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Monday, June 30, 2008

Sufferin' Cats! Kevin's Review of Hugh Harman's THE ALLEY CAT

Getting "That Ol' Feelin'"?: THE ALLEY CAT (1941)

Review by Kevin Wollenweber

I have always been a cat-lover. Even though I do not presently own one, cats I’ve “met” at others’ homes have neatly gravitated to me and we seem to have an immediate “communication” or rapport. So it is certainly understandable that I’d like the 1941 classic cartoon from MGM directed by Hugh Harman called “THE ALLEY CAT”.

At the time of this cartoon’s regularly being shown in heavy rotation on early morning kids’ TV, a la “THE EARLY BIRD CARTOON SHOW”, a local staple of our ABC-TV affiliate here in New York, just before the all-important morning newscast at approximately 9:00 a.m., our family had a cat, and we were kept awake at times throughout the nights with many a musical offering by amorous alley cats, so I took to this cartoon immediately, even though there is really nothing to like about the cartoon’s title character. You really can’t figure out just why the beautiful and pampered female cat likes him so much. He can’t even seem to carry a tune all that well and he spends most of the cartoon nastily taunting the snarling bulldog or tearing apart the house by accidentally lighting his tail ablaze when getting too close to the fireplace and then getting the fishbowl caught on his rump and leaping to the ceiling trying to shake it off…

…But I’m getting ahead of the story, as Jay Ward would probably tell me if I were narrating this thing.

The cartoon opens inside a spacious townhouse where the only human that we meet is a bored and ver-ry British butler (or should I say, “but-lah”?), carrying in a bowl of food for someone, namely the equally bored and sleek and white kitty cat who, when asked “will there be anything else, M’lady?”, slowly picks herself up to only purr “nooo!” The butler moves to leave the room, but not without showing his hint of anger over having to wait, hand and foot, on a cat by giving out with a disdainful snort before slamming the door behind him. Miss Kitty turns away from that scene as well and goes to check something outside. Can we guess what that is?

It is so obvious as Scott Bradley’s score gets brassier and jazzier and we see our “hero” (dubbed Butch by the animators, although not called at all by that name anywhere in the cartoon) emerge from the alleyway, checking garbage cans for food that the neighbors have tossed out, even bopping around to the music if I remember correctly. He is the most unlikely of heroes, though, because, when he notices the Persian cat glaring out at him from the balcony, he tosses away the fish he was about to devour and yowls, in what has to be the coarsest catcall I’ve ever heard, “Boy oh boy! Hi, baby!” She purrs back her “helloooo” which launches old Butch into his signature song…if you want to call this singing:

“I saw you last night and got that oooool’ feelin’…”

With his female companion singing along on key with “meow meow meow meow”, he continues to garble the words so bad that one needs an original version of this song to actually find the correct lyrics. I would go on record as saying that, perhaps, DONALD DUCK or YACKIE DOODLE could have vocalized this better!! This rouses the butler angrily to the window, just as a covey of the alley cat’s feline buddies begin to harmonize quite nicely, too, and he shoes the lot of them away with yells like “Fssst, I say, you cats, stop making all this noise!” When this fails to startle them, he sends out his secret weapon, the very large bulldog. “Rover…Rover…I say…cats!!” The dog hears these excited monosyllables and it takes time to register, but he tears off after the cats who, en masse, go flying away from the fence and the chase and battle of wits begins. The dogs stops in front of the alley cat and attempts a roaring bark which comes out as mere yelps of a dog you would think is much smaller than this, sending Butch into gails of gravelly laughter “tough guy, eh?” he taunts and swipes his claws at the dog’s head as the dog leaps up trying to snap at the cat.

Butch doesn’t just let it go at that. Surely, he has to play a couple of really painful tricks on the dog, at one point taking a hot light fixture from one of the poles in front of the house and dropping it on the dog’s head. The explosion sends the dog running for cover back into his house, sending the cat into further hysterics, calling up to his girl on the balcony, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, baby!!” He goes to a nearby pail and grabs a perfume bottle, filling it with a heavy and pungent dose of ammonia or some such smelly vapor and proceeds to leap onto the doghouse roof, knocking on the roof and calling “Well, does little Rover wanna come out and play?” He pulls the bulldog up by his snout, claws bared…ooh, does that hurt! The dog is now angry again and ready for some sort of attack, but not for long. As the dog rushes up to mere inches in front of the cat, he gets a face full of something so powerful that it nearly knocks him out or makes him reel dizzily, almost dangling in midair before Butch sprays him again and, with his paw, pushes him lightly down on the ground over on his back, fast asleep! “Awww” the alley cat mocks, seeing the dog totally comatose on the lawn.

