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Animator Breakdown: Tale of Two Mice

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If I had to choose a single cartoon as the most underrated in the output of Warner cartoons, this would probably be it.

It astounds me that it isn’t in the pantheon of usual favorites that plague film journals and message boards. Tale of Two Mice is cartoon timing and funny animation at its peak, and easily Frank Tashlin’s finest hour. It’s just as crazy and exciting as anything Bob Clampett did, but while Clampett was more sophomoric in his exaggeration, Tashlin was sophisticated. (This isn’t a knock against B.C., on the contrary, the youthful nature of his cartoons account for a lot of his strength as a director.)

The problem with this particular cartoon seems to be that many write it off as another stupid Hollywood parody, but once you look at it even momentarily it becomes apparent that there’s no other cartoon like it. It’s a balance of high comedy and blatant cynicism (Babbitt is quick to abandon his roommate, and Costello doesn’t forget it at the end) that only Avery (and occasionally Jones) could match in his own unique way.

What’s amazing is that it actually was done before, at Screen Gems as The Great Cheese Mystery in 1941, only without the Abbott & Costello mice. In this case, it was Art Davis serving as director and “Tish Tash” as the writer. It’s a noble effort that actually proceeded Fox and Grapes, with Tashlin channeling his auteur-vision through Davis. It used to be online but isn’t anymore (I’ll remedy that later this week.)

Once Tashlin returned to Termite Terrace for his third and final time, he had learned from his experience at Disney (and then cherry-picking strikers from the picket line to take to Screen Gems) that even the guys with the most money could be just as clueless as anybody in the art of short filmmaking and that they [Warners] could move these things however the hell they wanted to. He joined brothers Jones, Clampett, and Freleng in helping make the period of 1942-1946 Warner cartoons the most innovative, exciting, and funniest in animation history.

The Tashlin animators are fairly harder to pick apart than some of the other units, but the scenes with the fullest drawing tend to almost always be the work of Art Davis. Tashlin actually dismissed Davis at Screen Gems during one of the studio’s annual “cleaning house” firings, but Davis claimed to Mike Barrier that it caused no awkwardness when he ended up being in Tashlin’s unit shortly after at Schlesinger’s. The work proves it.

I’ve said before that the studio’s two funniest animators were Rod Scribner and Art Davis. There seems to be a consensus that animation can only be truly funny (‘cartoony’) if it’s overt in distortion/using squash and stretch, but the animation in this cartoon proves that there’s room for all kinds of funny.

The first Davis scene, from 1:11-1:26, is obscenely difficult if you break it down. The Costello mouse has to come into view, stagger, run to the right, jump onto Babbitt, and turn Babbitt into a seesaw. Babbitt then must pull his head out from under Costello’s ass to smack him, all while Costello is still flailing. All in the same shot. This is just as ambitious a scene in any of the other director’s shorts, but for some reason I never see it mentioned. The subtlety of the Costello mouse actually looking for his courage when Babbitt asks about his lack thereof kills me.

To give some of the other guys due accolades, some of the timing and acting in the scenes by Izzy Ellis and Dick Bickenbach is sublime. The mice going over the plan that Costello “ain’t gonna” do (Ellis) and the jumping on the cat’s paw (Bickenbach) shows how effective animation can be with very few ‘unqiue’ actual drawings and expressions.

What I love is the understated destruction that the cat can cause in this cartoon. Every time the claws come down there’s epic damage to the floor that’s barely shown long enough for it to register, but that’s nothing compared to the spectacular Ellis scene of the cat crashing into the wall. It’s completely unique in the maybe thousands of times a feline cracked its skull chasing a mouse in animated cartoon.

Cal Dalton’s work isn’t objectionable, but it clearly isn’t up to the level of the aforementioned trio. Dalton didn’t seem to get the memo of what the cat was supposed to be drawn like in his two scenes with the character in view, or he simply didn’t know how to get Tashlin’s design to work for the scene of Babbitt holding the cheese while on the cat’s snout.

Unfortunately, the one scene I can’t ID with any certainty is what’s probably the greatest gag involving an ironing board ever filmed. I would hasten to say that it was Ellis, but the drawing of the cat is completely different from shot to shot, and there would be no need to have two different versions of a held/”same-as” pose unless the animator changed.

I probably don’t need to tell you that those were the original titles, unseen in some sixty years. Note the lack of a director’s credit for Tashlin. I’m uncertain if this and Tashlin’s other last shorts for the studio (Behind the Meatball, Nasty Quacks, Hare Remover) were victims of the unwritten “you don’t stay, no credit” law in Hollywood, or if Tashlin thought his name being prominently displayed on cartoons would hurt his chances of working in live-action. My guess would be the latter, because in the cases of the other “undirected” Warner shorts, it was because somebody else had to finish it (usually in post-production), and I’ve heard nothing of the sort regarding Tashlin’s last few. (Though the likelihood of the McKimson-credited Daffy Doodles and Hollywood Canine Canteen being shorts started by Tashlin is strong.)

And I can’t close this without highlighting what probably got the most laughter I’ve ever heard a still drawing get in a theater…

I probably have more to say about this cartoon, but this post is running overlong so that’s all… for now.

Written by Thad

November 1st, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Posted in classic animation

19 Responses to 'Animator Breakdown: Tale of Two Mice'

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  1. Davis is great.

    Allow me to show my complete ignorance about animators’ traits. The Warner Club news photos of 1945 show Don Williams and Anatole Kirsanoff with Davis, Bickenbach and Dalton. I gather you’d recognise Williams’ stuff. Could it possibly be Kirsanoff? I don’t know anything about his style.

