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#235 (Vol. 2 #7): THE CHIEF AND THE KING

cic-stang2When I was a child I enjoyed all sorts of animated cartoon series I saw on television, perhaps more or less equally. But as an adult, watching these cartoons again, I discovered that some, notably Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes grew in my estimation, while others, notably the Hanna-Barbera television cartoons of the late 50s through the 1960s, dropped considerably. I still find the early Hanna-Barbera characters–Yogi Bear, et al.–appealing, thanks to their visual design, primarily by the late animator Ed Benedict, and especially the great voice acting by Daws Butler and his colleagues. But while I can name numerous Warners cartoons whose direction and writing make them great and classic–What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening, and on and on–are there individual Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons from the 50s and 60s that are anywhere near that league?

That’s why I was surprised watching the Hanna-Barbera Hokey Wolf cartoons I wrote about a few weeks ago. Usually nowadays when I catch a Hanna-Barbera cartoon of that vintage on Boomerang, I’m disappointed by what now seems to me the weak stories and dialogue. The Hokey Wolf cartoons proved to be surprisingly inventive, leading me to wonder if there is some other Hanna-Barbera series of that period that deserves critical reevaluation. (Someday I’ll get around to writing about The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Hanna-Barbera’s combined parody of silent movie serials and Disney’s Snow White, for example.)

This brings me back to a long-promised topic, Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat, which debuted on ABC back in 1961, and starred the voice of character actor Arnold Stang, who had earlier voiced Herman, the tough little New Yorker mouse in the Herman and Katnip cartoons of the 1950s. (Watch animation writer Earl Kress interview Stang about Top Cat here:

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.

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-bilkoAs I mentioned in a previous installment, both Hokey Wolf and Top Cat were inspired by Phil Silvers’ performance as comedic con man supreme Sgt. Bilko on the classic 1950s television series You’ll Never Get Rich a. k. a. The Phil Silvers Show a. k. a. Sgt. Bilko. The dead giveaway that Top Cat was inspired by Bilko was the casting of Maurice Gosfield, who played Private Doberman on Bilko, as a similar character on Top Cat, Benny the Ball.

It’s also been observed that Top Cat, a. k. a. T.C., with his gang of alley dwellers is reminiscent of the team of young actors who started out on film as the Dead End Kids and were later known by various names, most famously as the Bowery Boys. Although Top Cat and his gang are all adults, they are all considerably shorter than their friendly nemesis, Officer Dibble, who comes across as a surrogate father figure trying to keep a bunch of mischievous kids in line. (It strikes me that Dibble, Top Cat and gang are like fun house mirror reflections of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, another cartoon variant on the street gang idea.)

Beyond this, I think that the names of some of Top Cat’s gang–Benny the ball, Fancy Fancy–signal that yet another source for the series was the work of Damon Runyon, who is today best known as the author of the stories that were adapted into the musical Guys and Dolls, about likable small-time gamblers and crooks in New York City. It’s notable that Top Cat is the only classic early Hanna-Barbera series that is explicitly located in a real place: New York City. Hoyt Curtin’s score for the series even at moments evokes the music of George Gershwin.

Apparently Top Cat, which was originally shown in prime time, was meant to be written with more adult sophistication than Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw. But as a child I watched Top Cat avidly, and the series did have a long afterlife on Saturday morning TV. It’s not written above the heads of smart kids.

Producer-director Joseph Barbera repeatedly said that he believed the reason why Top Cat, unlike The Flintstones, lasted only one season in prime time was the adult prime time audience would not accept talking animals in a cartoon series. This seems right. A generation later, The Simpsons, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, proved that a prime time animated series could be a tremendous success, and significantly, it excludes talking animals.

But The Simpsons is also sharp and satirical enough to amuse sophisticated adults. But it seems to me that, despite its origin as a series supposedly for adults, Top Cat really is a kids’ show. Unlike The Simpsons, Top Cat doesn’t delve into politics or social satire or adult relationships like marriage, and certainly not sex. Looking at Yogi Bear cartoons on Boomerang, it now seems obvious to me that Yogi is like a clever and mischievous but goodhearted boy trying to get away with his pranks, notably stealing picnic baskets, under the nose of Ranger Smith, a stand-in for a father as authority figure. Top Cat is wilier and acts more mature than Yogi, and Officer Dibble more gullible than the often formidable Ranger Smith, but essentially T. C. and his gang are still like kids trying to outwit their father figure. So the appeal this show would have for kids is clear.

