Saturday, October 31, 2015

Countdown to Halloween: Heavenly Puss (1949)

Heavenly Puss (1949)
Dir: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
Animators: Irv Spence, Ed Barge, Kenneth Muse, and Ray Patterson
TC4P Rating: 8/9

In preparations for attending a special event in Little Tokyo a few days before Halloween last week -- a screening of John Carpenter's 1987 horror epic, Prince of Darkness, at the historic church in which many of the scenes were filmed -- I took it upon myself to watch the film first on the Blu-ray disc I had purchased recently. Being a big fan of Carpenter's films in general, but not being exactly over-acquainted with Prince of Darkness (I had seen it in theatres on its original release, but not very much since), I wanted to be up on the film in case the Q-and-A sessions with people who had worked on the film happened before the movie was screened.

This being maybe the fifth time I was watching the film overall, the extra sits through it were helpful in both establishing where I stood with the film in Carpenter's filmography (I now like it more than I once did; good, but not great) and being able to discuss it with my writing partner at length. In revisiting the film, though, I was reminded of a quick scene that is not of any large consequence to the film at all, but occurs as a nice in-joke for Carpenter and his audience. Much in the way that he included scenes from Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World playing in the background on a television set in his bonafide classic, Halloween, Carpenter saw to it to pay for the rights to show a clip from MGM's Heavenly Puss, a fairly morbid Tom and Jerry heaven-and-hell romp from 1949, in the middle of Prince of Darkness. The inclusion is apt, seeing as how the Carpenter film is loaded with talk of Satan and his never-ending quest to subsume humanity and battle the church.

Directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Heavenly Puss may not be one of their Oscar-winners (or even nominated ones), but it definitely ranks near the top of being one of Tom and Jerry's more memorable outings. This film goes out of the bounds of the normal, heavily violent cat vs. mouse theme and wraps it up in a theme of spiritual consideration, at least in the simple terms of having Tom trying to change his grim, fiery fate to that of a more angelic afterlife.

It looks like Jerry might be making an attempt to get in the first shot of this cartoon, as we see Tom having a cozy catnap in front of a lovely fireplace setting. Jerry sneaks out of his whole and tiptoes his way across the room to take refuge underneath the chaise lounge. Then it becomes apparent he is simply trying to sneak past Tom, and as Jerry takes off to his next destination, the dining room table, Tom's eyes open as he sneers his usual wicked best. Jerry scurries up the tablecloth and hides behind a candleholder, and Tom pops up and grabs a very saber-like cutting knife. As Jerry reaches for one of the cookies set around a teapot, Tom brings the knife down savagely at Jerry's arm, but the mouse manages to pull his appendage away in time.

Tom slices the candlestick in twain right above the top of the mouse's head, and Jerry speeds off and starts hopping up the stairway clumsily, as only a tiny mouse beset with monstrous set of stairs would. Tom grabs the runner at the bottom of the stairwell and pulls it up, making it taut so Jerry's efforts to run up the straightaway are for naught, especially as Tom begins to pull the runner towards himself. However, at the top of the stairs, the runner goes under an upright piano, which comes flying down the stairwell. Tom flees fearfully, with good reason, but the piano rolls after him and smashes the cat against a wall. The top lid of the piano swings open like a door and a flattened Tom slides off, and pops back into three dimensions (even if, as a cartoon character in this film, he is always in 2D; it's all in your perspective of their existence).

It appears Tom has met his maker, and indeed, this is where Heavenly Puss not only gets its title, but also takes a wild swing away from the routine (as excellent a routine as that is, given the high quality of this series). There is a bright beam of light shining down as if from heaven (which indeed it is) upon poor Tom, and a great, golden escalator materializes from out of the nowhere. Tom's spirit lifts away from the cat's body, steps onto the escalator, and looks back confusedly at the body on the floor as he ascends up the escalator out of frame. The next shot is of the escalator's length, and how it winds casually a huge distance up to some far away clouds representing the heavenly gates.

Those gates have a sign on them reading "Heavenly Express," and through the fence, Tom spies a gilded train onto which other cats of a similar design are boarding. He looks to his right, and he sees a ticket counter where an cat of older disposition (voiced by none other than Daws Butler) is checking names off on a reservation register. The first cat in line is none other than Tom's old sometimes friend sometimes enemy Butch, a black cat covered in bandages and wearing a sling. We find out exactly why, when the agent states "Cause of decease: lost fight with bulldog. Pass granted." Butch steps forward, and a full set of bulldog teeth clamber along the ground behind him, still gripping Butch's tattered tail.

The next cat in line is Frankie, a gray cat wearing a top hat. "Struck with flatiron while singing on a backyard fence." Frankie lifts his hat, and a very tall, red bump on his head is shown. "Pass," says the agent, and Frankie makes his way to the heaven-bound train. The third cat is Aloysious, who appears at first to be a very rotund feline but then we find out the real reason for his portly appearance. The agent asks of him, "Oh, so you didn't see the steamroller coming, eh?" Aloysious nods his affirmation, the agent says "Go ahead," and cat turns to show that he is completely flattened out like bread dough as he passes.

The film takes a left turn to a truly gruesome joke as the agent says the names "Fluff, Muff, and Puff." A sloshing sound is heard and the agent looks over the side of the desk. A bag with its top tied shut comes hopping up, and it becomes immediately apparent that these are the names of three drowned kittens. (Every single time I watch this cartoon, my jaw hits the floor.) The bag pops open to reveal three happy, smiling but mewling kittens. They crawl out of the bag and start to head forward to the train. The agent makes a tsk-tsk noise and says, "What some people won't do."

