Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Barely a footnote in animated feature history, shinbone alley has an excellent cultural pedigree but doesn't wear too well as an entertainment. It's based on a play derived from Don Marquis' famous newspaper articles called "archy and mehitabel." Archy is a cockroach with poetic ambitions, and since he types by leaping from key to key on the typewriter, he can't produce capital letters -- hence the lower-case main title. The genesis of shinbone alley includes Mel Brooks as a writer/adaptor, but this musical cartoon version presented no challenge to Disney fare in 1971. Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing contribute their distinctive voices.
Archy (voice of Eddie Bracken) is traumatized by the fact that he's a newspaper writer unaccountably transformed into a cockroach. But he continues to write and carries on an obsessive campaign to reform Mehitabel (voice of Carol Channing), a sexy alley cat who refuses to reform her flighty and promiscuous ways. Archy rails and sermonizes, but Mehitabel is happy to be seduced by tomcat Big Bill (voice of Alan Reed). Then she's given illusions of grandeur by a pompous actor-cat, Tyrone T. Tattersall (voice John Carradine).
"archy and mehitabel" was once part of the core curriculum in High School creative writing classes. Daily Sun writer Don Marquis scored a big hit in 1916 when he pretended that his column was written by a cockroach named Archy. The insect philosopher attempted to influence the backsliding behavior of Mehitabel, an unrepentant she-cat popular with the alley tabbys. When the columns were anthologized in book form, famous cartoonist George Herriman (Krazy Kat) provided illustrations in his unmistakable impromptu style.
In 1954 composer George Kleinsinger and Joe Darion turned "archy and mehitabel" into a not particularly successful stage musical starring Eartha Kitt. At the same time, they released a concept record album based on the musical with the voices of Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing. Two years later the show was further adapted with writing input from Mel Brooks and re-titled shinbone alley.
In 1969 production began on this 'animated Broadway musical' version by the Fine Arts Films studio of New York. Director John David Wilson had worked as an animator on Peter Pan and other Disney films in the 1950s, and his independent style was later seen on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Wilson's most visible work is the title sequence for the 1978 musical Grease.
The animated musical shinbone alley may interest fans of Broadway history and the film's stars, but it's simply not very good. The character design is unexciting and derivative and the dominant bluish-black backgrounds aren't very imaginative either. Little four-armed Archy looks and moves like a generic character from a Public Service spot, and the sketchy animation just looks cheap. Mehitabel at least fits the amusing voice of Carol Channing (always pleasant to listen to) but she keeps reminding us of the Judy Garland animated cat character in 1962's Gay Purr-ee, itself no milestone in animation history.
For a few minutes the film's blah style is replaced with an animated imitation of those ancient George Herriman illustrations. For just that section, the characters are more expressive and the picture takes on a more arresting look.
Animated movies can be liberating in ways that live-action cannot, but for most of its running time shinbone alley remains a literal transposition of a Broadway show. The characters stand around, declare their feelings and then dance and strut while singing the many songs, none of which is particularly memorable. Archy sings of his misery and Mehitabel of her 'free spirit' while waving and gesticulating in place, as if on a stage. The idea of cartoons imitating stage shows is the least charming feature of Disney's 90s animation boom, and a trend also felt in lesser efforts such as Don Bluth's The Pebble and the Penguin. Who wants to see animated characters doing vaudeville routines?
shinbone alley received good reviews as a family film -- even Judith Crist praised it -- but it's highly questionable children's fare. It starts almost like Kafka's Metamorphosis. After a noisy tirade Archy drops his dismay at being transformed into a cockroach and suddenly becomes enraptured with Mehitabel. That's a good example of the way various Don Marquis ideas have been stitched together without a real continuity. Literary critics did complain about Archy's unrequited love affair with Mehitabel. In the original articles the cockroach is merely a disapproving observer of the she-cat's racy lifestyle. Here, Archy behaves like an amorous Jiminy Cricket. The aloof and amoral Mehitabel has become a sexpot tramp, forever winking the one eye peeking out from under her fur, strutting about and giving the come-on to every cat in the alley.
Despite Archy's whining, Mehitabel wanders off for a fling with Big Bill, a blowhard Alpha Male Tomcat. With familiar vocal talent Alan Reed at the microphone, we might think that Bill is really Fred Flintstone in a cat costume. When the passion fades Mehitabel is cornered by Tyrone, an affected acting impresario who promises her fame and fortune but is really after a free meal. Shakesperian ham John Carradine provides the voice for Tyrone and his attempt to teach the ditzy feline how to read Romeo and Juliet is amusing for a few lines. Mehitabel mangles the Bard's words and keeps asking if she's a star yet. In the end, Archy arranges a place for Mehitabel in a respectable household with guaranteed meals. She finds the decent life boring and returns to her dirty but exciting alley. Archy welcomes her back for a musical finale.
Family Circle magazine called shinbone alley "A joy for the whole family." The movie opens with the implication that Archy turned into a roach because he committed suicide, but doesn't elaborate on that disturbing idea. The morbid theme returns later in a song about a moth driven to kill himself by flying too close to a flame. Mehitabel eventually has a litter of illegitimate kittens and expresses no interest in motherhood. In fact, she makes sarcastic remarks about drowning the whole litter. Don Marquis used his fantasy to comment on the morality of poverty, but shinbone alley presents this odd and morbid content as if it were another disposable joke for youngsters. A good analogy might be if Porgy and Bess were turned into a cartoon starring the Archie characters. Because they don't mix with the mediocrity of generic cartoon-making, the original literary meanings are lost .
Image's DVD of shinbone alley is presented in an okay but unimpressive flat transfer. The original film may be slightly cropped; some credits are crowded during the opening titles. The picture has occasional dirt but is intact and colorful; the encoding does not appears to damage the sketchy character style. For an extra, the disc offers a short subject about animation taped at the Fine Arts Film studios. While students mill about a storyboard room, the lecturer explains animation basics and then shows cels and drawings from John David Wilson's shinbone alley, Stanley, The Ugly Duckling and his main titles for Grease.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
shinbone alley rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good --
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: The Art of Animation lecture at the Fine Arts Films studio
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson