Friday, June 1, 2012

DVD Review: Herman and Katnip: The Complete Series. Part Two: The Cartoons and Overview.

We're back with Part Two of our Herman and Katnip DVD Review: The Cartoons and a closing Overview. 

For Part One, just scroll up - or click HERE! 

Hope you enjoyed the break, brought about positive change for yourself and those around you...

...Because we're gonna get into some good old-school cartoon violence and fun!
Kickin' it Old-School... Also Hittin',  Bitin', Scratchin', Shootin' and Choppin' it Old-School! 

LET'S GO! 

Here are just some of the highlights to be found among the great series of Herman and Katnip cartoons on this DVD set... 

And, these are only the HIGHLIGHTS, folks!

 Mice Meeting You” (1950):  Presumably, the first pairing of Herman and Katnip.  Katnip ruins the Christmas celebration of the Mice.  Herman crushes Katnip with the biggest, baddest attic-ful of heavy random junk you’ve ever seen – including an ANVIL!  (...Who keeps an anvil in the attic?!)

For ME? 
Katnip apparently DIES from the blow – and Herman and the Mice wrap garland and decorations around his seemingly lifeless body, stick a bulb in his mouth, plug his tail into an electrical socket – and use his body as a Christmas tree!  …Um, tell me AGAIN who influenced Itchy and Scratchy?   

Mice Paradise” (1951):  Herman takes the Mice to a tropical island, where there are no cats.  Katnip follows.  He should have stayed home!  Two Great Bits: 

Herman lounges with a CIGAR, near a fearsome-looking giant clam, when confronted by Katnip.  Herman blows a tremendous and blinding cloud of cigar smoke, allowing him to escape under cover of the foul cloud.  When it clears, Katnip finds himself left holding the cigar and facing the angry, coughing clam – who demonstrates a remarkably enlightened anti-smoking stance for 1951 – and immediately gives Katnip the business. 

In another great gag, we find out exactly what is inside Katnip’s tail!

Feast and Furious” (1952):  One of two Katnip solo shorts, where he devotes his hungry attentions to “Finny” the Goldfish.  At the end, they both end up drunk! 

City Kitty” (1952):  The other Katnip solo.  The usually pathetic look-alike Mice, give Katnip the business to the degree that he retreats his New York apartment setting for the great outdoors of the Catskill Mountains.  Aggressive ants, huge fish, and a fierce army of mosquitoes confound and pound the cat at every turn.  He literally runs all the way back home, relieved to receive more violence from the Mice at the end – because it’s the kind of violence he’s used to.  Though they never actually make a point of it, I can’t help but wonder if the real-life, upstate New York “Catskill” region was selected for the PUN of its name – relating to poor Katnip. 

The two Katnip solo cartoons appear to have been released back-to-back.  Presumably, Herman was on one of his many “vacations” from which he returns in most of the shorts.

Mice Capades” (1952):  One of the VERY BEST of the series! 

Herman convinces Katnip that he has DIED, and can only get into Heaven if he is kind and generous to the Mice. 

A dumbwaiter (common to houses of the era) is employed to take Katnip to the periphery of Heaven – really the ATTIC, adorned in cheesy fashion with lots of fluffy cotton, and with a SCREEN DOOR doubling as “The Pearly Gates”!  In a great moment, Katnip appears to momentarily CATCH-ON to the scam (when he tries to fly, and flops onto a hard attic trunk piled with cotton) but quickly shakes it off and succumbs to the basic religious beliefs most of us possess at one time or another. 

Even greater than the “Not-So-Pearly-Gates” is the cartoon’s euphemism for Hell.  The Fiery Furnace – which finds the cat looking down a heating duct into the actual roaring coal furnace of the house!  Sid Raymond’s dread delivery of the line “The Fiery Furnace?!” has stuck with me for most of my life – and still makes me laugh today! 

Yes, both TOM AND JERRY (“Heavenly Puss”) and PIXIE DIXIE AND MR. JINKS (“Heavens to Jinksy”) did this same basic plot – but, in both cases it’s different.  Tom DREAMS of his demise and meeting “The Gatekeeper”, and poor Mr. Jinks ACTUALLY DIES and meets “his maker”!!!  (...Don’t worry!  He finds a loophole!)
Chortle! At least... like, no one has set MY tongue on fire!
    
