ANIMATION SPIN
October 24, 2017 posted by Greg Ehrbar

UPA’s “Gay Purr-ee” on Records

With such a stellar cast and songwriting team, powerhouse studio marketing and a who’s-who of artists behind it, UPA’s second feature couldn’t miss, right?

Warner Bros. Pictures Presents
The Voice of Judy Garland in a UPA Production
GAY PURR-EE
Original Motion Picture Sound Track

Warner Bros. Records BS-1479 Stereo / W-1479 Mono (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP)

Released in August, 1962. Arranger/Orchestrator/Conductor: Mort Lindsey. Vocal Arranger: Joseph E. Lilley. Music Editors: Wayne Hughes, George Probert. Recorded at Capitol Records Studios, Hollywood. Running Time: 35 minutes.

Voices: Judy Garland (Mewsette); Robert Goulet (Jaune Tom); Red Buttons (Robespierre); Paul Frees (Meowrice); The Mellomen (Bill Lee, Thurl Ravenscroft, Bill Cole, Max Smith).
Songs: “Mewsette,” “Little Drops of Rain,” “The Money Cat,” “Take My Hand, Paree,” “Paris is a Lonely Town,” “Bubbles,” “Roses Red, Violets Blue,” “Little Drops of Rain (Reprise)”, “The Horse Won’t Talk,” “The Mewsette Finale” by Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg.

Instrumentals: “Overture” (with Judy Garland and Chorus), “Variation: Paris is a Lonely Town” by Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg; “Portraits of Mewsette” by Mort Lindsey.

CD REISSUE:
Rhino Handmade Records RHM2-7600 (Stereo / 2003)
Reissue Producer/Liner Notes: George Feltenstein. Project Supervisor: Patrick Milligan. Mastering/Engineering: Doug Schwartz. Art Direction: Rachel Gutek. Creative Services Director: Lori Carfora. Project Assistance: Steve Woolard. Special Thanks: Ken Bloom, Michael Feinstein, John Fricke, Bill Inglot, Ed Jablonski.

Bonus Tracks: “Little Drops of Rain,” Roses Red, Violets Blue,” “The Horse Won’t Talk,” “The Money Cat,” “Paris is a Lonely Town,” (1961 demos sung by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg).

If UPA’s Gay Purr-ee feature had been released as a small independent feature with a less high-profile cast, or better yet, had been a one-hour TV spectacular, it might have been hailed as a breakthrough of visual art and music—just the thing UPA’s Henry Saperstein was hoping for. As a TV special, the thin story and limited character development wouldn’t matter as much, and the musical numbers would be true highlights rather than a gradual succession of intrusions.

But that’s true of Walt Disney’s 1961 Babes in Toyland, too–more of a big, splashy holiday TV special than a theatrical feature (which time has transformed into exactly that both on home video and in theme parks).

Warner Bros. touted Gay Purr-ee as “The grandest new idea in screen entertainment ever.” They were rather shrewd to advertise it a “very, very new idea,” almost as a heads-up to audiences—especially parents—that this was not like a Disney feature. This was a highly sophisticated confection in which a naïve young cat hitches a ride to Paris, falls immediately into the hands of a… (wait, you know what he is?) who hands her off to a… (isn’t it pretty clear what she is?) in order to make her into a… really?

In a 1962 mainstream feature cartoon? (Wait, let me check the Little Golden Book to be sure…).

Maybe something was edited from the script by Chuck Jones and his wife Dorothy, but the viewer is offered little about Garland’s character, Mewsette, to elicit much empathy for her. The male lead cat, voiced by then-Camelot star Robert Goulet, proceeds to rescue her, accompanied by his comic relief Robespierre, played by Red Buttons.

Warner Bros. and UPA wanted to have their soufflé and eat it, too. The film’s cute characters like Robespierre, plus comical and action scenes appealing to kids, only added to confusion about its intended target. Gay Purr-ee was merchandised like any other animated property with toys and books. Judy Garland had been associated with annual CBS broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz for seven years already. The film had the same songwriters. Families might have been startled at the leisurely pace and adult content of the movie they went to see.

All that aside, Gay Purr-ee is quite extraordinary when taken on its own as an animated work. The art direction, backgrounds and especially the color styling are often downright dazzling. UPA was sincerely trying to go for something different with the feature form—a challenge that continues in animation today. Taken in that context, it’s a pretty bold attempt.

Jones reportedly was more involved with the production than the credits allow (George Feltenstein’s CD liner notes mention an “acrimonious” situation with Warner Bros., which was in the process of shutting down its animation studio). Much of the feature looks as much like a Jones film as a UPA cartoon. One could almost make a two-column list of the characters with UPA looks (Mewsette, Robespierre), and Jones styles (Jaune Tom, Meowrice, Madame). It’s only a few steps away from becoming “Pepe LePew The Motion Picture.” (Feltenstein’s Warner Archive division, incidentally, now offers the DVD of Gay Purr-ee, as it is more of a collectors’ title than a kids’ video to be sold at Target and other big box stores (though it was for a while).

