Dan’l Webster Examines the Details

devil webster4We folk hear tell of stories of the supernatural; of encounters with vile critters from far beyond this plane. Faust made a deal with Beezlebul, and Tom Walker did too. Charlie Daniels commemorated Mephistopheles’ trip to Georgia in song and Tenacious D challenged the Prince of Darkness to a rock off.

Taking cues from the Faust and Tom Walker legends, there was written yet another tale; the tale of the unfortunate New Hampshireman, Jabez Stone, who departed with his soul for two cents and bestowed it upon cunning Old Scratch himself. Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” reminded the reader of the pride of being a real, red-blooded American and warned of the dangers of taking the easy path. It was a fable as simple, earnest, and true to the spirit of America as the words of Twain or Irving.

What’s up, Doc?

The 1941 RKO adaptation was a special sort of film. Directed by William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and starring Edward Arnold (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as Daniel Webster and Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as the devil, The Devil and Daniel Webster was one of those unflinching American movies that celebrated legendary ideals in much the same way John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) did. They hearken back not to the current America we know and picket, but the magic in what it all was supposed to be once upon a very long time ago. There’s a profound sense of patriotism in these movies and so what better foe for a proud American orator like Mr. Webster than the devil himself? If he can beat Satan and save Jabez Stone’s soul then perhaps there is hope for the rest of America.

devil webster2

Get off my back.

Jabez Stone (James Craig) is an unlucky New Hampshire farmer in the 1840s. He dreams of being a lucky man. This is just the kind of thing that Scratch waits for. [Scratch was a regional colloquialism for the devil, which adds such sumptuous local atmosphere to the story, don’t you think?] Scratch (Walter Huston) is as subtle a Satan that ever graced the silver screen. He’s tattered and unassuming, yet somehow diabolical and refined. He seems like just another kooky old coot, but there’s a sinister confidence that broadcasts all too loudly just how much sharper he is than you. He has an oily grace and a malevolent grin full of ingratiating teeth. His tricks and entrances are subtle but subtly disturbing. He accepts Stone’s soul and promises him seven years of good fortune, but as we good folk all know, the devil does not soon forget a deal and he always comes to collect. Jabez Stone loses his humanity and happiness and even pushes away his wife (Anne Shirley), mother (Jane Darwell), and friends all in favor of the acquisition of wealth. He builds a mansion and bankrupts fellow farmers and spends more and more time with a crafty demon maid (Simone Simon) while his young son becomes increasingly bratty and malicious.

I’m not a witch.

When Jabez Stone’s poor wife can take it no more she gets the only person who can help him: the great senator, statesman, and New Englander, Daniel Webster. Attack of the history!

I enjoyed this movie the whole way through. Up until the final act it’s a splendidly solid film about the trap of greed, but in the homestretch it just gets awesome. Famous historical orator, Daniel Webster, will defend the fallen Jabez Stone against Scratch in a trial in Stone’s barn on the very spot where the deal was initiated and the judge and jury will be a court of the damned. The jury are all famous condemned Americans (pirates, chiefs, traitors, murderers, and madmen) brought back from hell to judge whether or not Jabez Stone and Daniel Webster will keep their souls or be turned into moths and kept in Scratch’s pocket. Them’s some high stakes. How awesome is this? The answer: pretty awesome.

You sicken me.

The great Walter Huston (father to John and grandfather to Angelica) was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but lost to Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley. Mr. Huston was full of wonderful characters. Fortunately he did win best supporting actor for Sierra Madre (directed by his son). Huston really is one of the best movie devils. Some movie devils are quietly unnerving like Robert De Niro (Angel Heart) or corporate and bombastic like Al Pacino (Devil’s Advocate). Sometimes they’re more sinister businessmen like Peter Stormare (Constantine) or Billy Crystal (Deconstructing Harry). Other times Chuck Norris can round-house kick the devil in the face (Hellbound). I like ’em best when they’re merely amorally mischievous like Peter Cook (Bedazzled) or Danny Elfman (The Forbidden Zone). Another shout out goes to Tom Waits’ superb portrayal of pure evil in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Trey Parker’s gay Satan from South Park is another favorite. F. W. Murnau had a particularly grand representation of the devil for his adaptation of Faust (Svankmajer’s version is a bit weird). And yes, yes, Tim Curry had good makeup in Legend but I like my Lucifer more subtle. The devil is always a fun character in movies and while we might never know who’s is the most accurate depiction, we can all have our opinions of who is the most fun to watch.

devilwebster

You’re next.

It must be said: I love this movie. The Devil and Daniel Webster is fantastic. It’s wonderfully produced with some great photography, lighting, music and many lines of dialogue (particularly those of Scratch and Webster) were taken directly from the short story. As a fellow New Englander (and someone who loves history), I enjoyed much of the feel for the location and the attitudes of the characters. It feels distinctly American, but perhaps moreso the pure America of legend and folklore. It’s as refreshing and pure as a slice of apple pie. Read Benét’s short story and go watch this movie.

http://vitagraphamerican.blogspot.com/2011/04/vital-graph-devil-and-daniel-webster.html

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews10/the_devil_and_daniel_webster_.htm

http://michaeldemeng.blogspot.com/2010/02/deal-with-devil.html

Cartoon All-Stars to the Reefer Madness

Does anybody else remember watching a little drug PSA called Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue (1990)? I think they combined all three kindergarten classes into one room at my elementary school to screen this. I recall it being a rather dark and unhinged journey into the drug-addled prepubescent psyche featuring several Virgil-esque guides in the forms of various popular cartoon characters. It is these guides that give the film its name and why it is easier to remember than half of the PSAs I saw in elementary school (although I do remember that one where the vampire in the haunted house learns about fire safety from a bunch of mystery-solving kids. Incidentally if anyone else knows the name of that one or where I can find I’d be appreciative).

Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before if you’ve never heard of A Christmas Carol. In this movie a little girl becomes worried about her big brother when he starts acting weird. Turns out he’s on the stuff. Now the young girl’s magical hallucinations must go to the rescue and save her brother. I need not point out the irony.

These hallucinations include the Smurfs, Garfield, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Tigger, Winnie the Pooh, a Ninja Turtle, the Muppet Babies, Alf, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Slimer from the Ghostbusters cartoon show. I think that’s all of them. It’s a melange of late 80s/early 90s Saturday morning animated mayhem. Just imagine all of these childhood characters chasing you down through fun-houses from hell, popping out of the walls, taking you on magical roller coaster rides and then lecturing you on the dangers of using drugs. Now imagine further if you will, an anthropomorphic vapor of marijuana smoke voiced by George C. Scott personifying addiction itself and incessantly luring you with promises of even better highs. The clash of the whimsical cartoon characters and oily car salesman Scott-smoke is about enough to scare anyone straight…or at least make them curious enough to test it all firsthand. It’s kind of like those old, cheap books with the bad color schemes that told you that drugs are bad (m’kay) but the illustrations of the effects kept making them look awesome.

