I hate to bring anyone down, but... alright, I love to bring people down, so let me continue apace...
It's odd that so much of cartoon history has been built around the order of Rodentia. After all, don't most people react with disgust and fear whenever a rat or a mouse crosses our path? Before you go all wonky with the chauvinistic pride, a lot of guys react the same way as the stereotyped reaction of the scared housewife which is portrayed so frequently in popular culture. I have personally seen both sexes jump up on chairs at the slightest movement of an unwelcome rodent visitor. And yet, much of our cartoon lineage is based on our recognition of talking bipedal mice as our heroes and friends. Mickey, anyone? Tom's nemesis/buddy Jerry and his little cousin Tuffy? Speedy Gonzalez? Sniffles the non-stop cutesy gabber? The unstoppable powerhouse Mighty Mouse? Herman (or Hoiman, as his mouse friends like to refer to him), the Famous Studios version of Jerry. Super-spy Danger Mouse? And even when they might not be so friendly to humankind, we tend to side with them in the cartoon world; the would-be world conquerors Pinky and the Brain, for instance.
Mice get a free ride in the cartoon world, and along with them, in the category of rodents considered "cute" are the squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, prairie dogs, gophers and porcupines, all of whom have had an easy time of it in cartoons. This is despite the fact that most of them are considered pests, nuisances and varmints in the human world, and that we readily trap or kill the bulk of them so one reason or another. Rats, however, are rarely portrayed in a good light in cartoons, much like in the real world. Rats are generally considered to be evil and ugly and the horrid carriers of disease and filth. (Obviously the persons responsible for this opinion have never met my neighbors, but I digress...) With a rare exception, when a rat does show up in cartoon, he is up to no good, and is often the villain of the piece. Except when a cat, which we keep in real life to deal with the rodent problem, isn't already in the role of animated heavy...
I got to thinking about this dichotomy as I was watching a Van Beuren Aesop's Fable cartoon from late in 1931 called Toy Time. The "hero", or I would say, "sneak-thief" of the piece, is a little mouse named Oscar who invades the nighttime peace of a quiet toyshop and does everything but drop napalm on it. At the film's opening, and to the strains of Three O'Clock in the Morning, the mouse turns on a flashlight set upon the floor, and then runs along a wall as if caught in a spotlight, with his exaggerated run cast large behind him. When he runs out of wall, he almost slips into a mousetrap, baited with cheese and set here for the purpose of preventing all of the monkey business about to ensue. Oscar stops himself in time, though, and turns on an old-style light switch set conveniently close to the floor. The lights flicker to life, and the toyshop stands revealed to the viewer for the first time. Near Oscar is a toy steamshovel, and the mouse climbs aboard and drives it over to the mousetrap. Using it to scoop up the hunk of deliciousness set upon the dangerous spring of the trap, the mouse gets an easy snack. He pushes the steamshovel back to its original place, and then sets a detour sign in front of the still dangerously rigged trap.
Moving to a grandfather clock, little heart-shaped bursts of passion emit from the mouse's chest, and he frantically swings the pendulum on the clock to advance the time quicker. The clock's face has tiny toy soldiers in the place of numbers, and they start to march in place faster and faster, until the clock indeed reads three o'clock. Instead of a cuckoo, a door on one side of the clock opens to reveal another toy soldier, and a second door opens to reveal a cannon, which fires and knocks the head off the soldier. Oscar drives a toy tank to the front door of the shop, rides it over the key (which is strangely low-set) to unlock it, and then uses a lasoo around the doorknob to pull open the door with his tank. In walks his girlfriend Susie, who greets him so enthusiastically, the boy mouse has to "shush" her. They tiptoe across the floor in accordance with this secrecy -- and they then blow it all to hell by winding up a music box, and then treating the toy shop like their own private amusement park!
To the strains of a delightful piece called The Siamese Patrol, Oscar and Susie ride on a miniature roller coaster, filled with steep hills and even a loop-the-loop, before they are deposited laughingly on their rumps at the ride's end. A jack-in-the-box lion practically makes Susie jump out of her skin, and so they move on to a row of head-bobbing animals. The elephant, zebra and hippo are fine, bobbing their heads simply in the fashion that they are meant to do, but the donkey at the end of the quartet brays at the last second to frighten the mice again. With the music playing happily about them, the mice take to joining in on the song by leaping from toy instrument to toy instrument. They bounce as if on a trampoline atop a bass drum; they tap along the bones of a xylophone; they make some snappy martial sounds on a set of snare drums; and a clarinet-like recorder gives them a spot to glide back and forth in a frenzied manner. A toy horn gives Oscar a chance to shine in a brief solo, accompanied by Susie on the drums like an old-school Jack and Meg White; they then leap across the pieces of a whole drum kit (including cymbals) on their way to a pyramid of alphabet blocks, where Oscar dances a nifty piece up and down and all about the assemblage. A trio of jack-in-the-box musicians pop up behind Oscar to play the song out to its finish, and Oscar falls through the blocks, sending them into a jumble beneath his embarrassed body. He picks himself up, though, and ends the song by dancing on each block, turning them to spell out "I LOVE YOU" to an ecstatic Susie. Oscar blushes.