What makes this one special is the audacity of the scam, and the cheesy-ness of the execution of it.  Say, what if Heaven REALLY IS entered through a screen door?! 
A YouTube video of this cartoon’s opening credits lists Irv Spector as the writer.  SOUND ALERT!

Herman the Cartoonist” (1953):  In the same year as Chuck Jones’ masterpiece “Duck Amuck”, we find Herman and Katnip are also “creations” of an animator / comics artist (maybe Marty Taras?) who retires for the night.  When Mr. Artist leaves, H&K fight their battles off the drawing board and around the artist’s studio! 

Great Bits:  Herman ERASES Katnip’s foot… and the frantic, hobbling cat must consult a BOOK titled “How to Draw Animals” in order to recreate it!  Katnip’s mid-section is also wiped-out by a dousing of ink-eradicator.  Herman, in turn, is sucked-up and imprisoned inside a fountain pen.  This just wouldn’t be the same if applied to today’s CGI animation age.  

Felineous Assault” (1959):  Here’s another familiar plot, also done by TOM AND JERRY (“Professor Tom”) and PIXIE DIXIE AND MR. JINKS (“Jinks Junior”).  Yes, even Katnip has a son!  And, as you might expect, he trains little “Kitnip” to catch mice.  And, in the grand feline-family tradition (Sylvester Jr., excepted), once the cartoon is over, we never see Kitnip again! 

Oddities:  This is one of the cartoons run out of order in the set.  It falls between the last short of 1953 and the first one of 1954.  And, with the smaller animation budgets of 1959, not to mention the generally invasive UPA influence, it looks VERY DIFFERENT. 

The characters, props, and backgrounds are less detailed overall (Tom and Jerry met a similar fate!), and Katnip has lost his tuft of hair and now wears a pair of PANTS! 

Arnold Stang does not perform in this cartoon.  Herman has no actual speaking-lines (He just runs a lot – to the same piano music strains!), and when he laughs, it is clearly Jack Mercer filling-in. 
Death (...or absence), where is thy Stang?
A Bicep Built for Two” (1955):  Tom and Jerry fans, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Katnip is chasing Herman when he spies a beautiful female cat.  He immediately abandons the chase, and begins to make with the wooing!  That is (…and now, Popeye fans can stop me) until a big brawny, Bluto-like cat (done by Bluto’s voice actor Jackson Beck!) shows up to woo the same gal – physically dispatching Katnip in short order. 

Herman vows to build up his pal’s strength, so he can win back the gal.  At this point, we switch to the basic plot of a BUZZY cartoon, with Herman ostensibly trying to help Katnip achieve his goal but, all the while, intentionally doing him (deserved) physical harm.  While the cat is unconscious, Herman slips iron shot-put balls inside each sleeve of Katnip’s workout jersey – and the resultant bulges convince the hapless cat that he HAS developed huge muscles of iron. 
Duh...didn't I see you inna Popeye cartoon?  

With his newfound confidence, Katnip initiates a physical confrontation with the brawny cat… until the shot-put balls roll out of his sleeves – one into each hand! 

In perhaps the best surprise bit of the entire series, Katnip seizes the moment (in what may be the culmination of his frustrations, built up in this and all of the prior cartoons) and smashes the brawny cat’s head between the two iron balls he’s holding!!!  (WOW!)

The brawny cat’s “Nine Ghostly Lives” run off in defeat (…Meaning he was KILLED by the blow!  His LIFELESS BODY remains on the ground, as the camera focus shifts away!), when I’m certain EVERYONE in the audience (including ME) was expecting the embarrassed and hapless Katnip to get clobbered yet again, rather than commit “Cat-racide” on his rival! 

Katnip appears to have won the girl – but, as anyone familiar with Famous Paramount cartoons well knows… “Wimming can be the fickle-est aminals!”  Oh, well…

Will Do Mousework” (1956): One good thing about seeing these cartoons in (something resembling) original release order is that you get to observe their stylistic evolution – or, in this case, devolution.  This is the first entry in the series to employ that simplified / abstract / impressionistic (add the adjective of your choice) UPA inspired look that (in MY OWN opinion) did not change theatrical animation for the better! 

To the plot: In wintertime, Cousin Herman shows up in time to help the pathetic mice get back into a warm house presided over by Katnip and a rotund Swedish maid.  (…At least she was Swedish, in this case!) 

Great bit:  Swallowed by Katnip, Herman unscrews one of the cat’s vertebrae and uses it as a battering ram to smash his way out through Katnip’s teeth! 

