May 24, 2006
"A fine thing--I've become the father of a breakfast!"
I drew this morning from memory of "Mrs. Sylvester"; of course, she's actually better-looking and funnier than this.
Here's a frame grab I found later this morning on an excellent site devoted to the histories of Warner Bros characters. What great shapes and appeal:
Sylvester: "Cute? He's delicious!"
The ever-busy provider of terrific cartoon clips Thad K posted several Freleng excerpts on his blog recently as a kind of proof's-on-the-screen defense of Freleng's value as a great cartoon director. I happen to agree with that assessment, and rate the cartoons Friz did among the top, funniest and most appealing shorts ever done.
"A Mouse Divided"(1953) is a stellar example of what this director's crew could do with very simple material. Every bit of this 7 minutes is used to great effect--and unlike some of Chuck Jones' more bitter moments, Freleng(or perhaps credit should go equally to his writer, Warren Foster, and his animators)manages to put some pretty nasty lines in Sylvester's mouth without making him unlikable, even when he's disgustedly mocking his wife's crying over her lack of kittens! That takes finesse--and it manages to make it hilariously funny: you believe that a talking cat is telling his cartoon-cat-wife to go to hell and leave him alone--and she's mitigated by her brief aside before she wakes her hubby up from his napping: "Lazy good-for-nothing!" before affecting a plaintive, sugary tone. Just another happy suburban couple.
Of course, a drunken stork, simply because he's too hung over from a night at--where else?--The Stork Club--decides to dump his baby cargo on the first mother of any species that pops her head out of a mail slot. The lucky recipient is Mrs. Sylvester(the alternate universe here employs a couple of fairly "realistic", floor-sleeping cats living in a human-sized house, who also dress up and go out "shopping" as well as pushing a baby buggy--somehow, it all makes sense. Credit the characters and again--that fast-paced 7 minutes). Only problem--their new son is a mouse; arguably the cutest little baby mouse ever animated--cuter even than a Jones creation--and given some gorgeous, finely observed baby-business by one of the animators--as Sylvester is doing the ol' "preparing the mouse for a sandwich routine. So adorable is this baby mouse(somewhat unconvincingly voiced by Mel Blanc--he sounds just a widdle bit like Bugs Bunny)that even ravenous Sylvester, who's been acting like a starving man at Chez Panisse, is won over--and decides to take his "widdle man" out for a stroll. Cue every tomcat within 10 miles, and the rest of the cartoon--a switch from the sort of stuff Sylvester usually did to Tweety, only here he's the hero: a staunch defender of his mouse son.
Nice twist ending that reminds me of one of my favorite Garth Williams books:
This doesn't even address the music--typically brilliant job by Stalling, especially a clever use of the standard "Pretty Baby". As in so many WB cartoons, the score gets a laugh.
But what's intriguing is the balance here between some cracklingly funny dialogue and a heck of a lot of pure pantomime; one couldn't exist without the other, nor should it. Every sentence counts--and so does every reaction, every take, every bit of movement. It's aimed 100% squarely at the adults in the '53 audience, yet small children can sense the silliness in the cats' bickering and the gags of the intruding neighborhood alley cats speak for themselves. I am a believer that such shorts can still be done, but brother, you've got to be good--better than good: you've got to be sharp, at the very top of your game. And I believe you have to know who you're making these for--to please yourself--assuming you're one clever, funny person. But it can still be done.