A lot of PSAs are cheesy and ham-fisted and this one really isn’t an exception, but I remember being overwhelmed as a child at how many characters they crammed in. The Muppet Babies segment was particularly memorable. Some of the characters are only walk-ons and don’t play a crucial role. Bugs and Daffy (alas, not voiced by Mel Blanc) should have done more…or better yet the Dodo! The Dodo would be the perfect anti-drug spokesperson. The animation is not the greatest (standard 1990 made-for-TV animation), but the characters still essentially resemble themselves. I don’t get Alf. Was he ever a cartoon? I only remember the puppet.

The VHS even had an introduction by then-president George Bush, Sr. and wife. It’s pretty smurfing cool.

It’s also interesting to note the mix itself. You have more contemporary characters like the Smurfs, Slimer, and Ninja Turtles alongside characters originally developed in the 60s, 50s, and even 30s. I find it interesting to note the staying power and significance of characters that just kept going on (Looney Tunes, Alvin and Chipmunks, Winnie the Pooh, the Muppets, and Donald’s nephews). They were all picked because they were the most recognizable and popular cartoon all-stars of the day.

During the movie the cartoon all-stars take the marijuana smoking boy on a trip to drug hell showing him the horrific effects of drug use and the dangers of gateway drugs and what the harder stuff can ultimately do to you. It really changes your perception of the characters because their universes are normally so innocent. It also makes you like them more when you see that they can step out of their imaginary worlds and join forces to help a kid get his act together. The ensemble actually helps make the point. I wouldn’t care if a dude in a chintzy dog costume told me that drugs are bad (m’kay), but I’d listen to Bugs Bunny. Pretty good ploy if you ask me. Garfield I always suspected of being a bit of a junkie though. Nobody gets lasagna cravings like that without some help. Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle is another toasted surfer dude to watch for. Where’s Shaggy from Scooby-Doo?

So it’s dated and hokey and the song is dopey, but I’d say it definitely appealed to its audience (which was a room full of kindergarteners when I saw it). The circus nightmare finale is actually intense (in that Brave Little Toaster kinda way). It was even a bit nostalgic for me to go back and watch it again. It’s not a particularly good movie or anything, but it was a pleasant stroll down memory lane and as far as PSAs go it’s probably more effective than most and seeing all those classic characters together acting out the dangers of drug use is just the bizarre icing on the pot cake. It’s like Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with a more perceivable agenda.

Stay in school. Don’t do drugs. D.A.R.E. kid for life. . . most of the time.

http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Cartoon_All-Stars_to_the_Rescue

http://misc.thefullwiki.org/Michaelangelo_%28animated%29

http://www.toonarific.com/show_pics.php?show_id=692

The Other Passion

passion7It is not a commonplace thing in modern American society to face death squarely in the eye for your faith in the Almighty. Seems religious trials are almost unheard of these days. And, no, that science teacher who belittled you for thinking the earth is only being 6,000 years old doesn’t count as persecution. Martyrdom, to most Americans, is something that happened a long time ago or, if it is still happening, is very far away. It is something we, happily, do not really have to see or experience…which is why I think it terribly important to acquaint oneself with it. Some significant films that deal with this subject include James Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is Dreyer’s film I have selected to champion today (although watch the other movies too as they are all very good).

passion4The Passion of Joan of Arc was directed by Carl Dreyer (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet) in the late 1920s (and, yes, is silent). Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dreyer is apparent. The same ground-breaking art of montage editing that Eisenstein used to amazingly cinematic effect in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) (and in Abel Ganz’s Napoleon, 1927) is used once more and with great skill and emotional power by Dreyer to heighten the urgency, peril, and frenetic horror of the trial of Joan of Arc. The phenomenal editing coupled with the frequent use of overpowering close-ups and the stellar acting (most notably by the lead heroine played by Maria Falconetti) make for a stirringly dramatic tour-de-force.

And to think it was lost for several decades before it was found in the early 1980s in a Norwegian mental institution.

passion8The Passion of Joan of Arc does not follow the life or brave actions of the female French martyr who heard voices that told her to lead an army against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. The movie presumes we already know Joan and so does not go into the details of her life story or the surrounding circumstances of her arrest, but instead documents her trial by the British for heresy in 1431 in Rouen. By focusing on only the final leg of Joan’s incredible life, Dreyer is able to fully explore one of the most famous trials in human history and immerse the audience in the frustrating hysteria and hypocrisy of the time.

passion6Renee Maria Falconetti (predominately a stage actress) plays the ill-fated Joan of Arc, in what is considered by many to be one of the best screen performances in film history. She is on trial for heresy because she claims that she was commanded by God to dress as a man and go to war for her country. Her persecutors cannot accept this as this would mean that God was against the English (and that God, furthermore, condones cross-dressing).

passion3The trial consists of a series of ornery old clerics bandying words in desperate attempts to trap Joan into admitting or denying her knowledge of being under God’s grace; the knowledge of one’s salvation was considered quite heretical at that time. Instead of giving them what they want and signing the confession that will lead to her execution—but at least, in their eyes, she will be pardoned by God for her offense—Joan instead shows her resilience, intelligence, and steadfast faith that God will protect her. They threaten her and torture her and taunt her with communion, granting it to her only if she confesses. Joan has principles and beliefs and so lying about hearing God to avoid torture would be the greater evil than her being tortured and killed as a heretic. In Joan’s mind she cannot be wrong and in the mind of men who are interrogating her she cannot be right. When two opposing forces are so fervently convinced of their own divine knowledge, where then shall reason seek council?

passion5The final act is no less compelling or stirring than the rest of the film. Joan’s death by being burned at the stake is shocking and unforgettable (and there is a bit more to it than just an execution). Average moviegoers might get to the end of this movie and ask themselves, “Well, what was the point of that?” but I encourage you to allow the film to wash over you and consider the undaunted faith of one person. This film is anything but hollow. As a depiction of injustice, hypocrisy, the dangers of theocracy, and the products of unshakable faith, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a must-see. It’s a grand visual spectacle with marvelous, realistic performances, and expert cinematography and editing (and if you watch the Criterion DVD you’ll be treated to the fantastic new score composed by Richard Einhorn—originally the film was meant to be musically silent, but the wonderful scoring does add a bonus layer of emotion).

passion2In America we have it pretty easy as far as martyrdom goes. Religion is allowed to be a punchline. Many times a person is viewed as simple, naive, hypocritical, or just plain dumb for submitting oneself to a higher unseen authority. Probably because, in many cases, many practitioners of faith are just that: ignorant, bigoted hypocrites. They are allowed to be because they are not challenged. When faced with certain death, what does your faith look like? How strong is it? To what are you clinging and why? I think that’s an important question.

passion9Perhaps what stirred me most about Dreyer’s film is not just its visceral beauty and technical prowess, but its immense fervency and maturity in its depiction of theological struggle. He manages to humanize the whole court, not just Joan. Everyone is wrestling with God in this narrative. There is much to glean from in The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a strongly recommended and thoroughly arresting feast for the soul.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 15, 2009

Swashes Be Buckled

Three Musketeers double header.