What surprises me in re-watching Top Cat episodes now are subtexts that I ignored as a child because this was indeed a show about “funny animals.” In discussing Hokey Wolf and Fantastic Mr. Fox weeks ago, I pointed out that both had protagonists who are anthropomorphic talking animals, essentially humans disguised as animals. But what if you think of them–or of Top Cat–as actual humans? It seems to me that if Hanna and Barbera had done Top Cat as a series about a gang of humans, not cats, it would have had to be radically different or it wouldn’t have worked. Watching episodes of Top Cat recently, I was struck by how grim the premise of the series would be if Top Cat and his friends humans and not funny talking alley cats. (I will be discussing specific episodes, so I issue spoiler alerts.)

Top Cat not only lives in an alley but in a trash can (years before Oscar the Grouch did the same). He uses Officer Dibble’s police phone, presumably because he can’t afford one of his own. He has no job or source of income apart from his various schemes. Early in one episode, “Rafeefleas,” Top Cat collects what money the gang has. T. C. himself has none, the other five have only a little over sixty cents among them. In short, beneath their comic banter, they are desperately poor. If Top Cat were human, nowadays we’d call him one of the homeless.

But I don’t recall the term “homeless” being commonly used back then: the homeless poor were still referred to as tramps and hobos and bums. Moreover, the hobo was then often a comedic figure rather than a sad one, perhaps following the tradition of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. When Top Cat was first on television, for example, one of comedian Red Skelton’s signature characters was Freddy the Freeloader, a charming clown-like tramp who seemed happy and satisfied with his life. Similarly, although they would love to make a fortune, Top Cat and company do not seem unhappy about their lifestyles.

But imagine if Top Cat and his gang had been depicted as humans rather than cats. Wouldn’t it seem pathetic rather than amusing to have them living in an alley and even in trash cans? If Top Cat and company were truly homeless humans, they would surely be dressed in rags. As cats, following the conventions of cartoons, they instead wear minimal clothing which somehow proves suitable in most places they go. Sgt. Bilko aimed for and lost fortunes, but he had the safety net of his low but secure income as an army sergeant. In contrast, Top Cat and company have absolutely nothing. If he were human, Top Cat’s sunny confidence in his own talents, despite the squalor of his surroundings, would make him seem to be deep in denial of reality. In another episode, “A Visit from Mother,” Benny is distraught because he has told his mother he is not only successful but has become mayor of New York, but now she is coming to visit him and he fears she will learn the truth. For a moment the viewers may stop to consider just how far from successful Top Cat and company are. (And again, a story about a son playing pretend, in effect, to please his mother seems more like a subject for a children’s show.)

I wonder if Top Cat reflects memories of the Great Depression, which its creators had lived through, transformed into a comedy about a heroic conniver whose wit, self-confidence and persistence enables him to rise above, and indeed, ignore the poverty around him. As in the show’s celebrated opening credit sequence, with the title character pretending to ride in a limousine and dining at a fancy restaurant (by stealing a sewer worker’s lunch), Top Cat acts as if he is rich and successful. Penniless he may be, but as the title song goes, he is nonetheless the chief and the king of his world, its top cat.

Like Sgt. Bilko, Top Cat and his accomplices manage to scale the heights before returning to their status quo as alley dwellers. In “A Visit from Mother”, Top Cat succeeds in convincing Benny’s mother, aided by her naivete and nearsightedness, that her son is indeed mayor, and even succeeds in faking a ticker tape parade:

In ‘The Maharajah of Pookajee”, Top Cat ends up impersonating the wealthy maharajah and getting to stay in a palatial hotel suite–until the real maharajah inevitably turns up, of course:

In “The $1,000,00 Derby”, Top Cat not only comes close to winning a million dollars but manages to fool not only the news media but even the city and federal government into thinking he is “the richest man in the world,” oil-rich sheik Ali Khat:

Now there is a premise with the potential for a real satire on the media and politics, but the episode really only scratches the surface. That’s typical of Top Cat: hinting at greater satiric implications without delving into them. Even back then, Jay Ward’s Bullwinkle and Bob Clampett’s Beany and Cecil would have gone further! If only someone would someday revive Top Cat and explore its potential!

