Friday, October 13, 2017

Countdown to Halloween: The Stupidstitious Cat (1947)

The Stupidstitious Cat (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1947)
Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Superstitions... BAH! Never had much use for them. Through most of my life, I have taken the stance that most of the little, weird clichéd beliefs that people use to run their lives are silliness of the highest order. By this, I don't mean morals or laws... no, not even close. Any society needs a certain set of standards by which to maintain the peace, so I'm not suggesting anything like that for a second. What I mean are the oddball ideas that people adopt in order to corral that notorious fiend called "luck".

Myself, I have walked under several ladders, reacted to a spilled salt shaker numerous times with mere shrugs and a swift cleanup, and have knocked on wood or crossed my fingers only when in the company of others and when the use of such a cliché was a good conversation ender (and usually it was used in an openly mocking tone). I openly embrace the company of any black cat whose path I happen to cross; to me, they are just like any other kitties. And, boy, have I stepped on a lot of cracks on the sidewalk; my mother's back has always been fine, and at the pace that I walk, you can't let such little stupid things as a mere crack slow you down. And, apart from a handful of blacksmiths left in business and people who work at racetracks, just how often does one run across a horseshoe these days?

I do, however, have superstitions of my own that I have employed to incorporate into my life at various points in the far past, or that I have flirted with following over the years. A few examples:

Example A: In my youth, as a devoted follower of the Cincinnati Reds and the awesome Johnny Bench, I got it into my head that if I didn't read the Sunday or daily funnies from front to back (or left to right) without skipping a single comic strip, even the crappy ones that I hated, then the Reds would have a losing day on the ball field. How I came upon this notion I will never know; it just became ingrained in my head and I followed it for several years without exception. Sunday mornings even began to expand to giving the team luck for the whole week in my world. I would lie on the floor pouring through first the latest Peanuts strip on the front page and then all the way to the last page through Doonesbury, all the while chanting to myself that "the Reds will win this week... the Reds will win this week..." Truthfully, I didn't keep a chart to see if this was actually working, which is odd, since my usually obsessive nature would seem to merit that I would have kept such a thing. But the Reds were winning so much anyway in the mid-'70s, it was the rare day that they lost. So basically, odds were in my (and my scheme's) favor.

Example B: Some of my friends and I would always lift our feet, cross our arms, and have to touch the window nearest ourselves anytime that we would drive over a railroad track. While I had never encountered it before, it was a superstition of my friends' from their youth. It was goofy and fun to do. There were not only railroad tracks near my home as a teenager/young adult, but also a cemetery. One superstition my friends had that I had heard on my own as a kid was holding your breath when you drove past a graveyard. So after we did the railroad thing, you almost immediately had to hold your breath for about 20 seconds as well. I will admit here that if I were ever to finally get a driver's license of my own, I'm pretty sure that I would do all of this every single time that I crossed a track or passed a cemetery... just for funsies, you know. And since it can be dangerous to lift your feet, cross your arms, and touch the window while driving a vehicle, that might be one more reason why I should never have a driver's license.

Example C: Four-leaf clovers have always been a pleasure in my life. Not so much for the luck factor, but for the simple, zen-like pleasure in sitting quietly in a patch of clover and casually trying to pick one of those elusive little buggers out of the patch. It's like getting a 3000-piece crossword puzzle and deciding to start with one particular piece that has a slight variant over the other 2,999 pieces, only that piece may or may not have been packed inside the box during manufacturing. (Of course, as with four-leaf clovers in patches, there is the possibility that one might run across extra versions of that piece packed inside, too.) When I was a kid, my dad had (and might still have) a nature field guide that he would place the four-leaf clovers that we found inside to press them, and that tradition kind of stuck with me. (Note: He gave that book to me a few years, but the clovers were no longer in it. If I were a harder believer in luck, I could use that to explain away large portions of my life.)

But, despite these examples and a few others, I have never fully endorsed the "luck" lifestyle. I figure things happen just because they do, and no amount of wishing, praying, pleading, hoping, or even (as a last resort) hopping upon one foot while balancing a gourd on my forehead whilst reciting the third verse to Jabberwocky (a new tradition I have just made up) is going to make it happen. But try and tell that to the idiot cat that we meet at the beginning of Famous Studios' first Buzzy the Crow cartoon, The Stupidstitious Cat, released in 1947.

This dopey cat wakes up under a Good Luck sign (with a horseshoe, 'natch) with every part of his body that he can possibly cross, well... crossed. Limbs, fingers, toes, even eyes come undone upon his rising from slumber. Even his tail swirls around to make a knot for himself. Upon rising, the cat is stopped from getting out on the wrong side of bed by two signs pointing the direction to the proper side. After following the orders of the "right side" sign, the cat opens up what looks like a snuff box, but inside are several, supposedly lucky wishbones for him to break for even more good luck. He says to the camera...

