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Halloween Roundup IV: Famous Studios Cartoons

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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.

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About Paul J. Marasa

  • JayMoo

    The other day we watched an old Disney cartoon, and all of the characters were smoking and drinking and getting high. Amazing – that wouldn’t fly in a million years today. There are even rules about telling kids that they should diet in any programming in today’s world. Wild.

  • Nancy

    I saw a 3 stooges episode recently, and was appalled at the violence in it, as well as the not-too-subtle sexual innuendo. I remember those cartoons, too: you’re right, they were indeed the real, originals for “Itchy & Scratchy”. Horrible.

  • The Proprietor

    I always perceived Terrytoons as the bottom of the barrel in animation, except for the wonderfully manic Heckle and Jeckle, forever sealed in some vault thanks to Peggy Charren and her ilk. However, giving the Famous cartoons some thought, I have to agree with you – although very nice visually, the repetitiveness of the plots and the lack of memorable gags does indeed put them into a special tier of dishonor.

    Katnip (IIRC, the cat’s name was spelled with a ‘K’) had another target / tormentor named Buzzy The Crow, who is probably likewise locked in a vault due to his voice characterization sounding something like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s (Anderson only did one cartoon voice, as himself in Warner Brothers’ “The Mouse That Jack Built”).

  • Paul J. Marasa

    I remember that crow well; Katnip–and thanks for the spelling correction; in my first draft it was all “K”‘s; I’m not sure why I changed it (maybe I accidentally kow-tow’d to spellcheck)–in those cartoons always had a problem–a cold, insomnia–and the book he consulted always recommended eating a crow. Buzzy would try to convince Katnip of alternate cures, all of which involved certifiably malicious Famous Studios damage. I can still hear that Rochester impression you mention (and which we may never hear again): “I know zackly what you needs.”

    Oh, man; that’s a whole other can of worms: the bowdlerization of cartoons, nipping and tucking racism, violence, and so on. Had to be done for the kids, I guess, but a record should remain somewhere. Does it?

  • The Proprietor

    UPA’s later cartoon output is also pretty dreadful formulaic stuff, and it has the unique distinction of still using overt stereotypes as late as the early 60s. I’m a bit surprised that they were able to get away with Mr. Magoo’s houseboy “Chollie”, Joe Jitsu and Go-Go Gomez (the latter two from the Dick Tracy cartoon series) as late as they did (although in a somewhat redeeming move, they had excellent voice talent for the latter two characters, including Benny Rubin, Mel Blanc and Paul Frees).