Mousetro Herman” (1956): Okay, Gates… Let’s make with the jam session!”

The pathetic mice are jazz-beatniks cutting loose in a music shop setting, when Katnip breaks things up!  That Katnip ruined our BEAT, an’ we had to RETREAT!  Herman (wearing a beat-beret, no less) drops in to “break HIM up”! 

I’m a sucker for “music cartoons” and Winston Sharples simply outdoes himself in this one!  Pity he didn’t get to do as many of these as Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn! 

The “UPA influence” is stronger still (…and it kinda, sorta FITS the beat-boppiness of this one) – but Sharples’ superb jazz score more than makes up for any visual shortcomings. 

Along with “Mice-Capades(“The Fiery Furnace?!”), this is my favorite entry of the series.   I’ve already watched it three times in succession… TWICE!  

You Said a Mouseful” (1958): In “Katnip’s Pizzeria”, Katnip is an Italian-accented, singing, pizza-making cat! (With a different voice, to boot!  Boot? Italy? Get it?) Herman drills the pathetic mice to keep them in shape… all except “Chubby”, a small, er… “chubby”, food obsessed, perpetually-hungry little mouse, who strongly resembles the character of “Tuffy / Nibbles” of TOM AND JERRY, but with pants instead of a diaper. 

Chubby’s overpowering hunger continually puts him in danger, from which Herman extricates him – until Herman is captured and is about to be cooked to death.  In the nick of time, Chubby begins speaking (mock-pseudo) Italian to the cat, convincing him that both he and Herman are “Pisano’s from Italia”!   A celebration ensues, and Chubby gets to eat to his heart’s (and tummy’s) content.  There’s an ending you don’t see every day!

Jack Mercer, and not Sid Raymond, does Katnip for this one… probably because of the large amount of mock-Italian SINGING Katnip does!  As one of Italian American descent, I must confess I found this one to be in great humor – especially the ending!  

Owly to Bed” (1959):  This could easily have been a Tom and Jerry, as Herman aids a baby owl, who has been prematurely awakened – and cannot see clearly in the daytime.  Third-party “defenseless creatures” often dropped in on T&J, and one does so here.  The thing is, the owl is just as capable of dispatching hungry Katnip as is Herman – when he can SEE, that is.  So Herman spends the cartoon “darkening” their mutual environment, while Katnip struggles to maintain light, in the hopes of downing an owl snack.

For instance, Katnip sneaks up behind the owl with an axe.  Herman flips off the lights, and we hear some “CHOP! CHOP! CHOP!” sound effects.  Katnip then strikes a match to find that HE’S the one that’s been cut in half!  And so we go, violently along…

We end with Katnip having been run-off and the owl brings Herman back to its nest for a well-deserved mutual rest.  After so many good gags, I’m somewhat disappointed in the “nice” ending.  If *I* were writing it, I would have had “Mama Owl” show up to remind us that… you know, owls EAT mice!  …And have Herman join Katnip in hurried exile!  

Fun on Furlough” (1959):  As incredible as this may be to believe, in the next-to-last entry of the series, Famous Paramount (best known, of all studios, for repetitive and formulaic plots) does something with a cat and mouse that has never been done before! 

In a toy shop setting, the pathetic mice are routed by watch-cat Katnip – until Cousin Herman comes home FROM THE ARMY, as a SERGEANT on a two-week furlough!  Recalling that Katnip was recently a U.S. Army PRIVATE, Sgt. Herman preys upon the military “reflex actions” that Katnip has failed to shake since returning to civilian life! 

Lots of “reflexively following orders” gags and bits with military toys ensue. Katnip, cleverly posing as a superior officer recalling Herm’s leave, almost turns the tables on Herman toward the end – but the mouse ends up snatching victory from (Katnip’s) jaws of defeat.  Again, I can’t recall ANY animated cat and mouse pulling THIS ONE off! 

Surprisingly funny bit:  Sgt. Herman singing “You’re In the Army Now”. 

He sings:  You’re in the Army now… You’re not behind the plow… You’ll never get rich… ” – and then Katnip bursts in and slams a door on him, preventing him from getting to that infamous next line!  …GOTTA LOVE IT!   

