Friday, December 9, 2016

One Kool Kat

Kirk Douglas was never really known for comedy.  Brawler, tough guy, a hero who was often tortured, if not physically (which was often), then psychologically—his films are typically serious stuff.  When he did smile, it was often wolfish, or as if the cat ate the canary.  What humor he showed in his characters would often be wry, acerbic, cynical.  The most playful he ever got—his Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)—was in a fantasy adventure, but even his films that had a comedic bent (There Was A Crooked Man... (1970), for example) would have a dark undercurrent.  While this changed towards the end of his career (1980 and beyond), it was mostly in the service of forgettable films, the best of which was Tough Guys (1986), his final pairing with long-time screen partner Burt Lancaster—another actor, in fact, who rarely did comedies, though his screen charisma had far greater natural buoyancy.  Even when Kirk wasn’t fighting, he was always like a coiled spring, ready to pounce at any time.  It’s what made him a great villain in his early years and such a suitable anti-hero as his career blossomed, this authentic intensity.

But we know from various interviews he’s done that he is a funny, warm, charming guy in real life—a trait that didn’t fade an iota even after his debilitating stroke in January 1996.  So on the occasion of his 100th birthday, I thought we’d talk about the best, overtly funny thing he was ever in, his guest appearance on The Simpsons which aired just a few months after the stroke: “The Day the Violence Died.”

In it, the famous Itchy & Scratchy cartoon pair are celebrating their 75th anniversary, commemorated by a parade through downtown Springfield.  It’s here that Bart meets the bum Chester J. Lampwick (Douglas), who claims to have created Itchy, only to have it stolen by Roger Meyers Sr. (a Walt Disney proxy in the world of the Simpsons).  The ensuing court case and rags-to-riches storyline for Chester is packed with a ton of fun references to animation tropes from a variety of decades.

Of course, Kirk is no stranger to exposés on the cutthroat character of Tinseltown.  He played a merciless producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and a washed-up actor in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), and his real-life political courage in the face of enormous industry pressure during the Blacklist era is the stuff of legend (his Spartacus storyline is the best thing about the otherwise tedious Trumbo).

So it’s fun to see his irascible Chester go up against the craven, money-grubbing system.  But Chester doesn’t care about art.  He only cares about restitution.  So It’s no skin off his nose when the studio goes bankrupt.  In this way, he’s a kindred spirit to Grandpa Simpson (one of the most reliably hilarious characters on the show).  A funny running gag is that various Springfield characters have a history with Chester, contracting him to do odd jobs he never completed for food he insists was terrible.  Invariably, each of these ends in a roll-on-the-floor fist fight.  He’s a crank, and the tough guy hasn’t softened a bit with age, though he also plays a good piano accompaniment to his silent short.  Throughout, Douglas plays it straight, but still sounds like he's having fun.  And in the end, he gets his just reward: his solid gold house and rocket car.  And eventually, the studio finds an unexpected cash flow, so that means for the last 20 seasons, Chester has been getting residuals on all the new Itchy & Scratchy cartoons that are made.  A suitable happy ending.

What is the origin of Itchy & Scratchy?  Certainly the most famous cat vs. mouse dynamic in film history is Tom & Jerry, a pair that has yet to earn a USPS stamp but which earned more Oscars for their shorts than either Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.  But a more obvious progenitor is Krazy Kat by George Herriman, most famously a comic strip for over 30 years but also the subject of some very early animation efforts.  In the strip, Krazy Kat is a soft-hearted character who is constantly trying to woo Ignatz the mouse.  The latter always responded by throwing bricks at Krazy’s head.  Similarly, Scratchy is always depicted as a sweet or sentimental soul, with Itchy the brutal aggressor, blessed with a limitless imagination when it comes to inventive ways to murder his nemesis.  Chester also says, "Before I came along, all cartoon animals did was play the ukelele."  One of Krazy's signature traits was strumming a makeshift guitar or banjo.  So even though Krazy Kat is hardly known at all anymore, it holds striking similarities with the Simpsons’ incarnation.

In the show, we learn that Chester first created Itchy back in 1919, long before his “official” debut in 1928’s Steamboat Itchy.  The first Krazy Kat cartoon was in 1916, and while I’ve never heard any allegations to Disney using Krazy Kat as a model for Mickey, it’s a different story with the design elements of his famous mouse and Felix the Cat (also stampless) who debuted in 1919 in Feline Follies and became incredibly popular thereafter, with more than 150 shorts between 1919 and 1928.  When we see footage of Itchy’s debut Manhattan Madness, it’s a fun lampoon of the visual style of the time, as well as a satire of the unfortunate tendency to use ethnic or racial stereotypes back then.

Other animation references in this episode:

·       Mickey’s Steamboat Willie (also 1928), of course, as well as Roger Meyers Jr. no longer being able to afford the cryogenic chamber where his father was being stored (another allusion to one of the dafter Walt Disney rumors).

·       Chester’s last name Lampwick is also the name of Pinocchio’s juvenile delinquent friend in the 1940 Disney feature.  His terrifying transformation into a donkey (fated for a life of animal servitude) remains one of the most horrific moments in the studio’s history.

·       The unnamed Itchy & Scratchy cartoon featured at the end has the familiar southwest landscapes used in all the Warner Bros. roadrunner cartoons, as well as the rocket skates by Acme (Wile E. Coyote’s favorite brand).

·       Itchy & Scratchy Meet Fritz the Cat, another animated feline, this time created by R. Crumb and featured by Ralph Bakshi in his infamous 1972 feature film.

·       Perhaps the most blistering lampoon is that of Schoolhouse Rock, with the Amendment-To-Be song that acts as a gross perversion of the original Saturday morning civics lessons.  They even got Jack Sheldon (who sang the original “I'm Just a Bill”) to perform this number.  Check it out.

At 100, Kirk has had a wonderful run, and he’s managed to outlive several of the other guest actors from his episode.  Terrible lawyer Lionel Hutz (who actually manages to win his case here) was played by frequent guest, the late Phil Hartman.  And Alex Rocco did recurring bits as Roger Meyers, Jr. on the show before passing away last year.  At least Sheldon and other guest actor Suzanne Somers are still with us.

One other bit that makes this a particular favorite episode for film buffs: When Bart uses the school projector to screen Chester’s copy of Manhattan Madness, the film catches fire and incinerates just like a movie made from the old nitrate film stock would.  The former film archivist in me values this moment a great deal (though the less said about how much I resemble Milhouse at that age, the better).  And the philatelist in me appreciates how the Itchy & Scratchy studio becomes solvent again once it’s revealed the United States Postal Service plagiarized Roger Meyers with its Mr. Zip icon (a real cartoon brand in the 1960s, used to publicize the importance of the newly introduced Zip Codes).

One other bit of Simpsons trivia.  At exactly 100, Kirk still isn’t the longest-living person to appear at one time on the show.  Bob Hope lived to 100 years, 2 months.  So it won’t take long to beat that record.   Another curiosity: Even though the Stanley Kubrick references are prolific throughout the series's lifetime, there has never been a Spartacus spoof, unusual for a film with such iconic possibilities.  Maybe one day.  But Kirk's legacy on the show is secure.  Look at the postcard below and you’ll see Chester in the upper left-hand corner, nestled between Dr. Nick and Nelson Muntz.

Kirk isn’t eligible for a USPS stamp yet (thank goodness) but he has appeared in stamps from other countries, like the Mali one depicted at the top.  The Walt Disney stamp is Scott # 1355.  Other Scott #s for the Disney issues: Mickey w/friends (3865), Pinocchio (3868), Mickey & Pluto (3912), Mickey & Minnie (4025), Dumbo (4194), Fantasia (4192) Steamboat Willie (4343).  Homer, Bart, and Lisa Simpson are Scott #s 4399, 4401, and 4402 respectively.  The cartoon cat stamp on the Fritz the Cat poster is part of the Bright Eyes series, Scott # 3232.  The Stanley Steamer stamp is Scott # 2132, Krazy Kat # 3000e, and Roadrunner # 3391.  And the pet stamps from this year included cat (# 5122) and mouse (# 5117). 
For more entries in the Kirk Douglas Centennial Blogathon, go here

       My Top 10 Kirk Douglas films
  • 1. Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
  • 2. Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
  • 3. Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer, 1964)
  • 4. Champion (Robson, 1949)
  • 5. Lonely Are the Brave (D.Miller, 1962)
  • 6. Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960)
  • 7. Detective Story (Wyler, 1951)
  • 8. The Man from Snowy River (G.Miller, 1982)
  • 9. Lust for Life (Minnelli, 1956)
  • 10. A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz, 1949)


Silver Screenings said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this episode of The Simpsons. I wanted to stream it a few weeks ago, when I was working on my own post, but couldn't find a legal site that listed it. No matter! Your review is just as good as watching the episode.

And it's a terrific review. I like how you describe Kirk Douglas, especially his cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. Thanks for sharing this with us. :)

Caftan Woman said...

I got "Simpsoned-out" over a decade ago. What have I been missing?!