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#231 (Vol. 2 #3): KILLING KATNIP

cic-stangDuring my lengthy leave of absence from writing “Comics in Context,” the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City and the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco jointly held a traveling exhibition on the art of Harvey Comics, many of whose most celebrated characters, such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, originated in animated cartoons produced by Paramount’s Famous Studios. I’m not that interested in Casper or Richie Rich, but the exhibit did reawaken my interest in some of the less famous animated stars of the Famous cartoons.

Towards the end of 2009, character actor Arnold Stang passed away, and I decided to write columns about two of the most memorable characters he voiced in animated cartoons. The first, starting in 1944, was Famous Studios’ Herman the mouse, who was eventually teamed with perennial antagonist Katnip the cat, voiced by the late Sid Raymond, for a series of theatrical cartoons that ran till 1959. (Owned by the Paramount studio, Famous was later reorganized and renamed Paramount Cartoon Studios.)

Only two years later, in 1961, Stang starred as Top Cat in the Hanna-Barbera animated television series of the same name. Following the success of Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones in prime time, Top Cat was also made for evening viewing and aimed at an adult audience that included adults. It lasted only one season, for a total of thirty episodes (TV seasons were longer back then), but has been rerun ever since, first on Saturday mornings and nowadays on the cable network Boomerang. Similarly, Paramount sold Herman and Katnip and the other characters Famous originated, and their animated shorts, to Harvey Comics, which put its logo on the cartoons when they turned up on television.

So Top Cat and Herman were part of the Baby Boomers’ childhoods, and today their cartoons can be found on DVD collections and online. They are further proof of my Eternal Present theory of cartoon art in the 21st century: so much classic material is now easily accessible that the significant work of the past has once more part of the present, for those who care to look.

cic-stang2In one of his blog entries following Stang’s passing, cartoon/comics historian Mark Evanier notes that Stang was producer/director Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s third choice to play Top Cat, and comments that “Arnold Stang was an odd choice, as he was usually associated with milquetoast, whiny characters and Top Cat was a cool, confident fellow”. Short, scrawny, and bespectacled, Arnold Stang onscreen indeed usually played what would now be called nerds. Maybe today his best known role onscreen is as one of the two hapless gas station attendants who are literally thrown about by Jonathan Winters as he demolishes their station in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). (Marvin Kaplan, the voice of Choo Choo on Top Cat, played the other attendant.)

Surely in casting Top Cat Hanna and Barbera were aware that Stang had long been voicing a similar character, Herman. In various onscreen “milquetoast” roles, Stang used a high-pitched voice. But as Herman and Top Cat, Stang spoke at a lower pitch. Ironically, as a cartoon mouse or cat, he could project the personality of a tough guy: self-confidence, keen intelligence, a formidable will, and sheer cool. Herman and Top Cat sound basically alike, although Top Cat’s voice tends to be smoother and warmer.

I observe that sources disagree as to whether the first Herman and Katnip cartoon was Naughty but Mice (1947), which establishes the series formula by pitting Herman against a cat:

Or Mice Meeting You (1950):

The earlier cartoon establishes the series formula by pitting Herman against a cat, but this black cat doesn’t quite look like the familiar Katnip of the 1950s, with his red fur. (All of the cartoons with Herman that I mention in this week’s column are credited to Seymour Kneitel as director.)

The Herman and Katnip series appears to be Famous’s response to Hanna and Barbera’s highly successful Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM. The major difference between these two cat-and-mouse series is that Tom and Jerry (usually) don’t talk, whereas Herman and Katnip do. Stang gives Herman an old-style New York City accent. I noticed among the comments on a Herman and Katnip cartoon posted on YouTube that one person pointed out that Herman pronounces “furnace” as “foinace,” and asked, “Who talks like this any more?” But that was a stereotypical Brooklynese accent in the mid-20th century, familiar in so many movies and television shows of the period.

cic-stang3Maybe Famous was attempting to have Herman mimic Bugs Bunny: Mel Blanc, who originated Bugs’s voice, claimed it was a combination of Brooklyn and Bronx accents. So Bugs Bunny is a wisecracking, feisty, sharp-witted New Yorker, transplanted by director Tex Avery in the first true Bugs Bunny cartoon, A Wild Hare (1940), into the woods. Only occasionally do the Warners cartoons make it explicit that Bugs is a New Yorker, as in Friz Freleng’s A Hare Grows in Manhattan (1947), which recounts his growing upon the Lower East Side. Herman has an even stronger New York accent. Famous Studios originated as the legendary Max Fleischer animation studios, which Paramount took over. Apart from a relatively brief sojourn in Florida, the Fleischer and Famous Studios were based in New York City, so it makes sense that Famous would develop a character who was clearly a New Yorker.