Three Musketeers double header.

For those of you out there that have been searching or waiting for a great film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ spectacular adventure novel, The Three Musketeers, I submit you look no further than director Richard Lester’s (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, The Bed-Sitting Room, and Superman II) respectful yet rowdy treatment of this classic tale. This version stars Michael York (Romeo and Juliet), Oliver Reed (The Devils), Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings), Faye Dunaway (Network), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B. C.), Frank Finlay (The Pianist), Richard Chamberlain (King Solomon’s Mines), Geraldine Chaplin (Doctor Zhivago), Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Spike Milligan (Life of Brian) and more!

Oliver Reed (Athos), Michael York (D'Artagnan), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis).

Oliver Reed (Athos), Michael York (D’Artagnan), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis).

As a big fan of the book, I was delighted when I was introduced to Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) several years ago. The film divides the story up into two movies in order to fit in the whole expansive story (and not near as gratuitous as The Hobbit). Both films really work together (and independently for that matter). The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers follow Dumas’ storyline extremely closely, but remain somehow unique and different. The marvelous cast and rambunctious script almost seems to be taking cues from Vaudeville or Monty Python at times with its quick, sharp-tongued wit and sly slapstick. Fans of director Richard Lester will notice his unmistakably wild trademark style.

Spike Milligan tries to reload his old gun to save his wife, Raquel Welch, from Christopher Lee.

Spike Milligan tries to reload his old gun to save his wife, Raquel Welch, from Christopher Lee.

The first leg of the series, The Three Musketeers (1973), follows the adventures of young D’Artagnan (York), the head-strong country bumpkin who accidentally makes friends with Musketeers Athos (Reed), Aramis (Chamberlain), and Porthos (Finlay), falls in love with the lovely Constance de Bonacieux (Welch), and makes powerful enemies in Rochefort (Lee), Cardinal Richelieu (Heston), and the seductive Lady de Winter (Dunaway).

3 musk2

Finlay tosses a ball before an unimpressed Chamberlain.

Constance, a servant of Anna of Austria (Chaplin)—bride of the oblivious French King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel)—requests D’Artagnan to retrieve Anna’s jewels from her secret lover, the English Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward), in order to prevent Richelieu from unveiling the scandal to the King. Richelieu sends Lady de Winter to apprehend the jewels first in order to shame the Queen. The whole first film revolves around this one task, but it is so jam-packed with fantastic costumes, hilarious dialogue, daring chases, and spectacular sword-fights that the whole 1600s European political intrigue has to try and keep up with the anarchic exuberance of the rest of the movie. When I say this, I mean it as a good thing. This film is the ultimate period adventure show.

The diabolical duo of Lee and Dunaway.

The diabolical duo of Lee and Dunaway.

The second film, The Four Musketeers (1974), although just as rowdy and fun as the first, gets a little more serious and darker. The plot gets more serious too. War has hit France. Constance has been kidnapped by Rochefort. Cardinal Richelieu, in an effort to usurp the efforts of D’Artagnan (now a Musketeer), sends the evil Lady de Winter to entice him and assassinate the Duke of Buckingham (but soon her true colors and dark past with Athos are revealed and she will have to use all of her cunning to save her own skin). Lady de Winter then wants to kill D’Artagnan and Constance. The stakes are higher, the plot thickens, and the political intrigue is more intriguing. Blackmail and battle are just two of the many dishes this sumptuous sequel dishes up. The sword-fights are no less impressive and have even more pathos this time around. Emotions run high and the suspense keeps building until the explosive sword-clanging finale, making this a satisfying conclusion to one of the best adventure stories.

Reed means business.

Reed means business.

(There is a third film, The Return of the Musketeers, that Lester directed in 1989 with most of the original cast based loosely on Dumas’ Musketeer sequel, Twenty Years After. Although not a bad film it is not essential viewing).

The bunch enjoys some stolen food. Long-suffering servant, Roy Kinnear sits on the floor.

The bunch enjoys some stolen food. Long-suffering servant, Roy Kinnear sits on the floor.

As a big fan of action, adventure, and humor these two films are pretty irresistible to me and I strongly recommend you see them for yourself. If you like ornate costumes, swashbuckling adventure and irreverent slapstick, watching great actors having fun, and wonderful characters come to life with energy and life then look no further than The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. There is much to love about the story already, and seeing it done right with an extra dose of bawdy humor is just the icing on the cake. Find them today and watch the ultimate swashbuckling adventure. This is by far the best adaptation I’ve encountered.

A frustrated Heston considers how to deal with Michael York.

A frustrated Heston considers how to deal with Michael York.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 21, 2009

The Animated Movies You Didn’t See

A few weeks ago I highlighted a few films that might have been hovering under some folks’ radar: Zazie dans le metro, Brewster McCloud, The Hour-Glass Sanitorium, and Skritek. These films all had a few things in common, one of them being that they were all live-action films. As a huge fan of animators and animation I felt it only necessary to highlight a few great animated films that also might not be as well-known. Today you shall be educated about Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008). Much like my article about obscure live action films where we hopped from France to America to Poland and onward to the Czech Republic, this week we shall also bounce around to different countries as we celebrate the animated movies you didn’t see.

fantastic planet 2

Rene Laloux is a French animator who started out working with mentally ill people, helping them make films as therapy. This feature-length movie, Fantastic Planet (1973), directed by Laloux was a French-Czechoslovakian production based on a novel by Stefan Wul. It is a science fiction film with a very unique style (designed by artist Roland Topor) and full of  bizarre sounds and music (composed by Alain Goraguer). The story follows a small human creature (called Oms in the film), named Terr. Terr’s mother is killed by one of the giant blue humanoid Draags who rule the planet and basically treat the Oms as pests. Terr is adopted and raised as a pet by the young Draag girl, Tiva. He is adorned in humiliating plumage (akin to putting a sweater on a dog) and given a doll’s house to live in and is alternately loved on and mildly abused by Tiva for much of his developing life. Since Oms develop several times faster than Draag’s, Terr soon grows enough to where he can learn from the Draags. Terr wanders the home and studies them and assimilates their knowledge via a headband that is used to teach young Draags. Terr eventually flees his captives and winds up amidst the civil wars of the wild Oms. With some struggle, Terr integrates into their society, but with his inside knowledge and understanding of the oppressive Draags coupled with his bravery, Terr teaches the wild Oms and unites them to revolt.

