Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The House on Pork Chop Hill, or The Long, Dark Cartoons of the Soul

Yes, because Chuck Jones, the Looney Tunes King, has grown tired of the same old thing.  As I alluded to before, I believe it was Art Clokey who thought he was going to leverage his Gumby character ... I mean, he thought he was going to be rubbing elbows with the greats of his era like .... Kate Beckinsale played her in The Aviator... Ava Gardner, I believe it was!  And what was Hollywood's response?  It was, "Um... you've got some green clay under your fingernails there.  Why don't you go away and have that checked out and never come back?"  Chuck Jones was a bit luckier than that, the product of the studio system that he was.  Well, he was at a party one night, and overheard the wrong person saying "Stupid Looney Tunes.  Same old gags, same EXPENSIVE drawings..."  Or who knows, maybe he was in a bad mood one week, trying to come up with new stories to tell using the Looney Tunes.  Sort of like how Art Davis tried telling Looney Tunes stories, but often without any of the established stars.  You know, seeing as how the studio worried about cartoons like Duck Amuck in relation to a cartoon star's image, it's a wonder that Art Davis got anything made at all.  I guess they were cheaper to produce or something.  The point I'm trying to convey is that... man, but Scaredy Cat's one messed up Looney Tunes.  I think I saw it when I was far too young and impressionable.  Now that I'm a bit older and able to better withstand the vibes these cartoons put out there into the world, I can definitely say that you'll probably not want to show this one to your kids, if you show them stuff like Looney Tunes at all.
Let's just dive right into the plot, shall we?  It's your basic premise... I believe the Stooges tried it once or twice themselves.  There's, of course, that one where Kenneth MacDonald tells the idiot manchild with the machete, "Strangers in the house!"  And off he goes to swipe at the Stooges and just miss.  And of course the old switcheroo, where the Stooge behind the locked door takes too long to unlock it and lets the wrong guy in.  Love that bit.  Oh, and there's the post-stroke Curly classic "If a Body Meets a Body."  I'm watching that one the next time we have company.
Anyway, back on track.  Scaredy Cat is one of those rare Looney Tunes with just Porky and Sylvester.  They made another one with spaceships, if I recall correctly... wonder if it's on the DVD.  Clearly such thoughts were not put into how these DVDs are organized.  Disc Two is any manner of Porky and Daffy cartoons... I guess I should just sit back and appreciate the variety.  Anyway, Sylvester doesn't speak English in this one, spreading his saliva everywhere in the process.  Here he's relegated to the role of mere house cat.
And so, Porky sets up the premise for us, through the clever ruse of telling Sylvester.  Much like Tom Hanks and "Wilson" in Cast Away, if you like.  But the chills and thrills start off right away, and Sylvester gets spooked by a bat.  Sylvester clings to Porky's face, and Porky tries to talk with a mouthful of cat fur.  A minor audio classic... if I still had the means, I'd rip that into an .mp3 file for each time I start up a program... oh, right.  It's not Windows 98 anymore.  I keep forgetting.  Will our children ever forgive us?  "It's just a silly old harmless BAT!" shouts Porky at Sylvester.
Next scene: bedtime, where Porky orders Sylvester into the downstairs kitchen.  Sylvester follows Porky up the stairs instead, much like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. at one point, only a little more snugly.  And even though Sylvester and his fur might make a good blanket, Porky eventually realizes where Sylvester is, and scolds Sylvester anew.  Sylvester makes his way down to that kitchen at long last and... yup, the first big scare.  Horrors beyond description.  This haunted house is actually home for a gruesome cult of cat-killing mice.  We're way past the mere childish antics of Hubie and Bertie here.  I'll leave it to the theologians among us out there to determine if the procession of mice seem more Protestant or Catholic in their demeanor.  Either way, they're planning to execute themselves one red-furred, tied-up cat.
Chuck Jones has a special obsession with expressive eyes, but it's not usually in the service of expressing fear.  I'm reminded of the look of outrage in little Papa Bear's eyes when Mama Bear gets that bottle of ketchup... can't remember the name of that one.  I've referenced it before.  And so, with emotional scarring in place, unable to unsee what he just saw, Sylvester runs to be at Porky's side.  And once Porky's usual protestations are over, Sylvester tries to convey to Porky, in charades-type fashion, what he just saw.  And while he's unable to properly explain that it's mice about to kill a cat, the idea of an execution is conveyed.
Porky is, of course, doubtful.  Which brings us to the real horror, most notably in many a Twilight Zone episode: disbelief.  You're trying to explain that there's a man on the wing of the plane, tearing the engine up... but no one believes you.  Especially frustrating if you're William Shatner.  Why should we doubt HIS sincerity?
