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The Bootleg Files: Angel Puss

BOOTLEG FILES 609: “Angel Puss” (1944 Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Chuck Jones).

LAST SEEN: The cartoon can be found on DailyMotion.com and Vimeo.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It has been removed from all commercial channels.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.

When you think of family-friendly entertainment, it is not likely that you would consider productions full of attempted murder, emotional torture and racial intolerance. Back in 1944, the cartoon “Angel Puss” incorporated those unfortunate elements into its story – and even in that distant era, its excessive unpleasantness created controversy.

“Angel Puss” opens on a moonlit night with a solitary figure walking flipping a coin while singing “Shortnin’ Bread” in an exaggerated drawl. (The voice is unmistakably Mel Blanc’s.) The figure is revealed to be an African-American boy drawn in extreme racial caricature, and he is walking across a rickety pier on a lonely river. The boy is carrying an oversized bag on his back, and when he reaches the pier’s end he places the bag down and stares into the river below. “Uh oh, dat sho’ looks cold,” he says before pinging his index finger into the river and adding. “Mmmm, mmm, dat sho’ is wet water.”

Suddenly, a hole opens from the bag and a feline paw reaches into the water, quickly retreating with a loud shiver upon feeling its icy temperature. Unknown to the boy, a large black cat that was in the bag exits its captivity and quickly returns with a stack of bricks, which he shoves into the bag. The boy picks up the bag, believing the cat is still inside, and is about to go ahead with his task of throwing the bag into the river, thus drowning the cat. But the boy becomes guilt stricken and insists, “I just cain’t go through with it.”

The cat, rather than running off to enjoy his freedom, picks up a metal tube and holds its directly behind the boy. Speaking through the tube, the cat pretends to be the boy’s conscience. Referring to this bedraggled soul as “Sambo,” the insists that he either throw the bag into the river or give back the “four bits” he was paid to do the task. Reluctantly opting for financial enrichment, the anguished boy drops the bag into the river, where it quickly sinks. The cat then grabs a glass of water and gargles while moaning out, “So long, Sambo.”

As the boy walks off, the cat abruptly winds up in some room (it is not clear where) and covers himself with white paint while putting on paper wings and a wire halo. The boy, who berates himself for being “money mad,” is guilt stricken when he walks past a billboard that reads “This Is Be Kind To Animals Week.” The boy pulls his hat over his face and walks on, not realizing that he is entering a cemetery. After knocking into a headstone, the terrified boy quickly exits, only to be confronted by the white-painted cat playing a harp. Believing that he is being visited by the cat’s ghost, the boy looks to his toes and yells, “Get going, feet!”

The cat races ahead of the boy and changes the mailbox from the boy’s home to an empty house next door. The boy, not realizing this trick was played, races into the empty house and barricades the door. The cat scares the boy again, who tears down the barricade and runs off into the night. But the cat pulls out a pair of dice and starts shaking them, causing the boy to stop and turn around, marching back to the sound of the dice in an arm-stretched somnambulant march.

The cat chases the boy through the house, but both wind up falling off the balcony and into the river below. The cat’s paint washes off in the river, but he is not aware of it – and he is baffled at why he is no longer able to scare the boy. The boy forces the cat back into the house, who only realizes what is happening when he sees himself in a mirror. The boy grabs a rifle and corners the cat in a cupboard, and then fires the rifle at him at point blank range. (The actual impact is not shown, mercifully.) But then, the boy is scared again and runs off as a line of ghostly cats wearing numbers one through nine come marching out, saying in unison, “This time, brudda, us ain’t kiddin’.”

Even if one could do the impossible and look beyond the horrendous stereotyping, “Angel Puss” is an extraordinarily nasty work. The boy is, admittedly, not the brightest child, but his genuine anguish at having to perform the cat drowning and his guilt about the execution makes it difficult to view him unsympathetically. The cat, who is a dreadful character, goes far over the line in tormenting the boy. And while his gunfire death should have been a proper comeuppance, his re-emergence as nine ghosts guarantees an indefinite continuation of his reign of malevolence at the poor child’s perpetual expense. Chuck Jones directed “Angel Puss” and incorporated some of his trademark stylistic touches, such as the slow take to comprehend immediate danger, but the film lacks the joyful anarchy and inventive sight gags that elevated much of his work to classic status. (In later years, Jones would never talk about the film)

Of course, the racial aspects of “Angel Puss” make it uncomfortable to view, and even in 1944 it was viewed as something of a last straw by civil rights activists after a Los Angeles cinema paired it with “Americans All,” a documentary highlighting the contributions of African-Americans to the national culture and the ongoing World War II effort. The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s leading black-owned newspaper, contacted the Warner Bros. studio to protest the racist content of “Angel Puss.” Producer Edward Selzer tried to absolve the studio of guilt by insisting that the cartoon was created by Leon Schlesinger’s animation operation before Schlesinger sold his business to Warner Bros. The Pittsburgh Courier then contacted the Hollywood Screen Cartoon Producers’ association to demand an end to racial stereotyping in their animated output. While some years would pass before that occurred, it was a first step in directly confronting Hollywood about the intolerant aspect of its animated shorts.

And like the ghostly cats in the closing gag, “Angel Puss” did not go away. The short was part of the syndicated package of Warner Bros. cartoons that played on television in the 1950s and 1960s under the Associated Artists Productions heading, which was later acquired by United Artists. By the late 1960s, audience attitudes changed and cartoons that demeaned African-Americans were not welcome. “Angel Puss” and ten other Warner Bros. cartoons were yanked from television syndication, and these shorts became known as the Censored Eleven. With the dawn of home video, these films were kept out of commercial release, although bootleg copies circulated among curious collectors eager to peek at the banned content. Prints of “Angel Puss” have turned up on DailyMotion.com and Vimeo, where it continues to astonish and repel anyone that seeks it out.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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