Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Naughty But Mice (1939)

Naughty But Mice (Warner Bros., 1939)
Dir: Charles M. "Chuck" Jones
Story: Rich Hogan
Animation: Phil Monroe
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

I've hinted before that I have a bit of a jones for Chuck Jones' Sniffles the Mouse character. Sniffles was my early morning companion (along with Inki the Hunter) on many on a up-all-night marathon watching Anchorage, Alaska's late, lamented pre-Cartoon Network, Cartoon Channel, a 24-hour UHF fixer-upper that held me transfixed for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mostly public domain cartoons, the Blue Ribbon versions of several dozen Warner Bros. cartoons, and one hell of a lot of Space Ghost, Jonny Quest and Frankenstein Jr., the Cartoon Channel was a fine addition to the cartoons I had already collected in my steadily growing VHS library. It also beat Turner to the punch with the 24-hour cartoon concept. And the main character that I discovered and grew fixated on in this period was Sniffles the Mouse.

Why? Don't I have this anti-cute thing going? Not exclusively. Every once in a while, a cute character comes along that has a special something that you pick up on --- and then, you can use that special something as a weapon -- to torment others with it; to deploy it in the most devious fashion imaginable, and drive others out of the room seeking aid and comfort from the insanity. Sniffles had that special something. Sniffles had -- that voice. That squeaky, up-speaking, up-squeaking, tiny dentist's drill of a voice. A voice with a slightly almost indiscernible trace of Southern accent to it, stifled with the perpetual cold that gave Sniffles his very name, and a penchant for saying "Gee Whillikers!" and "Golly!" at the slightest surprise. I learned to speak "Snifflesese" through those long winter nights with a sleeping wife... and a need to find something that would drive her nuts.

Which the voice did indeed. It drove her nuts. I took to speaking to my dog and my cat in the Sniffles voice, and while the pets were fine with it, the voice had the opposite reaction to the missus. There was far more wrong with the marriage than a cartoon character impersonation, though, and divorce wasn't the purpose of the voice, nor was the voice the cause of it. (That was several years after I had stopped using the voice.) No, sometimes, you just need some alone time, and this voice got it for me. All I had to do with squeak out a couple of "Golly gees!" and I could have all the time to myself that I wanted. All in all, I call it a fair exchange for having to watch a lot of cutesy cartoons.


The only problem is, these weren't just cutesy cartoons. These were Chuck Jones' cartoons, and even in his "cute" phase, such as his very Disney-esque Tom Thumb in Trouble, he is far more interesting than most directors. Because, he wasn't just simply directing another picture in a long line of pictures, moving from one cute, cloying film to the next in a rote manner. No, he was learning, he was growing, and he was slowly developing his style. You can look at the Sniffles pictures and see nothing but a cute and annoying cartoon mouse in gentle, sleepy-time adventures for the younger set (some idiots even refer to them as boring); I see sharp character studies, a Jones sketchbook slowly filling itself, and a determination to take the time to develop, what I call, the "Ready-Set-Zoom" philosophy of most of his oeuvre. 

Without that which he learned on the Curious Puppies and Sniffles pictures, he would not have grown into the master who would create Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. And most of his pictures rely on these long, well built-up intervals of static reflection, and then the wacky violence seems to erupt out of nowhere, and therefore, with far greater impact than in the films of other lesser directors, who just run with the constant, unthinking, unmeasured violence (though it seemed to work for some). It is easy to describe many of the creators of the old cartoons as "geniuses", a term that is far overused in animation, and in film in general. There are very, very few true geniuses, but I feel sincerely that Jones was one of them. His was a lifetime spent building to perfection. That he achieved it far more than most is the true testament to his talent


Not that Naughty But Mice, the first of the Sniffles cartoons from 1939, is one of those perfect creations; however, it is sweet and honest, a little bit shocking in its portrayal of rodent inebriation, and yes, it is cute. And it brings a totally unexpected character to life (this is beyond a Sniffles, mind you), and somehow pulls off making us not only believe in its existence, but also to love it for the short time we get to know it: an electric shaver. The title card for the film shows a clock tower in the night with its hands reading just before 2:00 a.m. When the film proper begins, the titles fade away and leave us solely with the tower, and we hear the tolling of the two bells that announce the hour.

The camera zooms down to the front of the Savoy Drug Store, and then further down to the mail slot in the door of the store, where we meet Sniffles the Mouse for the first time. In his little red coat, blue pants, scarf and blue hat, he is not so much mouse in character as he is merely a tiny human, but he does comes with the requisite whiskers, fur, black button nose and a truncated tail that never seems to reach the ground (it is certainly not the usual mouse tail, but more like the bottom brush on a terrier). Plus, he is small, and this plays a major part in his adventures, for Sniffles inhabits a well-defined though often surreal world of book characters come to life, mouse parties, and eventually in the series, the friendships of bookworms and baby owls.

As we are first meeting this Sniffles the Mouse character, he is naturally (for cuteness sake) being sold as a mouse with a cold, and he has come to the Savoy Drug Store for a cold remedy because he cannot sleep with his sinuses all awry. After he sneezes loudly, he looks at his hand, and we are shown a clipping (or, rather, a tearing) from Family Doctor Magazine, which details what one needs to do when wrangling with a cold. Sniffles climbs through the mail slot (no closing hours for rodents, apparently), and wanders about the place, looking up on the shelves for the Cold Remedy section. He finds it right away, and climbs up to the appropriate shelves.

Walking up to a bottle which reads "XLNT COLD CURE", Sniffles lays the bottle down, uncorks it, and lets its contents pour out into a spoon. The problem with this process is that Sniffles did not read the rest of the label on the bottle. It reads "CONTAINS ALCOHOL 125% PROOF". Sniffles leans down and takes a sip from the giant spoon. The shock of the sip knocks him down on his butt, and a purplish glow overtakes his stomach and then moves up like lava through a volcano until steam bursts out of his ears, and the little mouse begins to breathe fire. Scared for his life, he runs off along the counter looking for relief, and he finds it in a glass of water that has been left there by the not-so-tidy store owners. He glugs the glass down, and then sits down on his bottom. "Gee!" he exclaims, before feeling the after-effects of his drinking of the cold medication. He hiccups, a glazed look overtakes his eyes, and he starts to sway about on the counter. Sniffles is now as drunk as a little mouse can get.


Sniffles, despite his inebriation, or rather, because of it, is determined enough to try and walk. This he does, but the walk turns quickly into a stagger, then into a prolonged stumble, and then his little steps get swifter and swifter and develops into an awkward run, and finally, his legs give out and he slides straight into a box on the counter. The box says "Electric Shaver" on it, but Sniffles doesn't get a chance to read these words; what he does see is the actual electric shaver rising snake-like out the box! Sniffles is not put off at all by this undeniably odd event. As he is with most things that he meets, he greets it with enthusiasm, though it is most likely partially aided by his condition at the moment. "Hi!” he says to the shaver, and the device, with a noise cut through with an electric buzz that makes it more manipulated sound than an actual voice, says "Hi!" in return. Sniffles asks how he is, and the shaver replies, 'I'm fine! How are you?" "Nod so good,” Sniffles answers through a blockade of congestion. "I gotta code id by head!" The shaver shakes his buzzer and tsk-tsks the terrible news.

As they continue talking, Sniffles unleashes a huge sneeze right in the shaver's “face” (for lack of a better term). The shaver sneezes in return, and Sniffles watches as the electrical device takes on the same facial characteristics of someone with a cold. Sniffles tells the shaver that he can fix him, and for the shaver to "Stay right here!" (He points to the spot to affirm his order.) Sniffles then repeats his order over and over again as he leaves, mainly because he can't help himself either through his drunkenness or his general speech pattern. Sniffles staggers off, and the shaver is left to his misery. 

