Only in the 70s: Shinbone Alley (1971)
THANK heavens that Animation Month is nearly over, but there’s one more hurdle to cross for Only in the 70s. To send us off for the month – and signalling the anniversary of Torments’ inception – Truan brings us his take on an overlooked gem from 1971: Shinbone Alley.
Well, I waaas going to review The Point! as narrated by Ringo Star (1971) but I, um… honestly had no idea what to make of that after watching it. So, instead, I took a look at a simultaneously more grounded, yet, in its own way, perhaps even stranger feature of the same year. It’s a film which has also been forgotten through the dusty decades: it’s called Shinbone Alley and, oh yes, it could’ve most certainly only happened in the 70s.
Based on the short stories and comic strips of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, and more principally on the eponymous musical comedy by Joe Darion and co. (1954), Shinbone Alley is an unusual, but far from meritless film which is both stylish in its depiction of poverty and sleaze, yet, somehow, still a visually arresting and morally educational film for the younger audience.
Beyond the cool but unusually downbeat, even bluesy feel of the beginning credits theme, the first thing you’ll notice is how dark the opening is. Our protagonist Archy (Eddie Bracken), a struggling socialistic poet in downtown New York, despairing of the grim realities of life, attempts suicide by drowning himself in the docks. A haunting montage follows of static darkly lit water stills, set like forlorn eyes and faces, but then Archy pulls himself out and finds he’s been transformed into a cockroach through metempsychosis. For kids!
Archy, being a poet, is naturally rather alarmed at how he will continue to write in his present condition. A solution presents itself almost immediately when he trips on a ledge, landing on a typewriter key and delivering a single printed letter. From this, despite his implied prior resolution, and his apparently only worsened new circumstances, Archie gains a new lease on life through a song – ‘Queer Little Insect’. If the lyrics are a tad innocuous (“Eh, leave some apple cores in the waste basket too boss / You can call me Archy, heh”) then the jazz-swing accompaniment more than makes up for it in stylish, uninhibited enthusiasm.
Mehitabel (Broadway legend Carrol Channing) literally bursts into the scene with the raspy but distinctive ‘What Do We Care’ and the more reflective, but equally nonchalant ‘Toujours Gai’. Don’t ask me how the recently transmogrified Archy and an alley feline know each other immediately, it’s just Broadway logic. We immediately jump through introductions to the sensitive, retiring Archie and the vain, cranky but free-spirited Mehitabel and their one-sided love/hate relationship.
Next, we’re introduced to the curmudgeonly tomcat Big Bill (Alan Reed, A.K.A. Fred Flintstone) in ‘Big Bill’, Mehitabel’s present ill-advised infatuation, who brutalises the alley’s residents and his own droogs alike. Archy tries to dissuade Mehitabel from her wild ways and her predilection for loutish aggressive tomcats. With Mehitabel being an incorrigible romantic, his pleas fall on deaf ears and only earn him a bruising from Bill in ‘True Romance’.
Beyond the relatively familiar, but uncharacteristically mature main Carmen-esque plotline, Shinbone Alley makes frequent detours with allusions to the satire of the original strips in Archy’s writing montages; by turns humorous, knowing, political and iconoclastic. If Shinbone Alley can be uninhibitedly light-hearted, it can also be stark and even poignant, as when Archy, having failed again to persuade Mehitabel from being duped by yet another devious tomcat, is left completely disconsolate.
Cue ‘Other Poets Wonder’: “Where do red roses go / Beneath the snow / But does anybody ask / Where do little cockroaches go? / Ha, believe me, no.” He once again ponders suicide, going so far as to leave a departing note and go through several comically failed attempts. One of these is laying in pool table pockets hoping to be crushed, only to find that the players are miraculously inept.
For all of Archy’s suicidal tendencies and Mehitabel’s misplaced trust in abusive tomcats, the tone is rarely overtly oppressive, and Shinbone Alley makes better use of its comic relief and humorous numbers than most Disney and Bluth films I’m familiar with. See ‘I Gotta Be’, in which Tyrone T. Tatterstall (John Carradine), Shinbone Alley’s self-appointed maestro and resident thespian, recalls to a bemused Mehitabel his first big part as a player’s fake beard; or when Archy tries to rally the insect class against the human menace in ‘The Moth Song’.
If there is an obvious fault with Shinbone Alley, it’s that the unavoidably dated and rather slow animation, though paying great stylistic homage to the original satire comic strip, nevertheless struggles to keep pace with the story. The voice dubbing, though featuring some wonderfully characterful performances in Bracken’s Archy and Channing’s Mehitabel, still seldom matches up with the visuals succinctly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, contemporary parents and critics were not enthusiastic about a picture with all the ostensible features and animation familiar in more wholesome and boring animated kid’s films, viz. Aristocats (1970), yet with a subtext and plot of a far more Brechtian quantity. As a result, the film was an immediate slump at the box office.
One could say that Shinbone Alley belonged to a rapidly fading era – not just of cinema, but of western storytelling mediums in general, where plots, ostensibly child-orientated, could nevertheless tackle adult themes and subjects subversively. I’m sure many will disagree, but can you really think of many child-orientated narratives, particularly in film, and certainly in English-speaking film, that pull as few punches as Shinbone Alley? We’re talking about a film where a protagonist gleefully sings lines like: “Someday Mehitabel’s gut / will string a violin.”
Perhaps Watership Down and The Plague Dogs deal with similarly sombre themes, but then these are films dealing very directly with un-anthropomorphised characters, and only directly deal with mankind insofar as our relationship with animals and nature is concerned. It’s a big step away from the quite obvious, class-driven analogies of Shinbone Alley.
I can understand why critics and parents were uncomfortable with the idea of their kids watching it, but, by the same token, would they then object to any number of Perault’s or Grimms’ fairy tales, much of which features equally unsettling and, if anything, more subversive subtexts?
Really, in a fairer world, Shinbone Alley would have been a much bigger hit than a feature as mediocre as Aristocats. The animation isn’t as smooth, or the vocal dubbing as exacting, but there’s a lot more flair and charisma to the characters in Shinbone and a lot more depth to the story. It deals with enduringly relevant themes such as depression, suicidal thoughts, domestic abuse, paternal and maternal abandonment, poverty, class insecurities, ageing and rejection, yet still manages to be pretty darn funny. All I can remember from Aristocats is that one song. Beyond that, it’s as dull and dry as kitty litter by comparison.
So yeah, if you’ve never heard of Shinbone Alley, which you probably haven’t, go check it out.