If the story sounds familiar it is because I suspect L. Ron Hubbard ripped it off when he wrote his acclaimed Battlefield Earth. As the story unfolds and Terr’s journey takes him to many unusual places, we learn more about the history and the cultures of both societies and how they came together. The story of Terr on the Fantastic Planet is really secondary to the style of this film for me though. The movie plays more like a psychedelic nature special or anthropology study. The style is so odd and wonderful and memorable that even if this wasn’t a great movie, I’d still have to recommend it. Some of the best sequences (in my humble opinion) are the moments without dialogue and the weird creatures and bizarre rituals simply carry on. First class animated science fiction fun. The DVD also comes with Laloux’s award winning short, Les scargots (1965).

tom thumbThe next film hails from Great Britain and it is easily the weirdest movie on the list. Dave Borthwick directed one of the most bent interpretations of a classic fairytale you are likely to ever stumble upon. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993) is a dark and twisted stop-motion animated feature that follows the life of the mute, fetus-like Tom Thumb who is kidnapped by scientists, meets mutated apparitions in a lab, escapes with the help of a cybernetic lizard-monster, meets a settlement of elf-like creatures led by Jack the Giant Killer and (like Terr in Fantastic Planet) uses his understanding of the giants and the elves to try and bring about peace and reunite with his Giant father.

The giants munch grotesque, slippery bugs and terrorize the elf people for sport. Tom Thumb, being the only innocent, might be the only one who can bring peace to the world. The film is much more of a riddle than I have explained, so please watch it. The real pleasure of Tom Thumb comes from the fantastic look of the film and the bizarre humor and fantastically dense and strange atmosphere. It is at times a comedy, a tragedy, an action movie, a spy flick, a film noir, etc. It is a stop-motion film, but only half of the cast are clay puppets, the rest are human performers and they are also manipulated via stop-motion in a slow-going process called pixelation. This process gives the film a very distinct flavor and also allows for the seamless integration and interaction of puppet characters with human actors. Even after seeing it five times the finale still baffles me a bit (see it for yourself). Overall the film is very perplexing and odd, but ultimately a lot of fun and comes recommended for those with a cock-eyed idea of how fairy tales should be told.

Kirikou-and-the-SorceressThe next film is for anyone whose most vivid idea of Africa comes from The Lion King. Although it is set Africa, Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), is actually a French and Belgian production, but the dialogue was recorded in South Africa. The story is based on a West African folktale and follows the saga of a small boy named Kirikou (again, like Tom Thumb in the last movie, the main character is extremely tiny and slightly fetal). Kirikou is born a precocious, curious lad with boundless energy. The tribal village Kirikou is born into is comprised only of women and children because the evil sorceress has allegedly devoured all of the men (who have each attempted to vanquish her and obviously failed). The sorceress has also dried up all of the water in the spring. Since Kirikou is pure-hearted and innocent he seeks to solve all of his tribe’s problems, but they all think he is too young to understand and too small to be able to help. Kirikou decides to do what is right even if no one will believe in him except his mother. Whenever he does something great the tribe praises him, but they soon forget. He saves his uncle the warrior, and he rescues the children from evil enchantment, and he slays the gluttonous creature who drinks all the water, and then he journeys under the ground (to avoid the gaze of the sorceress’s minions) to get advice from his grandfather. His grandfather, who is full of wisdom, gives Kirikou the inside scoop on the sorceress: she’s actually a victim of sorcery herself. With his newfound knowledge of the tribe’s foe, Kirikou again goes underground with the intent to save the sorceress and his village.

Without giving the ending away I’ll assure you it all ends okay, but perhaps not the way you might have expected. The cel-animation is beautiful and stylized and the average movie-goer will probably notice that this particular cartoon has a lot more nudity than your normal children’s movie (nearly all of the characters are naked). The film features many fun, kid-size adventures and acts of bravery and endearing characters full of spirit. It’s a beautifully drawn little film that avoids any pop-culture references or bombastic, hyper-kinetic plot or action that plague so many forgettable American family films. Kirikou and the Sorceress comes highly recommended for anyone willing to give the little guy a chance to prove his mettle.

sitaSo ends our theme of diminutive protagonists on treks through lands of giants. The final film I would like to shine the spotlight on is Sita Sings the Blues (2009) directed by American artist, Nina Paley. The film is a mostly flash animated retelling of the famous Indian epic, “The Ramayana” (told from Sita’s perspective rather than Rama’s). The film really follows multiple stories or rather multiple versions of the same story. The first story is (I think) an autobiographical account of Nina herself as she is pushed away by her aloof boyfriend after he leaves for India. The second story follows the tragic, but ultimately empowering tale of Sita, the wife of Prince Rama. Sita’s story can really be broken up into three stories: first there is a trio of bickering Indian shadow puppet narrators (reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger’s work in The Adventures of Prince Achmed) who are trying to get the story right; then there are the “Ramayana” characters bound by the words of the narrators and who act out the tale; and finally there are parts of the narrators’ story that stop abruptly and transform into blues songs featuring the voice of Annette Hanshaw emerging from the mouth of Sita. All of the Hanshaw recordings are from the 1920s, giving a very unique flavor to an already unique movie.

Nina’s story (animated in a more contemporary sketchy style) parallels the saga and plight of Sita (whose story is animated like classic Indian art) and the songs of Annette Hanshaw (which are animated in an ultra-smooth, cartoony flash style) provide excellent musical summaries of the emotional state of both Nina and Sita. The style of animation changes for each plotline (Nina, Sita, Henshaw, and the narrators) and although it’s all told rather loosely and bouncily, we are always invested in their struggles. Paralleling a contemporary woman’s struggle with a classic Indian epic and interpreting both through the dulcet tones of Hanshaw’s voice from old ’20s recordings is sheer brilliance. . . in my humble opinion. The animation is clever and colorful, the story keeps moving and is always surprising, and the blues songs are especially enjoyable and experiencing them in this innovative fashion breathes new life into them. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a vibrant tale told with passion and skill and is available almost anywhere online. Another amazing aspect to this already enchanting film is that Nina did it all by herself. Check it out.

fantastic planet

All of these films are wonderful in their own unique ways. I loved every one of them. Whether it’s the strange, Seussian science fiction of Fantastic Planet you crave or the peculiarly dark fairy tales of The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb that tickles your fancy, I hope you check them out. Or for those of you fascinated by the cultural fables and folktales of Kirikou and the Sorceress or the vibrant, creative re-imaginings of classic cultural sagas found in Sita Sings the Blues, I strongly encourage you find these films and watch them. If it’s gotta be animation and it’s gotta be something new then please do yourself a favor and treat yourself to some truly original works of art. And don’t forget to also check out The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Brenden and the Secret of the Kells, Robot Carnival, Angel’s Egg, Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs for more brilliant animated films. And keep a lookout for my upcoming articles on George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler and more.

picture references:

galwayafricanfilmfestival.com

insidecatholic.com

senseofcinema.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 12, 2010

The Hulabaloo About Star Wars

A million other nerds have voiced their opinions, so why not I? Why not indeed.