His attentions are turned back to his kitty love above, who now throatily yowls, in a barely recognizable Mae West impression, “come up and see me sometime”, sounding, instead, more like her aroused boyfriend. She’s definitely in heat!! Butch howls, leaps into the air and, in the space of a few frames and seconds, blasts off through the front door of the house and straight up to the upstairs area where Kitty is waiting with the door opened. Butch sails past and, as the camera moves toward the couch, he is sitting there comfortably smoking an expensive cigar. Wow, this guy wastes *NO* time! “Well”, he says, “what’s cookin’ sister?”

Geez, I wonder which animator’s alter-ego *THIS* is!

He then decides to clumsily entertain his ladylove by dancing to a great Latin rhythm of the usual song, “La Cucaracha”, but he dances too close to the fireplace, setting his tail on fire. This is good for the audio of the cartoon because the action starts up now, even with Bradley’s score percolatin’ as well underneath. Butch yowls and leaps into the air looking for something to put out his flaming behind. He wedges himself into the fishbowl, but is again driven mad trying to release himself from it. He again leaps into the air, this time hanging from the ceiling and ripping it to shreds as he hangs on and tries to shake the bowl loose. While all this is happening, out in the darkness, the bulldog is coming to and hearing the commotion. He groggily makes his way into the house just as Butch rips his way across the ceiling to where the bulldog is unfortunately right under him…and this is where the claws lose their grip on the ceiling and the cat and fishbowl come tumbling down on top of the dog with the fishbowl breaking over the dog’s hard head! I dimly recall the intercutting of inside and outside scenes here as being quite good, climaxing in the afore-mentioned crash as the cat falls from the ceiling.

The chase is on…and forgive me if some of the finer details are forgotten here, but the cat seems to evade the dog’s attacks, sending the dog crashing into a wall or tumbling into a suit of armor that Butch fills with hot coals that send the dog flying up into the air. As this occurs, the butler (geez, I wondered where he was all this time) is now aware of the commotion and is calling for his dog, who crashes down in a heap on top of him. The dog is not done chasing the cat, though, and the beast tries to leap forward, not realizing that he is caught in the butler’s suspenders. Once ripping free, the dog continues the chase, knocking over pictures and vases or whatever is in his way up and down the stairs!

The butler, meanwhile decides to grab his pick ax and get rid of this intruder himself. The chase had gone through the wash cycle in the nearby tub and now escalates through the rooms as the butler enters swinging the ax and trying to hit the cat as the cat and dog go running in circles around where the butler is nervously standing, but can you kids guess what happens next?

Yup, the ol' faithful bulldog gets it in the head, but as is the case with cartoon characters, he is merely stunned for a few seconds and ends up turning on the evil butler with the ax in his hand, snapping angrily at his pants and ripping them to shreds and sending the two crashing through the plate glass window and off down the street as the alley cat continues singing to his ladylove, inviting his pals in for a last chorus as the iris closes. Aw gee!

There are so many elements of this cartoon that smack of Hanna-Barbera intrusion. Didn’t we see an envious butler and his dog in a much later “TOP CAT” episode in which Benny the Ball is mistaken for some rich cat and those alley cats invade the good life for a while? Also, that hormonal howl of the alley cat taking up his lover’s invite sounds mysteriously like those yowls that Joe Barbera is said to have produced as vocalizing for Tom getting pinned on any part of his body by Jerry in their usual battles of wits. Just listen to a cartoon called “THE MILKY WAIF” and you’ll see what I mean. As far as I know, this is the first time we hear this howl in an MGM cartoon, so it is possible that Joe Barbera (or was it Bill Hanna) premiered it here? It has also been a running gag in some Hanna-Barbera cartoons that the lead character is not always what he or she seems. So it might be an H/B-ism for the alley cat to be such a loud-mouthed, gravelly-voiced and almost unappealing boorish young male instead of the usual golden-throated romeo that we’ve come to expect in animated vehicles like this.

My only other comment is that the four-part barber shop quartetting covey of alley cats reminds me of a similar scene in Disney’s much later “LADY AND THE TRAMP” in which a covey of dogs serenades the two lovers (or friends). Maybe, if we get another fantastic Scott Bradley double-CD set of scores similar to the fantastic TOM & JERRY AND TEX AVERY, TOO set, the consultants can find that bit of singing and include it in its entirety. It is fantastic and I’m sorry that the action is taking place while the cats are in good harmonics, here.

What can I say, I love cat cartoons! “Meow meow meow meeeooooow!” Check it out yourselves on YouTube. It is posted there, and let’s hope that a complete HAPPY HARMONIES set comes out real soon.


1 comment:

Steve C. said...

YAKKY DOODLE could have done it better?? Geesh...

Anyway, I love cats, too. The cat's Donald Duck voice is not Clarence Nash [same thing as what Jerry Beck has said elsewhere], but [as Beck also said correctly] the voice is Harry E.Lang, who also did others like that. Butch is the name of the cat in another cartoon with that same voice by H.E.Larry, "Chips off the Old Block".

Steve C.