My Travels With Chuck

14 Aug

Foreword from Rachel:

Welcome, one and all, to our new “sister site” to the Orphan Toons blog, the title of which comes from Kevin. (And inspired by that coolest of cool “cats”, Cecil The Sea Sick Serpent’s beatnik friend Go Man Van Gogh). We’ll be launching this new venture, however, with a look at a cat of the more literal kind, the unnamed feline of Chuck Jones’ Fin ‘N’ Catty (1943). My editorial comments will be interspersed throughout.

By Kevin Wollenweber

Well, while sitting back and checking out a VHS sampler of favorite cartoons I had created from my laserdisk collection, I was reminded of how much I liked some of the earliest Chuck Jones directions at Warner Brothers, when his “style” started to take hold and his inspiration began to be felt by other animators in his unit–especially the one shots that did not feature any specific characters.

Chuck Jones’ cats are especially funny, as evidenced by the inclusion of “THE ARISTO-CAT” on the fourth LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION set on DVD. A title that was omitted, no doubt, for inclusion in a later volume of LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES under a different banner in later years, is a toon called “FIN ‘N’ CATTY”.

Why are Chuck's cats funny? Perhaps because of hilarious expressions like this (above) and smear animation from the likes of Benny Washam (below)

Why are Chuck's cats so funny? Perhaps because of expressions like these (above) and masterful smear animation from the likes of Benny Washam (below)

There isn’t a bad gag in this cartoon as I recall it, and there are so many great visuals here, too, representative of Chuck Jones’ well-timed humor at its best, with all its subtleties intact.

The cartoon opens with Robert Bruce’s familiar narration– “As everyone knows, goldfish must have water in order to exist.” It is obvious logic as we watch a goldfish swimming around in its bowl, wearing an Oliver Hardy derby. The camera pulls back to reveal the nemesis of this character, and we hear the narration continue, “but goldfish hate cats!” We are also reminded, however “while on the other hand, cats hate water…soooo…”

….and the cartoon begins its escalating battle of wills with an outcome you would not expect…and a rather nice underwater graphic that truly needs to be explained to me. It certainly gives the true impression that we are watching this cartoon underwater–but I’m getting ahead of the story. (Note: I believe what Kevin is referring to here is the wavering, somewhat blurry effect used to create the illusion of being underwater, most likely produced by smearing gelatin on celluloid and moving it past the camera–R.)

This is one of those great Chuck Jones cartoons in which dialogue is not necessary. These are my favorites, because Jones had this great subtle knack for physical comedy that could be excruciating at times and could almost make the viewer feel the characters’ pain, while laughing uproariously at the characters’ misfortunes. Such is the case here as the goldfish realizes that, each time he sprays the hapless cat with a faceful of water, the cat would scurry off into the bathroom and rub his puss vigorously with the hand towel. At one point, the fish quickly exchanges the towel with a piece of sticky flypaper that has the cat struggling to the point where he is almost straitjacketed in the sheet of paper or bundled up like a newborn baby!!

Now for the part referred to earlier: My favorite part of the cartoon comes when we see a closeup of a bright, hot orange or egg yellow sun in a darker orange sky. The camera humorously pulls back to find that it is just a postcard-size picture propped up on an end table with the poor goldfish, now trapped outside its bowl, crawling along in front of that picture as if on that desert scene, its last gasp of moisture dripping profusely from its tiny brow and hallucinating as he goes.

In his desire for water, he envisions a beautiful pool of water and anxiously runs on his tail to leap in, jumping off a diving board that, as we find out, is actually the cat’s waiting front paw and the pool, the inside of the cat’s open mouth. The fish leaps in and goes sailing quickly down, all the way down to the cat’s tail tip, but he realizes his mistake in just enough time to come flying back out again, and the chase is on with the cat in hot pursuit.