I am nothing special (but you don’t really believe that). I grew up watching Star Wars and it has influenced my life very much, just like a lot of you folks. Our old VHS’s and taped off o’ television copies bear their wear-marks well. As a young boy obsessed with dinosaurs, monsters, robots, aliens, outer space, and, of course, ‘splosions, the Star Wars trilogy was a childhood wet-dream come true. It had it all and I loved it. I remember when the ‘special’ edition hit theaters. I saw them all, so happy to see my favorite characters all pristine and new like I had never seen before. I remember puzzling about some strikingly odd additions to the so-called ‘special’ edition. It featured some wonky and flat CGI. George Lucas may have given birth to modern special effects and all that, but us kids who had already seen Jurassic Park (not to mention the original theatrical releases of Star Wars) required a bit more by the time of the mid-90s. The ‘bonus’ effects by and large did not mesh well, but it was still Star Wars and I ate it up with a spoon, I did.

Then the infamous prequels started to hit theaters. We were initially baffled by the name, I admit. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Huh. That’s a tough double-m, but we were sure George Lucas knew what he was doing. Besides many of us had been waiting since before we were born for this momentous event. Anybody else remember hearing hushed murmurs that it sucked before it officially came out? My old school librarian was somehow always in the know of every new thing and she tipped us off. She must have read a lot or something.

But we all saw it anyway, didn’t we?

Remember that chill that shot straight down your spine to your feet and then bounced all the way back up to your brain along with all the blood in your body causing you to momentarily lose consciousness when that first brass blast of the unmistakable John Williams fanfare erupted in the dark theater? It was awesome. Remember when you started to read the little spiel before the movie and thinking to yourself, “am I gonna be smart enough for this? What’s all this stuff about embargoes and Trade Federations and oil tariffs and 27B-6’s?” Remember being distracted by how shallow and plastic everything looked and how easy it all was for a jedi to fight an onslaught of death robots? Remember that big battle between those incompetent battle pez-dispensers and those clumsy salamander-rabbits on Naboo? Remember that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach you got when a terrible little boy cheered lines like “yippee!” and “now this is pod-racing”?

I was a kid but I recall wondering why George Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon out of it if it was all going to be so devoid of actual people. George Lucas once said, “special effects are just a tool used to tell a story.” This is true, but a stapler is also still a tool even after I use it to staple a bunch of babies right their little unsuspecting eyes. Just saying. This tool is being wielded by a madman.

Was this Star Wars? How could it be? Well, there are spaceships and they did have light-sabers and Yoda and R2-D2 and all that. Remember how you kept kidding yourself by saying, “It wasn’t all bad…the pod-race scene was pretty cool.” Then remember when you remembered the chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959)? Much has been already expressed in regards to all that was wrong with Jedi the Menace and the other two movies that would inevitably follow (my favorite commentaries coming from the crudely articulate rebuttals of Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media).

We the people can ignore these sci-fi hokum shows. They were cheap baby pablum and we adults can ignore them. We can pretend like they never even happened. There remains still a snag, however. With our pure VHS copies of the original theatrical releases becoming grainy and dingy, when then can we turn to DVD or blu-ray?

The DVDs all feature the ‘special edition’ stuff.

The upcoming blu-ray incorporates the ‘special edition’ garbage as well as some other new alterations and additions. You may have heard tell of the Darth Vader “Noooooo!” but there’s a few other things too.

I am still waiting on those original theatrical releases (WITHOUT THE OPTIONAL ‘SEPCIAL EDITION’ HOOEY) to be on DVD. The thing is I can usually good at recognizing a marketing ploy when I see one. Peter Jackson releases the theatrical and extended versions to Lord of the Rings and King Kong separately and it makes sense. You get to sell more product and it goes to whoever prefers which ever version. I wonder where the extended cut of Meet the Feebles is. George Lucas is a bazillionaire and he’s a littler harder to read. He may be a shrewd businessman, but I seriously question whether or not he does indeed ever intend to make available the original theatrical releases alone to an upgraded form. I think Mr. Lucas is actually embarrassed for his original creations.

I know I speak for many many purists and fans when I say; do not be ashamed of the original Star Wars, Mr. Lucas. We love it. So maybe it’s not shiny and streamlined and maybe you don’t feel comfortable with that one angle in that one scene or maybe there’s an edit in there that bothers you. Films are not made to be perfect. They are time capsules that can transport us to other worlds and other times. Tinker if you must, but let us celebrate the memories we cherished most of all.

It’s a hard fact. An artist is almost never happy with his work. But this doesn’t mean it’s no good. A sign of a real artist is to know when to stop. When the painter restrains himself from making one more brush stroke he becomes the artist. I suppose all this is moot because George Lucas is a businessman and not really an artist. Why did he put those cartoon monkeys in at the end of THX-1138 special edition?! I’m not an idealist over-romanticizing my experiences with the original trilogy, I just know what worked and what I like.

Ah, well. Still no true DVD. The coming blu-ray looks to be a sham. Now who wants to bet the re-re-release of Star Wars (this time in wretched, wretched, oh-so-wretched 3D) won’t be the special edition? Maybe someday after George Lucas is dead us fans can finally get the real movie.

laS TaFtersE asoN

I hope you like shapes, paper, and things not making any sense.

After Last Season might just be it. I have searched long and hard. I have subjected myself to much crap. I’ve seen so many wonderfully bad movies, but holy hell, what the garbage is this movie? After Last Season (2009) might just be the worst movie ever made. The sheer volume of cinematic incompetence that is schlopped on top of its own rampant incoherence is indescribable. Let me describe…

I like bad movies. I do. This is definitely bad. Hard to use a word like “like” for it. Normally I would begin a review of a film of this ilk by explaining the plot and characters, etc. and then endeavor to elaborate on the minutiae of why it was so terrible. I am indeed crestfallen that I don’t think I could ever hope to understand the plot or the characters’ relation to it or themselves much less explain it to After Last Season virgins. It truly is hopelessly disorienting and, unlike classic baddies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, etc., this film is almost beyond categorizing into a genre. I think it is supposed to be some sort of science fiction thing, but I found myself in a constant state of befuddlement during the movie. I kept puzzling over what it was all supposed to be; what it might be trying to do or say; what the point was; why it was made; and why oh why is there so much negative head room?