Thomas knows he nowhere close to being an innocent party in this scenario, and he makes to tiptoe underneath the edge of the counter. The agent is not fooled for a second. "Thomas! Just a minute," he says as he consults his register. Tom steps back to take his punishment. "Apparently, your whole life was spent persecuting an innocent, little mouse. Now, with a record like that, I can't let you through. I'm sorry, Tom." But there is some light at the end of Tom's very dark tunnel. "However," the agent continues, "the Heavenly Express doesn't leave for an hour." He hands Tom a sheet of paper. "If within that time, you can obtain the signature of that little mouse on this Certificate of Forgiveness, you will be permitted to pass."

But, there is a catch, and it's a big one. "Now, if you fail, it's this." The agent turns to a rather ornate television monitor behind his desk. He pushes a button, and the screen turns on to show flames at first. They make way to show the devil, portrayed by the usual MGM bulldog, with red fur and wearing green horns and green slippers. In his right hand is a green pitchfork, as he tends a large cauldron atop a wood fire inside a hellish series of caves. He laughs like a maniac and screams, "Ah, let me have him! Send him down. Give him to me now!" He laughs again, and the camera cuts back to Tom, his yellow eyes bulging from his head, with his mouth agape in fear. The agent turns off the screen, and as Tom is shown gripping the desk, he is told, "Remember, you have only an hour."

Tom turns to race off, but disappears in a puff of smoke. His spirit is next shown back in the room of Tom's supposed demise, and drops back into his body with a slam, waking Tom up at once. As he comes to with the Certificate of Forgiveness in his left hand, his uses his other arm to wipe his brow in relief. Then he remembers why he has the certificate, sees a glowing clock reminding him of the hour he has left, and runs straight to Jerry's mousehole. He offers the mouse a large cake with candles and frosting that reads "To My Pal" on it, but Jerry thinks something devious is up instead. When Tom signs to Jerry the cake is on the up and up, Jerry speed-eats the entire thing like a buzzsaw and leaps back into his hole, leaving the six candles in his wake to clatter to the floor. Angry, Tom reaches into the hole and grabs the mouse, and forcefully puts down the certificate and the mouse, handing him a pen in the process, and points at the paper to make Jerry sign it. Jerry's response is to shoot all of the ink in the pen at Tom's face (as you would expect him to do).

Tom, seeing the clock, figures that he will have to forge his way to heaven. He runs behind the chair to start signing Jerry's name to the paper, but the disembodied voice of the reservation agent says shamefully, "Thomas! Uh, uh, uh, uh..." Tom speeds back to the mousehole bearing a large wedge of swiss cheese. This time, Jerry actually reads the certificate, but when Tom signs to him that if Jerry signs it, Tom will give him the cheese, Jerry angrily tears up the paper. Tom has had it with that reaction, and he grabs Jerry and prepare to smash his brains in with a fireplace shovel. Suddenly, in a puff of smoke, the bulldog devil appears. "Thattaboy, Tom!," he implores the cat. "Hit him and let's go! Come on!" The devil poofs away, and Tom kisses Jerry's head several times.

He gathers the torn pieces of the certificate, runs off, and comes back with the entire thing taped together. He begs and pleads Jerry to sign it, using a wild series of gesticulations to explain his story. Finally, the clock appears once more, and the conductor for the Heavenly Express is heard calling, "All aboard!" He begs and pleads again, but Jerry is still not buying it. Finally, he gives in, but when he tries to sign, no ink will come out of the pen. Tom grabs it and splats ink several times on the wall, and gives it back to the mouse. Jerry signs, and Tom zips back to the gilded escalator, but as he tries to climb onto it, the escalator disappears, a large trapdoor heading straight to Hades opens up, and Tom falls down, waving goodbye as he does. The cat falls straight into Satan's cauldron, and the devil bulldog continues to laugh loud and wildly.

Tom tries to escape, but the scene shifts back to the sleeping cat in front of the fireplace, where hot coals have shot out of the fire and have started to burn Tom's tail. He wakes up screaming, but then realizes he is not dead after all, and is home safe and sound (if not a little bit scorched). He runs to the mousehole and knocks on the wall above it with a huge, genuine grin on his face. When Jerry appears, Tom swoops him up and starts kissing and cuddling him. Mystified by this behavior, since nothing we saw in the film has actually happened, Jerry turns to the camera, and throws out his arms and shrugs his shoulders. Iris out.

Heavenly Puss only appears in Prince of Darkness for a few seconds (the scene where Tom falls into the bulldog's cauldron), but its cameo is a welcome one within the film, watched on a small television screen by one of the characters inside the church where much of the film's action takes place. When we watched the film on the big screen built on the stage at the church -- which is now the home of a local theatrical company, the East-West Players -- there was the noticeable sounds of recognition of Heavenly Puss from members of the audience, and one person near the back even clapped twice when Tom showed up. It reminded me of how I often get when I notice a movie cameo inside another film, and how I also make certain to point it out to my wife, whether she cares or not what it is (in most cases, she doesn't).

Despite my rampant and ever-growing atheism, I seem to have a soft spot for films where characters are caught between either heaven and hell or heaven and earth, such as Angel on My Shoulder, The Horn Blows at Midnight, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, its modern (if 1978 is modern to you) remake Heaven Can Wait, and A Matter of Life and Death (to name just a few). I don't believe in upstairs and downstairs at all when it comes to spiritual matters, but I really don't mind when they are portrayed in films. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, as long as the visuals are groovy and the plots are fun. (A little less so with me when they head for heavier terrain, though there are always exceptions.) Heavenly Puss certainly succeeds on both fronts -- the backgrounds and animation are always pleasing to the eye and the story is a delight -- and it remains one of my favorite Tom and Jerry cartoons.

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