In Naughty but Mice Herman is explicitly referred to as a “cousin” from the “city” who is visiting mice living on a farm in the country. Maybe this is an allusion to Aesop’s fable about the town mouse and the country mouse who visit each other’s homes, which had served as the basis for Walt Disney’s Oscar-winning “Silly Symphony” cartoon The Country Cousin (1936) in which the title character visits his relation in the city. Herman proceeds to save his country cousins from the proto-Katnip cat who persecutes them by outwitting him. In another cartoon I saw on YouTube, Mice Capades (1952), which pits Herman against a fully evolved Katnip, Herman is again presented as a visitor who liberates mice from their oppressor, Katnip. In the series Herman is even drawn as something of a leading man mouse, handsomer than the goofier-looking mice in the supporting cast.

So it seems to me that Herman is Famous Studios’ salute to New Yorkers. Whereas other filmmakers, like, say, Frank Capra, might extol the virtues of the country man against the cynicism and corruption of the city, Herman embodies the smartness and persistence of the native New Yorker.

I had long assumed that “Itchy and Scratchy,” the cartoon-series-within-a-cartoon-series in The Simpsons, with its over the top violence, was intended as a parody of Tom and Jerry. After all, the Tom and Jerry cartoons are also known for their violence. I recall reading Warner Bros. cartoon director Chuck Jones saying that when Wile E. Coyote’s Roadrunner-catching schemes backfired on him, and he fell off a cliff or was caught in an explosion, he suffered more humiliation than pain. That is a principle that generally seems to apply to the Warners cartoons. When Elmer Fudd shoots Daffy Duck in the face, his beak might spin around, but Daffy seems more disgruntled than hurt. There’s something abstract about the violence in the Warners cartoons. In contrast, Hanna and Barbera often stage the violence in their Tom and Jerry cartoons to emphasize the pain Tom feels, and to thereby give the audience some sense of what that pain must be like.

But I recently read that the true inspiration for “Itchy and Scratchy” is the Herman and Katnip series, and that, as Katnip would say, seems logical. Longtime Simpsons producer David Silverman says, “People say it’s like an insane Tom and Jerry, but it’s really more of an insane Herman and Katnip. Herman and Katnip is hilarious because it’s just bad. It’s painfully bad.” Oh, I disagree that they’re bad cartoons, but painful, yes. These cartoons push the envelope on violence still further, with results that can be downright macabre. (And as usual, I issue a spoiler warning for those who do not want to know the details of these cartoons.)

When Herman arrives in Naughty but Mice, he learns that several of the country mice–presumably his relatives–are dead, and “the new cat” is a “killer.” Now, obviously, in many funny animal animated cartoons, one animal is attempting to catch, kill and devour the other, but normally the predator never succeeds, and so death remains an abstraction in these cartoons. It is therefore startling to see these clearly distraught country mice in Naughty but Mice talk about actual killings, and how the surviving mice are “starving” because the cat keeps them from finding food Of course, in the context of animated cartoons in which animals have human intelligence and can talk, the death of a mouse can be as shocking as the death of a human being.

So Herman takes action against the cat, including giving him whiffs from a bottle of “quick-acting catnip” marked “100 proof.” Is this how Katnip got his name? The cat immediately gets high, moving around in a daze, following Herman, who holds a rose doused with catnip. “Love in Bloom” is played on the sound track, and the pupils in the cat’s eyes turn to hearts. I suppose that many viewers might have interpreted the cat’s behavior as a kind of drunkenness. But I wonder if, by using catnip as a substitute, Famous Studios thus managed to get drug humor past the censors. Is there even an implication that Herman has turned the cat gay, as he wanders after the mouse and his rose, seemingly in love?

The seduction is followed by destruction. The cat falls down a well, Herman grows in a huge stick of dynamite, and startlingly, actually kills the cat: Chopin’s Funeral March even turns up briefly on the sound track. Since the cat was established as a killer, this does balance the dramatic scales, but it still seems shocking in the context of a cartoon directed at children. It would be worse if the cat had ceased to be, but, following another convention in cartoons of that period, nine ghosts rise from his body, one for each of the cat’s traditional nine lives. This trope is most amusingly presented in director Friz Freleng and writer Michael Maltese’s Back Alley Oproar (1948) in which when singing cat Sylvester dies, his nine ghosts rise towards heaven singing the sextet from the opera Lucia di Lammermorr. But Naughty but Mice closes with the nine angry ghosts of the murdered cat pursuing Herman, who waves the catnip-doused rose at them without effect. He seemingly has no way to fight them off. That is a downright weird and very dark ending.