My favorite episode, in my childhood and now, is “All That Jazz”, which had that title before either the Kander and Ebb song from Chicago and Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film. The title is the full name of another trickster cat, A. T. Jazz, who is voiced by Daws Butler, possibly performing the voice he would have given Top Cat. (I recalled Butler using his Hokey Wolf voice for Jazz, but that’s not quite right: he gives Jazz a somewhat different voice, much like Hokey’s but also with traces of another Hanna-Barbera character, the hipster cat Mr. Jinks.) Having come all the way from Syracuse (a reference to another city in New York State I hadn’t noticed as a child), Jazz sets about to supplant T. C. as head of his gang, ladies’ man, master con artist, and, in short, “the top cat” of the area. (According to this episode, “top cat” is a title, suggesting that T. C. has an unrevealed real name.) Thus begins a war of the tricksters:

I think one factor that keeps Top Cat from being a truly adult series is that Top Cat’s cunning schemes are so often so transparently obvious to adult viewers. That is true in “All That Jazz.” For example, T. C. tricks Jazz into thinking diamonds have been discovered in a distant country, but he invents a name for the locale that Jazz is easily able to discover is phony. Retaliating, Jazz fakes a radio broadcast declaring that the diamond discovery is real, but watching as an adult, I found it hard to believe that Top Cat didn’t recognize Jazz’s undisguised voice.

In researching tricksters, I learned that one aspect of this character archetype is that he often ends up being tricked himself. That’s one of the pleasures of “All That Jazz,” as Jazz and Top Cat take turns manipulating the other and then proving gullible to his rival’s tricks. In the last act of the story, Jazz and Top Cat each even succeeds in tricking himself. A Hollywood producer and his lackey arrive, looking for a new discovery to cast in their movie The Thing from the Alley. On separate occasions they invite Top Cat and Jazz to be their new star. But Top Cat thinks this is one of Jazz’s tricks, and Jazz thinks this is one of Top Cat’s tricks, with the result that each turns down this offer of potential fame and fortune. This is a recurring pattern on Top Cat. When T. C. masquerades as the Maharajah of Pookajee, he hands out “rubies” that are really cheap costume jewelry. Not once but twice in the episode, Top Cat is offered real rubies, but he assumes they are more costumed jewelry, outsmarting himself. Jazz outsmarted himself in another way as well: having successfully gotten Top Cat’s gang to switch their loyalties to him, he then thoughtlessly proceeded to alienate them, one by one, while investigating T. C.’s diamond scam.

At the end of “All That Jazz” the childlike, trusting Benny the Ball accepts the producer’s offer, and Top Cat and Jazz both realize that the producer was just what he claimed to be. Now Top Cat finally triumphs over his rival by proving to have quicker trickster reflexes. On learning of Benny’s deal, Top Cat immediately tells the producer he is Benny’s agent, and recruits the rest of the gang as Benny’s entourage. Top Cat and company then drive off in the producer’s limousine, literally leaving Jazz in the dust of the alley, which Dibble demands he clean up.

Even as a child I recognized and enjoyed the fact that the rivals were played by two stars of cartoon voice acting. Both in my boyhood and now, my principal pleasure in watching the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the late 1950s and 1960s–the pre-Scooby-Doo era, if you will–is not so much watching as listening to them. Chuck Jones famously called TV cartoon shows of this period “illustrated radio,” because of their severely limited animation. The phrase is apt in another respect, too: like classic radio comedies, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of this period remain showcases for wonderful cartoon voice acting.

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

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3 Responses to “Comics in Context #235: The Chief and the King”

  1. Lou Mougin Says:

    Good stuff. I, too, enjoyed and remember Top Cat.

  2. Jeff Tinsley Says:

    I, too, loved Top Cat. Still do. But I’m not so sure that the story line of having Benny fool his Mom into thinking he’s a success is a strictly “children’s show” material. It strikes me as an inversion on the “A Pocketful Of Miracles”/”Lady For A Day” story. That hardly makes it at kids’ level. Right?

  3. Brett Canavan Says:

    I loved Top Cat as a kid and watched them over and over. When I won a substantial financial settlement some years back, I splurged on DVDs and HAD to own the box set. Yeah, they’re a bit “innocent” but it was the 60’s. Still love this show Peter and thanks to ME for directing me here.

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