Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Gift Wrapped (1952)

Gift Wrapped (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1952)
Dir.: Friz Freleng
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

We have a new cat this year, and I am concerned about her Christmas wrapping skills.

Not in the actual gift wrapping of Christmas presents. That would be insane, but of course, should she prove helpful in doing such a thing, I will be sure to figure out a way to monetize and exploit it right away. No, I refer to her skills at unwrapping the presents we plan to give her this holiday season.

As our newest baby, of course we are already on the way toward spoiling The Blueberry Muffin rotten. (Her name before we rescued her was Muffin, be we altered it to The Blueberry Muffin so we could call her The Blueberry after the car from Psych.) The Blueberry is smart enough that she will definitely unwrap whatever presents we give her, but there is a BIG problem. This is because she may not notice that there is anything inside the wrapping paper for her -- a toy, a treat, catnip... whatever it might be -- and may just attempt to eat all of the paper instead.

Our rescue cat -- only about two years old -- has a licking and chewing fixation. If you put a finger or toe in front of her, she will lick either for about half a year if left unchecked. She greets you by running up and running her tongue quickly across your foot or leg or whatever appendage you so graciously allow in her presence. She is personable and playful and just about the sweetest little cat I have ever owned (and I grew up around a lot of cats). But she is crazy with the licking thing.

And chewing. Not people mind you, though she does often decide to gnaw on my finger once in a while. But she is particularly sensitive to things like plastic and metal. If I leave the iPad on our bed, she thinks nothing of walking straight up to it, licking the entire screen and then trying to eat the corners of the protective covering that is meant to protect the iPad from many things but not necessarily felines with an oral fetish. Just a couple of days ago, Jen told me that because I left my iPad on the bed all day, The Blueberry thought she was in heaven, and just played and licked and gnawed on it through the afternoon.



I have brought plates of food into the bedroom, with things like chicken, ham, or a cream sauce on them -- foods our often finicky little companion actually does like -- and she will sometimes zero in on the plate itself and try to take a bite out of the china. And bags of chips and cookies? She will stalk the bottom of the bag and attempt to tear a hole in it. She rescues empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom garbage can and throws them around and slowly tries to eat them bit by bit. So weird.

She has the normal dreams of any cat. She likes to look out the window (or "Cat TV" as Jackson Galaxy calls it) for hours to stare at birds and other creatures, and talk to them in her half-purring, half-chirping language. She goes bonkers for food when it is her normal mealtimes of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., and reminds us in increasingly frenetic ways if I am even a few minutes late with her order. But outside of that? Anything seems to go; she seems to have a taste for anything except for the stuff that she is supposed to be tempted by in the normal course of a day.

It makes one wonder what The Blueberry would (or will) do when she is finally confronted by her first Christmas presents as part of our family. Will she take to what she has been given or will she just devour all of the wrapping paper in sight? Or will The Blueberry be like Sylvester the Cat in the 1952 Warner Bros. Christmas classic, Gift Wrapped, and try to swap out her presents for someone else's present that looks even more delicious to her?

Gift Wrapped, unlike some of the other cartoons I have been reviewing over this holiday season, dives right into the Christmas headfirst from its title card (with Tweety Bird mounted on top of a decorative ornament) to its final punchline shot that closes out the cartoon. This entry in the Merrie Melodies series has some marvelous shots of a perfect holiday setting to open the cartoon -- an exterior of the house, a dissolve inside to not only show Granny asleep in bed, but also a lovely one of a Christmas tree adorned by ornaments and surrounded by presents, lit up softly by the moonlight from the window adjacent and a stocking-bedecked fireplace across the room, and with the shadow of the tree nicely faded against the far wall.

A narrator starts us off like a proper Christmas story, reciting the first couple lines from the enduring children's poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. But following the line, "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse," dedication to the calm beginning of the poem is wiped away when we encounter Sylvester the Cat, who has been staring at an empty mousehole at the base of a wall. He turns to the audience with a scowl on his face and says, "You're just not whistlin' Dixie, brother!"

The poetic reading continues with the lines about the stockings and St. Nicholas, and then the narration dissipates with the coming of morning and the sight of an exuberant Sylvester bounding down the stairway. He hops up down saying things like "Santy Clause came for real!" and "Ooh! I've been a good pussycat!" He digs through the pile of gifts and finds one with his name on it. Popping it open excitedly, he throws what he finds back in the box right away with disgust. "A rubber mouse? Ah, why couldn't I get something practical? Like a real mouse!"

His moment of disappointment is suddenly lit up by the sound of a high-pitched voice singing from inside another present across the room. We hear (in my approximation of his speech pattern)...

"Jingo Bewws! Jingo Bewws!
Jingo all da way!
Oh what fun it is to wide

in a one-ho'se open sweigh!"

