Ms. Culling reviews the animated film, Shinbone Alley.
“My heart has followed, all my days, something I cannot name….”
So opens the lead-in song for a long-forgotten animated musical, one which came before Disney monopolized the genre.
The story of Shinbone Alley actually begins in 1916, when a very unusual columnist appeared and began writing for New York newspaper The Evening Sun. Archy, who had been “a poet who felt like a cockroach”, transmigrated to the body of such an insect upon his suicide, and through the regular feature “The Sun Dial”, Don Marquis brought the tales of the philosophical bug to life in short pieces and poetic blurbs. Archy lived his microcosmic life on the streets of the Big Apple, skittering into Marquis’s office after the paper had shut down for the night to hop across the keys and speak his mind. (Being a cockroach, Archy could hit only one key at a time – so all of his writings appeared without punctuation or capital letters, which would become emblematic for the column.) Archy’s lovesick odes to a wild alley cat named Mehitabel, pontifications on life as an ugly insect in a human world, and general political opinion from the perspective of the (literal) little guy became quite popular in its day, and Marquis collected his ‘Archy’ pieces into several books.
In the 1950s, Archy and Mehitabel became stars of a musical album – Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing breathed life into their adventures through the music of George Kleinsinger and the lyrics – many of which were directly lifted from the source material – of Joe Darion. This short-lived record became the basis for a musical, Shinbone Alley, and it is the 1957 stage adaptation, which starred Bracken and Eartha Kitt as Mehitabel, which provided the inspiration for the version animated in 1971 by Fine Arts Films. Carol Channing reprised her feline role, and Bracken continued to voice the angst-ridden hexapod.
With simple, broad strokes and gritty comic-book colors, Shinbone Alley is a hopeless love story wherein the underdog is the intelligent, thoughtful Archy. He plays against a huge blue tomcat, Big Bill (voiced by Alan Freed, essentially playing a feline version of his far more familiar animated caveman role), whose interests in romancing Mehitabel last only so long as she continues to drown her kittens. As she bounces between male admirers and dreams of superstardom from the gutters, Mehitabel is constantly followed by her own cockroach version of Jiminy Cricket – who finally gets his way when she ‘applies’ for a position as a house cat, only for him to realize that she is at her most beautiful when she is colored outside the lines.
As a musical, Shinbone Alley is definitely unusual – boasting songs that tell the stories of a prideful firefly called Broadway, the self-destruction of a moth who believed his light was brightest burning half as long, and a gaggle of ladybugs-of-the-evening advertising their spotted wares, among others. Like a variety show cast, the underground creatures of 1970s New York City land to tell their stories only briefly before the film returns to the main story. Archy is the voice of the vermin, going largely unnoticed, and Eddie Bracken brings a sweet sort of sincerity to his devotion to Mehitabel – and to the creatures who share the shadow side of the city with him. His transition from the poet who felt like a cockroach to a cockroach who feels like a poet is at the heart of this film, and strangely, scenes of his attempted suicide in his insect body are miserably funny. It is only after he has failed, and we see him stumbling in maudlin drunkenness and depression, that the true gravity of his character is revealed.
Shinbone Alley is not a family film, although its innuendoes are gentle and its music would entertain at any age – children will not understand the true moral conflict at the center of Archy’s dealings with Mehitabel and her tomcat lovers, nor will they see the political and social allegories present in many of the insect’s anecdotes. But for the mature enough enthusiast of Western animation, this is a quietly brilliant musical hidden in the bargain bin.
- Dana Culling