By Richard Gorey
Cats Don't Dance
is that rarity among animated films; the kind of sharp, sophisticated
entertainment parents can enjoy as well as- perhaps even more than- their
On its surface, the movie is a colorful, tuneful spoof of backstage classics like A Star is Born, but, like so many other works of commercial art, Cats Don't Dance reveals itself to be something much more upon close inspection. Beneath the movie's glossy, amiable surface, it's a bleak, alarmingly negative look at Hollywood stardom and the deceptive allure of fame; the Sunset Blvd. of animation. It's a movie that uses animal characters to expose some ferocious and unpleasant truths about their human counterparts. For some critics (who were unkind to the movie upon its release) this cynicism was a liability. But to my way of thinking, the darker side of Hollywood's Golden Era has rarely been portrayed with as much style and accuracy. Equal parts All About Eve, What Price Hollywood?, The Bad Seed, and A Day at the Races, Cats Don't Dance walks a delicate tightrope act between the savage parodies of Billy Wilder and the affectionate success stories made popular by Horatio Alger. It has a terrific sense of humor, but the levity is a façade, masking something sinister and frightening beneath. Such a rambunctious, sarcastic animated film might not have been produced had it not been for the astounding success of the similarly smart-alecky Aladdin, the hugely popular Disney feature, which itself owes a great deal to the hip, irreverent Warner Bros. cartoons of the forties and fifties. Aladdin was a departure for the Disney studios; it was an epic fantasy-adventure, but those qualities were secondary to breakneck comedy pacing and in-joke character references. Aladdin was a Disney film for people who didn't usually like Disney films; a sharp, edgy comedy that redefined animated musicals just as they were beginning to become stale and formulaic. Cats Don't Dance was created in the climate of experimentation and prosperity following Aladdin's runaway success. Though in tone- and in its rapid-fire gag pacing- the feature strongly resembled Aladdin, Cats Don't Dance failed to connect with the wide audience of the earlier film. There are a few theories to explain Cats' poor showing. Some feel an animated film released without the Disney name on it is doomed to obscurity. Others say Cats was too cynical and adult in tone; that the references to classic movies and real-life characters from that long-ago era are too obscure for modern children. This may even be true, but it should be noted that the Warner's cartoons from the forties and fifties remain enormously popular, despite the same "limitations".
Cats Don't Dance is a very funny movie, but its humor emerges from desperation, deceit, betrayal, and the ugly reality behind the insidious lie that is the "Hollywood Dream". Danny, the talented but gullible feline hero of the movie, could never be truly happy in the vile sewer the movie presents Hollywood to be. In the film's concluding reels, Danny may defeat the villainous child star Darla Dimples, but he will always have to deal with Darla's boss, L.B. Mammoth - a far more powerful character than she. Danny's triumph at the film's conclusion- the overdue recognition of his talent- doesn't alter the fact that his future career will always be driven by the likes and dislikes of a capricious public (presented in the movie as something fickle, frenzied, and largely stupid).
The movie establishes a deceptively positive tone during the opening sequences of Danny's bus ride to Hollywood from Kokomo, Indiana. Along the way, several clever scenic elements reveal themselves as credits: the side of a riverboat, a signpost, the ads on the side of the bus, etc. Danny's first view of Hollywood, gleaming like the Aurora Borealis in the hills ahead of him, mirrors his naïve view of life in the movies. The streets are literally paved with gold, the sun rises like a jewel over the Graumann's Chinese Theater, and celebrities litter the streets (in several witty caricatures that call to mind the Warner cartoons of the thirties and forties).
The filmmakers wisely chose 1939 as the year for Danny's ill-fated arrival in Tinseltown. By all accounts this was Hollywood's most formidable year, which saw the release of Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and The Rains Came. Cats Don't Dance spoofs all of these films (and then some) with humor colored by cruelty and sarcasm.
