Monday, 17 February 2014

315. Sniffles Bells the Cat (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 314.
Release date: February 2, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Margaret Hill-Talbot (Sniffles / Other Mice)
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Sniffles is used forces of persuasion by his friends to bell the cat, which he reluctantly accepts which would almost cost his life.

Sniffles Bells the Cat...that title is totally predictable, don't you think? With that title, you can already guess that Sniffles will bell the cat by the end of the cartoon, and the title itself is very cutesy-ish too. Well, never judge a book by its cover, which is why we are here to review this short...

This short is quite possibility the definition and prime example of a Chuck Jones cartoon from his earliest years, which of course means sluggish pacing and cutesy concepts. Whereas Sniffles is already a cutesy character by Chuck himself, and the situations Sniffles faces are usually mundane--this short definitely has a lot of those comments combined here.

You could say using the title itself is a form of poor pacing, as the audience would already know that Sniffles attempting to bell a cat will take the entire cartoon running time, which gives Chuck the excuse to pad the cartoon with molasses timing as well as a lot of verbosity in the dialogue sequences. It's still quite clear Chuck wasn't yet ready to step out of his own comfort zone, as he still was already focusing on creating perilous situations for Sniffles, as well as creating and experimenting (with little effect) of the character.

As it may appear unusual in a Chuck Jones opening for a 1941 cartoon, it opens off with a chase sequence as the mice are seen running away from the cat escaping into their home just in time. There is no sluggish pacing, or exposition, it starts straight off there and it already starts off fresh. Then it cuts towards the sequence where the mice complain about quiet and cunning the cat was, which then leads to Sniffles suggesting to bell the cat. Then this results in a sequence with no brevity, but just padded dialogue and pacing that in fact takes up almost half of the cartoon's length. Sniffles' reluctance to bell the cat and the mice's use of persuasiveness are realistic in storytelling, but its use of repetition and unfocused pacing really slows the entire short down, and leaving the action sequences with the cat to perhaps appear rushed.

However, Chuck also appears to be focusing on his expressions and artistic tendencies than he is concerned of the dialogue, which does stand out as artistically pleasing. Chuck's use of pantomiming where the mice point to Sniffles is believable and well planned, as Chuck was a master of pantomime in animation. Notice the use of Jones' unusual piece of staging from Sniffles' point of view of the mouse holding the bell, which stands out as symbolic, and the mice's expressions of persuasiveness are solid. Though, the shots of Sniffles' reluctance (possibly animated by Bobe Cannon) appear to just stand out as unfocused and unneeded.

It doesn't stop from where Sniffles shows reluctance, the poor pacing and padding still goes on as Sniffles is forced outside the mouse hole, holding onto the bell. Whilst the mice promise to let him back in unless he bells the cat, Sniffles then walks away in a state of confusion and nervousness. The character animation may be quite solid, though even Disney could easily quicken the pacing.

This leads him to faint, and you'd expect this to be the end of the long-paced sequence, but it does sort of move forwards, but only progressively.

This results in Sniffles standing in a corner and with his simple mind, rehearses on how he would advertise the bell to the cat, which is just adds up to another sequence of more sluggish pacing, and this gives a less supposedly suspenseful sequence of the cat pursuing Sniffles.

This is without doubt, one of Jones' worst piece of pacing he has done to cartoon running times in general, and this is an awful lot more mundane than the other bland sequences with Sniffles from previous shorts. It isn't until he continues to his rehearsal does the cat turns up, resulting in a double take for Sniffles, that it finally starts to pace up the cartoon as it should have done a lot earlier on in the short.

Not to mention, this doesn't mean Chuck creates some fresh and inventive sequences, as he certainly had an original concept in the short...a shell game. The cat rushes inside the kitchen, noticing three different teacups standing, and suspects Sniffles is hiding inside there.

The sequence, most likely animated by Ken Harris, shows some very strong character animation as well as very solid proportions and careful drawing. The movement is very rich, and almost very human for a cat, especially the hand movements. A sequence what every animator should be proud of for animating.

During the shell game as the cat picks up a few empty shells, when he picks up the cup with Sniffles featured inside, this is presented in a pantomime form. We all know which cup Sniffles is hiding from, and this creates suspense as well as hope our protagonist will not be eaten, perhaps from a young child's point of view.

The sequence is also sometimes associated of a similar sequence which was featured in the Disney film, Cinderella, which was released some nine years later. Compared to this short, the shell sequence in the Disney film is rather wacky, peppy and entertaining (being Ward Kimball's animation), whereas in this short it is presented in Jones' own interpretation which is suspenseful and slow. Stylistically the sequences are nothing alike, whereas the short appears to be artistically demanding, and in the Disney version it is for humorous circumstances. However, it's most likely the sequence in Cinderella was purely coincidental.

Other uses of repeated formulas by Chuck can be seen in the first screenshot where he shows the mice in the background as silhouettes, which is indeed intriguing staging and showing that the guard mouse sands out, but this occurs in a not-so needed sequence. Another formula that Chuck has used, and appears to have been overlooked from historians or enthusiasts, is that Chuck appears to enjoy using sequences which show small, vulnerable characters like Sniffles at the brink of death, by sitting on top of the cat's nose.

Though this was sort of seen in shorts like Sniffles Takes a Trip (Sniffles sitting on a crane), but it appears to be used in alternate circumstances, where a character double-takes at a dangerous situation, and by using a lot of gloss on the antagonist, to make the cat stand out as very menacing and threatening.

 As though all must come to a finish, the sequence then quickens up again, where Sniffles is seen rushing through the scenery. Just in one of the shots, he runs through the bell knocking it over and landing straight at the cat's neck, which is what the audience and the reviewer had been expecting throughout the running time, judging on the title.

Just as Sniffles makes it inside the mouse hole and slamming the door. This means that Sniffles is alive and we would have to indulge more of his annoyance until Chuck gets bored of the character, which is not yet.

The other mice then ask Sniffles with astonished responses as to how Sniffles did the task, which as we all know happened by pure luck. Just as he makes up tales of how he accomplished it, he crosses his fingers with superstition. This could also be a subtle breaking the forth wall moment, as this suggests only the audience know of Sniffles' lies.

To conclude the review, the short is not only very predictable in terms of the title, but as mentioned its simply one of Jones' poor sense of timing which is very unfocused and third-rate. A lot more could have been accomplished with the sequences of Sniffles and the cat, though having plodding just lost the spark of the overall concept. Despite plodded pieces of dialogue, the shell game remains the best sequence of the short in terms of its freshness as well as excellent character animation. Having previously worked on a short where he attempted comedy again with Bugs Bunny, the short clearly shows how he still doesn't want to make the drastic move just yet.

Rating: 2/5.


  1. Teacup scene was animated by Robert McKimson.

    1. McKimson was in Tex Avery's unit by that point, so it seems quite unlikely he clashed with the Jones unit at the same time, unless the short was finished months in advanced, and was backlogged for sometime..

    2. This is the source for my comment-

      "Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies-A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons" by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald


      [excerpt] "Sniffles hides in a coffee cup. The cat plays the old shell game, carefully picking up each cup, looking under each one slowly (excellent animation by Bob McKimson)."

      Apologize for the (very) delayed response, but I could not locate my copy of the book -its in storage- and I had to order one from the library.