"Break a wishbone
And if you get the big end
Your wish will come true
And your troubles will end."

Wishing for a bird for breakfast (hey, you gotta get the next wishbone from somewhere), the breaks one for just that purpose. He seems pleased that his right hand has ended up with the large end, never really picking up on the fact that his left hand also possesses the short end, thereby negating his luck either way. (It is a failure of the film that this isn't pointed out to the audience.) A bird starts to tweet and whistle beautifully outside, which attracts the attention of the cat. He tells the audience, "Whistle before breakfast, you'll...," then pauses in between words to giggle wickedly and lick his chops in predatory anticipation, "cry before dinner." What a creep...

Cue that very bird outside for breakfast. The camera zooms in on a small birdhouse atop a tree in the yard, where the whistling continues, this time in the recognizable form of a tune called Listen to the Mockingbird. From out of the front door comes a plump little crow with a straw hat, Buzzy the Crow by name, who is being introduced in this cartoon as a new Famous Studios stable character. He takes a dive off the front porch of the birdhouse to land with a splash in the birdbath at the tree's base. Buzzy starts to sing, only the voice coming from him doesn't quite match the sweet whistling we heard previously. This voice is raspy and rough, and seems to take a cue from Eddie Anderson's "Rochester" voice on The Jack Benny Show. He sings...

"Listen to da' mockingbird!
Listen to da' mockingbird,
Still singin' where da weepin' willows weep!"

Buzzy is giving himself a bath with a tremendous amount of soap suds, and sings from within a pile of those suds which completely obscure him from the camera. The cat, meanwhile, has sneaked up to the bath and decided to carry it and his prize dinner off into the house. Buzzy reaches out during this to grab a brush to scrub his back while he continues to sing, altering the traditional lyrics of the song just a tad for comedy effect...

"I'm dreamin' now of Hallie,
Sweet Hallie, Sweet Hallie,
She's sleepin' in da alley,
Where the mockingbird is singin' as she lies..."

The last line he sings as he uses the brush on his teeth, revealing a big gold tooth in his smile. He is about to begin the next chorus, but he realizes that the scenery has changed dramatically, with a wallpaper print in the background. "Uh-oh, how'd I get in here!" He flies off towards the window, saying, "Man, you gotta straighten up and fly right!" but the cat slams the window shut just as he reaches it. Buzzy hits the ground and the cat traps him underneath a butterfly net. The cat wishes to begin preparations for a Buzzy the Crow dinner, but the cat will now fall into a relentless series of misfortunes due to his rigid following of the Rules of Luck. Once Buzzy picks up on the cat's weakness when the cat picks up a pin for good luck, the entire plan is undone.

While the cat is putting Buzzy into a sandwich, the crow tricks the cat into believing he spilled the salt. The cat panics and throws it over his left shoulder saying...

"If you spill the salt,
Throw it over your shoulder.
Or you won't live
To be much older."

Of course, once he has undone the curse, he picks up the sandwich to find that Buzzy has departed, leaving a paper reading "Out to Lunch" in his place. The cat calls out "Come out, come, wherever you are" and Buzzy, in the manner of Rochester, replies, "Here I is, boss!" The cat spies Buzzy across the room and races towards him, but the bird is relaxing comfortably on the ground underneath a ladder. The cat recites...

"Hey, if you go under a ladder,
Your days will grow sadder and sadder."

The bird thanks him politely, and the cat responds in kind, and then thrusts out his hand in friendship, meaning to grab Buzzy when he does. But the only thing he grabs from Buzzy is a large black umbrella. The device pops open and whooshes up to the ceiling, and then it floats back down gently to land the cat underneath the ladder. Buzzy says...

"Uh-uh, in the house with an open umbrella
Will make you a most unfortunate fella!"

The umbrella closes just as the cat hits the floor but the snap of his rear end in a mousetrap placed there by Buzzy sends the cat back up again where he smacks into the underside of the top ladder step. Then the cat, umbrella and ladder comes crashing to the floor with the cat trapped inside everything. He pops up from the wreckage in the shape of a set of stairs, which Buzzy climbs up until he is standing on the cat's snout. He lifts the cat's eyelid up high until he is staring the cat in his big, yellow eye. The pupil of that eye rattles about like a roulette marble and then the cat comes to his senses and chases Buzzy away in a flash.

One of the more obscure superstitions today is brought up as the cat chases Buzzy. They run towards a large stand with a vase atop it, but Buzzy turns back just as the cat zips past and goes around the stand, causing it to come between the two of them. "Hey, boss!," says the bird, "Bread and butter!" The cat realizes what he has done and walks back along his path back around the stand and then gives chase once more. (What the cat did not do was say "Bread and butter" back to Buzzy, which would be the traditional way of breaking the curse. This might be why the cat gets it in the end.)