As near as I can tell there are some medical students (one of whom I discovered about 3 minutes before the end credits was named Sarah) and there is also a series of inexplicable freak stabbings…also something about Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and a bizarre psychology test. Any attempts on my part to connect any of these ideas are all wild shots in the dark from this point on.

Almost every scene in the movie for the first 30 minutes or so introduces new random characters we will probably never see again. Everyone communicates in banal pleasantries and innocuous small-talk. It’s not a conscious satirical decision like in Schizopolis. The dialogue is actually just that tepid and monotonous with no discernible explanation beyond ineptitude at the script level. Lines like “What a great radio clock. Where did you get it?” and “No, I have something Wednesday night. How is Tuesday?” are a hallmark of this strange movie. So much of the “action” (I suppose the stuff involving people barely qualifies) is mindlessly interrupted by random and ineffectual “art shots” of the corners of windows, desks, dressers, etc. Another thing that disturbed me and made the overall atmosphere unnerving is that everything is blank. Rooms are largely empty aside from oddly—and rather sloppily—placed chairs and desks. There is no need to have that many boxes and paper shredders crazily festooning the middle of any room. This movie is a feng shui nightmare.

I digress. The story, the story. Well, we follow a “character” named “Sarah” who is a “med student.” Sometimes she is outside, but most of the time she is inside. She puts a science-y thing on her temple so she can share thoughts with her new boss(?). After several unsettlingly tedious sequences involving crudely rendered CG shapes we leave what I dubbed “Questworld” only to reveal that the last 4o minutes of the middle of the movie was a dream from the new boss character’s head…for no apparent reason! In the mind exchange scenes Sarah “discovers” she is predicting the stabbings and knows the identity of the stabber (the stabbing stuff feels so alien and far away that we keep forgetting about it), but none of that even matters because it was all just a dream by another character.

The dream featured an invisible stabber that completely botches the element of surprise by carefully moving the oddly placed furniture around in order to announce his spookiness. When boss man wakes up he starts a different experiment with Sarah and then the stabber returns but for realz. Now the stabber is visible, but some new invisible guy throws a chair at him and saves Sarah and the boss dude. There is far more to the plot, but in a way there’s actually less. It makes far less sense than what I’ve described.

It’s more of a series of hyper-boring red herrings than it is a movie. One of my favorite things is when “characters” will go to investigate something. We see them deciding to investigate, they leave the room, and then they will re-enter the room and say that investigated the thing. This movie out and out refuses to portray action! A film like this needs a freaking Greek chorus!

Peculiar lack of coherence, pacing, momentum, character, and general interest aside, the most glaring misstep this movie makes is technical. Almost every aspect of technical design imaginable and then some is screwed up. I swear, they invented new jobs so there would be more to botch. I honestly thought this movie to be a huge put-on for the longest time…and it still might be. This movie makes more technical mistakes than Ben & Arthur. Fake wallpaper crudely stapled together will just end; lighting equipment will be visible in the background, reflections, and in shadows (and lights are obviously and tragically unnaturally placed directly in front of all “action” thus creating bizarre hard shadows for everyone and everything); sound and sound effects are horrifically amateurish; the mind-numbingly dull and childish soundtrack will sporadically cut in and out and occasionally be replaced with a confusing sort of ambient noise I can only describe as dishwasher traffic; the inept framing for every scene will nauseate you to the point of physical illness; and I could go on. Perhaps the most baffling of all is the incessant use of paper. Walls, doors, books, windows, desks, etc. will all be covered with white paper. I sincerely hope it is not because they felt that whatever was behind the paper looked phoney. How ironic would that be? Weirder and weirder, on the exterior of a house three blank sheets of paper are taped and it is never addressed. You might almost miss it. The first scene even starts out with a paper MRI machine. The whole movie looks like it was filmed in an old gutted office building. And yet somehow it was filmed on film. Not digital. 35 mm. No joke.

The strange, atrociously lit, sterile environments might have reminded one of a hospital (or at least Poland under communist rule) except they are all just so unnatural looking. It’s just ugly and unappealing to look at. All the purposeless science and wooden awkward dialogue and performances would have been tolerable had the film looked like something that wasn’t filmed by a mental patient with an unhealthy obsession with the ceiling. Nothing makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with being enigmatic. Heck, David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky make a living off doing just that, but you still need some semblance of theme or thrust. Clarity does not equal bad movie. Clarity can be a good thing.

Maddeningly of all is that I have failed in conveying what this movie is truly like. It’s more than a poor camcorder recording of a Z-grade VBS skit from 100 feet away. It’s so much worse and all my ramblings don’t add up to much when it comes right down to it. You know what that means? It means that in order to fully understand my brain owies you’re simply going to have to experience After Last Season for yourself. I guarantee you that you will forget every scene as soon as it ends, but you will most assuredly never shake off the feeling that you saw this film. I laughed quite a bit watching this and cannot report that it was wholly unenjoyable. See my review for The Abduction of Zack Butterfield too. I just don’t know if I will be revisiting this one.

After Last Season was written, directed, produced, and shot by Mark Region. He certainly had a vision. And thank God no one shares it. Apparently it took 5 years and $5 million dollars to make. Seriously though, what actor would show up to shoot a film like this, see a paper MRI, and then stick around? But visit the website HERE. Explore this.

I sure hoped they recycled all that paper.

What Hump?

charles laughton

Old Chuck in David Lean’s excellent film “Hobson’s Choice” (1954).

Charles Laughton was one of the greatest screen actors of all time (as well as being a renowned stage performer and acting teacher) and even now it is difficult to shake much of his greatness after stepping away from one of his films. Creating such memorable characters as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Henry VIII in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), Marmaduke Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), the notorious Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Agatha Christie’s determined barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (and Rumpole-esque) in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Sempronius Gracchus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Laughton established himself as a very versatile and respected performer.

Laughton's solo directorial effort resulted in the visually amazing "Night of the Hunter" (1955).

Laughton’s solo directorial effort resulted in the visually amazing “Night of the Hunter” (1955).

Despite being a closted homosexual (although perhaps not so closeted if you saw him in Jamaica Inn), he was married to actress Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, The Inspector General). He discovered actors like Maureen O’Hara, trained actors like Albert Finney, directed the great Night of the Hunter (1955), and was a much sought after actor himself in his day. Classically trained and very professional, the British thespian also demonstrated a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor with quips like, “I have a face that would stop a sundial.” How fitting he play the infamous hunchback, Quasimodo.

Nice composite matte shot.

Nice composite matte shot of the cathedral’s interior.

