The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the November 6-8 One of My All-Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon, hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
When animation fans get together to talk about the great cartoon directors who developed their craft at Warner Bros. in the 1930s and ’40s, the four names that come up most often are Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and the man behind today’s review, Robert Clampett. Starting at Warners as a teenager in 1931, Clampett worked on the very first Merrie Melodies short, Lady, Play Your Mandolin!, and over the next 15 years would serve as animator, writer and director and be instrumental in the development of such characters as Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny (the amount of his contributions versus other creators’ has been a source of contention for decades).
While he left the studio under stormy–and, again, controversial–circumstances in 1946, his Termite Terrace tenure ended with a bang, because that final year gave us five of Clampett’s best efforts: The Big Snooze with Bugs and Elmer Fudd; Daffy in Baby Bottleneck, Book Revue and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery; and Kitty Kornered, featuring the first teaming of Porky and–in one of his early pre-Tweety appearances–Sylvester the cat. Kitty Kornered may not necessarily be the best known or most popular of the above quintet, but who cares? It’s seven non-stop minutes of unadulterated slapstick mania, packed with the director’s trademark sight gags and exaggerated physical humor.
The very slight story opens with the church bell striking nine o’clock: “The Witching Hour, when everybody winds the clock and puts out the cat,” as the narrator explains. Everybody, that is, except for Porky Pig, who is having no end of difficulties in getting his four feline companions to go outside for the evening (Exactly what was the reasoning behind this long-outdated practice, anyway?). He manages to toss three of them–a black-nosed Sylvester, a gray-furred, red-nosed cat, and a half-sized “mini-Sylvester”–out the kitchen door before Porky winds up in the snow-covered backyard himself, courtesy of the smallest of his pets. And so it is that an irate, nightshirted Porky is left banging on the door to be let back in, but all he gets for his efforts is the admonition, “Milkman, keep those bottles quiet!” (the name of a popular song at the time).
Now that their owner is safely locked outside, the cat quartet can relax safe, warm and without a care indoors (I love that the littlest kitty has his reading glasses on while he peruses a comic book–Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies Comics by Dell, no doubt–and eats bon bons). Oh, and while you can’t tell from the above still, to the right is a better shot of the label on the bottle the red-nosed cat is helping himself to (complete with shout-out to another Warner Bros. film).
Porky, of course, does manage to eventually find his way back inside thanks to an open window, sending the foursome scurrying.
As Porky chases the cats around the house, Clampett and main animator Manny Gould let their knack for comedic physical exaggeration run wild. One cat jumps inside a fishbowl’s miniature castle (waking up a goldfish couple in bed, with the wife exclaiming “Henry, I think there’s somebody in the house!”). Sylvester dives into a mouse hole, forcing Porky to pull him out–along with a chain of squealing rodents–to the strains of “Three Blind Mice” before the tussle turns the room turns into a makeshift pool table. The hapless cat then clings for dear life to a moose head on the wall until Porky pries him off, giving us this abrupt and hilarious visual:
As the embarrassed moose hops off (Who knew moose could hop? Clampett, apparently), Porky realizes that nothing he’s doing is getting the cats to leave, so in desperation he warns them that he’s about to call upom his “big dog Lassie” to chase them out of the house. One barking hand shadow-puppet (and several wonderfully surreal bits involving a door, keyhole and kitchen sink) later, the defeated felines are licking their wounds out in the cold. “Brother pussy cats,” Sylvester laments in a stirring–and spit-laden–speech, “we’ve been skitted out, scooted out, backed out and booted out, but tonight we was scared out! It’s unhospita-spita-spitable! And, furthermore, it’s un-cats-titutional!” “Are we men, or are we mice?,” he asks, to which the smallest cat says “I like cheese!,” only to get a smack in the kisser (two, in fact) for his honesty. Sylvester then hatches a brilliant scheme to allow them to get back at their porcine tormentor.
His plan? Turn the tables on Porky and scare him out of the house by dressing up as “men from Mars” and faking a radio broadcast invasion à la Orson Welles’ War of the World stunt, which occurred just eight year before this cartoon was released. As the skies outside Porky’s window fill with parachuting aliens and a panicking “radio voice” tells listeners to stay calm, the half-asleep and dismissive pig seems unconcerned that there are now three Martians sharing his bed…especially when they give him a goodnight kiss . As he starts to doze off, then suddenly realizes what’s going on, Porky springs into action. He rushes out to the hallway–where an emergency musket sits behind a glass case marked “In Case of Martian Invasion”–and aims his gun at the invading foursome, who make like Teddy Roosevelt and (in another nod to Arsenic and Old Lace) make a mad “CHARRRGGGE!” up the staircase, sabres drawn.
Having chased Porky out a window and into the yard, the kitties yuck it up as a shivering pig asks if anyone in the audience knows someone who knows someone who has a house for rent.
I’m sure that some of the jokes I’ve just described don’t come across as good in print as they do on the screen, but to see how many seemingly unconnected but seamlessly flowing comedy bits Clampett and his animation team could shoehorn into seven minutes is to be amazed. One expert once said he was responsible for “putting the word ‘looney’ in ‘Looney Tunes,’” and that statement may never have been more true than in Kitty Kornered.
By the way, after he left Warner Bros., Bob Clampett took on a whole new medium–television–in 1949 with his Emmy-winning puppet series Time for Beany, which counted Frank Zappa, Groucho Marx and Albert Einstein (!) among its fans, and its 1960s cartoon iteration, Beany and Cecil. In the latter the animation legend made certain there was no doubt who was responsible for the seasick sea serpent and his beanycopter-wearing pal’s adventures, working his name twice into the show’s theme song!