Thursday, April 13, 2006

NAUGHTY BUT MICE (1947)

Another mouse character; another picture called Naughty but Mice. This time the studio is not Warner Bros., but rather Famous Studios, home of Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Little Audrey. This time, the mouse is not the adenoidal Sniffles, but is instead a pushy, Bronx-voiced tough guy named Herman, who was most famously paired with a feline named Katnip. A clear cloning of the Tom and Jerry formula, they beat the snot out of each other in over a couple dozen cartoons, before being closing shop as screen characters by 1959. They then languished, to smaller and smaller returns, in the comics, usually in short adventures in the back pages of various Harvey titles. There are many sites that point to this picture, Naughty But Mice from 1947, as the first of their pairings, but I say thee "Nay!" (Sorry to get all Thor on you, but this is important...)

While the cat in this film does share Katnip's habit of being an out-and-out bully,
there is a marked difference in their physical appearances: Katnip is a sort of rusty brown color with a red nose; the cat in this picture is black and white, and is more generically evil-looking, to boot. They are also only slightly alike vocally, with Naughty But Mice's feline lacking the distinctively dopey voice given to the later cat by Syd Raymond (he also did the voice for Famous' Baby Huey), though this unnamed cat seems to be similarly lacking in wits. Now, one could say it's like the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot, where the duo are formative versions of their later more established selves; the problem is that while Tom and Jerry were not totally developed at that early stage, they were at least remarkably close to their physical selves, with only a well-considered streamlining locking their images into place. But, as said, the cat here looks nothing like Katnip, and Herman was well-defined as a character by this point, and had appeared in a handful of films already. And, while the storyline of this film represents a slightly crueler version of the plot that would congeal into the basic Herman and Katnip formula, it is still not a Herman and Katnip film.

The setup in a cheese wedge... 

In a barn, a cat sleeps ("Meow... Snore... Meow... Snore...") while in a nearby mousehole, a handful of heavily bandaged mice bemoan the fatal loss of three of the brethren of the Cheese Patrol, recent victims of the evil cat. The lead mouse scratches their names off a list with a normal-sized pencil. "First, Hiram; then, Zeke; and now... Louie!" After determining that they need to come up with a plan to rid themselves of the predator, the shadow of a vicious cat looms over them on the wall. The mice scurry, but then come out of hiding when they see the projector of their tormentor is none other than their cousin Herman ("Hoiman," they are apt to pronounce it), visiting in a timely fashion from the big city. After inquiring as to the whereabouts of the fallen mice, the survivors inform him that the cat in the barn is a champion mouse-catcher, and show him a newspaper clipping to prove that fact. This, of course, is nothing but a challenge to the tough little city mouse, and Herman marches straight out to confront the bully.

While the cat still sleeps, Herman places a megaphone next to the cat's ears, and then blows a trumpet through it loudly, blaring the cat awake. The cat is only momentarily stunned, and looks over the megaphone to get a glimpse at the intruder. Herman blows the trumpet again right in his face this time. The cat chases him, and Herman runs through a drawstring sack with a hole in the side. The cat runs in after him, Herman ducks out, and slides the string shut on the bag. "Ding Dong Bell, Pussy's in the Well! Who put her in? Little Herman Grin!" This song Herman sings as he drags the bagged cat by the tail behind him towards the well to drown the cat. The cat, annoyed at this, methodically cuts his way out of the bag with his claw. Soon, Herman is only pulling the freed cat. On the second refrain, when it rolls around to the "Who put her in?" line, the cat sings it, and Herman does a double take midline on the answer. Before the cat can attack him, Herman is quick to reach up to the cat's mouth and draw it closed with a heretofore unseen yellow zipper.

Herman shoots towards a milk can conveniently laying on its side; the cat, of course, follows him swiftly, and of course, ends up getting trapped inside. Slamming the lid on over the cat's head, Herman rolls it to the well, singing the song once again. The unflappable mouse ties a rock to the can and kicks the rock into the well; however, the can was upside down, and the cat is left standing on his head on the lid. The cat lays down and watches as the confident and unaware mouse wanders right into its open mouth, punching the cat's tonsil as he continues the song. Then he notices the sharp fangs surrounding him, and he ducks out just as the cat is chomping down. He grabs its tongue on the way out, and the cat screeches in pain. Herman runs around the well with the cat fast on his heels. After a few revolutions, Herman hops up to the well's edge and drops the bucket into the path of the cat's face. The cat slams into it, and Herman jumps on the winch a couple of times, spinning the cat down to a watery grave. There is a loud splash, and when a great profusion of water flies up, Herman calmly unfolds an umbrella to keep himself dry. But, when the water subsides, the cat is hanging angrily from the crossbar. Herman, singing again, is already celebrating his victory with his eyes closed and grabs the cat's tail thinking it is the rope. The tail hangs onto him, and when the mouse opens his eyes again, the cat is sharpening his fangs against each other, and Herman knows he is doomed.

The cat takes Herman to his dinner table, and prepares the rodent for a feast. When the cat is not looking, Herman sees a can labeled "Catnip -- 100% Proof", pinches some of the stuff, and blows it into the cat's eyes. The cat, unsurprisingly, is instantly sent to Happy Kitty Land, with his eyes glazing over and a beatific grin overtaking his face. He finally starts to doze, but Herman can't stop there. He takes the rose from the dinner setting and twirls it in a mass of catnip. He crams it in the cat's nose, and then when Herman walks off holding the rose aloft behind him, the cat lifts up in the air and floats after Herman to the well. Herman teases the cat with the rose, and the dazed feline repeatedly tries to kiss Herman, but the mouse leaps away at the last second. The final time, the cat ends up smashing into the side of the well, and then comes to his senses. Angrily, he attacks Herman, and Herman twirls the rose in his nose, sending him back to Dreamsville. The pupils of the cat's eyes each form into a pair of lips and kiss each other in rapture.

Herman dances along the edge of the well, throwing rose petals. The cat grabs the bucket, and flicks water in a similar style, but Herman undoes the winch and crossbar, and the entire rig falls into the well, pulling the cat in after it. The cat flies up in the splash, furious and ready to attack, but Herman is ready for him. He is holding a gigantic sledgehammer and bashes the cat back down into the well. Herman wastes no time in pulling a huge stick of TNT out of nowhere, lighting it, and tossing it down the hole. The well explodes and closes in on itself; several of the stones from the walls of the well fall together in the shape of the cat's gravestone. Herman walks off triumphant, having gotten his revenge for the death of his friends. "All's well that ends in the well", Herman jokes as he strides away. Suddenly, nine feline ghosts float up out of the watery grave, and say "Oh, yeah?" and chase after Herman. The mouse runs with his back half turned as he spins the catnip-suffused rose in their noses.

Maybe the filmmakers referred to the cat character as Katnip in their design sheets or in story meetings; I don't know. Perhaps there is a piece of trivial history which solves the mystery that I am unable to find in my resources. Nearly every site (save the Big Cartoon Database) refers to this picture as a Herman and Katnip joint. Most people probably can't tell the difference: it holds nearly the same plot as any number of the roughly thirty films they made together.
And the film itself is no great shakes, and actually comes off more as a blueprint for the real series starring Herman and the actual Katnip. In the end, because of the mediocre quality, I suppose most would say that it really doesn't matter.

Sez you...

Naughty But Mice (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1947) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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