06 May 2009

The Tammany Kat is Loose: Ratskin

Call him/her whatever gender you will—George Herriman's Krazy Kat is cartoondom's most famous masochist. When not reveling in the dubious joys of being bonked with a brick, Krazy is willfully undergoing other embarrassments. Employing Felix the Cat's voice double is just one example.

Jerry Beck, blogging at Cartoon Brew, is just now featuring a cartoon I've helped him "restore"—Ratskin (1929), Krazy's first sound short at Columbia. The Vitaphone Project recently recovered the film's long-lost soundtrack; Beck had his amateur video recording, and doing a little editing, I've aided in reuniting the two. And who knew? The usually far more kreative Krazy howls and yowls in a comically awful house cat impersonation, notable for its similarity to the poorly-received Felix "voice" Pat Sullivan employed at the time. Did the same actor meow badly for two New York studios? What was Charles Mintz thinking?

Maybe he felt it was the only way to tie into a famous song on the soundtrack! Ratskin is the first of many cartoons I know to enlist "Me-Ow," a 1909 pop tune by Harry Kerr and Mel B. Kaufman. Sylvester, Bosko, and Farmer Al Falfa have gamboled to this chestnut so often that almost every animation fan knows the melody—if not its name and theme. Here, courtesy of the invaluable UCSB Cylinder Archive, is Irving Kaufman performing the tune ten years after its creation:

Apart from being catchy in and of itself. "Me-Ow" exemplifies the bond between vintage cartoons and bygone cultural mores, a topic I'll be discussing fairly often here. In the early 1900s, cats weren't just household pets; they were equally common as strays, and thus seen as symbols of illness, savagery, and feral behavior. Of course, such behavior often mandated societal "punishment." So the image of the cat as comedic fall guy was also born at this time—but with an undercurrent of grotesque realism rarely present today. The drowned cat, sacked and tossed in the river, was a fact of life in 1910. So was the cat on a fence being battered with boots, and the randy cat slain by its multiple mates. In "Everybody Knows It's There," a David Reed tune recorded in 1908 by Edward M. Favor, the narrative could casually describe "every cat in town" being "slaughtered"—presumably as disease-carriers—and expect listeners simply to smile at the animals' bad luck.

In line with this, is it such a surprise that "Me-Ow!" is actually about a pet owner's unsuccessful efforts to kill his furry ward? Maybe it made Jerry Mouse's top ten.

Ratskin also features other popular songs of its era, some of which Cartoon Brew has listed for us. But I'd like to draw your attention to another that fascinates me: "Tammany." Dating from the worst period of Tammany Hall graft, Gus Edwards' and Vincent Bryan's tune likens political thugs to the lawless Indians of racist stereotype—an obvious comparison, given the Tammany society's use of Native American terminology. By the time of the later Merrie Melodie Bowery Bugs (1949), "Tammany" had simply become a tune evoking a late-19th-century slicker; in Ratskin, its original meaning was still remembered, thus its tongue-in-cheek use with an actual Wild West scenario. Here it is as performed by Billy Murray, later the voice of Bimbo, in 1905:

Hmm, it seems I've strayed rather far from Coconino County here. Then again, so would Columbia's version of Krazy Kat. Quick, Ignatz... the brick!

[Updated—thanks to Cole Johnson for corrections re: the Tammany society's Native American connection.]


Anonymous said...

Hello, David----I think the use of the tune "Tammany" was used here to evoke Indian-ness rather than the chaos of politics. Tammany was the 17th-century chief of the Lenape tribe, who signed the famous peace treaty with William Penn. The Tammany Democratic political society was named for him, and gave themselves Indian terminology within their club. (Each branch was a "Wigwam", for instance.) KEY PUP THE GOO DWORK!---Cole Johnson.

Anonymous said...

I recognized Me-Ow because I think it's sung in Le Roman de Renard, but I seem to be unable to replace it elsewhere.
Great blog, added to my (few!) favorites.

Chris Barat said...


Getting hit with bricks would probably seem like a relief to Krazy after being forced to "star" in this unholy mess of a Toon. Nice job on the restoration, though. In places, Krazy's "meowing" sounds more like someone rubbing a balloon!


Jeff Cohen said...

Greetings! Much appreciate the unintentional mention of my blog "Vitaphone Varieties" here in the link for The Vitaphone Project, it should be pointed out that The Vitaphone Project is a wholly separate independent entity despite our being kindred spirits and fast friends.

The Vitaphone Project website can be reached at:


Early sound film enthusiasts will find much to enjoy at both websites.

Can't wait to hear and see "Ratskin!"