During the late '60s and early '70s, animation went through a kind of unexpected renaissance. With the success of the re-released Fantasia and The Beatles' Yellow Submarine amongst the peace and love crowd, cartoonists considered making more adult-oriented fare. No longer would the artform be limited to fairytales and fantasy. Instead, a maturity would mark many of the pen and ink films released during these culturally significant decades. Starting with Britain's first animated feature, 1954's Animal Farm, and up through 1973's Fantastic Planet, and Ralph Bakshi's 1972 take on R. Crumb's legendary Fritz the Cat, the approaches and techniques were wildy divergent. Arriving right before that infamous X-rated classic was John D. Wilson's Shinbone Alley. Featuring music by George Kleinsinger, a script suggested from a play by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion, and all based on a Broadway show compiled from the stories of Don Marquis (noted New York newspaper columnist and short story writer), this tale of Archy the author who's reincarnated as a cockroach, only to fall in love with a fickle feline named Mehitabel, has long been hailed as either a work of visionary grandeur, or a minor middling effort. Now, thanks to Image Entertainment, we have a chance to judge this relative rarity for ourselves. While not a classic, it's a thoroughly arresting experience.
Archy is a writer who feels rejected by life. After jumping off a bridge in an attempt at committing suicide, he discovers he's been reincarnated as – a cockroach. Using a typewriter he finds in a newspaper office, he writes of his transformation, and his undying affection for a salacious alley cat named Mehitabel. This used and abused feline, out for a good time and self-centered to a fault, has recently taken up with the nasty tempered tom Big Bill, and Archy would do anything to disrupt their relationship. But as a bug, he has limited abilities. He tries his best to make Mehitabel respectable, but she frowns on such sentiments, instead wishing to live her life by a "toujours gai" (always merry) philosophy. No sooner does she escape Bill's overbearing paws, than she takes up with the disreputable theatrical agent Tyrone T. Tattersall. The promise of fame enthralls Mehitabel, and nothing Archy does dissuades her from pursuing her dream of stardom. Naturally, nothing comes to it. Mehitabel eventually delivers a litter of kittens and, at first, wants nothing to do with them. Archy convinces her that she should try to be a good mother, so Mehitabel gets a job as a house cat. She seems fine with it at first. But eventually, the lure of Shinbone Alley and its 'toujours gai' lifestyle is too much. She leaves her position, arguing that a carefree existence is part of who she is. Unable to argue with such a statement, Archy relents, resigned to respect Mehitabel for who she is.
There are a few things you will have to get used to right up front in order to appreciate Shinbone Alley. First, this is more of an operetta than a musical. Almost all the dialogue is sung, with songs that are more linear and twisty than straight forward and poppy. Second, there is something a tad off putting about the voice work. Only Broadway vet Eddie Bracken (as Archy) is able to maintain a believable character. The rest of the cast careen wildly from mildly amusing (John Carradine) to difficult to define (Carol Channing). In fact, Alan Reed, Sr.'s turn as the bad tom cat Big Bill is just a retread of his familiar Fred Flintstone shtick. Third, you have to appreciate the specific tone and temperament that author Don Marquis intended for his tales. Created at the turn of the century (around 1916, to be exact) the stories that make up the Archy and Mehitabel narrative are cautionary "poems" supposedly penned by the bug himself, and meant to function as sonnets to a feline who revels in her ill repute. Their relationship meant to mirror the struggles of early cosmopolitan couples, is trying at best. Finally, you need to realize that, as a heroine, Mehitabel is fairly hard to love. She's horrible to Archy, constantly complaining in a whiny, whispering style that only Channing could create, and says some incredibly awful things about motherhood, children and responsibility. She may seem lovable to anyone eager to embrace a worry-free lifestyle, but she's not a very pleasant pussycat.
Now, with all those considered caveats out of the way, it's easy to see why Shinbone Alley is still a bit of a tough sell. It's a movie with an arcane storyline at its center, presented in an equally obtuse fashion, and featuring performances that try the patience of even the most studied animation scholar. Naturally, the question becomes what, if anything, does this creaky cartoon have going for it. The answer lies in the visual minds behind the production. Famous artist George Herriman, responsible for the creation of the classic Krazy Kat/ Ignatz Mouse comics, was the first individual to ever illustrate the Archy and Mehitabel tales. It was these drawings that inspired John D. Wilson, and their complex, surrealist designs give Shinbone Alley an incredibly distinct looks. While the animal players all have the standard Disney anthropomorphic appeal, the backgrounds and settings in which the action takes place are wonderfully bizarre and expertly realized. Wilson even tosses in a respectful inside joke to his muse, momentarily turning Archy into a copy of Krazy Kat during a revolution rallying cry. As part of the many musical moments, a pop art conceit is also employed, more or less offered as a bow to the determined demographic who would be interested in this type of film. In truth, there is not much for kids to enjoy during Shinbone Alley. The stories tend to be serious, the situations very mature in nature with the resolutions routinely tracking toward the socially unacceptable.
It all makes for a very disconcerting experience. You find yourself rooting against Archy and Mehitabel, understanding all too well that their relationship is doomed to failure. You occasionally get caught up in the meandering music, wondering how a Great White Way audience reacted to such awkward arias (the answer is they didn't – the original stage production only ran 72 performances). Sometimes, you're struck dumb by how odd this all is – John Carradine singing a song about Shakespeare? Alan Reed, Sr. as a sex machine? – while at other instances you'll gladly go along for the ridiculous ride. Though it has the occasional feeling of a homemade effort (the cartooning is not smooth and continuous, and there are a lot of artist guide lines in the final presentation) and can't really get its act together in the end, this is still an interesting example of serious adult oriented animation. Indeed, a lot can be learned about what Wilson and his cohorts felt was acceptable film fodder when revisiting this rarity. Suicide, promiscuity, adultery and several other vices make up the backbone of the narrative, and the whole insect angle has an undercurrent of ugliness to it that tends to diminish the movie's more magical elements. In essence, Shinbone Alley is trying to have it both ways. It wants to be cutesy for the kids, while staying relatively realistic for the true target audience. It ends up landing somewhere slightly in between.
There are no arguments with Image's excellent digital transfer of this long forgotten title. The colors are crisp, the stock elements appearing new and barely aged. The 1.33:1 full screen image appears to preserve the movie's original aspect ratio, as frames and compositions are clearly defined and uninterrupted. Overall, this is delightful DVD, at least from a visual standpoint.
On the sound side, Shinbone Alley is tinny and flat. The Dolby Digital Mono has very little bottom, almost no middle and way to much top. While this doesn't affect the dialogue significantly, it renders the constant music more or less lifeless. It is hard to blame the distributor for such sloppy original recording strategies, but it's too bad that this film doesn't come across better, aurally. A dynamic decibel presentation would definitely help sell this slightly strange endeavor.
The sole bonus feature here is an in-house documentary from the mid-'80s in which filmmaker John D. Wilson discusses the art of animation. Thorough, dealing with much of his canon (including Shinbone Alley and his version of The Ugly Duckling) and offering some significant step-by-step instruction, this is an entertaining, if decidedly lo-tech, featurette.
For individuals raised almost exclusively on a diet of Disney-fied animation, something like Shinbone Alley will appear like a peculiar presentation from an alien planet. It's jerky, jazzy style, reminiscent of both its source material and its original artistic interpretation, will also seem like sketches from a psychotic's notepad. With material as mannered as this, going with anything higher than a rating of Recommended seems superfluous. This may shock fans who feel that Wilson did the entire enterprise complete and utter justice. In their minds, Shinbone Alley is a forgotten masterwork desperate to be recognized for its inventiveness and animation approach. But unless you're a true cartoon aficionado, you may balk at some of the storylines more dispirit elements. In either case, this is the sort of film that struggled throughout its existence to gain any amount of respect or recognition. Shinbone Alley may not be a perfect entertainment, but it does deserve to be taken seriously. It's good, it's just not great.
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