Monday, August 10, 2015

190. Figaro and Cleo

SERIES: Figaro (sort of)

After the release of Pinocchio in 1940, Disney had several breakout stars in the supporting cast. The most prominent is Jiminy Cricket, who would not only go on to serve as narrator and guide in the feature Fun and Fancy Free, but also became a regular feature of The Mickey Mouse Club. He got two regular educational segments of his own, "I'm No Fool" and "The Human Animal". But the other Pinocchio character whose success with audiences prompted his own series was Figaro the cat.

There's no denying Figaro represented a culmination of cat animation for the studio. Figaro is a fully-realized character with his own behaviors and spunky personality, yet he also has distinctly recognizable feline characteristics. It's easy to see Figaro as a further development of the cats from Three Little Kittens and its sequel. So I suppose it was inevitable that Figaro would get his own series.

This first official Figaro cartoon pairs him with another Pinocchio costar, Cleo the fish. Cleo serves as a nice foil for Figaro because while they are sort of friendly, Figaro also can't always deny the temptation to eat her. We call this short "Figaro and Cleo" even though technically that's not the onscreen title. Only the characters' names appear onscreen. I do not know the reason why this is. I think this one was also perhaps meant to be a one-off, even though we count it as the first in the Figaro series. Later Figaro cartoons would have him in the "starburst" opening as the star.

As I mentioned, it's natural to look at this cartoon as a further development from Three Little Kittens. There are more moments of feline mischief, such as Figaro getting tangled up chasing a ball of yarn. There is also a black "mammy" antagonist, as in those shorts. Sadly, this is the thing which most dates this cartoon and the racial undertones can be uncomfortable. Not just the dialect, but the fact that she seems to be bad at her job by sweeping dirt under the rug, something Snow White reminded us not to do in 1937. It would not surprise me in the least if Figaro and Cleo was made in response to Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry series. Tom and Jerry also used to feature a mammy archetype named Mammy Two-Shoes. Later Figaro shorts do away with the mammy character altogether, usually putting Figaro in the care of Minnie Mouse which seems to work better.

There are wonderful moments of feline behavior here, in which Figaro oscillates between panic and playfulness. There's some great animation when Figaro jumps on the broom and finds himself enjoying the ride as it sweeps back and forth, only to fall off. Or when the mammy points her finger at him to scold him, Figaro takes it as a game and swats at it playfully. These moments of observational animation are what defined the work of the Disney studio at its height. Figaro also has characteristics of a child, which makes him relatable. He goes quickly from playing to pouting.

I like the music a lot in this short as well. Figaro gets a bouncy little theme song that's a lot of fun to sing. Though the lyric would lose relevance in other shorts, the melody would remain as his theme music. I also like the little gospel tune the maid sings. Maybe its a racist caricature, but I still like the song, and I like to sing it when I sweep.

Tying a cat's tail to a chair is not cool. Don't do that at home, kids! Real cats are not like cartoons!

My favorite line is when she says, "You is a cat, not a catfish!" I don't know why, but it's funny to me every time.

Some of the business with the cat and mouse (cat and fish?) games also seems to ultimately lead to Lucifer in Cinderella. Figaro is a kitten and more fun than Lucifer, but some of the gags here where happenstance brings Figaro to his quarry reminded me of Lucifer chasing Gus in the tea cups and some of the other moments from that film. The studio came to be very good at doing cats.

In the end, Figaro and Cleo make up and he decides not to eat her. He gets himself almost drowned in the attempt, and when he chooses to leave her alone he is rewarded with milk. Mammy then tells him, "that's the trouble with the world today, folk won't live and let live. In this house, we'll have peace." I wonder, is this the moral of the whole cartoon? Given the time this was made, it makes me wonder if Figaro and Cleo was meant to be a wartime propaganda cartoon in the same way Chicken Little was. Is it a plea for the nations of the world to put down their arms and respect each other? In 1943, the studio was making many war-related cartoons with its stars, and the specialty ones usually had some kind of war-related theme or moral. This leaves me to wonder if Figaro and Cleo was actually designed as a parable pleading for world peace; a kind of spiritual successor to Ferdinand the Bull. If so, are we meant to take it as allegorical? Does Figaro represent Germany? He gets a good scolding and told he only gets fed when he stops misbehaving and leaves others alone. Sounds a lot like what happened at the end of World War I to me. Then again, perhaps it's not so black and white as that. Maybe it's not all-out propaganda. But there does seem to be an underlying message to the contemporary world: don't hurt others out of your selfish desires; we should all get along peacefully.

Both Figaro and Cleo would appear again in later cartoons. Figaro would go on to two more starring roles, as well as several supporting appearances with Pluto. As Figaro is generally paired with Minnie Mouse in later appearances, this first short is a bit of an outlier. But it demonstrated the character had a life outside of Pinocchio, and it reminded us all to try to live peaceably with each other.

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