My first introduction to Mr. Laughton came at about age five when I saw German director William Dieterle’s (The Devil and Daniel Webster) interpretation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). With Charles Laughton as the legendary hunchback, Quasimodo, this movie quickly became one of my favorites when I was a kid. All little boys love monsters, horror, and deformity and I most certainly was no exception. Although Laughton’s face and body were caked in prosthetics and makeup he still delivered a fine and heartfelt performance.

hunchback 4

With Maureen O’Hara as the bewitching gypsy, Esmeralda.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame boasts a pretty fine cast that included other great or iconic performers such as leading lady, Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda; ubiquitous character actor, Thomas Mitchell (High Noon), as king of thieves, Clopin; Edmund O’Brien (The Killers), as Gringoire; sinister menace, Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Rope), as the evil Frollo; and old character actor, Harry Davenport (Gone With the Wind), as King Louis XI.

Ed and Tom.

Ed and Tom discuss what it’s like to be whipped on the pillary.

With an impressive budget, hundreds of extras, grand scale, and wonderful performances, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a spectacular spectacle to behold. Most of you already know the story.

The face.

The face.

Quasimodo is a mysterious, deaf, and deformed bell-ringer for Notre Dame Cathedral. When his pious but tormented master, Frollo, is tempted by the unlawful arrival of the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, he will stop at nothing to have her for himself or destroy her as a minion of Satan. He sends Quasimodo after her, but when the poor hunchback gets caught and blamed for the crime of attempted kidnapping he suffers great public humiliation and torture.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke in one of his most memorable roles.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke in one of his most memorable roles.

Esmeralda is the only person (besides the good archdeacon played by William Hampden) who shows Quasimodo any kindness and so the hunchback falls in love with her too. The penniless poet, Gringoire, whose life is also saved by Esmeralda also falls in love with her, but Esmeralda’s true feelings lie with the vapid ignoramus and playboy captain of the guard, Phoebus. All four men have fallen under her spell, but they all love her differently and show it in different ways. Some are endearing and noble, some conniving and selfish, and some are heartbreaking to watch.

I love the king---seen here enjoying his once a year bath.

I love the king—seen here enjoying his once a year bath.

Amidst the torrid and twisted romances, the film also boasts lots of back-story into the conflicting politics and ideologies of the day. The gypsies are unwanted and outlawed immigrants, the thieves seem to run the streets, the French people are largely bigoted and uneducated, it’s the dawning of the printing press and an age of enlightenment, the King seems to be losing influence, and Frollo seems to be attempting to usurp power and get away with murder and torture while his brother, the archdeacon, watches on—conflicted about betraying his own brother. All the while the lives of little people are continuously stirring the pot until the rousing climax in which the great Cathedral of Notre Dame is stormed and Quasimodo must defend Esmeralda and the right to sanctuary. Ah, Victor Hugo.

Did we mention all the extras.

Did we mention all the extras?

As much as I enjoy Disney’s Hunchback (1996) as well as the great silent Lon Chaney, Sr. Hunchback (1923), I still regard the Charles Laughton version to be the finest. All three films tell the story a little bit differently and they each bring something new to the classic tale, but I feel that the 1939 incarnation reveals the most about the complex innerworkings of 1400s Parisian society and politics. It also presents a very clear picture of hypocrisy, mental and emotional anguish (as depicted by the conflict between human desires and the demands of the church and religious fanaticism), prejudice, and social injustice. The finale features them all at war on the steps of Notre Dame. Clopin and the thieves storm the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda from the Nobles who seek to remove sanctuary. The craftsmen and priests attempt to defend it. Frollo sneaks in to kill her. Gringoire prints a petition for the King to sign to save her. And ignorant Quasimodo sits at the top of the battle fighting everyone. It’s all pretty exciting.

The anguish!

The anguish!

Victor Hugo’s original novel is bleak. Severely bleak and depressing, yet elegant, beautiful, and even humorous. Les Miserables much? It’s a wonder anyone would try to adapt this into a movie for mass consumption—especially Disney (and I give them a lot of credit for the complexity they give Frollo in the animated film). While Dieterle’s version is not nearly as emotionally devastating as the book, it retains a very strong note of sadness that echoes within your very soul. It fakes you out. It shows you the happy ending you want, but then they insert that subtle dagger. This movie such an eloquent, bittersweet final shot. For me, the ending is right up there with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Being There.

The walk of shame after the Festival of Fools.

The walk of shame after the Festival of Fools.

For all its spectacle and pageantry, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains a strikingly human drama and is quite intimate at times. The characters are very complex and the story is allowed to be equally complex. Mr. Hugo would be proud. It’s also one of those rare movies that work wonderfully well both in its original black and white and the colorized version. For anyone interested in seeing a great classic movie or another great Charles Laughton role, I hesitate not to place a sterling recommendation upon The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

"Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

“Why was I not made of stone like thee?”

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 17, 2009.

Babbitt and Catstello Meet Tweety Bird

If there is one thing that defines the Warner Bros. studio it is their “Looney Tunes” cartoons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These decades produced some of the most memorable cartoons in history along with some of the most iconic and edgy cartoon characters ever to be transmogrified into accordions via a falling anvil. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Road-Runner, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil, Wile E. Coyote, Rocky the Gangster, Hippety Hopper, Sam Sheepdog, Witch Hazel, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety, and all the rest have become such a part of our culture it’s difficult to imagine America without them.

Classic characters aside, there were some equally memorable side characters that never made it into more than a few shorts. Pete Puma, the Dover Boys, Michigan J. Frog, Marc Anthony, the Dodo, Frisky, the Three Little Bops, the Scotsman, the forgetful wolf whose name escapes me, and countless others only ever had one or two shots to become a part of the illustrious Warner Bros. cartoon cannon. But they made it!

Often times Hollywood celebrities from the era made it into the act as well. From random gatherings in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938), Hollywood Steps Out (1941) and Book Revue (1946) (directed by Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett respectively) to more subversive integrations like when a caveman with the voice and caricatured mannerisms of Jack Benny pursues Daffy Duck while verbally abusing his pet dinosaur in Chuck Jones’ Daffy and the Dinosaur (1939) or when Porky Pig horrifically morphs into Oliver Hardy in the finale of Clampett and Norm McCabe’s Timid Toreador (1940). That Porky Pig morph actually disturbed me as a child. Sometimes the Warner’s cartoons had fun playing with their own formulas such as when Robert McKimson made Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton into mice for The Honey-Mousers (1956). These cartoons also frequently took pot shots at Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939)…perhaps funniest in McKimson’s Hoppy-Go-Lucky (1952).