The songs may not have become standards, but several are worthy of rediscovery. “Paris is a Lonely Town” (which sounds a little like “The Summer Knows” from 1972’s Summer of ’42) seemed to be the intended Garland breakout standard, along the lines of “The Man That Got Away”. TV host Jack Parr struck talk show gold when Garland made her first appearance on his unpredictable series to promote Gay Purr-ee. She proved to be a funny and outspoken guest. In the video below, the interview begins at 16:15, “Little Drops of Rain” comes at 28:55, “Paris is a Lonely Town” at 33:55, then Goulet joins her for “Mewsette” at 46:15.

The songs didn’t always advance the plot, such as it was. Perhaps more than any other animated feature, Gay Purr-ee relied heavily on breakout vignettes in which characters (or the audience) spent a few minutes in various reveries amid blazing colors, geometric shapes or interesting drawing styles. A few such vignettes can be found in animated features throughout the ’60s and ’70s, such as all three Hanna-Barbera features and Filmation’s Journey Back to Oz. (Since Yellow Submarine served entirely as an imaginative vehicle for Beatles song vignettes, it’s not in the same narrative category and Disney features didn’t really employ this precise device until “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” in The Lion King.)

For fans of the great Paul Frees, Gay Purr-ee is the greatest thing since French bread. No feature afforded him such a large role—with two songs. Accompanied by the Mellomen (the quartet who sang in so many Disney films as well as the themes for Davy Crockett, and Zorro), his “The Money Cat” is a delightful highlight. The soundtrack is also a showcase for the highly underrated Mort Lindsey, who worked on Garland’s TV show, her landmark Carnegie Hall album, and for years on The Merv Griffin Show. “Ooooooooooooo…”

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Little Drops of Rain”
This song and “Roses Red, Violets Blue” are as fine a pair of family tunes as you’d find in any family film. It was also recorded by studio singer Janet Eden for Golden Records.

16 Comments

  • This was a fantastic article, Greg. I was 5 1/2 when this film came out, and though I don’t remember seeing it in theatres, I guess I must have. I know I had the record and listened to it all the time. Being straight, I would skip the Judy Garland numbers (sacrilege!) and listened non-stop to the Goulet, Red Buttons and Paul Frees songs, singing along to my heart’s content. To this day, if any of them come up in a shuffle on my play list, I stop whatever I’m doing and head directly back to that time and place. Thanks for the memories.

    • I had that record too. Being a gay little boy in 1962, I always skipped the male vocals and ONLY listened to Judy. ; )

  • The CD is a treasure trove for fans of Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, and Paul Frees. Arlen and Harburg crafted some of their most sophisticated songs ever for this film.

    Judy sang “Paris is a Lonely Town” as a straight torch song on “The Judy Garland Show,” and on the Christmas installment of her series, she sang “Little Drops of Rain” with a revised final verse that included Christmas-themed lyrics.

    Ironically, in the film itself it is Goulet who sings the rainbow lyric that closes the song “Little Drops of Rain,” when clearly the lyric was intended for Judy to sing as a tie-in to her famous signature song. On the soundtrack album I believe they use the version in which Judy sings the entire piece. It’s really more her song than his. It’s rumored that she considered using it as an alternative or replacement for “Over the Rainbow.”

    A few years later, Disney would take the concept of cats in Paris and produce a much more popular and possibly more family-friendly film, although for my money, “Gay Pur-ee” has a sophistication and charm that is missing in the Disney version.

    • “A few years later, Disney would take the concept of cats in Paris and produce a much more popular and possibly more family-friendly film, although for my money, “Gay Pur-ee” has a sophistication and charm that is missing in the Disney version.”

      Well, that and the fact that Walt was no longer there to help guide his studio.

  • Ah yes, the film that got Chuck Jones fired from WB.

    • And was picked up by MGM to take over for Gene Dietch for the Tom & Jerry cartoons, animating the Oscar winning The Dot and The Line as well as the animated adaptation of Frank Tashlin’s The Bear Who Wasn’t a Bear, The feature film The Phantom Tollbooth as well as the animation for We’re Off to See The Wizard, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the original Horton Hears a Who and after MGM shut down thier animation studios Chuck Jones created Chuck Jones Productions and animated the Jungle Book Trilogy, the Raggedy Ann and Andy specials,A Cricket in Times Square,A Chipmunk Christmas and was “rehired” by Warner Brothers for several animated features and specials featuring the Looney Tunes.

