I was thinking about my childhood experiences at the movies and in front of the TV (I’m old enough to remember Saturday matinees and life without cable), and the memory of Famous Studios cartoons landed in my head with a sickening thud. These were hard-hearted animations: post-Fleischer Popeye, Little Lulu (or Little Audrey), Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey–and worst of all Herman and Catnip, I swear the real models for The Simpsons’ Itchy n Scratchy. If you’re interested in some background you can go here to Don Markstein’s admirable Toonopedia website to see this dubious Murderer’s Row deceptively smiling, sunny and pure. For your own sake, though, don’t be fooled; who knows what evil lurks…
When I was a little kid the denizens of the semi-psychotic netherworld of Famous Studios left me with a sense of unease greater than that of The Outer Limits, but at least the latter was supposed to fill me with dread. Cartoons were meant to reinforce joy, of one kind or another. There were, for instance, certain happy alliances, as when Sniffles the mouse and the little bookworm partnered up to get out of one scrape or another. And of course the joy of chaos: Tex Avery’s growth-serum-swigging cats, dogs, and mice, Daffy Duck’s stints as mustache fiend, draft-dodger, pet and prey. And so OK, the joy of predation; just ask Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd.
But in the low-rent sub-basement of Famous Studios, the antagonist’s sadistic rictus remained frozen amid the Bosch-like excesses of all that tearing and rending and dynamiting. These ‘toons meant business, with some truly creepy forays into pathological behaviors:
Cannibalism-by-Proxy I can still see the wolf salivating with a child molester’s single-mindedness as he coveted the plump flanks of Baby Huey.
Tag-Team Date Rape In the hands of Famous Studios, the rivalry between Popeye and Bluto degenerated into a circle of abuse, as Olive Oyl was limply tossed from one to the other, her warbling cries for help sometimes stilled by a blow or a fall.
In-Denial Stalking Casper’s search for “friends” was always accompanied by a glaring ignorance on his part that HE WAS A GHOST, for godssake. As he wandered through the gloom, his very presence dismembered the hapless, caught in a literally eye-popping orgy of terror, until some innocent–a puppy or small child–was seduced into accompanying Casper in a misadventure that often included physical harm, even gunplay.
Unashamed Reciprocal Sadism What I remember most were the opportunities for Mutually Assured Destruction: the gleeful snarl of Catnip as he stuffed wriggling masses of mice into hero sandwiches, followed by Herman the Mouse’s Bronx-cheer vendetta, cramming Catnip’s face–swollen by the beating he always had to take–with explosives, and bouncing him in a barrel down a rocky hill and into a chasm, or shoving him, his arms pinwheeling, into the one-way jaws of some impossibly lethal DIS-assembly line. The final image was more often than not Herman on the shoulders of a pack of squirming mice, their cheers gleefully heartless.
Maybe because it’s October, the month when I give myself up to horror films, but these cartoons trail me like the doppelganger of the kid I once was: clownish and bookish, simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the Continuous Showings of Life’s Chiller Theatre. I was, metaphorically speaking, willing to stick my finger in the electric socket–all right, maybe not metaphorically: I actually did this once as a kid, knowing full well you weren’t supposed to, but compelled to check out why. And so goes Famous Studios: a shock that throws you like a ragdoll, but one you invite.