One of the funniest cartoons ever made (in my most humble opinion) is Robert Clampett’s A Tale of Two Kitties (1942). In this cartoon a pair of cats, modeled after the very funny Abbott and Costello comedy team, try and get a little baby bird. It just so happens that this particular cartoon is the first appearance of Tweety Bird. As with most “Looney Tunes” cartoons it’s all just a standard formula setup for imaginative violence. Cats try and get bird, bird hurts them. What makes this cartoon so hilarious is that Babbitt and Catstello are actually funnier than their real life human counterparts.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were very popular comic icons from the 40s, successfully conquering the stage, radio, film, and eventually television. Their infamous “Who’s on first!” bit still plays in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The constant theme was that Costello was almost a baby trapped in a man’s body and Abbott was the oft times far too harsh straight man. Where it makes more sense, despite their differences, why Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel would share beds (Hardy probably knows he’s a big loser and you can tell he really likes Laurel) I could never figure out why the mostly humorless Abbott would ever put up with Costello’s infantile shenanigans. This infant and grouch duo made nearly 40 films together including some comedy classics such as Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), Hit the Ice (1943), The Naughty Nineties (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

With knowledge of the rules and dynamics for an Abbott and Costello routine and a firm grasp on the lawlessness and physics-lacking hyper-violent universe of “Looney Tunes” one can now sit back and enjoy A Tale of Two Kitties.

It opens with a lean Babbitt (voiced by Tedd Pierce) kicking around a rotund Catstello (voiced by the incomparable Mel Blanc). From the get-go you recognize the familiar voices and then you get an even bigger laugh when you see the cat forms of Abbott and Costello. Babbitt almost looks more like a wolf and his long, graceful build is more reminiscent to a Wile E. Coyote than a Sylvester the cat. Catstello has the weak, wrinkled brow and dim, pleading eyes, and exaggerated jowls and is about as hard to recognize as a cat as John Kricfalusi’s Stimpy. Yet the pointed ears and typical color patterns tells us that these hideous mutations are indeed of the feline persuasion. Babbitt is evidently accustomed to harassing Catstello into performing dangerous tasks and so today’s adventure should be no different. Catstello must climb a very high telephone pole and apprehend the baby bird. Several attempts lead to Catstello falling from great heights, being flattened, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, etc. Babbitt all the while waits comfortably on terra firma and slaps Catstello around whenever he returns empty-handed.

It’s well drawn, has brilliant timing, there are puns and anvil gags, but the real big joke is just how exaggerated everything is. Babbitt is not just being impatient like Abbott. He’s being downright sociopathic and barbarically unreasonable. That Catstello takes it like an ashamed idiot puts the real Abbott and Costello in a whole new light. They aren’t friends with the occasional difference. These are two diametrically opposed individuals and their lives play out more like a shockingly abusive relationship than comedy. When Catstello gets crushed several feet into the earth by an anvil, a suddenly concerned Babbitt compassionately screams “Speak to me! Speak to me!” Following a childish whistle from the flattened feline, Babbitt scoldingly bellows “Why do you do these things?” as he pulls his broken friend off the anvil and slaps him across the face. It’s so unreasonable it’s comedy gold!

In many ways this short is spookily prophetic of the serious rift that would eventually break up Abbott and Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy who stayed friends to the end, their friendship eventually did deteriorate and their comedy suffered.

Catstello is just as pathetic as Babbitt is unfeeling. Perhaps moreso. Mel Blanc’s explodingly shrill and obnoxious Costello screams are just hilarious. Simple lines like, “Look, Babbitt. Stilts. ♫.” become hysterical in Blanc’s unflattering impersonation. Ted Pierce does a pretty funny Abbott as well. These two ingredients make for the funniest cat duo ever to pursue a Tweety Bird. Sylvester teamed up with a lot of cats over the years, but not one single combo had the elasticity and barbarity of these schmoes. In addition to being crapped on my Babbitt, Catstello is also malevolently manhandled by Tweety Bird. The “this widdle piddy went to market” gag still cracks me up. It’s as much a sick game for Tweety who has no feeling for a would-be predator as it is chastising a small child to Babbitt and poor, dumb Catstello is stuck in the middle. It’s amazing Tweety Bird really took off as a result of this cartoon because he’s more of a plot device to set up evil gags directed at the plump cat (Tweety would largely be handled by director Friz Freleng in the future). Tweety does develop a strong character in this cartoon though and he’s more diabolical and I’d say funnier than he ever would be again. The same can be said of the two cats.

True they were a one hit wonder, but Frank Tashlin directed a pseudo-sequel called A Tale of Two Mice (1945) featuring two mouse versions of Abbott and Costello. The result was not nearly as funny. Clampett would assign another celebrity identity to a cat body in A Gruesome Twosome (1945) where a dopey-eyed cat and a Jimmy Durante styled cat fight over the affections of a female. Tweety Bird gets in the mix again and the Jimmy Durante cat is very funny, but it never reaches the wild and zany brilliance of A Tale of Two Kitties. Everything worked and I suppose it would be hard to top had they done more. Maybe they’re better off as one-shot wonders like Michigan J. Frog. They did manage to make a few cameos and even one more short, but it weren’t as good so we can skip it.

This cartoon is Bob Clampett at the top of his game. It’s zany, violent, screwy, and the characters are stretchy and boneless. It ranks up there alongside Wabbit Twouble (1941), Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942), An Itch in Time (1943), Falling Hare (1943), and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) for sheer baffling comic ludicrosity. Clampett might have been the only one who could have pulled off all the gags in this cartoon. The best “Looney Tunes” were anarchic and screwball and if you’ve ever seen Porky in Egypt (1937)* (yes, even more than Porky in Wackyland) you know Clampett could be wild and inventive. By taking two classic comedians and making them hyper-violent cartoon cats and pitting them against a seemingly innocent naked baby bird you can get one of the funniest cartoons ever made.

A Tale of Two Kitties makes me fall on the floor laughing (generational translation: rofl) every time I see it. And I have seen it a lot. One thing I almost forgot to mention was that this cartoon features some interesting wartime jokes and even a smarmy reference to the Hays Code that history buffs might enjoy. For the birth of Tweety Bird, some truly warped incarnations of classic comedians, or just for a good laugh watch or re-watch A Tale of Two Kitties. Lord knows it’s out there on the internet.

*Porky in Egypt starts as your typical period exploration into the realm of cultural insensitivity. Porky Pig is your standard milquetoast protagonist and he’s not particularly interesting. About halfway through the cartoon the sun punches Porky’s camel square in the face. The camel, named Humpty Bumpty, goes crazy from desert madness and whatever story was being carefully setup completely derails and becomes a nightmarish descent into insanity. It’s almost ironically titled Porky in Egypt because Porky does very little in the cartoon. It is hilarious and totally unpredictable and I can’t help but feel like the yak’s breakdown in the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksman episode of “Ren and Stimpy” was somewhat modeled after it.

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/09/timingpacing-tale-of-two-kitties-1942.html

http://www.sidereel.com/The_Looney_Tunes_Show/season-13/episode-1

http://fan.tcm.com/_A-Tale-of-Two-Kitties-WB-1942-d-Robert-Clampett/photo/8790883/66470.html?createPassive=true

http://www.twynkle.com/movies/33474