Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gay Purr-ee (UPA/Warners, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Gay Purr-ee, an odd childhood favorite of mine since I saw it on the old NBC “Saturday Night at the Movies” — with no credit sequence, so I wasn’t aware of what this movie was called. All I knew about it was that it featured the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet as a star-crossed cat couple in turn-of-the-[last]-century France and that it was done in the highly stylized animation style typical of its production company, UPA (United Productions of America). It’s a testament to the interest of this film — I wouldn’t quite call it “great” but it is a work of real quality and charm — that I fell in love with it even watching it on a black-and-white TV and therefore deprived of what’s probably its most interesting element, its color design, a flat-out copy of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters active in France when it was set (the opening is a blatant copy of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting fading into a scene of real sunflowers in the farm village in Provence where the film opens).

The film was ballyhooed by Warner Bros., its distributor, as a brand new idea in screen entertainment, which it wasn’t — the idea of anthropomorphizing animals and having them have animated adventures similar to those engaged in by live actors in live-action movies had been done again and again, and the screenplay by Dorothy and Chuck Jones, Joan Gardner and Ralph Wright drew on a wide variety of sources, some familiar (John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge and the Arthur Freed-Vincente Minnelli 1958 Gigi in particular) and some not so familiar (the basic love triangle comes straight from Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and one important deus ex machina device comes from another Chaplin film, The Gold Rush) to tell the tale of Mewsette (Judy Garland), a cute little white cartoon cat who’s loved by Jaune-Tom (Robert Goulet), an off-orange mouser, but who’s attracted to Paris and the promise of champagne, champignons, and the Champs-Elysées (“I wonder what they taste like,” Mewsette mewses).

No sooner does she arrive in the big, bad city than she falls into the clutches of evil Meowrice Percy Beaucoup (Paul Frees) and his gang, the Money-Cats. Meowrice hires Madame Rubens-Chatte (Hermione Gingold, the only actual cast overlap between this film and Gigi) to train Mewsette to be a lady-cat instead of the farm-bred she actually is, and when Mewsette is ready Meowrice intends to ship her off to Henry Phtt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a repulsively ugly (we wisely never see him, but we see Mewsette’s revulsion at a photo of him) but rich cat who’s paid Meowrice handsomely for Mewsette as a mail-order bride, or courtesan, or something. To get rid of Jaune-Tom — who’s walked his way to Paris with his side-cat Robespierre (Red Buttons) — Meowrice has the Money-Cats kidnap him and sell him to a ship’s captain who’s going to the Yukon to join in the Alaska gold rush, and Jaune-Tom accidentally leads him to a fabulous strike that allows him to return to Paris in triumph, trace Mewsette, vanquish Meowrice and the Money-Cats and send Meowrice to the U.S. in the box intended for Mewsette.

The film is quite clever and has a lot of witty dialogue — which probably sailed over the heads of much of the pre-pubescent audience when this film was released in 1962; the movie was a box-office flop on its first release and most of Hollywood thought that was because it was just too sophisticated for a cartoon. At the same time the colors are so dazzling (much more so than the rather jerky “limited animation” style UPA was famous for; had they had the budget and the time to do Disney-style full animation Gay Purr-ee would be an even better movie than it is) and are used so psychedelically that had this been released five years later it would probably have made money from the hippie audience; they would probably have watched the film under the influence of various mind-altering substances the way they did when Disney re-released Fantasia in 1966.

Gay Purr-ee has its problems, and frankly they’re inherent in the concept; Mewsette is supposed to be a feline naïf, a young ingénue, and yet she sings in the well-worn voice of the 40-something Judy Garland and the songs she sings are by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg — she insisted on using them as a condition for her doing the film (a wise move, too; though nothing in this film is at the level of “Over the Rainbow” the songs they wrote for Judy are great and deserved a life outside of it — particularly “Little Drops of Rain,” which Judy was hoping would replace “Over the Rainbow” as her theme song — with great, soaring melodies that show off Garland’s voice, still strong and mostly on pitch in 1962, and clever if somewhat arch lyrics like “The chestnut, the willow/The colors of Utrillo”), and she probably also insisted on Mort Lindsey as the musical arranger and director (and his arrangements are superb, ably setting off the songs and Judy’s great performances of them).

Judy’s strongly emotional, heartbreaking interpretations of these sophisticated songs knocks the rather simple-minded concept of the story into a hat — both she and her songs are far better than the novelties most of the other cast members get (though the Money-Cats’ song is fun and so is “The Horse Won’t Talk,” Paul Frees’ featured number as the villain) — but she’s marvelous, and the elements that hold up most strongly in the film today are Judy's vocals, the “Women-yuck!” adolescent angst expressed by Red Buttons’ character, and all the bizarre puns on the names of the famous landmarks of Paris to make them appropriately “catlike” for this story (the Mewlon Rouge, the Felines Bergere, Meowmartre and the name of Garland’s character, Mewsette).

The film is consistently imaginative visually (especially in the famous sequence in which Meowrice shows off a series of portraits of Mewsette painted by the famous names in the Paris art world of the time — which must have been a lot of fun for the artists at UPA to design!) and clever and charming, even though it never really found an audience because, as a Newsweek reviewer said when it was new, “There seems to be an effort to reach a hitherto undiscovered audience — the fey four-year-old of recherché taste.” Today, when it’s not so odd that an animated film might deliberately appeal to adults, Gay Purr-ee doesn’t seem as strange as it no doubt did in 1962!