I’m going to go ahead and assume that October 29 is National Cat Day because it’s close to Halloween, when coal black familiars arch their backs and hiss against the backdrop of a full moon. But today’s topic won’t be quite so Satanic. As it happens we’re at the 60th anniversary of the release of a very cat-tastic animated feature, the too much neglected Gay Purr-ee (1962).
We need to do our bit to make this forlorn family film a classic going forward. It failed at the box office in its day, and I had never even heard of it until quite recently, despite a voice-over cast that includes Judy Garland, Morey Amsterdam, Robert Goulet (from Camelot), Red Buttons, Hermione Gingold, Mel Blanc, Paul Frees, and Thurl Ravenscroft (of Tony the Tiger and How the Grinch Stole Christmas fame). Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, who wrote the songs for The Wizard of Oz, penned the tunes, and the script is by Warner Brothers’ Chuck Jones and his wife Dorothy.
Set in the Fin de siècle, it concerns a Provence farm cat (Garland) who gets frustrated with her bumpkin boyfriend (Goulet) and the country life and heads off to the glamor of the big city, where she is indeed groomed to be a fancy cat indeed. The arc is definitely the old Aesop “Country Mouse/City Mouse” one, and it never gets old, for it gives audiences of all sorts what they want. It certainly gives me what I want, particularly given my current fit of Francophilia.
With this storyline, the vogue for all things French in the movies in the ’50s and ’60s, and the success of similar animated films like Lady and the Tramp (1955), The Aristocats (1970), and Ratatouille (2007), it’s hard to suss out why this movie tanked. I mean, subsequently it was eclipsed by The Aristocats, that’s obvious, but Gay Purr-ee had come out 8 years before. It was produced by UPA, the Disney splinter group responsible for Gerald McBoingBoing and Mr. Magoo, and released by Warner Brothers, which had its own very positive track record with animation. The design is in that simplified modern style that Disney and Warner Brothers were employing at the time, and is quite lovely, if the animation itself is a shade crude. The critics of the day of the loved Gay Purr-ee, yet the public stayed away.
Folks have speculated that maybe that the reason audiences didn’t flock to cinemas to see the film had to with the combination of Garland and Paris. Perhaps it seemed too “sophisticated”, not just in the sense of being intellectual, but more like it was perhaps “unwholesome”, like a cabaret act, too boozy and sexy for children. Of course, it wasn’t that, but ticket buyers may have jumped to that conclusion. Whereas eight years later when The Aristocats came out, parents knew they could trust the Disney brand not to put anything in a movie they would object to. At any rate, there is nothing objectionable in Gay Purr-ee, and the needle has moved a good bit anyway. I find something objectionable in nearly every contemporary kids movie I see, haha! Show them this one instead!