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