  • Paul Frees also did the voices of the elderly cat at the rural train depot and the bartender at the “Meow-lon Rouge”.

    If they had a read-a-long story album of Gay Pur-ee it would of also starred Herminone Gingold as Mme Ruben-Chatte, Mel Blanc as the Bulldog that Meowrice and his minions encountered while perusing Mewsette, Julie Bennett and Joan Gardner as the two ladies from Provence and the story album would be narrated by Morey Amsterdam.

    The song Paris is Only a Lonely Town was one of the most powerful songs from the Gay Purr-ee soundtrack and sung, with utter majestic power, by Judy Garland. Surprised that Paris is only a Lonely Town wasn’t nominated for the 1963 Oscar for Best Original Song.

    • That scene with the bulldog really screamed Jones there. That was probably my favorite part of the film.

    • Morey Amsterdam was also credited among the voices in the film’s credits; I always figured he was the bartender.

      Amsterdam is credited on Magoo’s Christmas Carol, although it sounds like he has a single line. Always wondered if he had some other offscreen function, perhaps at recording sessions (for ages Treg Brown was credited as “Editor” with no reference to sound effects).

  • This little film also introduced a practice that is unfortunately still heavily in use for American animated features to this day: the casting of celebrities – primarily for their promotional value – for voiceover talent.

  • I enjoyed this, both as UPA’s swansong and as Chuck Jones’ first feature.

  • I’ve seen the film (which got Chuck famously fired!) many times on TV, with its several proto-surreal scenes for “Horse won’t Talk” and “Bubbles” (both influenced by Disney’s 1941 “Dumbo”‘s scene with the pink elephants—Bubbles, especially.)

    Robespierre (Red Buttons) btw is a kitten, or looks like one. Meow! I also have a friend up north who had the original Little Golden book.

  • The great Irv Spence animated a lot of Jaune-Tom’s fight sequences and some of little Robespierre getting drunk in the “Bubbles” number. My friend Corny Cole did all the drawings for the French Impressionists sequence as Monet, Pisarro, Toulouse-Lautrec and more each do paintings of Mewsette. I loved this movie when it came out, but it is a bit “on-the-cheap”, animation-wise. The music is wonderful. I did an interview with Chuck Jones at Disney Northside when I was working there, and I brought up “Gay Purr-ee”, not realizing that Chuck was fired from Warners because he violated his contract to do the storyboard for the picture. Boy was he irritated! Disney never called on me to interview any more old-timers after that.

    • Hahaha!

  • Exploring Judy Garland on You Tube can be going down a rabbit hole that lasts for hours. Some sad,but as Judy said:”Behind every cloud,there is another cloud.”
    I was fortunate to find the DVD for a buck or two at Blockbuster,as they were GOB,tucked in one of their blue cardboard sleeves,as the Amray box was gone. Plays fine,and it was rarely rented as no one knew what this was and it was probably hidden in the non-Disney kiddie ‘toon section.
    Likewise,the vinyl LP was pretty cheap,possibly for less than a buck. I was unaware of a CD version,until a Discogs listing shows it was a Rhino Handmade edition. In the early ’00s,Rhino,after being absorbed by Warner Music,put out a number of pricey limited editions($20/ disc+ freight) of stuff buried in the WEA vaults with limited runs for sought after titles by completists. Great stories here and it is great that the Jack Paar episode was complete,as the closing credits are part of the treat. also,this is the first time the episode was closed captioned,a necessary thing in our house.
    Judy’s take of Paris Is A Lonely Town shows up on the Warner Bros.:75 Years of Film Music box that Rhino put out while Rhino,Warner Music & Warner Film were all part of that untidy TimeLife Warner goop before AOL toppled it.

  • I remember “Gay Purr-ee” as being a holiday thing on TV for a few years, first on network and then on local stations. There didn’t seem to be any other big animated features around, at least not fairly new and non-Disney.

    I think I got as a kid that this was parody melodrama (albeit carefully cleansed). But what jumped out on a much later viewing was a moment in “Paris is a Lonely Town”. A lyric says “River, be my lover” as we see ice cracking on the Seine — a suicide reference, immediately followed by a scene of Mewsette jumping off a bridge rather than be crated up and married to an unseen American. “If there were any other way …” she cries before jumping (and getting caught in a sack).

    That game box looks off. Realized it’s because the two lead cats are kept on all fours most of the film, while the rest would offhandedly switch to two legs and back again throughout (and then there’s the Moulin Rogue scene full of upright, fully-dressed cats). That wobbling between animals as animals and as semi-humans is pretty common in Warner toons; it’s impressive that “Gay Purr-ee” manages to finesse it throughout a whole feature.

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