Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A TALE OF TWO KITTIES (1942)

My buddy, The Duke, always said that Tweety Bird was an evil little shit. Whether you call him Tweety Bird, Tweety Pie or just plain Tweety, I have always agreed with this statement wholeheartedly. Yes, I love it when the little yellow canary does his baby-voiced wendition of Singin' in the Bathtub, which I have taken great delight in repeating (usually in the shower) throughout my life, even today. Outside of his vocal proclivities and his genius as a character, though, Tweety gets no love for me. Yes, I know that Sylvester the Cat is trying to eat him -- that's what cats do - they eat little birds -- but it's no excuse for the savage glee with which Tweety tries to do the poor pussycat in for merely submitting to his natural instincts as a predator. Much like the Coyote, forever taunted by the scrawny, speedy Roadrunner, my heart has gone out to the hapless Sylvester on any number of occasions. This is not out of any mirrored personal recognition with the predatory creatures of the world; this is more my own knee-jerk twist to those who gladly hand the universe over to the ones who garner the most "Aw, isn't he cute?" reactions. Tweety Bird is cute and he knows it. He knows he can get away with anything, often just by batting his giant baby blues. And the surprise factor on his side is that nobody is prepared for the fact that Tweety Bird is so adept at killing in his own right. Or, at least, attempted murder. And so I side with Sylvester, who is merely struggling to survive. Tweety Bird must die.

I have an opposite reaction where Abbott and Costello are concerned. Growing up, I could never understand why Costello didn't just brain the gruffer Abbott for all of the abuse he received. Pushing, prodding, slapping, kicking, poking, insulting... Abbott did it all to the baby-faced, childish, fatter Costello, and usually to get Costello to try and do something that Abbott wanted to have done but was either reluctant or too afraid to do himself. And most often, Costello would get left holding the bag and taking the blame for the resulting chaos. Then, Costello would get into more trouble trying to explain his way out of the situation, often to a cop -- and did Abbott have his back? By picture's end, usually; but immediately? No, Abbott would usually bluff and act incredulous that Costello would try such a thing, and slap and push him around even more. It was usually an act to try and extricate the pair from the situation, but Costello, with his short memory and his obviously confused and pained expressions, would slowly admit that he "was a bad boy", and would collect another solid link on the furthered chain of abuse. I couldn't stand Abbott as a kid, my heart siding immediately and for life with Costello. As I grew older, I saw far more to the relationship, and now I think Abbott is incredibly funny, and a brilliant straight man. I also realized that Costello was more of a cad than I first understood, being just a little too easy to talk into performing minor unlawful infractions or stupid acts.

So what happens when the ultimate in little birdie cuteness with a hidden sadistic streak meets a baby-faced man-child with a light criminal eagerness? In A Tale of Two Kitties, the first Tweety Bird cartoon from Bob Clampett, the formative canary is beset by feline caricatures of Abbott and Costello, basically nothing more than the comedic duo in cat suits, called Babbitt and Catsello. Such an effort could prove to be annoying if Mel Blanc weren't so very adept at performing a dead-on Lou Costello impersonation, and there are moments where one is not sure if its the actual Lou doing the voice. (Tedd Pierce's Babbitt is not great, but it doesn't seem as bad to my ears as others have said.) Unseen as they stroll behind a fence, Babbitt and Catsello argue exactly in the manner of their live-action counterparts, and when they emerge into view, the pushing and the face-slapping of Catsello by Babbitt is also on target.

"I won't do it! I won't do it!", Catsello yells as Babbitt tries to goad him into climbing up a ladder into a tall tree to collect a prize dinner of a little bird. Asked if he wants to eat, Catsello responds, "Yeah, I wanna eat! But I don't wanna hoit no boid!" It is easy enough, though, for Babbitt to twist the chubbier cat's mind about on itself, leaving Catsello to start yelling "Lemme at 'im!" He starts to climb up the ladder, but falls off immediately. Babbitt tries to push him up the rungs, but Catsello pushes back, explaining "I'm scared to go up high! I get height-raphobia!" The pushing continues as Catsello yells, "Ya can't make me do it! Ya can't make me do it!" Babbitt produces a pin and stabs his buddy in the rear. Catsello shoots to the top of the ladder and says to the camera, "He dood it!", and then punctuates the statement with a trademark Costello whistle.

Down below, Babbitt continues to prod his partner verbally, screaming frantically up at him, "Give me the bird! Give me the bird!" Costello turns a sad eye at the camera and meekly mutters in a subtly raunchy aside, "If the Hays Office would let me, I'd give him da boid alright!" Catsello lines up with the bird's nest that is his target, and inside twigged enclosure, we see the small yellow fiend-in-disguise that is Tweety seemingly asleep on its bottom. Catsello takes a swipe at the bird which misses entirely, and Tweety awakens to the chill generated by the miss. He pulls a section of nest over his body to warm up and goes back to "sleep". The ladder splits under Catsello's weight, and he is left standing with one paw on top of two separate poles. "Hey, Babbitt!", he yells. "Stilts!" One pole falls away, and Catsello struggles with retaining any sense of balance. The pole starts to fall, and Catsello screams for help from his friend. The pole stops its descent, and Catsello, hiding his eyes, slowly slides to the bottom from a mild angle. He says to Babbitt, "Hey! How'd you get way up here?" Babbitt slaps Catsello with exaggerated slowness across his pudgy face.