Buzzy runs across the room and hides beneath a huge cabinet. The cat can't see underneath it and so he strikes a match to see. The match lights three cigars that Buzzy has in his mouth, thereby causing another superstition to occur. The cat cries out...

"Yipe! Three on a match!"

...and then Buzzy runs out and shoves all three cigars in the cat's mouth! Buzzy says...

"And you end up in da booby hatch!"

The cigars turn out to actually be fireworks, and the cat is shot across the room where he crashes through the seat of a chair. The cat crawls out and swings the chair around his head and throws it in the direction of the crow. Buzzy warns him, "You'll be sorry!" and pulls on a cord that wheels a large mirror into the path of the flying chair. The cat races forward frantically to try and stop the chair, and he does manage to grab it just in time, so that the chair only taps lightly against the glass. But Buzzy sneaks up behind him and says, "Peek-a-boo!" Still holding the chair above his head, the cat ducks his head back between his legs to look upside-down at Buzzy behind him. Buzzy, who is standing upside-down on his hands (or, in bird terms, wingtips), is holding the pin from earlier in his talons and jabs the cat hard in the rear. The cat yowls in pain and flies up towards the ceiling as before, and then Buzzy shifts the mirror so that the cat crashes straight through it.

The cat is informed by Buzzy that he now has to serve "Seven years hard luck" to which the cat asks, "Did you say seven years hard luck?" Playing off a popular catchphrase from the time, Buzzy responds, "That's what the man said! That's what he said! He said that!" The cat angrily charges the bird, but all he does is hit an inkwell that splats him with black ink all over. The cat slides back towards the mirror and the glass swings around. He sees his reflection and screams, "A black cat!" The cat tears his way straight through the wall and then off and out of the picture. Buzzy is victorious and laughs at how the cat has allowed luck to run his life -- until Buzzy realizes from a desk calendar that the date is Friday the 13th. Buzzy immediately panics and begins following all of the same superstitions that the cat did before. He knocks wood, throws salt, kisses a horseshoe and throws it, and rubs his lucky rabbit's foot... each act, over and over, as the film irises out to a close.

Buzzy's voice was provided by Jackson Beck, who made a career out of portraying the voice of Popeye's nemesis Bluto in a tremendous amount of cartoons for Paramount/Famous. His Buzzy voice, as I sort of stated earlier with my positive reaction to the song, is my favorite part of the film. Buzzy as a a character has a pluckiness and roughness that I like quite a lot. That the films he starred in fail him ultimately, by and large, is not his fault; he is merely a pawn being handled roughly by some notoriously ho-hum hands. Getting back to the voice work and the Rochester angle, it is only at the point of Buzzy's introduction that one realizes that the cat's voice itself was a fairly thin imitation of Jack Benny, with his slow whine repeating the rules of luck suddenly becoming a tad more amusing (though not by much).

I somewhat dislike the design of the cat in this picture; I find him too rubbery, and just a tad too confident for someone who has thrown his lot in with the Rules of Luck and for someone who has a Jack Benny voice. I would have liked him to be a little more nervous (not nervy). Benny, of course, was not nervous per se; he had confidence, but only the confidence of one who is blissfully unaware of how disruptive his personality tics could be. The cat here seems to be extremely careful about what he does, until he sees the bird and he acts like a normal cat. I would have rather seen him use the rules of luck to first capture Buzzy, and then we see his plan come undone by his own rigidity to the rules.

I, too, have a tradition involving Friday the 13th: I love it. I often take the day off from work, as I have done for years and years, and go to the movies and do some shopping, or sit at home and watch my own horror movie marathons, sometimes with friends, sometimes not, and never have I met with a single bad incident or accident. Sometimes I even watch Jason movies, kind of doubling down on the Friday the 13th thing.

But I have my own sort of bad luck running for me these days. Sick with a cough for over a month, on a zillion medications, and mostly out of work for over two years. So, I am home for Friday the 13th under my own power this year. No day to take off, because I have too many days off already.

Of course, maybe I need to do something to turn that luck around. Not sure where to start, so many I can try some of those things I used to do to stop the bad kind. Right now, to prevent any misfortunes, I will indeed try hopping on one foot while balancing a gourd on his forehead and reciting the third verse to Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky:

"And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame
came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
and burbled as it came."

Here's hoping it works. (I had better cross my fingers... and my toes, arms, legs and eyes, while I am at it...)



And in case you haven't seen it...

[This piece was posted in its original form on March 4, 2006. It has been drastically rewritten and edited, and given new photos and a video link on October 13, 2017.]

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Never believed in any of it, either, But I do love the stories that can be built around it. Jason, for sure, but my all-time favorite related to the date is Friday the 13th: The Series. Special place in my heart and soul.

Hope your health takes a turn for the better, by the way. Makes things that much harder when life is compounded with pain and discomfort. Take care and hope you enjoy October!