Anyway, I made a list of the moves from this point on, but it's in the other room and it's three in the morning.  The scares come hard and fast from here, and Porky misses them all.  Now, the one that I'm pretty sure was quite firmly removed from the broadcast version: at one point, a gun-wielding mouse takes a shot at Porky.  The mouse aims right for Porky's head, too.  Porky ducks down at the last millisecond, of course, but the shot rings out nonetheless.  Porky heard something, though.  He stands up straight again and says something like "Hmm!  Must be firecrackers." 
Another one that he totally misses: the world's loudest arrow just misses his head when he's in the kitchen, and places a knocked-out Sylvester into a basket.  I was reminded of the most dynamic scene from Disney's "Wind in the Willows" when one of the characters misses a hail of knives.  Porky has a similar miss, as a half-dozen knives softly stick to the kitchen door he just walked through.  I don't know how you control the speed of knives like that.  Roger Rabbit certainly didn't get the slow knives, that's for sure... am I the only one thinking of Aik Beng's game for Broderbund called "Drol," incidentally?  I know, I know, wrong blog.
Now, here's a good directing and screenwriting tip: you need a few big setpieces like the anvil sequence here, or the bed on the flagpole sequence, to break up the action.  Even the wildest MGM Tex Avery cartoons occasionally stopped to catch their breath.  I'm instantly reminded of the scene where the wolf on the lam(b?) goes into the theater to watch a cartoon in Northwest Hounded Police.  I still love that one, even though the cartoon seems a little obnoxious to me now.  But hey, I don't force my parents to watch it as much anymore.  Which brings us to Sylvester's big scare.  Porky missed it earlier, but the basket has the peculiar habit of lowering down into the basement.  It's about 1:30am when Sylvester goes through the floor, and we pan over to the clock.  Fast-forward to 4 am, and Sylvester re-emerges looking like a Frankenstein shell of his former self, and grey as a ghost.  He slowly walks up to Porky's bedroom, and meows like a cat.  Porky wakes up and gets the living crap scared out of him.  Sylvester meows a second time.  But Porky seems to view all of Sylvester's problems like a nail, and so Porky hammers him anew, telling him to "remove that disguise."  However, Sylvester is about to be vindicated.  Porky goes into that haunted kitchen himself, and doesn't come out. Damn, those mice are good at what they do.  Must've been trained by the CIA.  And so, Porky ends up in the slow wagon to the chopping block, holding a big sign... wonder where he got that?  Must be a Geneva Convention thing... see?  These mice aren't complete monsters! 
Still, Sylvester needs to just get the hell away from the house for a while.  Sylvester takes a few big breaths and regains a bit of his sanity.  And then... his cat conscience appears.  As always, Carl Stalling's musical accompaniment is spot on.  Doesn't he do his best work with Jones and Clampett, though?  Sylvester's cat conscience has to remind him of the relative sizes of cats compared to mice.  And so, much like that lion in the Disney cartoon who thought he was a sheep... was that it?  I just can't remember... And so, like the Eloi at the end of The Time Machine forming the fists that defeat the evil Smurfs.. I mean ,Morluk... Sylvester grabs a tree limb... then the whole tree... and goes right back to that house to save his beloved Porky.  I know I should focus, but I'm reminded of the other Sylvester/Porky/haunted house outing where Sylvester has to finally clobber Porky and drive the two of them away from the becursed property... oh, well.  The mind's funny that way, or is it just another clich√©?

EPILOGUE: And so, the tables are turned on Sylvester, as he learns how the sin of pride does occasionally have disastrous consequences for his ilk.  Porky is profusely thanking Sylvester for saving his bacon, pun intended, when that darned hooded mouse rears its hooded head once again.  Porky tries to warn Sylvester, but it's too late.  Sylvester gets bonked on the head, right down to the floor.  Porky looks up at the mouse in the cuckoo clock, and the mouse removes its hood.  Why, it's a cultural reference from an earlier era!  Help me out here, Turner Classic Movies.  They showed a newsreel once with that guy in it... just his voice, anywho.  Maybe Wikipedia knows.  It's worth it, I swear.
Now I know that everything's creepy these days.  If it's not cool, or under 25 years old, it's creepy.  That's the era we live in now, but I say it's part of having a rich, emotional life.  You know, like Pixar's Inside Out and what not.  Sometimes you gotta just venture off of your own personal movie farm and try new things.  At least, when you're old enough to not be scarred forever by it.  Much like Chuck Jones tried to do.  I'm not sure exactly what he set out to do with Scaredy Cat, but I think it's safe to say that he succeeded!

Good double bill with: Trap Happy Porky, every drunk's favourite Looney Tune of all time.

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan


No comments: