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‘Gay Purr-ee’: Felinious Assault (Blu-ray review)

Warner Archive

Judy Garland’s only animated role could have been a classic… but for who?


There seems to be an unwritten rule that any review of a movie about cats has to make at least one cat pun (“This Cats adaptation will leave most viewers begging to be put out of their mew-sery”), so I’ll get mine out of the way: UPA’s 1962 animated feature Gay Purr-ee has a serious creative purr-digree.

I mean, it actually does.

Animation by Chuck Jones (who also shares script credit with his wife Dorothy), directed by Abe Levitow (of Pepe Le Pew and Mr. Magoo fame), with songs by Howard Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (whose credits include “Stormy Weather” and “Lydia the Tattoed Lady,” not to mention some song about a rainbow that Judy Garland sang a few times).

And that’s before we get to the voice cast: Garland (in her one and only animated film), Robert Goulet (in his movie debut), Red Buttons, Morey Amsterdam, Hermione Gingold, Mel Blanc, Thurl Ravenscroft and the Mellomen, and the Ghost Host himself, Paul Frees. The talent roster is freaking catnip. And that’s it for cat jokes.

With all this talent on board, there seems to be no reason why Gay Purr-ee should not have been at least a minor-classic. Warner Bros. certainly seemed to think it had potential: it’s the film they chose as their first animated feature.

So why has it taken Warner twenty years to reissue it on DVD?

You could point the finger in a lot of directions, starting with the animation. The spare, sketchy UPA house style—so perfect for television hits like Gerald McBoing-Boing—looks rushed and unfinished over a ninety-minute feature. And while Chuck Jones’s influence is clear on the character designs, Gay Purr-ee fell right on the cusp of the beloved animator’s long creative decline. Warner closed down his animation shop after discovering he’d broken his agreement by working on Gay Purr-ee while it was still a Columbia release.

After that, Jones spent most of his remaining years in the wilderness of Saturday morning cartoons.

His designs for Mewsette (Garland), Jaune Tom (Goulet), and the villainous Meowrice (Frees) get all the love Jones had to give, but many of the secondary characters are barely sketched in, and most of the background characters aren’t moving at all. A lot of sequences have only the most stripped-down animations, a choice that was almost certainly driven by the ailing UPA’s stripped-down budgets. One critical scene has the characters talking behind a closed door.

But even as I write this I’m not sure it’s a fair criticism.

For all the corner-cutting, there’s something honestly ambitious about Gay Purr-ee. The backgrounds were deliberately painted in the styles of various Impressionist masters: the country scenes pay homage to Van Gogh’s Provence paintings, while a Paris nightlife sequence is a nod to Toulouse-Lautrec. There’s a fun scene where we see paintings of Mewsette in the style of Renoir, Degas, Modigliani, even an early Cubist Picasso. The animators must have had a blast doing that. But that’s actually when I start to ask myself the hard question: who did they think this movie was for?

An early Newsweek review suggested that the movie’s targeted audience appeared to be “the fey four-year-old of recherché taste.” That sounds about right.

On the one hand, we’ve got all the typical Chuck Jones-style sight gags of characters getting smashed flat and being swung around by their tails. When Jaune Tom zeroes in on his prey (he is reputed to be a rodent catcher of great “virtue-mousity”), his eye literally turns into a rifle sight. But then a moment later characters are making references to Cezanne’s use of color and puns about the “Meowlin Rouge.” At one point, comic sidekick Robespierre (Buttons) mispronounces “champagne” as “sham-pagg-nie” (he’s a French cat who can’t speak French?), while Mewsette thinks Champs-Élysées is something you order at a sidewalk bistro. Whose kids are these jokes aimed at?

Then there’s the story, which is not 100% kid stuff.

After Mewsette hears a human praise the wonders of Paris, she decides to ditch her dull provincial life in Provence and head for the City of Lights.

Her bold but bumpkinesque boyfriend Jaune Tom follows with his kitten pal Robespierre in tow. By the time they arrive, Mewsette has fallen into the clutches of evil Meowrice, who sells her as a mail-order bride to a millionaire cat in Pittsburgh. In order to get her groomed for her new husband, Meowrice enlists the help of a salonista named Madame Rubens-Chatte—voiced by Hermione Gingold, basically repeating her role from Gigi. In fact, except for the missing sex-worker angle, this movie is pretty much Gigi. Because, you know, kids love movies about courtesans.

