Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Dance Party: The Last Time I Saw Paris

Everyone's minds and hearts have been on Paris this week. I can only obsess on such tragedies for a while before my mind goes a little berserk. I think it's a coping mechanism. The mind wanders, stream-of-consciously, bringing other, happier, thoughts about Paris to the fore.
I spent four days or so in Paris as a teen-ager, and have always had the intention of going back.  My memories of the city are sketchy, as my visit was so many decades ago, but until I finally get back there, I revel in the various artistic depictions of the City of Love.
This week's Dance Party comes from an unusual little film which presents quite a stylized picture of Paris.

In 1962, the scrappy independent animation studio United Productions of America, or UPA, released an artsy cartoon feature which set a bit of a precedent. 
It was highly unusual, at that time, for established stars to lend their voices to animation. The thinking, I suppose, was that producers did not want audiences picturing famous people when watching their cartoons.  It's commonly done now, of course, and in fact, it's difficult to find ANY animated feature film these days which does not brag a boatload of stars voicing the characters.  Back in 1962, this was quite unusual.
Gay Pur-ee placed two stars in its two leading roles, and two other stars as featured players. Judy Garland was in the midst of (yet another) comeback, and Robert Goulet, fresh off his breakout performance in Broadway's Camelot, was at the height of his celebrity. Character actors Red Buttons and Hermione Gingold were enlisted to support these headliners, together bringing a lot of star power to this animated flick.
Gay Purr-ee's story was definitely overshadowed by its score, which includes one of Garland's favorite songs, "Little Drops
of Rain." The tune made its way into Judy's subsequent acts (she also sings it on the Christmas episode of her variety series). The clip below is not that song, but showcases the stylized animation of the film, as well as Garland's flawless vocal performance.
Director Abe Levitow used the paintings of Monet,
Cezanne, and others to create the film's very
unusual look.
At Garland's suggestion, UPA enlisted Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, the songwriting team famous for, among other pieces, a little thing called The Wizard of Oz.  They provided a musical score which was much more sophisticated than was usually heard in animated films.  They made very good use of their stars; Garland and Goulet both sound fabulous on the film's soundtrack.
UPA's technique of "limited animation"
allowed the product to be completed in
record time. The studio moved into TV,
creating one of my favorite series as a kid.

The film was written by Dorothy Webster Jones and her husband, Chuck Jones, who was a giant in the cartoon industry. He actually worked on the film in violation of his contract with Warner Brothers, an act which caused his dismissal from the studio which had benefited from his prestigious work with Bugs Bunny and his crowd. (Mel Blanc, the major voice artist for Warner Brothers animation, was also involved with Gay Purr-ee).
I did not see Gay Purr-ee in the theaters, and once it hit television, I did my best to love it. I find it more admirable than lovable.  Even watching it as an adult, I find it difficult to get through in one sitting.  Cloying character names like "Mewsette" and "Meowrice" don't help.
The villains in Gay Purr-ee were voiced by Hermione
Gingold and voice-over legend Paul Frees.
UPA pioneered a new process called "limited animation," which reused backgrounds much like live action films use stock footage. This technique drastically cut down the amount of time it took to create animation, and was a direct contrast to the prevailing Disney style of super realism.  The technique also gave the finished product an unusual stylized form which, to me, looked cheap.  Well, what did I know? It was less expensive, but it could also be used in imaginative ways, which was certainly the way it was used in Gay Pur-ee.  This week's clip illustrates the point.
Unfortunately, the story containing these artsy images is a pretty lousy one, concerning a country cat who, longing for the excitement of the big city, escapes to Paris, where she is seduced by evil forces and is ultimately rescued by the love she left behind.
UPA only produced two feature films, and was known primarily as the studio which brought us Mr Magoo. (I was never a fan of Magoo, but UPA also produced a pretty slick Dick Tracy series of which I was quite fond).  The same year Gay Pur-ee was released, UPA created a Christmas classic for television when it presented Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol
Like Gay Pur-ee, this one hour version of Dickens's story featured an established songwriting team.  Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were working on their score for Funny Girl while writing the tunes for this project, which is in fact the first animated Christmas special ever produced for television. It received its own Dance Party here.
UPA's newer, faster animation technique was well suited for the pace necessary for television production, and it was adopted by other studios, most notably Hanna-Barbara, who had great success using it for their Flintstones and Jetsons franchises. UPA itself ceased producing cartoons in the early 70s and became known as the American distributor of Japanese movies such as Godzilla.

Here's Judy Garland singing an ode to Paris. It's a pretty torchy number, perhaps the only of its kind sung by an animated cat, but this clip gives a very good illustration of the style of this unique film. It's not much solace for the horrors of the past few week, but it makes me feel a little better.