In Mice Meeting You Katnip has acquired his familiar red-furred visual design, but not yet his name: in the cartoon proper (as opposed to the logo later added by Harvey) he is called Kitty. This is an example of what I call counter-Christmas viewing: though the mice sing happily over Christmas dinner at the end, the overall tone of this holiday cartoon, with its war between Herman and Katnip, hardly seems Christmas-like. Once again Herman is introduced as a visitor, though this time the other mice live in a big, impressive expensive-looking house rather than a barn. Usually in cat and mouse cartoons, the cat is guardian of the house, keeping the mice from stealing food. This cartoon, though, reverses the situation: the mice are presented as if they are the rightful residents of the house, and the cat is an invading outsider who gains entrance by pretending to be Santa Claus. (Herman later impersonates Santa as well in this short.) As usual Herman heroically does battle with the cat on behalf of the other mice.

At one point during their war, Herman points to mistletoe, and Katnip puckers up for a kiss. Is the not-too-bright Katnip simply responding to the mistletoe tradition without stopping to realize that (A) he hates Herman and (B) Herman is male? Bugs Bunny famously and repeatedly masqueraded in drag to allure and trick Elmer Fudd, but the premise of those gags seemed to be that Elmer was attracted to women. But Herman doesn’t pretend to be female and still gets a sexual response from Katnip. So, again, is Katnip gay? In any case, Katnip gets “kissed” by the suction cup of a plumber’s helper that Herman thrusts at his face.

At the finale the defeated Katnip has been reduced to immobility. Ornaments have been hung on his body, and Herman plugs Katnip’s tail into an electric socket, causing them to light up. Katnip, though presumably he’s been electrocuted, still does not move. Is Katnip dead? I suppose at least symbolically he is: he’s been turned from a cat into a Christmas tree.

In Mice Capades Herman tricks Katnip into thinking that a bottle of vinegar he drank is actually poison. Katnip is persuaded that he has died, lies in a coffin-like box, and Herman, dressed as an angel, and the other mice, stage an elaborate charade to convince Katnip that he has awakened in heaven. But then Herman, as the angel, decrees that Katnip has been condemned to go to the “other place,” represented by that aforementioned “foinace.” Terrified, Katnip promises to reform and no longer chase mice. But then Katnip discovers that the bottle labeled poison was actually vinegar, sees through the trickery, and goes after Herman with a shotgun. Herman manages to bend the gun barrels so that Katnip shoots himself–dead! Katnip’s ghost (only one this time) rises from his body, bent on revenge. But Herman warns him about hell again, Katnip panics, and the cartoon closes, rather eerily if one thinks about it, with Katnip’s ghost acting as a servant waiting on Herman and the other mice. Of course Katnip will be back alive in his next cartoon, but this ending still seems a little disturbing.

Katnip is neither killed nor immobilized in Mouseum (1956), but its ending is both macabre and in dubious taste:

In a museum, Herman hides in a mounted elephant’s head. Katnip sticks his gun barrels up the elephant’s trunk; Herman (who seems unusually strong) bends the barrels, and when Katnip fires, the elephant’s glass eyes shoot out from its head. Seeing the glass eyes on the floor, Katnip leaps to the illogical conclusion that these are his own eyes, picks them up, and screws them into his own eye sockets, with the result that Katnip really can’t see, and he runs out of the museum, continually smashing into things, thinking he’s gone blind.

So the Herman and Katnip cartoons are much edgier than I recalled from my childhood. It is often said that theatrical cartoons from the 1930s through the 1950s were shown with feature films, and hence were intended for audiences of all ages. I suspect that adults at that time often considered the cartoons on the bill as something specifically for the children in the audience. But, as with much of the material in the Classic Children’s Comics collection I’ve been writing about, it looks as if Hollywood animated cartoons at the time traveled under the adults’ radar. The Herman and Katnip cartoons get away with having the protagonist murder the antagonist and go unpunished, drug humor and hints of homosexuality. None of that would be allowed in live action movies aimed at adults at the time. But because Herman and Katnip are funny animals in kiddie cartoons, they get away with it. The Max Fleischer studio may have been turned into Paramount’s Famous Studio, with its outwardly blander output, but perhaps the characteristic Fleischer subversiveness survived and kept cropping up in Famous cartoons like these.

In one of my upcoming columns, I will turn to Mr. Stang’s other celebrated character, Top Cat, and return to a longtime theme in “Comics in Context,” the tradition of the trickster.

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

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