But then the cat shows up, as cats often do, just at that peak moment of murine joyfulness. He is scrawnier than a coke-driven Kate Moss on an all-oxygen diet, only once he spies the pair of enraptured mice, he has no intent on trying to devour the air about him. He dives after Oscar and Susie, but they evade him by riding a toy climbing monkey to the top of a cabinet. The cat tries to climb up a sled leaning against the cabinet, but he slides down. Oscar finds a toy mouse and winds it up, sending it down the sled to trick the cat. Indeed, this does "the trick", and the cat swats, chews and slashes at the mouse to little or no damaging effect. As he does, Oscar winds up a series of tin soldiers and releases them down the sled towards the cat. Tanks and cannons follow the soldiers, and soon the war is on. The cat battles valiantly, but he is no match for the parade of army men, charging animals, battleships and construction equipment that assault him from every side. Finally, Oscar blows up a cat-shaped balloon and floats it down to the feline. The cat leaps on the balloon, and when he claws and bites it, the balloon explodes, knocking the cat out of his senses on the floor. Oscar sees the relieved Susie to the front door, and there just so happens to be a toy piano sitting next to it. Susie says she must go home and heads out the door, but Oscar grabs her tail to pull her back in as he begins to sing Goodnight, Sweetheart in a lovely tenor voice. They kiss as the song and the cartoon end.
Sure, it's all cute and light, but it doesn't stop me from wondering how such wanton destruction (not to mention breaking and entering) can go unpunished. Do we just accept cute little mice in cartoons because they seem to represent nicety and innocence even though we are avidly intent on their wholesale slaughter in our personal lives? Disney managed to have even cartoon mice that weren't Mickey done away with not long after this cartoon (and yes, Oscar and Susie do bear a marked resemblance to Mickey and Minnie in several scenes), not so much out of any personal hatred for the animated rodents but rather out of financial consideration. But in the real world, we ourselves have little regard for the creatures, whether they be cute little mice or seemingly ugly and evil rats.
So it would seem in my neck of the woods, where I was greeted with a very strange and hideous sight on the way home from work the other day. About a half mile away, on a sidewalk that I walk up and down each and every weekday, I walked up to what I assumed was just another piece of refuse thrown out of a passing car (you never know what you will find) and what I discovered, after a quick double-and-then-triple take, was the hindquarters, from the bottom of the belly down, of a rat. A tail about eight inches long ran up to the back and hindlegs of the creature, but there was no blood and it seemed to present no amount of tearing or bitemarks on the carcass. It almost appeared as if the rat had been sliced in twain, and perhaps had been in someone's possession before they decided to toss it out on the sidewalk. Either that, or there is a very finicky and precisely chomping cat or dog in the neighborhood.
I was reminded of the George Carlin joke where he is discussing the nauseating food served in the Armed Forces. He mentions an overly enthusiastic soldier who eagerly piles huge heaping amounts of some ghastly concoction on his tray. Asking what he is loving so much, he is told "That's rat's asshole, Don!" His immediate response is "Well, it makes a hell of a fondue!" It takes all types, I suppose, to make a world, and the particular type who did this deed certainly had no great love for rodents, and certainly none for the rat's asshole. I didn't check to see if said rodent's orifice was still there (I gave it only a cursory glance as I passed, just a little bit in shock), so it is slightly possible that the creep involved is just now dipping a chunk of Hawaiian bread into some of it right now, but I doubt it. Whatever the cause of its demise, the rat-third was gone the next morning, which is almost as much of a mystery as its sudden appearance. But what it did point up to me is how much mankind plays at tales of sweetness and light, such as in this cartoon, but the human race itself and its culture as a whole operates on a level of intense hypocriticism. I'm no better: I "ooh" and "ahh" over the snuggliness of cows, but I'm the first in line for a hamburger.
I just won't be dipping it into any fondue anytime soon...
Toy Time (A Van Beuren Aesop's Sound Fable, 1932)
Director: John Foster and Harry Bailey
Cel Bloc Rating: 6