We next see Catsello standing atop two large springs as Babbitt attempts to push his pal down into a small box. He crams the chunky cat into its cramped interior and latches it shut. Catsello, naturally, protests all the way, finally shouting that he's "afraid of the dark!" Babbitt replies calmly, "Well, I'll let you out then." He unhooks the latch and Catsello springs high into the air and up to the tree branch, topping out just above Tweety's nest. As the cat heads back to the ground, Tweety, for the first time in film history, utters one of the most quoted catch-phrases in animation, "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!" When Catsello bounces into his view again, Tweety begins an incredible onslaught of harm and destruction, and all crammed into just a few very violent seconds. He first whacks Catsello in the noggin with a club, and when Catsello bounces up again wearing a bird cage over his head, Tweety opens the door and pokes Catsello hard in the eyes. Catsello bounces up again with his hands over his eyes inside the cage, and Tweety just whacks the top of the cage with the club again, denting Catsello's skull. The rotund kitty bounces up immediately wearing a WWI helmet, but the bird pulls grabs it and snaps it back at Catsello's head, while simultaneously stuffing a cigar into the cat's mouth. When Catsello returns, he is holding a pistol pointed right at the bird, but Tweety grabs it and fires it back at the cat. Luckily for him, it turns out to be a water pistol, but it does prompt Catsello to swiftly don a deep-sea diving helmet on his return trip. This doesn't sway Tweety in the least, for he simply opens the face-latch and inserts a lit stick of TNT inside the helmet. Catsello flies back down to the earth, and unseen by the viewer, he receives a massive explosion. "Aw, da poor puddy tat!", Tweety snarkily comments, "He ca-wushed his widdle head!"

But the explosion gives Babbitt an idea, apparently, and while Catsello sits down musing on his own failure to "get da boid", while munching on an apple, Babbitt prepares a surprise for his partner. Unbeknownst to Catsello, he is sitting on a powder keg, and Babbitt shoves a plunger down next to him and explodes Catsello high into the air. He zooms past the nest, and Tweety is swift enough to grab the apple from the cat's paw as he passes. Tweety doesn't want the apple, which is larger than the little bird, he want's the worm inside, and devours it unthinkingly. Catsello, meanwhile, is still flying up into the skies, and when he comes down, he splats hard on a nearby roof, slides down to its edge, falls, and luckily catches himself on a clothesline. Did I say luckily? Sadly for the cat, Tweety deftly walks along the clothesline and stands over Catsello. With the casual grace of a practiced killer, Tweety nonchalantly pulls Catsello's desperately gripping toes off the line, as the bird recounts the children's rhyme of This Little Piggie Went to Market, only in his baby-talk verbiage, "piggies" becomes "piddies". After he reaches "This widdle piddie had woast beef!", he finds there is no longer a cat beneath him, and remarks with surprise, "Well, whatdya know! I wan outta piddies!"

As Catsello falls, Tweety throws the "puddy tat" a rope. Catsello grabs it, but unfortunately for him, Tweety has tied it to an anvil, and it and Catsello hit the ground so hard that the surrounding scenery and ground cover into the hole after them. Babbitt, who is busy working on a wartime Victory Garden, is pulled all the way backwards up to the hole's edge. He turns about to see the anvil, and pulling it out of the ground, Catsello is completely flattened to the point where he can only answer Babbitt's queries as to who did this to him by attempting to whistle, though the attempts only come out halfway, and are more spit than whistle.

Babbitt hasn't given up, and talks Catsello into giving it one more try. Or, rather, he misdirects him with small talk while he outfits the husky kitty with a pair of wooden wings and then fires him into the sky with the aid of a giant rubber band. "Hey, Babbitt! Look at me!", yells Catsello with much joy as he discovers that he is flying. "I'm a Sp-Sp-Spitfire!" Tweety sees this action, and slaps a helmet reading "Air Raid Warden" on his head. He gets on the phone and calls the Army, warming them of an enemy attack in the skies. Caught in an array of crossing searchlights, Catsello is an easy target for the guns that are seemingly surrounded him on all sides. Catsello's wings get shot to pieces, and the cat smashes into the ground below, tumbling into Babbitt as he does. Tweety marches about their heaped bodies, inspecting the damage. The pair open up their eyes and start to whisper conspiratorially to each other, but Tweety turns on them. He shouts, "Turn out those lights!" in a voice that is neither cute nor sweet, and the cats oblige. With their eyes going out like clicked bedroom lamps, the film goes to black.

Tweety's great gimmick is that no one, neither Sylvester nor any other cats that mess with him, are ever prepared for the fact that this little bird has more danger per square inch packed in him than any other cartoon character ever created. He gets away with it, too, but covering up his violent side with his engaging cuteness, all sing-song patter and smarmy butt-kissing to those who can aid him in this cover-up (like Granny). But its not just that he is dangerous – he is sadistic. He could have just as easily left Catsello alone on that clothesline, but he had to do the "piddie" bit. He could have just as easily let Catsello fall, but he had to do the "rope and anvil" bit. One cruelty on top of another.  

Bob Clampett was a bona fide genius.

And Tweety is an evil little shit. The Duke is right.

A Tale of Two Kitties (Warner Bros., 1942)
Director: Robert Clampett
Writer: Warren Foster
Animator: Rod Scribner
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voices: Mel Blanc and Tedd Pierce
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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