Sniffles soon returns with a spoonful of the intoxicating elixir, and forces the shaver to partake of it. As expected, this is not a good thing for an electrical device to do (however, at no point is he actually plugged into a wall). The shaver begins to sputter and shake. He coughs loudly and raspily. He starts spitting sparks from his mouth over and over again, and then combines this with a wild glare and more coughing and rasping. And then... blessed comfort and drunkenness. He is in the same state as Sniffles, who begins to sing a slightly off-key and squeaky version of the lush's standard, How Dry I Am. The shaver joins him in wonderful buzzing harmony, and then passes out. "Sleep tight, ol' pal,” Sniffles comforts the shaver, and then the mouse staggers off through the store.

But he is not unseen. A pair of bright yellow eyes flicker open in the darkness behind the counter, and they belong to a mangy store cat looking to fulfill his purpose. Sniffles walks to the edge of the counter, and then keeps going, stopping mid-air. He sneezes again, and suddenly realizes where he is not standing, and scurries for the countertop. He is too late and falls straight down and into a coin-operated Toy Steam Shovel machine, which features a grabbing device by which patrons can grab prizes from inside for a mere nickel. The cat leaps down and pulls out five cents of his own, drops it in the appropriate slot, and starts fishing for Sniffles with the grabber. He only misses because the mouse is too drunkenly interested in the objects inside the machine, and ducks at odd moments.


The cat has to rock another coin into the slot and try again. This time, Sniffles steps on the bulb of a perfume bottle, causing it to squirt and hiss. Sniffles shushes it, and then the cat grabs the perfume bottle instead. Sniffles staggers back and sits down on a camera. The accordion-like lens pops up and shoots Sniffles up into the air! He finally sees the cat outside of the machine, panics, and runs for cover on the other side. But the cat has him pegged. He grabs Sniffles with the shovel, drops him out and through the dispenser tube, and prepares for his not-so-easy meal.

But not if Sniffles’ buddy, the electric shaver, has anything to do with it! The shaver awakens from his drunken stupor, and sees his new mousy friend about to be devoured. He speeds through the air across the shop, and furiously attacks the cat, shaving the feline's fur into a thin line wrapping about its body like a licorice stripe, leaving the cat mostly pink and naked. The shaver attacks again, and this time leaves the cat with fur only on his head and a tiny little tuft on the end of its tail. The cat makes for a nearby window, but as he reaches it, the shaver is charging at him for a third time. The cat pulls the tuft off his tail and eagerly throws it to the shaver, the individual hairs falling apart and drifting to the floor. The scaredy cat ducks out the window and out of the rest of the picture. Sniffles, still laying in the dispenser tray of the Toy Steam Shovel machine, greets his returning friend with deeply felt gratitude. "Thanks, pal, for saving my life!", but even as Sniffles says it, he sneezes again, and he is shot straight up the dispenser tube and back inside the machine. The final shot shows him hanging from the steam shovel grabber, slightly perturbed at his predicament. Iris out.

Sniffles would not achieve the levels of annoyance that cause many people to decry him until the subsequent films (he appears in a dozen Warner Bros. shorts in all), but he has never bothered me. Not even for a second. As overly cute as his films are, I have an absolute immunity to them. I have embraced them. You see, all those long winter nights, with the wife asleep, with the glow from the TV washing my face in low-level radiation, and fighting with my circular antennae as I struggled to get the best reception possible for a UHF channel giving me non-stop cartoons (no cable for me at that point), I learned to adore Sniffles. Sometimes, four or five of his cartoons would get shown in a row, and while other lesser beings may have bemoaned this fate, I took it as a prime opportunity to study the early work of Mr. Chuck Jones in detail.

And when I discovered my love for Sniffles’ voice? That whiny, annoying voice? I had found the perfect weapon for my wife-clearing arsenal...

*****

 [Note: This article was updated on 12/17/15. The wife in question in the article is my ex from long ago. Not the current one. And I have since learned how to properly maintain an adult relationship. But I can still speak like Sniffles when I choose.]

3 comments:

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