Thursday, June 08, 2006

THE FAMILY SHOE (1931)

Boy, if anybody ever was the poster child for birth control, outside of Tom Cruise, it has to be the Old Woman in the Shoe. My question is: who the hell is knocking her up so much? How can one woman have so many friggin' babies? Not to be age-ist, but she's old, so why is she still having brats? How many different fathers are there? How is she paying the rent if she is watching the kids all the time and there are no fathers in the family plan? Is she the world's dumbest/highest paid prostitute, whereby she does something so disgusting that she gets paid tons of money for the act, purposefully gets herself knocked up so she can rest and lives off her huge bundle of whoring money for nine months, and then repeats the cycle when the money has run dry? She has 53 kids (in this cartoon, at least), so even if she is having sets of quintuplets every time, and especially if, she has to have a private area stretched out as big as the Harlem Globetrotters' Magic Circle. Who's banging her then? Paul Bunyan? Did a really fertile dwarf crawl in there and get lost while spelunking? How the hell is she having and then supporting these kids???!!?

At the start of The Family Shoe, Van Beuren's 1931 attempt to tell the Old Woman's story with a twist from another fairytale, a quartet of singers made up of a cat, a dog, a pig and a duck open the story with some background on the main character. With each of the four dressed up rather like William Shakespeare, they sing of the woman's sad state of affairs:

"The Woman in the Shoe had a family
That always kept her life in a jamboree
She couldn't keep them all looking nifty
They were just fif-ty three!"

The sun flies in from the sky, astounded at this news, and asks, "Fifty-three?" The quartet answers, "Mmm-hmmm!", and the sun whistles in disbelief. (You see? Even the sun, who has probably seen everything in the history of the planet -- except the stuff at night, so maybe she never saw the old woman getting down -- can't believe this tragedy.) Before the quartet can pick up the song again, the tree next to them takes the next two lines in a chesty baritone:

"She had to feed them all every single day
And there were many times that she couldn't pay."

The quartet return:

"She'd surely pass through
In that broken down shoe
She really didn't know just what to do...
Mmm-mmmmm..."

Their humming voices trail off, and the scene shifts to the baby factory herself, and part of the problem, at least in this version, is revealed when we see that she is a Ma Cat, and thus her increased rate of kitten production becames a little easier to understand. She sits on the doorstep to her home, a worn-out frazzled old lady, reduced to wearily rocking a perambulator full of obnoxiously though musically mewling kittens, while her shoe home is overrun by scores of rambunctious little brats, half of them banging on or tooting musical instruments. Four kitten climb atop each other, one by one, their tails forming a ladder, and other kittens climb up them and then dive into the washtub sitting by the clothesline. The old woman gets riled at this, and returns to her scrubbing, and every few scrubs, she pulls a clean little diapered and disgruntled kitten out of the water and clips it to the line. On the other end of the line, another kitten undoes his hanging brethren and drops each one into a mudpuddle, which returns the smile to their faces. A goat stands behind her, and when one of her young paddles the goat with a block of wood, the goat takes it out on the old lady, upending her and sending the water from her tub flying.

Sitting on the ground, crying and useless, the old woman pleads her case to her only decent and behaved offspring. "Jack," she begins, "I don't know what to do!" 'Aw, shucks! Leave it to me, mother!", the plucky little fellow declares, and he produces a bag of beans and the most miserable excuse for a rifle that has ever been seen. Throwing the beans over the bayonet on his gun, he swings the whole kit over his shoulder, and he sets off to make things right for his mother. He bounces along merrily until he comes upon a bird sitting on a fence. He stuffs one of the beans in his gun and aims it at the bird, but the bean sputters out to the ground, and the bird flies away. Jack starts to curse his luck, but the bag of beans won't hear anymore, so it sprouts arms and covers its ears, and sprouts legs and walks off. The sputtered bean, too, doesn't want to hear about it, and also sprouts limbs and then buries itself in the ground. Instantly, a giant beanstalk pops out of the ground, growing higher and higher into the air.

From this point on, the story is pretty much a straightforward though truncated telling of Jack and the Beanstalk with a few exceptions: 1) When Jack reaches the clouds, the castle sprouts a beckoning arm, its drawbridge opens wide to reveal a huge tongue, it yells "Over here, Jack!", and when it winks its window like an eye, there is the sound of a cuckoo clock; 2) Jack lulls the giant to sleep by playing the pendulum chains on the grandfather clock like a harp, and singing Sleep, Baby Sleep in a lovely soprano; and 3) once the goose is made to lay a golden egg for Jack's mother, after she receives the egg, her tattered clothing changes magically to a snazzy new outfit, making her appear not so old after all. The weathered and ratty shoe slowly turns into a jewel-encrusted high-heeled pump, with a long awning over the entry and a butler awaiting his chance to serve Madame. The "Old Woman" marches towards her new home, with her 53 now well-behaved kids in tow, and she enters her glorious castle like a queen, with the goose carrying her train. Iris out.

I guess my main question is why Van Beuren just didn't do a straightforward Jack and the Beanstalk adaptation, rather than take a rather common and quite slim nursery rhyme and then sloppily affix the Beanstalk tale to it. Rather than invent a new story around the cat family and the son's attempts to bring happiness to his mother, they instead rely on a well-known tale -- and except for a couple of brief instances, they do nothing to invert it or make it different -- they merely tread water until the obvious conclusion. I don't begrudge the poor old mother cat her wealth and happiness; I just wish they had gone about it in a more original fashion. But that is not really the way of the Aesop's Sound Fables, so it is nothing more than wishful thinking that I would get a little bit more out of this cartoon. Nothing against the Jack and the Beanstalk story, either -- while it has been done to death, there is always room for an update or revisioning of the moldy tale. This one just gathers mildew in its lackluster storytelling.

I suspect, though, that being rich is not going to stop Ol' Ma Kitty from falling over the laundry basket every time some tomcat comes sniffing around her shoe. Now that she is dressed to the nines and all decked out in jeweled finery and fancy footwear, she will most likely attract even more suitors from here on out. And not necessarily quality ones, but still like all the deadbeat dads who had their way with her before. Moving up in the world just means that more of the refuse of the world piles up outside of her door. And then, after they get in her can, her bright shiny new shoe will get filled up even more with miniature versions of that line of refuse.

After all, they must call them "litters" for a reason. Oh well, at least she's filling the world with kittens instead of more people. Because then, something would have to be done. Like lacing up her Magic Circle instead of that giant ass shoe...

The Family Shoe (A Van Beuren Aesop's Sound Fable, 1931)
Directors: Mannie Davis and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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