When I first saw Gay Purr-ee on television as a child, I had the weird feeling that something was going on that wasn’t for six-year-old me. The cats don’t just mispronounce cham-pagg-nee, they get drunk on it. Meowrice gives off definite sex-trafficker vibes: I didn’t even know what sex trafficking was, and I still felt it. He sings a sly number called “The Horse Won’t Talk” that’s basically about making out in a carriage. Watching it again after all this years, though, I actually don’t think it was a mistake to spice up a kid’s movie with grownup innuendo. I think the mistake may have been thinking it was a kid’s movie in the first place.

The list of animated films intended specifically for adults is very short (and no, I don’t mean the Ralph Bakshi kind of “adult”). Some of the Looney Tunes—parodies of Wagner operas and Errol Flynn swashbucklers—came mighty close. Disney tried to model Fantasia as lofty filmmaking for the cultured crowd, but they still had to throw in the dancing hippos and Mickey Mouse. With just a little more confidence, Gay Purr-ee could have broken the mold as actual grownup fare.

There are times when you have to think they were going for it. The Arlen and Harburg songs are as good as anything they wrote for Summer Stock or A Star is Born, and Judy Garland doesn’t hold back. Still, they’re not children’s songs, not even in the very narrow way that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is technically a song for kids. They’re belt songs, torch numbers, perfectly molded to Judy’s aching contralto. I get the feeling the songwriters had no idea this was supposed to be for a cartoon.

One blues number, “Paris is a Lonely Town,” is every bit as heart-rending as that other Harold Arlen tune, “The Man That Got Away.” As she stands overlooking the Seine, Mewsette drops these lines: “Each glamorous bridge is a bridge of sighs/River, river, won’t you be my lover?/Don’t turn me down/For Paris is such a lonely, lonely town.” You are not imagining this: a cartoon cat is singing about drowning herself.

The supporting players are definitely on their game, but they’re unfortunately all playing in different arenas.

Robert Goulet, fresh off starring as Lancelot in the original Broadway cast of Camelot, is in high derring-do form as Jaune Tom. Red Buttons plays Robespierre with a nervous bravado that sometimes sounds like an early inspiration for Scrappy-Doo. As Madame Rubens-Chatte, Hermione Gingold is the essence of bedraggled snobbery: I imagine her and Judy recording their lines together drunk off their butts. Paul Frees is, well, what can one say but Paul Frees? He plays Meowrice in full-on Boris Badenov mode—being the only professional cartoon voice actor in the bunch, he’s the only one who sounds like he should be in a kids’ movie. It’s weird when the villain is the most reassuring presence in the entire film.

I still enjoyed the hell out of Gay Purr-ee, though I can definitely see why it never really found a niche. It’s either too naughty or not naughty enough, take your pick.

Its songs belong in a Vincent Minnelli musical, not a film by the director of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It needed the unbridled Chuck Jones of “What’s Opera, Doc?” but got the worn-down, latter-day Jones of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. I loved the visual nods—in one scene you see a feline version of Toulouse-Lautrec sketching kitty can-can-dancers (cat-cat dancers?)—but they had to sail a mile over the heads of anyone in the audience who hadn’t taken an Art Appreciation course. When she’s singing, Judy Garland owns the movie—but when she’s talking, she weirdly isn’t given much to say. Given what we know about the real-life Judy Garland, it’s creepy that her character is molded, groomed, and fairly well gaslit into becoming a rich guy’s plaything. Worse, when Jaune Tom sees her again, his eyes pop-out in cartoon boingggg hearts: he apparently likes what the feline sex traffickers did to her.

Still, I’m grateful that Warner gave the film another chance for its Warner Archive label. It deserves the Blu-ray treatment.

Extras include three shorts, demo recordings and trailer.

The colors are crisp and rich, the soundtrack is flawless and artifact-free, and you can really see why this was the movie that UPA chose to go out on. If only this remarkable studio had hung on for a few more years, imagine where the experiment of Gay Purr-ee might have gone next.

Hiss-tery could have been made.



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