The characters Danny encounters on his first day are all fringe-dwellers in Hollywood, and have the scars to prove it. Pudge, the penguin, wants desperately to be in the movies, but toils delivering ice to the catering trucks instead. Frances the fish (voiced by Cruella DeVil actress Betty Lou Gerson) gets parts, "if you call hanging from a hook a good part," and Sawyer, the pretty female cat who always wanted to be a singer, has been relegated to filing and answering phones in the offices of Farley Wink, a odious animal agent. Though there is the immediate hint of a romance between Danny and Sawyer, there's also the suggestion that Sawyer is Danny in the future: distrustful, worn down, and shunted aside. There's no doubt all the animals in the agency have talent, (if not Danny's looks) but the point is made quickly that talent alone isn't enough.
Early on, Danny makes a fool of himself by trying to hog the spotlight from the monstrous child star Darla Dimples. But is Danny really so different from Darla, in the end? Both want desperately to be famous, and both believe stardom is their birthright. At one point, Darla sings, "I didn't get where I am today, by letting myself get pushed around." She at least understands the rule of the jungle that is behind stardom- never give an inch. There's always someone else ready to topple you from that precarious perch. Danny's talent and ambition are what make him Darla's enemy; it doesn't matter that he's a nice guy. There's only room for one at the very top. In order for Danny (or anyone else) to succeed, Darla will have to fail; it's the Hollywood way.
Looking for a bigger piece of the film he's starring in as an extra, Danny petitions Darla for a chance to impress L.B. Mammoth, the studio boss. When Darla sets Danny up for his fall, she counts on his ambition and his naiveté to contribute to his undoing. The fact that Danny wants stardom so badly makes him blind to Darla's duplicity and betrayal; he is his own worst enemy. In trying to buck the system by circumventing the "paying your dues" part of the equation, Danny sows the seed for his ruin- and the ruin of his fellow performers.
Darla's extraordinary stardom and popularity are shown from the beginning of the film to be a sham: a carefully-tended lie the studio sells to a gullible public (including the eager-to-believe Danny). But to perpetuate the charade, hundreds of sycophants and hangers-on must endure Darla's heinous mistreatment. The movie wallows in this cruelty, showing several examples of the humiliations suffered by Darla's victims: directors, make-up men and women, co-stars-even fans. Though her butler, the towering Max, is more physically intimidating (and may have scared some of the small children who went to see the film in the theaters) it's Darla who is the real monster- a monster created with the willing cooperation of the very people she torments. It's like the old joke about the man with the shovel behind the elephants at the circus ("What, and leave show business?"). The characters in Cats Don't Dance are willing to tolerate anything- anything- to be stars, or even travel in the dubious periphery of the stars themselves. Danny and his animal pals literally go through hell and high water before getting their big break. True to the movie's theme of lying and cheating, this "break" comes at the price of a deceitful trick- the theft of the guest list to the premiere of Darla's musical epic "Li'l Ark Angel". In the end, has Danny learned anything? Yes, his talent dazzles the audience the night of the premiere, but in order to get onstage, he's had to be as manipulative and underhanded as has Darla. It's satisfying to see Darla taken down in the movie's frenzied and spectacular finale, but Danny has had to lie and manipulate events to steal the limelight-at an event that legitimately belongs to Darla in the first place.
Early on, Darla sets Danny up for his fall by suggesting slyly to him that, "You don't have to be good- but you had better be Big and Loud." The song is one of the hilarious highlights of the film, in which the prepubescent child star vamps and grinds her way through a ghastly, oddly sexual musical extravaganza in the privacy of her own living room. Pianos and effete show-boys spring out of the floor; Darla uses these as stepping stones in her act. Ironically, though Danny's first audition is a shambles because of Darla's interference, his finale at the premiere succeeds for the very reason Darla has insisted it will- it is "big and loud", thanks in large part to her thwarted attempts to sabotage the enterprise. After the climactic show-stopper, there is a cut to the shell-shocked spectators. Their clothing is singed, their hair on end, even one man's teeth fall out, but they still applaud wildly at the stupendously violent number. Danny and company have dazzled with their songs and dancing, but the filmmakers seem to imply that audiences will respond to anything, provided it assaults them into submission. The film's ending scene- supposedly a triumphant montage of movie posters with the animals featured in spoofs of popular films- seems strangely double-edged. While the animals go on to star in legitimate classics like Casablanca, they also appear in animal versions of Grumpy old Men, Twister, Free Willy, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All Warner Bros. Films, of course, and all box office hits, bit also all "Big and Loud" films whose artistic merits are questionable, at best. As the film unwinds, the bitter realities of the Hollywood class system are skewered in some clever gags. The doorman who chases Danny away from the Brown Derby pauses to pose for a picture with Laurel and Hardy; everyone in Hollywood wants to be an actor (today it seems everyone has a screenplay). Even little Toto dreams of playing the star part, not the faithful sidekick dog. His "borrowing" of Dorothy's shoes is a wonderful metaphor for the allure of stardom and the feeling that "looking the part" guarantees success in Hollywood.
