The Plot Sickens (1961)

Man, those guys at Famous must have really hated their wives. By popular demand, I am posting the 1961 Modern Madcap cartoon, The Plot Sickens. This is another of the Paramount’s series of dark “domestic” comedies, but unlike the others this one is pretty funny – thanks to Irv Spector’s storyboards and Eddie Lawrence’s voice overs. This one was one of several that was released to theatres, but never shown on TV… the subject matter was way above and beyond the viewers of the New Casper Cartoon Show (where most of this era’s Modern Madcaps ended up). It would’ve been a great short to play in front of Jack Lemmon’s How To Murder Your Wife.


  • Cameron

    My, PETA would never let this be shown today.

    You know, Irv Spector, from my very limited-but-sure-to-increase exposure to his work, seems like he could be the Billy Wilder of cartoons.

  • http://gogopedro.com Gogopedro!

    That was pretty great….

    He pitched the alligator into the bin. I even liked some of the designs quite a bit.

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com Elliot Cowan

    Gold.

    In this age of reimagining and remakes these cartoons could stand to be overhauled in CG.
    “Modern MoCap”

  • http://davekirwan.com Dave Kirwan

    Oh, Jerry, keep it up! These things are wonderful! Well, actually, they’re sorta like anti-wonderful. If you could turn ‘funny’ inside out you’d probably end up with a late fifties/early sixties Modern Madcap. But I love ‘em! I can remember seeing “Finnegan’s Flea” and “Grateful Gus” at the drive-in as a kid. Even a seven year old could dope out “this isn’t funny, but it’s unfunny in a FASCINATING way!”

  • pspector

    Jerry, thanks for posting this! Let me know if you plan to put up “In The Nicotine”. I’ll supply some model sheets.

  • Matthew Yorston

    Jerry, oh, Jerry, thank you so, SO much!

    I can’t describe this cartoon. So dark, so cynical, so cruel, so morbid, so scathing, yet so, so fascinating, and so, so funny! And brilliant! I LOVED IT! It was definitely up there with “Chew Chew Baby” in terms of WTF-ness and all of the same qualities of that cartoon that makes it unsuitable for the public eye, particularly for the kiddies. Irv Spector had a pretty frigged-up sense of humor (but that certainly isn’t a bad thing!).

  • http://www.cyndifoster.info Cyndi Foster

    Wow that guy has terrible luck with wives, or maybe it’s the TV. I wonder what would happen if he smashed the TV instead…

  • top cat james

    If only the rest of Famous’ output could have been this funny…

    Bravo, Mr. Spector.

  • Thad

    Snuffy Smith I hardly knew ye.

  • J Lee

    The 1960-63 one shots done by Spector and/or Lawrence still maintain a pretty decent level of humor, because they’re not trying to dumb down the stories for the kiddos, the way the other Paramount cartoons during the period did. By this time, there really wasn’t enough animation budget left to actually put over any slapstick comedy, even in it’s weakest form, like some of Famous’ continuing series in the 50s, so the Paramount shorts totally lived and died on their stories, and the ones Spector and Larwence were doing at least had different (and usually more cynical) plots than the stuff Carl Myer, Jack Mercer and the others were turning out.

  • fishmorgjp

    Huh, black comedy in an ol’ Modern Madcap; that was lots better than I thought it’s be. Flash would really have come in handy back then!

  • joe horne

    Quite disturbing. I love it. Keep going….

  • http://yeldarb86.deviantart.com Mr. Semaj

    If they were able to make so many anti-marriage cartoons back then, it must not have bothered the wives they were probably targeting.

  • Jack

    It’s as if Alfred Hitchcock were a Famous gagman for one week. And it certainly proves, as the industry tends to never remember, that comedy comes in infinite variations and that slapstick need not be the sole alternative to action adventure. Theatrical cartoons were like bar cars on passenger trains in the 1960s: they’d serve anything to anyone, regardless of age, ’cause they needed the loot.

  • http://www.lippy.com Lippy

    I LOVED this cartoon, Jerry!
    It’s actually a primer for how to do inexpensive animation. Please post more. “C’mon, Let’s Go! Do it, Buddy-Boy!!”

  • http://bakertoons.blogspot.com/ Charles Brubaker

    Well THAT was a dark cartoon.

    I love it!

  • http://smashedass.blogspot.com smashed ass

    That is my new favorite cartoon, ever. My wife is going to hate it, though!

