Shinbone Alley (1971)

Article 3108 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-30-2009
Posting Date: 2-16-2010
Directed by John D. Wilson
Featuring the voices of Carol Channing, Eddie Bracken, Alan Reed
Country: USA
What it is: Offbeat animated musical drama

A poet is turned into a cockroach, so he can compose his poems only by hopping on the keys of a typewriter without the ability to use capital letters or punctuation. He tells of himself and his adventures in Shinbone Alley, and of his relationship to a female alley cat named Mehitabel.

When I was in grade school, I remember one of my teachers exposing me for a short time to the world of archy the poet cockroach, and though the exposure consisted little more than the basic backstory and the reading a few of the poems, for some reason the memory lingered. When I discovered that I was going to watch a movie that dealt with this character, I found myself musing over the concept, and wondering what the movie would be like; the very concept has a quirky charm to it. When I actually got the DVD and saw Carol Channing’s name on it as well as the words “Broadway musical”, I though I saw the quirkiness being shuffled off to the side to make room for a much more conventional style that wasn’t to my liking. I’m glad to say that my fears were unfounded.

Part of my problem initially was that I’d mostly encountered Channing in her bigger-than-life persona, and not as an actress; I am glad to find that in that latter capacity, she is excellent, and she really brings the character of Mehitabel, a fun-loving alley cat of questionable morals, to vivid life. In fact, the whole movie is a bit of a revelation; despite the somewhat bizarre concept, the adventures and emotions in this movie tap into real-life aspirations, tragedies, setbacks, disappointments, angers and dreams. When Archy tells about a moth’s desire to be burned, and then envies its wanting something so badly, it touches a nerve. Archy’s relationship with Mehitabel is definitely of the love/hate variety, and she has a nasty temper. Furthermore, the tomcats she becomes involved with (a no-good bum voiced by Alan Reed, and a scheming Shakespearean actor voiced by John Carradine) also add more depth to the story. Furthermore, the movie plays around with a number of animation styles during the songs, with a sequence that adopts the style of the old Krazy Kat comics (Krazy Kat creator George Herriman did many of the illustrations for the original archy and mehitabel books) in which an embittered Archy toys with organizing an insect revolution against the humans being particularly striking. The ads tried to pass it off as a movie for both kids and adults, but, truth to tell, I think kids will be bored stiff with this one; in fact, I think the lowly rating of 5.5 on this one on IMDB may be due to reactions from those expecting a children’s movie.

By the way, I do have to admire any movie which manages to combine the talents of Carol Channing, John Carradine, Fred Flintstone voice Alan Reed, and Mel Brooks, who co-wrote the original play. And, for the curious, John Carradine does sing, and even takes part in a beat-poetry rendition of the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”.


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