But nothing is what it seems, of course. The greedy agent Farley might have a part for the lamb in the new Moses picture, but when the excited sheep bounces up and down in his chair, Sawyer discovers the part calls for "A sacrificial lamb", and the bloom is off the rose. Sure, the movies themselves may be fake, but the "sacrifice" part is all too real. Even King Kong is revealed to be something other than the movies would have us believe. (Is he gay? Sawyer's encounter with him on the lot seems to indicate he is.) Danny, naturally, sees nothing of this dark side, and the movie remains engaging and appealing because the filmmakers chose wisely to keep Danny innocent throughout. When, after his disastrous debut, Sawyer asks Danny, "Why are you so determined to make a fool of yourself?" Danny answers "I just want to do the thing that I love. Doesn't everyone?" It's so heartfelt and sincere- and so true on its face- that Sawyer can only respond sadly, "It's not that simple." "It should be," Danny insists, and we can see Sawyer, on the inside, agrees with him. Though Danny seems somewhat simple-minded in his staunch refusal to face facts and the realities of Hollywood head on, it's unlikely the movie could have succeeded dramatically had his disappointments defeated Danny. Part of success, the story implies, is tunnel-vision.
Though the movie spoofs the heartlessness and betrayal of Hollywood, it more effectively lampoons the lie of the movies themselves. Darla's opening number, from her Biblical Musical, "Li'l Ark Angel" is an utter scream, with the hellish child being lowered on a rope into a cardboard version of the great flood, and we see two unicorns waving goodbye as they sink below the studio-made waves. But the number turns out to be a real disaster for quite another reason. God may have been angry- causing the flood- but the real "sin" is stepping outside of the lines and trying to hog the spotlight. A part of us pities Danny for this gaffe (he's new here, after all) but another part of us is eager to see the fireworks. The arrival of Darla's thuggish butler, Max, is presented as something Biblical itself. He is a towering, apelike apparition who appears amid thundering footfalls and the shaking of the lights and sets. The idea that the evil sidekick is larger by many times that the actual villain is a clever one, and Darla's relationship with the oddly-subservient Max is one of the movie's comedic treats. It's also fitting that Darla is so hateful and duplicitous; anything that looks so sweet and nice and cuddly on the surface simply can't be that way in reality. Though she seems to be based in design and character on famous thirties icon Shirley Temple, Darla more resembles Rhoda Penmark, the child murderess from the classic thriller The Bad Seed. In fact, the real Shirley Temple, by all accounts, actually was as sweet as the characters she played onscreen- making Darla's evil side something delightfully unexpected to see. Her reprise of "Big and Loud" in the privacy of her cavernous boudoir is a surreal moment of disturbing excess. Exaggerated imagery of apocalyptic ruin surrounds Darla, and we see caricatures of Danny and Sawyer flee for their lives before a nightmarish vision of the volcanic child star rising from the flames. The final image of the scene is Darla's under-lit face as her hair curlers erupt into hideous sparks, and she snaps at the laughing butler, "Shut up, Max!" This shot is eerily reminiscent of the wicked queen from Snow White, as she leers into the camera, describing "The Sleeping Death". Darla's final close-up- like the Queen's- leaves the screen black save for the bulging eyes in the center of the frame.