It is, of course, Tweety Bird, who by this point in both of their careers had already starred in numerous pictures with Sylvester, and all directed by their regular handler, Isadore "Friz" Freleng. (Tweety, however, was created by Robert "Bob" Clampett.) Sylvester is elated to discover the delicious treat hidden in this other present, itself the size and shape of a birdcage. When he peeks inside briefly, he is seen by the bird, who works in his usual catchphrase in these circumstances, "I tawt I taw a putty tat!" Sylvester switches the tags on his present and the birdcage, which has been tagged for his owner, Granny.

When Granny awakens and comes downstairs, Sylvester dances alongside her as she looks over the gifts. She sees the birdcage with his name on it and hands it to him, and he whisks it away out of sight. Granny opens the cat's present that now bears her name and is confused when she too sees the rubber mouse. She goes into the next room to bring Sylvester the toy, but gasps when she sees the cat laying against a wall with a very satisfied face, a full belly, and a single yellow feather sticking out of his mouth. The cage lies open and empty next to him. He hiccups and several more yellow feathers float about the room.

Granny snags Sylvester by the collar and then proceeds to smack him several times on the bottom, until he spits up Tweety Bird onto the floor. She admonishes the "bad ol' cat" for his behavior, and then picks up Tweety to admire his utter cuteness. With Granny not being aware at all of what a violent, yellow fiend the bird is, she holds a piece of mistletoe over Tweety's head while he rests on her palm, and tells the cat to "kiss the little birdie!" Tweety eggs him on as well, and Sylvester responds in the only way that a true cat can: by swallowing Tweety whole in one large chomp! Granny swats his behind over and over again, and he once more spits up Tweety, who replies, "You bad ol' putty tat!"

Later, Granny has secured Tweety high in the air by hanging the cage from the ceiling. "There now! He won't bother you there!" says Granny, and then she turns sternly to the cat. "Will you, kitty?" A halo appears over Sylvester's head as he shakes it to say "No". The very second Granny leaves the room, though, a ladder appears just below the cage and the cat climbs up to look at Tweety. "Granny Schmanny," says Sylvester. "You're my Christmas present, and I'm a-wrapping you up, kid!"



The bird tells him that Sylvester's real gift is still under the tree, an extremely large, white box with red ribbon. Now comes the time for Sylvester's famous catchphrase as well, and he yells out, "Sufferin' succotash! What a present!" Opening the giant box and peeking carefully under the lid, he is entirely eaten up by a massive bulldog inside the box. Granny runs to his rescue and swats the dog's behind in the same way she had already done twice to the cat. The dog spits up Sylvester, and is then dragged out of the house by Granny.

A little while later, while Granny sits in a chair by the tree knitting, Sylvester plans his next capture of the little yellow bird. Standing on the landing overlooking the living room, he uses a toy construction crane and lowers its scoop down to pull the birdcage off the hook of its stand. (I guess she gave up hanging it from the ceiling. And I guess the ceiling that was pretty clearly much lower before has expanded. Oops...) While Granny knits in the comfort of holiday bliss, Tweety is more cautious. "I gotta pe'tew'war feelin' dat putty tat is up ta som'pin'!" he says, and sure enough, the cat continues lowering the crane. When he feels as if he has hit his target, he reels the toy crane back in, but all he has caught is Granny, who is very cross and bearing a broomstick. She starts swatting the cat across the room and down the hall.

Another jump in time, and Sylvester is up to his tricks again. He saws a hole in the ceiling above Tweety's stand, as the bird says, "Dat putty tat sure doesn't get dis-touwaged!" As the cat lowers a hook down to grab the cage, Tweety steps out onto the top of Granny's chair and then lights the fuse of a stick of dynamite he has put in his place within the cage. "Dis oughta help dis-touwage him!" The cat slowly pulls the cage up into the hole in the ceiling. There is a short wait of a beat, then two, and then there is a large blast. The cage starts to lower back down and it is battered and broken from the explosion. We next see Sylvester stumbling down the stairway, covered in soot with his fur torn on his wrist and ankle, with smoke emitting from his ears.

But Sylvester hasn't given up yet. He grabs another present from the gift pile, this time consisting of a toy bow and arrow set and an Indian brave's headdress. Climbing up the Christmas tree so that he pops out right next to Tweety's cage, he points a suction cup arrow in its direction so he can collect his prize. Suddenly, Tweety pops out wearing a large (for him) black cowboy hat and a popgun pistol, complete with cork and string. "'Tick 'em up, Gewonimo! I'm Hopawong Cassidy!" The cat is amused more than anything and decides to call the tiny bird's bluff. (He never learns does he?) "OK, Hoppy," he says with a chuckle. "I'm pullin' your cork!" He does so, and gets blasted in the face so hard that he falls back and then crashes down through the tree into the presents below.



