by Rachel Newstead
It doesn’t happen very often, but I will occasionally resurrect post ideas I’d once rejected for whatever reason, should I find myself stuck for material. The Avery series was one of those, something I’d knocked around in the back of my mind for two years before committing it to print. What follows is another: an abandoned, unpublished 2007 entry from the old Orphan Toons blog–my review of the 1946 Chuck Jones Looney Tune, Hush My Mouse.
I quit this abruptly after writing the introduction, but exactly why is lost to time. Perhaps I felt there was too much research involved; perhaps another subject began to occupy my time, or I just plain lost interest. Whatever my reasons may have been, after looking at it again a few days ago, it seemed too promising a piece to keep in a dusty corner of the internet any longer.
So for today, I’m temporarily setting aside the Flintstones review series to take you back to Jan. 6, 2007 and my review of Hush My Mouse, complete and slightly revised.
“A Respectable Jernt”: HUSH MY MOUSE (1946)
If scouring the net and my personal collection for classic cartoons has taught me anything, it’s this: some cartoons are born to obscurity, and some have obscurity thrust upon them. Hush My Mouse could easily fit in either category, I suppose–a little-known animated parody of a little-remembered radio show–but unlike most cartoons consigned to animation’s attic, it deserves it the least.
Hush My Mouse is certainly one of Chuck Jones’ less-celebrated efforts, less than even his “Conrad Cat” cartoons. But not, I should add, for lack of quality. It instead has the misfortune of being one of the few topical Warner’s cartoons, a parody of what was once one of the most popular situation comedies on the air: Duffy’s Tavern. On radio, that is. For you younger folks, that’s the thing your grandparents–or perhaps even great-grandparents–stared at before there was any such thing as television.
Consequently, few have seen “hide nor seek” of Hush My Mouse (to quote the malaprop-spouting protagonist of the cartoon) in recent years. Programmers gradually removed it from the regular rotation with no fanfare, thinking kids would be baffled by most of the references. Of course, they didn’t count on kids like me, who grew intensely curious about the source material after seeing the cartoon.
Hush My Mouse is enjoyable on its own merits, even if the material being parodied isn’t obvious to contemporary audiences. But for those wishing a little background knowledge, there’s an excellent page on Duffy’s Tavern here. For the less patient, here’s a somewhat capsulized version:
Duffy’s Tavern was the 1941 creation of Astoria, Queens-born and bred comedy writer Ed Gardner, who incidentally was also the program’s star. He hadn’t intended to be in front of the mike originally, but his nasal “Toity-Toid and Toid Street” New Yorkese proved an ideal fit for the show’s main character, Archie. Archie ran Duffy’s Tavern for his perennially-absent boss (Duffy was referred to, or spoken to by telephone, but he never once set foot in the place).
Every show would open with the ring of a telephone and Archie’s signature lines, “Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin’–Duffy ain’t here…” Archie was an uneducated, rough but generally good-natured type whose attempts to sound respectable usually resulted in hilarious malapropisms. Much like another, better-known Archie from decades later, in fact–who ironically also ended up running a bar.
Because of the setting, it made sense for celebrities of the day to frequent Duffy’s as guest stars, and the show served as a training ground for many a future star, such as Shirley Booth, who went on to television immortality as “Hazel”; Alan Reed (the future Fred Flintstone), Sandra Gould (“Gladys Kravitz” #2 on Bewitched) and even, later in its run, Sid “Baby Huey” Raymond, the second actor to play dimwitted waiter Finnegan. It lasted ten years on radio–a respectable run by any standard–and even moved to television for one season in 1954. But as with most attempted radio transplants, people balked at seeing characters they heretofore had only imagined. Which is funnier, for example: hearing the contents of Fibber McGee’s closet cascading down on the poor guy’s head, or seeing them?
Rather than wait for an answer to that question, “leave us proceed wit’ business”, as Archie himself would say.
“Where the felines wines and dines…”
The cartoon opens to a panoramic shot of a city, and the scene dissolves to show the open door of a saloon. Ah, but we’re not going into that saloon, but into the feline version located in the alley behind it: “Tuffy’s” Tavern. According to the menu tacked up on the packing-crate wall, the “speshul” of the day is “mouse knuckles.” But there’s a slight complication….
As with his human counterpart, the feline version of Archie–or “Artie”, in this cartoon–is on the phone with his absentee boss “Tuffy,” and it seems Tuffy has a little trouble getting that day’s special. Unfortunately, it’s “Edward G. Robincat’s” favorite dish. (I shouldn’t have to explain who he’s patterned after). Even more unfortunately for Artie, Robincat’s not the type to take its disappearance from the menu lightly–and he’s on his way over.
Before Artie even hangs up the phone, Robincat arrives, as tough-looking as his human counterpart–and then some. Artie therefore calls on “Filligan” (as dumb as his human counterpart–and then some) to make himself “useful as well as oriental” by rounding up a mouse.
The mouse, in this case, just happens to be Sniffles, who in the last couple of years had taken on some of the characteristics of his gabby little friend in 1941′s The Brave Little Bat. Or rather, just one characteristic, a tendencytotalkaimelesslyandonandonsofastyoucanhardlyunderstandhim (lack of spacing intentional).
Being bombarded by this verbal tsunami doesn’t phase Filligan–much. He retains full confidence that Sniffles is his “prisoner”. Sniffles, however, has other ideas, deciding to “play” with Filligan a little with a vertigo-inducing game of Blind Man’s Bluff.
