Tuesday, February 28, 2006

TIN PAN ALLEY CATS (1943)

Neither as inspired as Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, due mainly to a massive recycling of gags and animation from a pair of earlier, better Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng films, and because of this rehashing, it's not as funny, either. Tin Pan Alley Cats repeats Clampett's Porky in Wackyland concept of a hallucinatory excursion into a Daliesque nightmare landscape, though this one is brought about by an orgiastic jazz frenzy rather than a search for a legendary Do-Do Bird. Where this film approaches Coal Black, however, is in Clampett's portrayal of outrageous racial stereotypes set against a backdrop of jive and swing culture. The concept from which the title is derived is due to all of the black characters being played by cats.

After a camera pans across a moonlit city landscape to the strains of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon", we are introduced to a stout, pudgy little cat obviously designed after Fats Waller, who struts about shouting "Wot's de matter wit dat?" to any confrontation that occurs, and gets his shoes shined by a kitten. We then focus on a street where two diametrically opposed operations stand side-by-side: the jazzy, bouncing Kit Kat Club, where the Waller-cat will inevitably end up, and the Salvation Army-like Uncle Tomcat's Mission, where a band pounds out a martial beat while bleating out "That Ol' Time Religion". (It's enough to turn you to liking jazz... if you don't already.) Of course, given the choice, it is obvious what the Waller-cat will choose, and when a cat preaches a sermon to him about the dangers of "Wine, Women and Song", the Waller-cat immediately bursts through the doors of the gin joint. Raring to party, he heads straight to the drums and begins to pound out a swingin' beat, then switches over to the piano. A lazy cat eating his dinner is surprised when his chicken gets off of the plate and starts dancing! A cat styled after Louis Armstrong begins to play "Nagasaki" (though the voice seems closer to Louis Prima, and I would be interested to know if he laid down the vocals for this track; much of this animation, the trumpet bit and the Waller piano rolls, come from September in the Rain from 1937). Suddenly, in the frenzy of the intense jive, the Waller-cat is sent by the music... and in the worst way!

The music carries him off through a sky of giant trumpets to an unknown land. "Where's I at?", the Waller-cat asks, and a tremendous pair of disembodied lips tells him, "YOU IS OUT OF THIS WORLD!!!" The film then becomes a redone version of the journey through Porky's Wackyland, with the Waller-cat encountering all manner of weird, wacky, sometimes creepy individuals, all surrounded by increasingly strange backdrops, trees and buildings. The gags that aren't lifted wholesale as reused animation are often redrawn version, such as the moment where a black bellhop holds an elevator for the Waller-cat, only to take off and disappear before he can get in the lift. In Porky in Wackyland, it is the exact same elevator animation, except for the operator, where the cad in the lift is the Do-Do Bird himself. The rubber band, the "Mammy" bird, the rabbit swinging through his own ears, the double-head-ended cat-dog: these are all taken from the earlier Clampett film, and there is even a character that has an umbrella-hat for a head just like the Do-Do, only he is more recognizably human in nature.

This film, however, as it was released in the midst of World War II, has giant dancing, bouncing, kicking caricatures of Stalin, Hitler and Tojo visited various dancefloor pains on each other. And the backgrounds, while mostly similar, sport several features not found in the Wackyland version: trees with limbs bent in the shape of horn players, and enormous slices of watermelon about the size of blue whales form a green and red backdrop to the crazed goings-on. Soon, the Waller-cat can take no more of being out of this world, and suddenly pops back into the real world. He immediately runs to the safety of the Salvation Army Band, and takes up singing "That Ol' Time Religion".

I am torn by films of this type. I am simultaneously overjoyed at discovering one of these films (I ran across this one on an Orange County public access channel), as they are (with good reason) difficult to track down; but I also wrestle with a certain shame over viewing the contents of these films, especially given the sensitive racial nature of the material. The plus in these films is that there are lively musical sequences and incredible animation and design at play; the incredible downside is that the fun is clearly at the expense of an entire race of people. Because I am most decidely not black, I can't even to begin to imagine what someone of their race must feel when confronted with these reminders of this time not so long ago where such portrayals were considered copacetic for public consumption. As much as you want to simply sit back and enjoy the antics of the characters on the screen without caring what color the protagonist happens to be, it cannot be done. The ugliness is coated on too thickly to ignore the stereotypes and meanness at play. Casual meanness it might be; accepted societal norms they may have been, but it doesn't make it right for even one second.

The twist is that I feel that these films should be seen and should be preserved. There is considerable art at work here, even in the most terrible of instances (compared to the horrendous Bugs Bunny short All This and Rabbit Stew, this film and Coal Black seem to be shining examples of civic brotherhood), and as art they should be studied and discussed; they should always be seen with an explanation of the time it was made and the conditions that led to the attitudes and traits displayed in the story. Unfortunately, this film did not come with any of those provisions: I found it on that lonely public access channel, tacked on just before the end of the 9 o'clock hour, simultaneous coating the screen in its fun musical numbers, wacky antics and ugly black stereotypes. I doubt many young impressionable viewers were up to see any of this.

Then again, I ran into just flipping the channels. Who knows who saw this without any understanding of its true nature?

Tin Pan Alley Cats (Warner Bros., 1943) Dir: Robert Clampett
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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