety's line. A perfectly executed sequence, as Clampett and Foster both add a sense of cruel irony into Tweety's persona, as he mercilessly intends to have him hurt. Catsello's cries for Babbit are hysterical.

The ladder sequence features some of the funniest dialogue ever conceived in a Clampett cartoon. One in particular is incredibly cheeky. While Catstello is up the ladder (listen for an Ed Wynn cry), Babbit cries "Give me the bird!". Catstello responds to his dialogue in his forth-wall line, "If the Hayes Office would only let me, I'd give him the boid alright!"

A popular quirk of Clampett is to feature adult humour jokes that the censors could overlook - yet Catstello's line directly references the Hayes Office, that the joke itself couldn't have been overlooked. Since "The bird" is euphemism for "the middle finger", and that the short itself is aware of the strict censorship, the joke remains intact.

The scene of Babbit attempting to push Catstello up the ladder shows some beautifully written dialogue that adds so much character. This is particular in Catstello references his fear of heights as he remarks, "I get heightrophobia" is ridiculously hilarious.

Catstello on stilts is also incredibly solid in Blanc's execution, who really creates a performance with the characters he portrays in the short. His repetitive yells, "Help! Babbit!" are brilliant and energetic in delivery. Balancing on one stilt, he cries out for Babbit, claiming: "I'm too young to die!". Perhaps he had used up most of his nine lives?

As far as Clampett's brisk energy and timing goes, Clampett goes into a lot of restraint here. While his previous cartoons featured elements of experimentation of wacky pieces of pacing and gags; Clampett pushes the boundaries completely unlike what was done beforehand. He achieves this to the point where he pulls off one of the "impossible things" of animation, and turn it convincingly.

A notable example is seen during the anvil sequence, animated by Rod Scribner. Around this time, he had been studying and observing the line work by American cartoonist George Litchy - which became pivotal in the style of Clampett's colour cartoons.

Catstello hits the floor and the anvil crushes him - causing a lot of plants and rocks to suck through, like a black hole. A difficult scene to animate and stage, the force and timing of the plants compiling together is phenomenal. It is such a gag that other directors wouldn't have dared to try pull off.

Whilst gardening for victory, Babbit pulls the anvil from the hole, and cries out for Catsello through the hole - without realising he's flattened underneath an anvil. He signals his presence by whistling a Abbott & Costello trademark. Babbit takes and releases him. Then he chastises him, "Come on, stop your clowning. What's the matter with you? Aren't you ashamed?" and beats him, "Why do you do these things?" The sequence concludes as Costello quotes from the parodied radio show, "I'm a baaaad pussy cat."

The structure for the cartoon is very unique as animation cartoons go. While many animated cartoons appear to have action occurring within a short amount of time, particularly in the Disney cartoons...Clampett takes a different approach. In other words, he uses a "real time" structure...where the cartoon occurs in an entire day, with each sequence happening at different parts of the day.

Richard Thomas' background and colour styling sets the distinction of having very distinctive sky colours for each sequence.The sequence of Babbit and Catsello setting up a dynamite trap indicates the action is occurring the evening, whereas the opening sequence has an early morning setting.

Despite the changes of the sky colour being obvious, notice how the lightning sometimes changes that adds a much more meticulous and glamorous effect in terms of lightning. The character's skin and colours alter slightly in some sequences.

The most striking example occurs in the night-time sequence, as the cats and Tweety are given a slightly darker tone in their flesh, whereas in brighter sequences the colour tone are saturated higher. It's an uncommon method used as far as the colour stylings in a Warner Bros. cartoon goes.

For the night time sequence, Clampett and Foster take the opportunity of inserting wartime reference gags which would've been fitting as far as historical context goes. The cats use one last method in hope of catching Tweety. Catstello is carrying a pair of planks on each arm - in a hopeless attempt to disguise himself as an aircraft.

As expected, there are references to the war such as the Spitfire, and the blackout. Clampett takes risks that is otherwise a controversial method to pull off in animation. For a forth wall gag, the action of Catstello dodging the machine guns firing at him (caused by Tweety, disguised as an air raid warden) freezes momentarily. 

With the action interrupted - Catstello lets the opportunity to break out his forth wall line, "Is there an insurance salesman in the house?", and the action continues. It's a big risk for such a method to be pulled off convincingly and comedically. If Clampett's timing or energy isn't subtle, at least his strategies are.

In their last chance of catching Tweety, the short has finally reaches it's suspenseful peak in the matter of seconds left of screening time. The cats quietly approach an unsuspecting Tweety, anticipating an eating action. Rod Scribner crafts a solidly dynamic and yet intimidating pose of the cat's menacing expression -  and yet making it look as exaggerated as possible. To immediately cut its peak to a final gag, Tweety turns behind them yelling: "Turn off those lights!". The only "lights" visible in the scene are the cat's eyes, the moon and a lamppost in the foreground. Each light, and eyeball, is turned off while comedically timed to 

Without doubt, this is Clampett's finest cartoon the blog has reviewed so far. After a string of directing forgettable Porky Pig cartoons for the last few years, Clampett had begun taking big liberties once he had inherited Tex Avery's unit. Every gag in the short is timed right down to the frame, and the results are astounding, such as "far out" gags like Catstello's exaggerated long fall until he gets struck by an anvil, its unanimous. As far as animation go, it gets slicker as Clampett cartoons go, and it's in incredible feat for top animators like Rod Scribner, Virgil Ross and Bob McKimson meet such expectations that hadn't been explored in animation. Not only does Clampett do a top notch job as directing, but his shorts have a superb sense of art direction. Clampett's interpretation of Tweety is quite sinister, and yet loveable. Later, he would get tamed a little by Friz Freleng in later years, when he inherited the character - bearing in mind that Friz still did a very capable performance. For a studio that lived on working on some of the smallest budgets in the Hollywood industry, it's incredible at how they achieved brilliant work, and A Tale of Two Kitties is definitely no exception. 

Rating: 5/5.


  1. Babbit and Catsello appeared in a episode of "The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries" and the original version of Tweety (originally named Orson) in this cartoon also appeared in a episode of the series. That show has so MANY Looney Tunes cameos.


  3. A handful of side notes:

    (1) The "Fourth Interceptor Command" that Tweety refers to was the Army Air Force unit responsible for providing fighter aircraft coverage over the City of Los Angeles (a major centre of war production).

    (2) The "height-rophobia" gag is a play on "hydrophobia," a/k/a rabies.

    (3) The "Spitfire" referred to by Catstello is, of course, the iconic RAF fighter aircraft.

    (4) Though not credited, Tedd Pierce is believed to have done the voice of Babbit in the cartoon.

    (5) Abbott & Costello were originally teamed up in burlesque theatres, later going on to radio (Kate Smith's radio show, most notably), and by this time, had already had a number of movie hits to their credit for Universal. (One of which had their famous "Who's on First" routine, a variation on an old vaudeville routine.)

  4. Here's Devon Baxter's Cartoon Research post featuring the breakdown for this cartoon, showing who animated each scene:

  5. Great post! I love the 1940's!

  6. Being an Abbott & Costello fan I loved this episode. Is there a reason why Babbit & Castello didn't become more popular?

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  8. “That’s all folks” always made me happy. Whenever this came up it was sure our show is going to start and I loved the music as well. The new series and cartoons have changed a lot. They are becoming better with time and more real like the ones by Andy Yeatman available on Netflix, good content, good graphics and teaches a lot to the kids.