  • Mike Fontanelli

    Can someone help me identify a couple of Modern Madcaps I haven’t seen in about 30 years? (They used to run these all the time on WPIX in NYC when I was growing up.)

    One cartoon opens with a bartender plying a customer in a state of permanent shock with pretzels and beer. The bartender then tells his sad story via flashback: a variation on ONE FROGGY EVENING – not nearly as funny or well-designed, of course – involving a singing (I think) flea, or a fly or something.

    The other cartoon, a much funnier one, involves a suburban couple waging an escalating fight with City Hall over a pothole that causes passing sanitation trucks to empty garbage into their home. (I remember a funny running gag involving the word “Disgusting!”)

    In the meantime, for anyone who has never seen it, here’s Paramount’s CHEW CHEW BABY:

    http://saturdaymorn.blogspot.com/2008/04/chew-chew-baby-1958.html

  • Mike Fontanelli

    Okay – I’ve identified FINNEGAN’S FLEA (1958) from an earlier comment. I just watched it on YouTube for the first time in decades! Great – better than I remembered. Does anyone know the title of the other cartoon?

  • http://www.davemackey.com Dave Mackey

    Mike, the other cartoon you’re thinking of is “La Petite Parade” – it’s set in Paris, and that’s the one with the daily parade past the house, and the “department sanitaire” is always the last in line, dumping garbage in front of the hapless couple’s house.

  • Mike Fontanelli

    Thanks, Dave. Just watched it on YouTube – I hadn’t seen that since forever!

    I can still remember my brother and I doing the “Bang! Plop! Feeelthy, deeesgusteeng!!” bit at the dinner table (where it didn’t go over too well…)

  • Yves

    Famous was onto something here. If the time had been right, who knows what might have happened?

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    Maybe that WAS the right time for these cartoons. Late fifties/early sixties was before the time of easy, “no-fault” divorce, so the premise of being stuck with a nightmare spouse probably resonated with a big segment of the audience.

  • Dock Miles

    Yep, very easy to see how the Ted Bundy/Gary Ridegway attitude toward them Evil Woman Objects was bolstered by media like this. There were no female voices to counter the he-male chorus.

  • Jason

    Spot on, Dock. (Or is it “Doc”?) It’s easy to call this toon “dark” in order to excuse its attitude, but in fact it doesn’t deserve a term that implies a deeper, artistic purpose; clearly, its sole intention is to provide amusement by bashing females. What’s truly sad is that the aim of its producers wasn’t to be subversive; during the era when that toon was produced, woman-bashing was as traditional and homespun as baseball and apple pie. And it did have far-reaching and negative repurcussions: For instance, I myself grew up truly believing that women are by nature terrible drivers, and why? I heard “women drivers” jokes everywhere. (Never mind that my mother never had an accident in her life while my dad totaled 2 cars). Thank god that kind of Borscht Belt “take my wife please” schtick is pretty much dead nowadays. I think it really did some harm. Not that gender-based humor can’t be funny; Christopher Titus has made an art form of it, so much so that both genders can laugh at it and feel neither exalted nor degraded. Now THAT’S comedy!

  • Shade

    This is a more mature version of the dark stories that have often permeated Famous’s cartoons. That studio specialized in doing dark, henpecked husband stories. Remember it’s Henry the Henpecked Rooster series from the 1940′s.? The Eddie Lawrence narration and Irv Spencer’s minimalist drawings give the film its modern look. Other than that, it’s a continuation of the dark, violent, sometimes disturbing films Famous had been doing. Even Winston Sharples’ music is just as moody and dirgelike as the scores he produced for the Famous product released during the late ’40 and throughout the ’50s. Famous’ product really got more modern when Howard Post took over the studio.

  • Mike Fontanelli

    So cartoons created Ted Bundy? You must be LOTS of fun to sit next to at parties.

  • J Lee

    My post last night apparently didn’t take so here’s a revised version — If you go over to Paul Spector’s blog, you’ll see his post on this cartoon, and his dad’s notations describe it as a “Hicthcockian(sic) type story.” One of the biggest shows on network TV in the late 50s and early 60s was “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and the cartoon was released a year after Paramount released “Psycho”. And at the same time “The Plot Sickens” came out, “The Flintstones” did their own Hitchcock parody. Only in this one, at the end we actually do have a dead wife.

