The Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Silver Screen Modes are hosting the Vive la France! Blogathon. As my contribution I’ve chosen a film that takes us from French high society through the beautiful countryside and into Paris’ red light district. This is an adventure featuring fetching French felines from all walks of life in the final film green-lighted by Walt Disney and the company’s first feature-length animated film completed without him. I introduce you to The Aristocats directed by Wolfgang Reitherman based on a story by Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe.
Original reviews for The Aristocats in 1970 were great and the movie was a financial success, but since then it has lost some of that appeal for many. I dispute naysayers wholeheartedly with this entry as I deem The Aristocats one of the good ones, a leisurely 78 minutes of pure charm, good enough indeed to earn reissues in 1980 and 1987. The Aristocats offers a simple story that’s full of heart and touches upon such lofty ideas as the meaning of family, companionship, greed, betrayal, and the hero. The film also offers fantastic music and is characterized by an impressive list of voice actors led by Phil Harris and Eva Gabor, who are terrific. You’ll no doubt recognize many of the voices as they come straight out of many beloved classic TV shows.
Our story takes place in Paris in the early 1900s when we are invited into the home of the affluent Madame Adelaide Bonfamille (Hermione Baddeley.) Madame Adelaide lives with her cat family, Duchess (Gabor) and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz (Gary Dubin, Liz English, Dean Clark). The Madame’s butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) also lives in the mansion. Straight off we know the Bonfamille home is a happy one with Adelaide enamored of Duchess and her brood. This is such, in fact, that Madame calls for her old, eccentric lawyer Georges Hautecourt (Charles Lane) to bequeath her vast fortune to Duchess and the kittens, leaving Edgar as the second place recipient should anything happen to the cat family.
As is always the case, someone has to spoil things and in the case of The Aristocats the butler does. You see, Edgar is not too happy that Madame Adelaide is leaving her fortune to cats and soon comes up with a plan to get rid of them. The plan is simple and sure to work – put sleeping pills in their food and take them far into the countryside. As you can imagine, Duchess and her kittens are ill-equipped for the wilderness having been pampered with unconditional love all of their lives. They are accustomed to canopied beds, the best food in Paris on the best china, and painting and music lessons. In fact, all three kittens exhibit quite a bit of talent. Marie takes after her mother with high society sensitivities and a lovely singing voice. Toulouse is a talented painter when he is not trying to imitate tough alley cats. And Berlioz is aces on the piano. All of this makes Edgar’s plans that much more sinister. And of course Madame Adelaide and their friends Roquefort the mouse (Sterling Holloway) and Frou-Frou the Horse (Nancy Kulp) are fraught with worry when they realize Duchess and the kittens are gone. None of them, especially Edgar, could ever have imagined that Duchess, Marie, Toulouse, and Berlioz were in for the adventure of a lifetime.
When Duchess and the kittens wake up after being dumped by Edgar they are initially startled by their surroundings but that doesn’t last long at all. From around the bend comes a ruggedly handsome, singing alley cat named Thomas O’Malley (Harris). Confirmed bachelor O’Malley can’t help but fall in love with Duchess and he soon becomes a father figure to the kittens after vowing to help them get back to the Bonfamille home in Paris.
Misadventures follow as Duchess’ family and O’Malley trek toward Paris. They meet up with two English geese, Amelia and Abigail Gabble, after O’Malley is rescued from a river. Their voices immediately recognizable, the Gabble sisters are portrayed by Monica Evans and Carole Shelley who played the Pigeon Sisters in The Odd Couple (1968) movie, TV series and the original Broadway production.
Meanwhile, Edgar is forced to return to the countryside to retrieve evidence he’d left behind, evidence now being utilized by stray hounds Napoleon and Lafayette (Blood and Bassett respectively). The two canine characters are portrayed by classic TV staples, Pat Buttram and George Lindsey. Their schtick, which centers on Napoleon’s insistence that he’s the leader while Lafayette has all the good ideas, is supremely entertaining.
Duchess, her kids, and O’Malley make it back to Paris, but not before running into a swingin’ group of musician cats led by Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) who introduces the group to the wonders of jazz. This scene is one example of what makes The Aristocats such an entertaining endeavor – the music. Several of the songs are rip-roaring fun. Standouts are “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” words and music by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker, “Scales and Arpeggios” words and music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman and the title song “The Aristocats” also by the Sherman brothers,
who wrote music for over 30 Disney pictures. The Aristocats was the last Disney animated feature the Shermans worked on as staff writers. Maurice Chevalier came out of retirement to sing the title song in the movie, which kicks things off with classic French flavor. This was Chevalier’s final work before his death in 1972.
More nods to France come courtesy of the various locations featured in The Aristocats. For instance, the film illustrates what an Alley Cat apartment looks like. The French countryside, which plays a prominent role, is as beautiful as you’d imagine and the farm where Napoleon and Lafayette hang out is reminiscent of scenes in many French-themed classic movies. Also, the legendary Eiffel Tower makes numerous background appearances as does Paris throughout. We are privileged to be allowed inside high society as well the Red Light district when all sorts of colorful characters reside. Viva La France! indeed.
Perhaps most lovely in the journey of our characters is the love that surfaces between Thomas O’Malley and Duchess. He falls head over heels, but she’s conflicted. Not about her love for him, but because she worries for Madame Adelaide who has always said that Duchess and her babies are her greatest gift. Duchess’ loyalty for Adelaide is sweet, heartfelt and touches me deeply as I think about the cat that lives in my own home and wonder if she’d run at the first sign of true love. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling when Duchess’ loyalty to Adelaide wins and she decides to go home again. Unfortunately, there to meet her with evil intentions is Edgar who immediately traps Duchess and the kittens in a sack to ship them to Timbuktu. Before that happens, however, the feline family gets word to Roquefort the mouse to find O’Malley who is headed back to the countryside. O’Malley in turn gathers Scat Cat and his troupe to save the day. O’Malley joins Duchess, her family, and Madame Adelaide in the mansion where love and acceptance abound.
The ending of The Aristocats is a touching reminder that sometimes we don’t have to choose between loyalty and love. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand for lucky cats and the people who love them. That’s true from New York, New York to Paris, France and everywhere in between.