Like the punishing God of Noah's Ark, Darla sends the wind and rain down upon the heads of the animals whose "sin" has been bucking the social order. In effect, Danny and the others have "defied the gods" (stars like Darla, who were Gods in Hollywood) by refusing to acknowledge their place. "Okay, learn the hard way," Sawyer warns the unsuspecting Danny, when he suggests trying to grab some of the limelight, and Darla's revenge is quite "Old Testament", with the crashing of temples, the destruction of the studio, and the humiliation of studio boss L.B. Mammoth. As Mammoth and Flanigan (the movie's prissy director) sink beneath the studio-created great flood, it's not just them physically going under- it's Danny's career hopes. Darla's power, despite her butler, is not physical strength; it's the hold she has over the fawning crowds who do her bidding. It's the astonishingly potent power of her remarkable stardom. Movie stars were the closest thing America had to royalty, but Darla is something even more intimidating. Less a queen than a goddess, Darla seems to have an almost supernatural influence on those around her. "Leaves ya kinda speechless, don't it?" she asks Danny rhetorically, after dazzling him with her song and dance moves, but the movie makes it clear that although Darla's personality is frighteningly potent, her talent is marginal, at best. She's never shown without her chorus of show-boys and musicians in her more theatrical moments. She moves with the force of a hurricane, but is always at the center of a frenzy of activity. She's discovered that the key to success is noise and distraction, and yet she is never more evil and dangerous than in her quieter moments. A tiny caricature of the imposing personality of celebrities like Joan Crawford and Judy Garland, Darla is the central figure in a cold, angry, and devastating movie about how stardom itself is a monster we have little control over.
In its way, Cats Don't Dance is the animated equivalent of classic backstage dramas like Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. If it mirrors those films' rage and ugliness, it does so with high style that the live-action versions would envy. As in the similar A Star is Born, Cats Don't Dance presents an ambiguous finale. Danny and his pals may be stars- but there will always be another Danny right behind them, waiting for his or her chance. It's fitting the last shot of the film is not of Danny and his pals, but of the now-reduced Darla, sweeping up around the studio. We suspect, despite her diminished circumstances, she may be the comeback kid, and in a world as jaded and urbane as the one director Mark Dindal has created, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Darla may be just the thing Danny's next movie may need.
Credit goes to Sandy Russell Gartin for the original story material, expanded upon by writers Mark Dindall, Kevin Yasuda, and Rick Schneider. The film is as polished as anything from the Disney studios, with attractive colors, lush settings, and animation that is as energetic as the work in Aladdin. Credit for the movie's appealing look goes to Brian McEntee, who managed to give the cartoon Hollywood a surface veneer but also a hidden darkness that occasionally intrudes. Danny's dance numbers with his animal friends, and with the appealing Sawyer, were choreographed to perfection (the movie credits Gene Kelly as a collaborator and advisor). In one delightful moment, a back alley to the studio becomes a vision of MGM glory when Sawyer and Danny cut the rug. Even the ugliest places can become heaven with imagination and a dream, but they always turn back to reality in the end. As Sawyer moves into kiss Danny, she remembers herself, and the alley becomes an alley again. Only in the finale does the fantasy last, as Danny's dream becomes something at least physically overwhelming. All this surface gloss, is, of course, a sham- like the attractive sets and bold colors employed in the old MGM musicals. Nothing is real, nothing is as appealing as it at first seems to us, and in the end, Danny's dream of stardom is as flimsy and as phony as the sets for Darla's manipulative Bible extravaganza.
But do we care? We buy the happy ending even as we distrust it because we've been conditioned to. As a part of the movie-going public, we know we're being played, but we want to be played in just this way. That Cats Don't Dance manages to be colorful, funny, tuneful, and ferociously cruel at the same time is an admirable achievement. It skirts on the edges of something terribly sad and desperate, but manages to leave the audience with a feeling they've just experienced something positive. And in the end, isn't that what the movies are all about?
Richard Gorey is a New York based
animator and writer. This review of
appreciation for Cats Don't Dance is also destined for inclusion in the
ASIFA East animator's guild newsletter.