The 1950s were arguably the most prolific decade, artistically speaking, of animator/director Chuck Jones’ career. It was the decade that saw Jones take the stock Warner Bros. characters to new heights: he took Daffy Duck and made him an open antagonist to Bugs Bunny (and vice versa, at least in the uproarious Duck Amuck); he directed Bugs to the pinnacle of his success with a pair of duels with longtime foe Elmer Fudd, Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc?; he presented the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote repeatedly matching wits in an endless series of painful, Acme-enabled gags. But one of the best Jones-helmed cartoons to come out of that decade featured two original characters–an ageless and deceptively simple cat-and-dog pair–that were not of the typical Warner milieu. They didn’t crack wise and trade insults, nor did they chase one another around a la the typical cat-dog dynamic. Instead, through beautifully expressive animation and an endearing storyline that stops just short of sentimentality, Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot, the stars of 1952′s Feed the Kitty, carved a place for themselves among the best of the best that the Golden Age of animation had to offer.
Feed the Kitty was the result of the longtime collaboration between Jones and screenwriter Michael Maltese. Maltese created the stories for some of the most memorable cartoons to emerge from the Warner Bros. studio, among them the aforementioned What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and Rabbit of Seville, as well as Duck Dodgers, Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit Fire, From A to Z-Z-Z-Z, and many, many more. Maltese’s stories tend to share common elements of cheeky humor, biting dialogue, a “slapsticky” physicality, and a touch of sheer irreverence. And while, at first glance, something like Feed the Kitty, with its relatively simple premise, may seem somewhat pedestrian compared to those other cartoon masterpieces, there is an interesting, slightly subversive element at play here.
It’s found in the relationship between Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot (who was not named in the original cartoon). He’s a dog–a big dog; she’s a cat–a very tiny cat. Put them together, and it’s a dynamic filled with absurdities; after all, if “history” has taught us anything, it’s that cats and dogs just flat-out loathe one another (obviously, you people have never met MY cat, who thinks he IS a dog). Initially, the relationship between these two characters is a parental one, with Marc Anthony taking on a maternal-type role and essentially “adopting” the kitten as his own. He laughs indulgently and cannot bring himself to punish or chastise her (she’s just too cute for words, you know). He does everything he can to protect her; having been told not to bring “another thing” into the house, he hides the little kitten in increasingly creative and frantic ways. When the situation is finally revealed to his owner and he’s told he can keep his new friend, the joy is palpable–even when the dog realizes just how much responsibility he’s taken on (like any horrified, exhausted new parent).
But there’s another level to the relationship between these two that is far from parental. Marc Anthony is the prototypical tough guy bowled over by sheer cuteness, who willingly emasculates himself in the interests of his adorable little foundling. The relationship is not entirely “motherly” on his part; as Jones himself once reportedly said, the interaction between the dog and cat in this cartoon is like an encapsulated version of an entire male-female (human) relationship: the early infatuation, the “settling down” period, the little irritations and troubles that crop up, and the (hopefully) happy denouement. In other words, the dog falls in love with the kitten, and acts not only out of a “motherly” instinct, but a romantic one (shades of Daddy Long Legs …?). And what’s more subversive than inter-species love, I ask you?
Like One Froggy Evening, which would debut three years later, Feed the Kitty largely relies on pantomime to tell the story. There is a speaking character (Marc Anthony’s owner), but this cartoon works much like some of the MGM Tom and Jerry shorts, in that the human characters are the only ones who speak. The stars of the cartoon are, with the exception of occasional purrs, groans, and dismayed noises, virtually silent, conveying everything we need to know through facial expression and movement. This short shows just how far animation had come in two short decades, ever since Disney animators first revealed the potential for animated expression with the character Pluto’s battle with some flypaper in 1934 (for more details about that, see our detailed post on Pluto from earlier this year).
The most expressive moments belong to Marc Anthony. His facial expressions are over-exaggerated; his movements unrestrained by logic or reason. He walks on his hind legs, dancing across the floor waving the kitten as a powder puff to distract his owner. He nails the wide-eyed innocent look. When he thinks Pussyfoot is being baked into cookies, he peers through the window and, in a series of pantomimes worthy of a silent-film comedian, rolls his eyes skyward and slides into a dead faint, not once, but three times. When he believes the kitten has been placed in the oven, he rolls onto his back, grabs his hind legs, and rocks back and forth, howling in a display of pure, unadulterated grief.
All of this results in the absolutely brilliant moment when his owner hands Marc Anthony a kitten-shaped cookie and, tears still welling in his bloodshot eyes, he gently places the cookie on his back and walks away. It’s utterly ridiculous and hilarious all at the same time–a difficult balance to maintain, to the say the least, but it works beautifully here. Because we know Pussyfoot is fine, we can laugh at the otherwise disturbing implications behind this scene. This brief moment of black humor is a perfect example of how sophisticated Jones’ cartoons really were under the surface.
Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot only appeared in five cartoons together, and are not well-remembered today (although Pussyfoot has had a resurgence as a marketing tool in recent years). But there’s no denying that Feed the Kitty is an influential piece of short animation. It’s been recognized as such by Jones’ peers in the animation field: this cartoon was one of ten Jones shorts voted onto the list of the fifty greatest cartoons (it placed thirty-sixth). And if you need further proof of its influence, just check out the hilarious homage to Feed the Kitty in the 2001 Pixar film Monsters, Inc., in which the character Sulley believes his little human friend, Boo, has been processed in the garbage compactor. Sulley’s facial expressions (especially the trembling lips) and theatrical fainting fits perfectly mirror Marc Anthony’s horror at Pussyfoot’s “demise by cookie” in the earlier cartoon. If anything, this moment is a fitting tribute to a cartoon that shares the movie’s theme of an unconventional and ultimately fulfilling relationship.
After all (to borrow a phrase I’ve borrowed before): if a dog and a kitten can find love in this crazy, mixed-up world, there’s just that much hope for the rest of us, right?
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