Today is my mom's birthday, and in the time-honored birthday tradition handed down through the generations, I'm going to embarrass the hell out of her. (I told her I'd get her one day for having the entire wait staff of that Chili's sing "Happy Birthday" to me, and I meant it). As this blog is devoted to animation, I can think of no better place to tell the world how--incredibly--the Termite Terrace crew brought Mom and me closer together.
My mother hates cartoons--or so she claims.
I think it would be more accurate to say she dislikes most of them, and certainly didn't understand my love of them. Given that like most kids of my generation, I spent my Saturday mornings gaping at such forgettable schlock as Speed Buggy, Goober and the Ghost Chasers and Baggy Pants & The Nitwits, perhaps she had a point.
It's ironic, then, that so many of the best moments we spent together were spent around the TV, watching Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.
I don't think Mom could ever bring herself to fully hate the Warner's cartoons--how could any self-respecting Southern lady openly dislike Foghorn Leghorn, after all? My Grandaddy, who loved that rooster with a passion and was so doggedly Southern he bled Confederate gray, would probably have disowned her.
She's always had a wicked, warped sense of humor, which she passed on to my brothers and me. I'd like to think that Bugs, Daffy, Porky--and yes, Foggy, had a hand (or paw, or wing) in shaping it.
Once in a while, she'd do something that never failed to send us three kids into spasmodic fits of laughter: at the slightest provocation, she'd put one finger on her head, stick out her tongue and close one eye. She'd accompany this odd expression with an even odder sound, which I'm sure she stole from a Warner Bros. cartoon: "FREEP!" ("Fearless Freep," after all, was the fellow Yosemite Sam forced Bugs to sub for in High Diving Hare). The finger-to-the head move comes from none other than Friz Freleng's Pigs In A Polka--remember the inane dance the two "frivolous" pigs did constantly? Growing up, my mom and her sister derived a great deal of enjoyment from doing the same dance.
The greatest irony of all, I suppose, would be that some of the fondest memories Mom and I would share would derive from one of the only two cartoons ever to make me feel uneasy. The first, of course, is Finnegan's Flea; the second is a cartoon which these days is almost as obscure: Chuck Jones' Chow Hound.
Chuck's most effective cartoons were parables of greed: it proved the downfall of the nameless construction worker in One Froggy Evening, who sacrifices his job, his life, his savings and his sanity for the sake of a temperamental singing frog. Jones' cartoons could also be profoundly psychologically disturbing--witness the slow, tortuous breakdown of poor Claude Cat at the hands of mice Hubie and Bertie in Mouse Wreckers. (The upside-down room was a stroke of brilliance--never was loss of sanity so funny). Chow Hound is both; a gluttonous dog passes off a poor hapless cat as the pet of several humans (and in one case, the rare "Saber-Toothed Alley Cattus" at the local zoo) and collecting the delicious meat the cat's inevitably lavished with. Though the cat dutifully turns over every single morsel to the dog (it's unclear whether the cat ever eats at all) the only things he gets for his trouble are a smack to the head, and the admonition, "What?? No "gwavy?"
A pretty neat arragement--for the dog. But the big oaf isn't satisfied. "Day in, day out, the same thing--it's too slow! I've gotta get some food!" he whines. Throwing the scam into Phase Two, he pretends to "kidnap" the cat from all its supposed owners, then "rescuing" it, collecting the reward and the praise.
Also a neat arrangement, if it stopped there. But it snowballs when the dog takes his windfall and buys his own meat market--and one doesn't have to see the cartoon to know what happens next.
The sight of the hideously gorged, bloated dog is nauseating enough--but Jones isn't through with him. The cat--and a mouse companion who up to now was also the dog's unfortunate stooge--utter that ominous (and universally known) final line. The terrified dog can only whimper in terror as gallons of gravy get funneled down his gullet--and we're left to ponder the unspeakable consequences at the iris out. A handy moral--signed, sealed and delivered--courtesy of Chuck. And a twist ending worthy of any Twilight Zone.
It's only natural the phrase would enter the lexicon of every middle-class family in the country, particularly mine and animator Eric Goldberg's. As in Goldberg's family, we couldn't have gravy served to us again without Mom intoning the fateful line, "This time we didn't forget the gravy...."
And I can't think of Mom without thinking of this cartoon. With that in mind, it's only appropriate that I, as my birthday present to her, give her the opportunity to see Chow Hound again for the first time in years.
One of these days, Mom, I'll be able to see you again. And when I do, I won't forget the gravy.
(Note: Mom's birthday is actually the 11th, but a Blogger time-stamping glitch put it under the previous day--I assure you, Mom, my memory hasn't deteriorated that much over the years..)