Tweety greets the cat at the bottom and says, "Ooh, Putty! You'we a wweck!" The disheveled cat tries to swat Tweety with his paw, and the chase is on. This time, using the suction cup bow and arrow set, Sylvester is successful in capturing his prey. Pulling the bird along with the string attached to the arrow -- Tweety cries, "Ooh, I think he mad at me!" -- Sylvester reels the bird in and then seasons his meal with a little bit of salt. "Hmm! Shish-kabob!" But just as he ready to cram the bird back down his gullet, he is smacked in the kisser with a plunger! From across the room, wearing a similar Indian headband and holding her own bow and arrow set, Granny cries out, "Aha! You didn't count on Pocahontas, did you, Geronimo?"

Granny settles back into her chair, while Tweety goes around the Christmas tree in circles riding atop a small toy train set. Sneaking around the chair, Sylvester adds more train track to the set so that it circles back around the furniture. Hitting reverse on the switch-box, Sylvester lies down at the very end of the track with his mouth agape. When the train reaches him, Tweety slides easily down his throat, but then Sylvester realizes that someone is behind him. The bulldog swallows the cat in a single bite, but Granny is on the scene. Crying "Drop him! Drop him!" she once again swats the dog's rear to release the cat, but then has to do the same to the cat to release the bird. Carrying both mammals off by the scruffs of their necks, she yells, "This is the limit! I'm going to show both of you there's going to be peace in this house once and for all!"

The scene cuts to Granny playing piano, as she sings what seems to be a secularly modified version of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The tune seems correct, but her lyrics go...

"Peace on earth, good will to men,
peace on earth, and end to fear.
We are full of yuletide spirit.

Christmas comes but once a year."

The backs of all three of her pets are to us, with Tweety and the bulldog flanking Tweety, who sits atop a small table, on either side. Tweety starts to sing, and the lyrics get a little more tortured.

"Joyous yewwtide bewws awe peawing,
peace on earth, good will to men!"

Then Sylvester and the bulldog attempt to join in with the song. However, their efforts are hampered by the fact that both of them have large package seals affixed over their mouths! They can only howl and mumble along to the Christmas carol with their voices seriously muffled. Iris out.

Gift Wrapped is excellent Christmas fare, most of all because not only is it funny in the traditional manner of most Warner Bros. shorts from this period, but also because it really embraces the holiday season and includes it in most of the gags throughout the picture. 

If you are one of those souls who are not prone to liking Tweety and Sylvester cartoons -- and, believe me, there are many out there -- this will probably not be your kind of show, but then it is likely you aren't reading this anyway. I will admit that I don't automatically like all of the Tweety shorts (but then, I don't "automatically" like anything). As the cycle of films progressed, like with any long-running character series, the gags could repeat themselves a little too obviously. I hear the same thing from people who have disdain for the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts. I suspect these groups cross over at some point, and it may be that they just don't like the chase formula. But when the Tweety and Sylvester (and Coyote/Road Runner) shorts worked, which was the vast majority of the time, there was such a high level of sophistication to the gags, artwork and animation, that it would be miserly of a viewer not to at least recognize the quality of the finished product. 

Certainly Freleng and his team, like any animation staff of his time, reused gags from picture to picture. The trick is in making the approach to that gag fresh with each new iteration. Chaplin knew this. Keaton knew this. Mack Sennett knew this. And the Warner Bros. animators definitely knew this as well. It is my belief that they were able to achieve such alchemy at a much higher rate than the other studios, which is why their cartoons have held up so well and continue to capture new fans after all these years.

Getting back to my cat, we fortunately will not be having any birds in cages placed underneath our trees this year (we have three Christmas trees in the house, owing to the combining of separate parts of Jen's family and our various traditions underneath one roof). Two cats that don't get along in one household is enough for now, and The Blueberry prefers to stay in our huge bedroom (seriously, it is almost the size of our old apartment of ten years) hiding from the other cat that is over twice her size. So she will probably not get near any of the trees at all -- which is a blessing, given how squirrelly her natural, semi-feral behavior has proven -- and thus, we won't wake up with shredded paper and ribbon all over the house.

But present her we will. We must. We will join her on the floor of the bedroom and let her tear away. That is part of the fun of having a new kitten, or a pet of any sort: pretending that they totally understand everything we do and should have at least a paw in all that goes on in our lives. And we will wrap her presents in the hopes that she will open them up like our old cats and dogs did: with an eye on the prize inside, and not thinking that every bit of paper that comes off the gift needs to be ingested.

Wish us good luck with this...

RTJ

*****


There is are a couple of versions of this cartoon available on YouTube in different languages, and there is a version on Dailymotion as well. Blogger is not allowing me to embed that one (though it is the best online version). It's probably best, though I think it is just because they don't want to promote a non-YouTube video. Just do a search for the short and you should find it. 

But if you are serious about watching or owning it, Gift Wrapped is available on DVD on Disc 3 of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 and on Blu-ray in the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2.

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