But, wait, the fish notes the portholes around the room. Sure enough, he decides to open them all quickly and water comes flooding in within the space of a few very quick seconds without anyone realizing it. The chase continues…until the cat realizes that the fish is swimming, not running and panting anymore! There is a great scene here in which the fish is just contentedly swimming and staring at the cat and the cat staring back at the fish with the slow realization that, hey, there are bubbles floating around his waving paws and the fish swimming in front of him, and these bubbles, with the cat’s anguished face, come up from the open mouth, spelling out the words YIKES and HELP! (As can be seen in the picture at the top of this post, what he actually spells out is “WATER??”, twice. Whatever words they might have been, it’s an excellent piece of animation–R.)

There is a wonderful waviness of underwater current flowing throughout this scene that really looks somewhat authentic, as if we could be looking at this action from underwater ourselves as the cat suddenly leaps toward the door to open it and cannot, beating his chest and trying to find normal air to breathe and gasping soundlessly and writhing about…

…until he begins calmly floating and swimming with no effort at all. Yup, ol’ pussycat begins enjoying the feeling of being underwater and immediately learns to swim and backstroke and all the fun things that we’ve all done underwater. The poses of the cat moving from absolute terror to sheer joy and contentment is gut-bustingly funny, and stunning here as we hear the change through Stalling’s musical score, and the narration returns to remind us…

“…And, so, as we were saying, cats hate…err…cats *LOVE* water…and goldfish *HATE* cats!” Ah, but the reason why the little goldfish in the Oliver Hardy derby hates the cat now is because he, the goldfish, now resides in a small drinking glass with no house within a house, because, sure enough, the renewed old cat has found a new home, scrunched up inside the fish bowl!!

So you can see why this would be considered a fantastic cat cartoon, with some terrific character animation with just the right amount of expressiveness to tell the story. Adding voices to this cartoon would have destroyed the desired comedy effect for me and many others, and maybe one day, we’ll even be able to hear just the score to this one, without sound effects and narration, because it, too, helps to tell the story as much as what one sees onscreen.

There were other such subtle cartoons like this, also directed by Chuck Jones with little or absolutely *NO* dialogue, that also allow the physical comedy to completely carry the entire story or thin plot development, assisted only by the score. Other examples could be found in Jones series of cartoons that feature INKI, a little dark-skinned native, seen on his hunt for game with his little spear.

The character is a child and, I’m guessing, a boy, although the dress for the character makes this a kind of uncertainty. This could just be hunting garb for the character, the young boy hunter learning to make his way through the dangerous forest and jungle in search of his first bit of game for the family table. The humor comes from the encounters that the young hunter has with forest life, including countless lions and…especially, a mynah bird who adds to Stalling’s scoring of a piece called “Fingal’s Cave” with the mysterious bird hopping about and giving the music an alternate time signature. The character of Inki appeared in three or four cartoons and remained voiceless, taking us through his dwellings from jungle tribesman boy to cave boy in the final cartoon of the series, “CAVE MAN INKI”, one that is rarely seen today. While the Inki series is often lumped in with some of the censored or “politically incorrect” titles from the Warner Brothers archives of cartoons, they are a cut above the rest because the humor is found through its music and situations as the mynah bird seems to show up just in time to save Inki from genuine peril, thundering through the brush and making any pursuers believe that something larger than them is about to leap from the bush and devour not only them, but Inki as well.

These are hard cartoons to really describe well, because there is almost no plot line to the cartoons except that the mynah bird hops its musical dance along the scene, almost like Egghead or Droopy (at MGM) just shows up as if to wordlessly announce that the “hero of this picture” is here and all will be well. Yet, when this happens there are times when both Inki and his larger pursuer sit there staring out in disbelief of what just happened. The appearance of the mynah bird lends this other worldly quality to the cartoons because we never actually know why he is there, but he is there, even in prehistoric times.
So, while some would say that some of Jones’ minor players were aspirations to be Walt Disney, they achieved so much more than almost any of Disney’s creations, because they were just there to lead the viewer to…where? No one ever knew, but the comedy just followed its own path and remained a pure visionary’s creation.

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