What was it about the ’70s that made filmmakers think audiences wanted to see adult-oriented cartoons about felines? Two years before the release of the X-rated Fritz the Cat, moviegoers were subjected to the strangeness of the PG-rated musical Shinbone Alley. Parts of the movie are too grown-up for the kiddies who normally enjoy animated features, and other parts of the movie are too juvenile for the adults capable of understanding the sexualized subject matter. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what target audience the makers of Shinbone Alley had in mind, seeing as how the narrative includes a human poet who commits suicide and is reincarnated as a cockroach, an unrequited-love story involving creatures from different species, a slutty heroine who contemplates drowning her children because they’re inconvenient, a proposed insect revolution against humanity, and Shakespeare performed as beat poetry.
Making matters worse, the film’s tunes are croaked and screeched by performers with ghastly singing voices, including Eddie Bracken, John Carradine, and the insufferable Carol Channing. It says a lot about Shinebone Alley that the most entertaining singing comes from Alan Reed, best known as the voice of Fred Flinstone.
Shinbone Alley has a peculiar pedigree. The main characters, cockroach Archy and alley cat Mehitabel, first appeared in whimsical newspaper columns written by Don Marquis beginning in 1916. Bracken and Channing entered the picture in 1954, performing on a comedy/musical concept album titled archy and mehitabel. The album was then adapted into a 1957 Broadway musical, titled Shinbone Alley, with Bracken and, replacing Channing, Eartha Kitt. Mel Brooks contributed new material when the album was adapted for stage presentation. Bits of all of the versions were merged into this animated feature, which reunited Bracken and Channing.
The style of the feature is strange, because the raggedy background drawings and sketchy figure renderings are a long way from the sleek textures of Disney ’toons. Yet the edgy graphics and the subversive storytelling don’t mesh with the obnoxious music. On one level, Shinbone Alley is a loud attempt at a crowd-pleaser complete with wannabe show-stopping numbers. On nearly every other level, the piece is just bizarre. Some scenes are dark, while others are trippy. The language and themes exist way over the heads of children (sample dialogue: “Your predilection for tomcats is the scandal of the neighborhood”), and the narrative wanders through episodes that have little connection to each other.
In Carradine’s big sequence, his character tries to seduce Channing’s character by browbeating her into becoming an actress, resulting in a hideous scene of the two frog-voiced actors brutalizing lines from Romeo and Juliet while scatting them to a jazz beat. And in another dissonant bit, Bracken’s character has a sex dream about Channing’s character that’s illustrated by still photographs with cat heads superimposed over the bodies of human women. Adding to the bewildering nature of the movie, the big takeaway seems to be that that the hero should be content basking in the glow of the heroine, even though she plans to continue her promiscuous ways and has no interest in romance with her most devoted admirer. But at least viewers know that Archy can always attend to his carnal needs with a set of characters described as “Ladybugs of the Evening.”
Shinbone Alley: FREAKY