    Don M. Yowp

    2 Nov 10 at 2:23 am

  2. I think one of the other reasons this cartoon doesn’t get full props is that in Warners’ Abbott & Costello non-trilogy trilogy, Clampett’s “A Tale of Two Kitties” tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room, because not only is it the first use of the charactures (albeit as cats instead of mice), but it’s also Tweety’s debut. Both Tash’s cartoon and McKimson’s follow-up get lost in the shuffle.

    One of the great things about Tashlin’s 1943-46 period is his use of wildly angular animation as an deliberate choice, not as the cost-cutting necessity it became in the 1950s and 60s. So you have the advantage of using sharp angles to register poses and takes, but those work within the full animation style of the 1940s which makes the transition from the traditional rounded style of drawing to the rigidness even more effective, especially with Davis animating. I’m just surprised that Artie really didn’t use it himself much when he was named director, other than the animation on the Shakespearean dog in “Two Gophers from Texas”.

    J Lee

    2 Nov 10 at 2:51 am

  3. Hey Yowp, I was thinking it’s Kirsanoff too, but didn’t want to say so for sure… Maybe I’ll amend the video later.

    Thad

    2 Nov 10 at 7:18 am

  4. I thought the scene with the cat pulling his head out of the iron looked an awful lot like Williams’. It would be odd if someone who is given credit didn’t do actual work for on it. Anyone care to help me out about that one?

    The Scarlet Pumpernickel

    2 Nov 10 at 8:19 am

  5. Could George Cannata have been involved with this? He was working with Tashlin just before this period, was he not?
    Anatole Kirsanoff sounds very likley, though.

    A fine breakdown you have here! Keep it up. Bick certainly did his share of the work.

    Zartok-35

    2 Nov 10 at 9:39 am

  6. Great post! I am fascinated by these animator breakdowns. I agree that this is THE most under-rated Warners cartoon of the mid-1940s (if not the whole decade)!

    It is fascinating to compare this to THE GREAT CHEESE MYSTERY, in which we see some of the first flashes of Tashlin’s angular ’40s style of storytelling and staging,

    Tashlin obviously knew this was material worth a return visit. He puts his all into this cartoon!

    I like this much more than many other Tashlins from this era. I hope it will receive its overdue accolades in cartoon history.

    Frank Young

    2 Nov 10 at 12:21 pm

  7. I’ve always loved this cartoon. The Art Davis animation here is amazing! Thanks for posting this with the animation credits!

    Chuck Fiala

    2 Nov 10 at 9:09 pm

  8. Never saw this one before.

    It

    is

    AWESOME!

    w

    3 Nov 10 at 2:41 am

  9. What? This cartoon once had full credits? Everywhere else gives it Schlesinger-style credits (i.e. a single credited animator).

    I wonder if “Ain’t That Ducky”, “The Bashful Buzzard” and “Peck Up Your Troubles” once had full animator credits as well. (I remember one of the Golden Collections put together some hypothetical opening title cards for “The Bashful Buzzard” to accompany the rediscovered opening music… but, they only listed McKimson as animator, as per most credits lists)

    The Spectre

    3 Nov 10 at 7:54 pm

  10. Oh, and speaking of Golden Collections, I recall some of Kirsanoff’s animation (for McKimson, mind you) was I.D.’d for “Birth of a Notion”, I don’t know if that’s any help.

    The Spectre

    3 Nov 10 at 7:55 pm

  11. Another great bit of character development is when the Costello mouse discovers how the cat’s claws “work” and starts dancing around on the paw, making the claws pop in and out. His simple-minded, growing delight at this novelty is wonderful.

    Russell H

    4 Nov 10 at 3:08 pm

  12. That was a cartoon that was well done. It was also great to see the original main titles on this film.

    Bob

    4 Nov 10 at 3:41 pm

  13. One of my favorites too. One reason I think it doesn’t get much talk is that, when you summarize it, there’s nothing exceptional about it: it’s a try/fail blackout gag cartoon of the type that would take over most of the studio’s output in the ’50s (whereas most WB cartoons from this era had somewhat more elaborate stories). In terms of plot, you could easily see this as a McKimson/Pierce cartoon from the ’50s. But of course it’s all in the execution, and not only is every gag beautifully executed but it somehow seems to add up to much more than the usual try/fail cartoon — there’s a real structure and a story to these repeated attempts and the ending is extremely satisfying.

    Jaime Weinman

    4 Nov 10 at 5:31 pm

  14. Hilarious. Excellent breakdown Thad, can’t believe I hadn’t seen this!

    Daniel Caylor

    5 Nov 10 at 12:31 pm

  15. Thanks for posting that one, Thad: yet another example of beautifully timed, staged and executed animation from the Frank Tashlin crew. Do I comprehend why he remains under-rated? No – even more so after seeing the WW2 classic PLANE DAFFY rock an audience.

  16. Excellent cartoon. The best bit for me was Costello and the paw. That made me laugh so hard! It’s definitely an underrated cartoon, one of the best I’ve seen from Tashlin.

    Eric Noble

    26 Nov 10 at 8:26 pm

  17. I’ve been DYING to see the original titles for this one! It makes animator ID A little easier. Tashlin’s version of “Catstello” is just as funny and overblown as Clampett’s, IMHO.

    Greg H

    18 Dec 10 at 1:19 pm

  18. This and Nasty Quacks are tied the best Tashlin cartoons ever made!!!!

    By any chance, do you got these original prints (opening and ending):

    Stupid Cupid (including lost ending), Swooner Crooner (curious…that’s all) and Booby Hatched (?).

    Terrence Fenner

    9 Oct 11 at 2:45 pm

  19. Great cartoon as this is, I have no idea what’s happening at 4:04 or how it’s supposed to get them the cheese…

    John V.

    16 Oct 11 at 6:38 am

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