Meanwhile, Robincat’s getting more hostile; the scene of him pounding the table (and Artie in the process) is a perfect example of the sort of “Chuck Jones middle period”
smear animation I’ve written enthusiastically about so many times before.
But back to Filligan–who’s still spinning like a top, and Sniffles, who’s still talking. It’s the sort of timing only Jones could accomplish–by having the action cut away while Filligan is in mid-spin, then cut back to him a moment later, it serves to emphasize just how ridiculously long–and funny–that spin is.
When Sniffles learns Filligan wants to catch him for mouse knuckles, he tells Fillligan where to find some much bigger than his own puny little specimens (of course, we know he’s just put Filligan’s own hand in a paper bag with a hole at the bottom). Filligan happily rushes off to the anxious Artie, who in the meantime has been taking quite a beating from Robincat.
Of course when Artie grabs the knuckles and discovers Fillligan’s attached to them, he berates Filligan for having the “verve” to come in empty-handed. Before Artie can kick the oaf out, however, Robincat grabs the bag, reaching through the hole to grab his own foot–which he promptly chomps down on. This time, the infuriated Robincat does the honors of kicking Filligan out.
Outside, Filligan sees Sniffles enter a hole in a nearby fence; what he doesn’t
know, however, is that a rather large, vicious bulldog is on the other side.
Filligan grabs the dog bone, which the bulldog is none too pleased about. Knocking down the entire fence, he sets off in pursuit. Sniffles explains to us–at a rate of about 2000 words a minute–what’s about to happen, but it doesn’t take Nostradamus to figure that out. A split second after Robincat bites down onto the dog bone, the dog appears (proving, again, that Jones’ timing was razor-sharp even at this early date).
What follows is a wonderful little scene which proves an animated sequence needn’t be wild and fast to be funny (though I do admit it helps, a lot): Robincat, his teeth still clamped down onto the bone, slowly flashes a big, nervous, toothy grin as he stares the dog in the face. (Similar to the “my teeth are bigger than yours” scene between the cat and the bulldog in The Aristo-Cat, but funnier). As is usual with Jones’ work, it’s timed to the frame, neither too slow nor too fast.
The dog and Robincat disappear into a cloud of dust as a battle between them ensues, eventually pulling Artie in with them. At that moment, the phone rings. Since Artie is a bit…occupied at the moment, Filligan answers.
It’s Tuffy, who wants to know if Artie still wants the mouse knuckles; but since Artie’s being beaten to a pulp by both Robincat and the dog, he’s in no position to answer. Filligan, therefore, delivers the closing line: “I don’t think he needs the mouse knuckles, Tuffy, but he sure could use some brass knuckles!”
Sniffles began life in 1939 with both feet firmly in Disney territory, as a young, childlike innocent. Much like a human child, Sniffles often found himself in a world that to him seemed overwhelming, frightening, and dangerous. The cartoons explored this in various ways: in Sniffles Takes A Trip (1940)–Jones’ answer of sorts to Disney’s The Country Mouse–city mouse Sniffles looks forward to a day of peace and quiet in the country, only to go rushing home when, at nightfall, the peaceful landscape transforms into a nightmare world of eerie sights and sounds. In Toy Trouble, the menace comes from deceptively harmless childrens’ toys and one very real cat. In The Egg Collector, Sniffles and his little bookworm friend are as frightened of the stark shadows and creaking rafters of an old barn as they are of the owl who threatens to eat them.
What difference a couple of years make: by the time of Unbearable Bear in 1943, Sniffles was unrecognizable, his personality completely transformed to match the studio’s new smart-aleck sensibility. Where Sniffles might have trembled at the sight of a cat just a couple of years before, he now found them easy to subdue, mainly because he didn’t have to do much of anything; his antagonists did themselves in through their own incompetence. He’d become, in a manner of speaking, the Road Runner in a mouse suit.
Rather than make him a funnier character, this personality makeover only made him annoying, stripping him of his most endearing quality–his innocence. The incessant, rapid-fire babble didn’t help–he’s such a pest, we soon find ourselves hoping he’ll be some cat’s dinner. Hush My Mouse marked his last appearance on screen; to audiences, it must have seemed like an act of mercy.
Hush My Mouse, however, has too much going for it to simply dismiss as a failure. The cartoon’s helped along not just by Jones’ animation, but by Mel Blanc’s superb voice work. If anything, his feline Ed Gardner is funnier than the original; one can’t help but chuckle at lines like “I’m standin’ here wit’ me life in Picardy…” and “Gentleman, please, please–after all, this dump is no ordinary joint! Leave us not turn it into no fight aroma.” (I’m laughing, but my spell-checker’s reduced to tears…)
Ed Gardner lived long enough to see the character he created embodied in yet another cartoon cat, Hanna-Barbera’s Super Snooper–which must have seemed like a mixed blessing at best. Yet in a strange way, the animated parodies have kept his show alive, as fans like me who have seen the cartoons want to discover the source.
As Archie might have said, that’s quite “exempulary….”
[On the subject of discovering the source, you might want to take advantage of this link to my new best friend, the Internet Archive, which contains many wonderful episodes of the Duffy's Tavern radio series. Including one featuring a certain "Colonel Stoopnagle", who'll get his turn on this site very soon.]
(Incorrect time stamp corrected, 2/26/10).