Katnip’s Big Day” (1959):  After ALL THIS GOODNESS, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the Herman and Katnip series ends on a “cheater”.  Actually, given the high number of cheaters Famous Paramount actually did (…not to absolve MGM, or Warner Bros. by any stretch – but it just seemed Famous did more of ‘em!), I should be pleased that this was the only one to occur in the H&K series. 

By this point in the series, Katnip’s design had devolved (or, should I say “simplified”) to the point where his “tuft of hair” was long gone – and he’d acquired a pair of PANTS like Herman’s!  But, to match the existing footage to come, his look was “turned-back” to something more classic.  The modern animation didn’t match anyway, but they tried! 

The standard Herman and Katnip chase is interrupted by a genial guy with a microphone: Is your name Katnip?  All the characters of Cartoonland are here to honor you!”  And, with that, the outdoor background of the chase lifts to reveal they are on an auditorium stage, with hundreds of very stylized “generic cartoon animals” in the audience!  (Lions, tigers, giraffes, zebras, hippos, gorillas, -- even an aardvark and a yak!)

Nice bit – which would have been nicer still if at least the noticeable, front-seated members of the crowd were from ACTUAL Harvey / Famous Paramount cartoons – like Cilly Goose, Spunky the Donkey, Tommy Tortoise and Moe Hare, Blackie the Lamb and Wolfie (ironically, Arnold Stang and Sid Raymond in an EARLIER pairing!), Herman’s original co-stars Henry/Hector the henpecked rooster and his wife Chicken Pie, or even Baby Huey and the Fox, never mind Casper.  But, on with the show…
Blackie and Wolfie = Herman and Katnip?

First out to greet Katnip, now in the Seat of Honor, is “Spike”… the Brawny Cat from “A Bicep Built for Two” (1955) to reminisce with a scene lifted from that short.  Of course, it’s one where Katnip gets the business… and not where “Spike” is (supposedly) killed.  Jackson Beck returns to voice “Spike”. 
Pardon me, but aren't you DEAD?

The Pathetic Mice (…now named “Rubin, Dubin, and Louie” – Yes, really!) follow suit with a clip from “Drinks on the Mouse” (1953), as does Buzzy the Funny Crow (also Beck) with “Cat-Choo” (1951).  Buzzy’s only appearance on this set. 

A real highlight – tempered somewhat by a corresponding negative – was Herman’s segment.  A nice-sized clip of the ending of the great “Mousetro Herman” (1956)!  If you MUST cheat, cheat with a good one, I always say!  The negative, alas, is that Arnold Stang did not turn out to honor Katnip.  With scant few lines in the “new footage”, Stang was apparently replaced by Jack Mercer – who was probably already there, anyway. 

The cartoon ends with Katnip slunk and hiding UNDERNEATH the Seat of Honor, as his so-called friends continue to laugh at him.  But then a tranquil SMILE comes over him, as the group sings “For He’s a Jolly Good Katnip!” and we fade out. 
Katnip's consolation prize?  A personalized mug!

I’m not certain whether Katnip just decided to “go-with-it” and have a good time in spite of everything… or he simply realized that his animated nightmare was finally OVER, and he could, at last, breathe a long-awaited sigh of relief! 

One can almost hear him thinking: “Let Tom, Sylvester, and that TV upstart Mister Jinks take the punishment from now on!  Me? I’m RETIRED!” 
Now, it's just FISHIN' for me!
 Looking back over this chronology, one must notice that, unlike MANY theatrical cartoon series – including some of the very best – Herman and Katnip was good (if not great) throughout its entire run…often managing to avoid the stunting repetition of many of its Paramount contemporaries.  Of course, to be fair, its “run” was limited to 1950-1959, avoiding the lesser theatrical period of the ‘60s… but the ‘50s were not necessarily a good period for other Famous Paramount series, so let’s make of that what we will!  

 Overall:  HERMAN AND KATNIP: THE COMPLETE SERIES is a great package, as long as you’re forgiving and understanding of its shortcomings in the area of authenticity.   Again, as with many of the vintage toons, I’m not certain the true authentic experience CAN be recreated, so I’m willing take what we can get.  Given their place in the grand scheme of things, it’s not likely that Herman and Katnip will ever receive better treatment than this – deserving of it, though they may be. 

You CANNOT beat it for the price vs. content, making the other shortcomings less relevant than they might otherwise be.  And, for what it’s worth, I’ve enjoyed this set far more than I expected to!  I’d say it certainly shows in my review! 

For some reason, Herman and Katnip never got the recognition they deserved.  Not in the general pantheon of animation, and not in comic books – where they should have done far better than they did.  This set will show you WHY history’s general overlooking the pair is so unjust.

8 comments:

scarecrow33 said...

Joe:

I recently got this set myself, along with the complete Casper cartoons set. I agree that these are intriguing and fun--better than I remembered.

I, too, was disappointed not to have the Herman & Katnip theme song at the start of each cartoon, the way they used to be broadcast years ago. However, in your review you stated that the theme song does not occur anywhere on this set. Actually, one of the cartoons--I think it was on the first disc--ends with the mice happily singing a version of the "Skiddle diddle dee" theme song. Different lyrics from the regular theme song--I still remember it after all of these years--but at least it's something. Plus if I recall, the theme plays frequently in the background of several of the shorts...which makes its absence in its original form all the more regrettable.

These cartoons have so much punch to them, and the Caspers are generally so innocuous, it's almost hard to fathom that they came from the same studio. Yet it worked really well for me to watch a couple of Caspers and follow them up with H & K. I spent about a week or two bouncing back and forth between the two sets. Casper's great for bedtime--H & K are energizing to wake up with.

Joe Torcivia said...

Scarecrow:

When I say that the H&K theme does not appear anywhere on the disc, I mean that the theme *as such* (meaning as “the theme that heralds the cartoons”) does not appear. Or, perhaps more accurately, it does not fulfill that function. It does not *serve as* the theme for the cartoons.

If it appears as an incidental bit within a cartoon, it does not necessarily function as “The Theme”. Famous Paramount often did that in their series. There are a small number of cartoons where the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” theme is sung at the end of a Casper segment, if memory serves. And, how many times have you heard “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” within the body of a Popeye cartoon.

As you notice, Winston Sharples often used variations on a character’s theme – or a series theme – as part of the cartoon’s score. Popeye, Casper, Herman and Katnip, Little Audrey (“Oh, Lit-tle Audrey says…”), etc.

So, “shades, echoes, and variants” of the theme certainly appear throughout, but the actual theme itself (as it is in the YouTube videos I linked to) does not appear… and that’s a shame. It REALLY should have been put on the menu, at the very least! It’s too much of a classic to omit completely!

GREAT POINT about the schism between Casper and Herman and Katnip! And, believe it or not I’ve employed them in similar ways – before bed and after waking, too!

Glad to know you enjoyed the set!

Stephen Einbinder said...

Regarding "Katnip's Big Day": What's a cheater?

Joe Torcivia said...

Stephen:

A “cheater” is a cartoon (or live-action show, for that matter) that is primarily made up of clips from previous entries in the series.

The clips are usually couched within a new “framing sequence” that serves as a beginning and ending. All the theatrical animation studios (WB, MGM, Paramount, etc.) did them to save on animation, make deadlines, etc.

As a supposed celebration of Katnip’s career, chock full of older clips, “Katnip’s Big Day” was also a “cheater”. But, I liked it anyway… particularly as a final entry in the series.

1234 said...

Which is your exact favorite Joe? Is it Mice Capades or Mousetro Herman?

Joe Torcivia said...

1234:

If I *had* to pick one of these two superb cartoons as my favorite, I’d pick “Mousetro Herman” just based on the rare opportunity for Winston Sharples to score a music-based cartoon. It would be a close choice, though.

After all, I *did* watch “Mousetro Herman” “…three times in succession TWICE!”, while preparing this review. That’s gotta count for something.

Stephen Einbinder said...

Though Katnip was the villain, there were times when he was merely sleeping and minding his own business, but the mice, afraid of his mere presence, provoked him with Herman's help. Check out, for example, the beginning of "Of Mice and Menace".

Joe Torcivia said...

Stephen:

For all such cats, Katnip, Tom, Mister Jinks, and even Sylvester, there *are* occasions where they are not the aggressors, yet get the business anyway. And, that’s just another reason those series were so great. Sometimes, even if only momentarily, you could feel sorry for the cat.

But, in “Of Mice and Menace”, Katnip did later try to eat the little nephew-mice as “caramel-popcorn mouse-dogs”, so that does tend to diminish the sympathy factor just a tad.

Then again, I flash to the scene of the little nephew-mice cavorting around INSIDE the gumball claw-machine (YUCK!) – and I wonder of Katnip wasn’t just acting in the best interests of public health!