    Paramount also did a number of “Stupid husband makes long-suffering wife’s life miserable” cartoons during the same time period, like “Talking Horse Sense” and “TV Fuddlehead”, which also were part of the effort to come up with some one-shot stories that were more mature in story content than the continuing series. So if you’re going to go after this cartoon for misogyny, you might as well start yanking the Hitchcock DVDs of the same time period off the shelves.

  • Bugsmer

    Thanks again, Jerry. This cartoon was just as funny as the last one.

  • Mike Fontanelli

    [...you might as well start yanking the Hitchcock DVDs of the same time period off the shelves.]

    Why stop there? Not that that would appease the Thought Police crowd, anyway.

  • Cole Johnson

    A funny one ! I liked the dead elephant, throwing away the dead snake, and the machine gun! These characters, the obnoxious wife and the henpecked husband, are perfectly legitimite observations. They’ve been with us since men and women began and will continue ever more. Today you must pretend that a lot of natural human traits aren’t true. There were no politically correct shackles on cartoonists in 1961, and you were free to go as wild as you wished. (Although, since it’s never mentioned in the film, perhaps “divorce” was considered too tasteless in a cartoon of the era.) This cartoon is vaguely familiar–I swear I’ve seen it before. Is it a definite that it was never on TV?

  • s porridge

    Speaking of Eddie Lawrence, his 90th birthday occurred this very week (March 2). “The Old Philosopher” has made it to the adjective. Hope he’s doing well!

    Wikipedia’s entry for Lawrence includes a paragraph about his tenure at Famous.

  • Dock Miles

    >So cartoons created Ted Bundy? You must be LOTS of fun to sit next to at parties.

    If I’d posted anything asâ™  remotely stupid as that you would have reason to complain.

    >So if you’re going to go after this cartoon for misogyny, you might as well start yanking the Hitchcock DVDs of the same time period off the shelves.

    See, here’s some more of that wonderful instant-flying-off-the-rails so common with internet discussions. Lamenting the ugly portrait of women in a cartoon is immediately conflated with censoring Hitchcock DVDs. Nobody’s talking about banning anything. But hey, Alfred Hatchplot is notorious for his difficulties with the females of the species.

    >They’ve been with us since men and women began and will continue ever more. Today you must pretend that a lot of natural human traits aren’t true.

    Ah yes, the old “natural order of things” argument. Get some guts, man, and stand up for the history-tested, near-universal natural order of slavery. Then I’ll be impressed.

  • Andyman

    Blecch. This trope had been beaten into the ground by “Maggie and Jiggs” and “Andy Capp” for YEARS before “Famous Studios” discovered the formula. “Famous” specialized in taking tired, worn-out cliches and making them meaner and uglier. Compare and contrast “Tom and Jerry” with “Herman and Katnip.” Utterly wretched. There is a reason these cheap, mean-spirited piles of s**t are largely forgotten.

    Don’t give me this “Mid-century Modern artsy-fartsy ‘they are historically important’ design” nonsense.

  • http://dmgermain.blogspot.com David Germain

    That was delightfully dark masterpiece. Great find, Jerry.

    Mike F. may have made his point a bit too bluntly for some people’s constitutions, but I certainly agree with his sentiment.

    Blaming cartoons for society’s ills is like blaming a butterfly’s flapping wings in Italy for causing a monsoon in Indonesia.

  • Mike Fontanelli

    Hmmm… So far the same poster has introduced serial killers, misogyny and the “natural order” of slavery into a discussion of a 50 year-old cartoon produced for general audiences. Then, after lecturing the rest of us about “flying off the rails” in Internet discussions, advises us to “get some guts, man”.

    I’ve heard of medicine-coating the sugar – but seriously, why bother posting raving nonsense? There are plenty of conspiracy theory chatboards for the tinfoil hat set.

  • messy

    Andyman, Andy Capp only dated to the time this film came out. Reg Smythe hit his hayday in the 1960s.

  • J Lee

    See, here’s some more of that wonderful instant-flying-off-the-rails so common with internet discussions. Lamenting the ugly portrait of women in a cartoon is immediately conflated with censoring Hitchcock DVDs. Nobody’s talking about banning anything. But hey, Alfred Hatchplot is notorious for his difficulties with the females of the species.

    No flying off the rails — Merely noting that you’re attempting to either see the cartoon in a vacuum without any context of what the story line was targeting in the culture of the middle part of the 20th Century; or you’re falling into the time-honored bromide of “cartoons are for children” and are saying Paramount shouldn’t have even broached the subject in a theatrical short because — while murdering your wife is suitable for a Hitchcock film, it’s not a proper subject for a six-minute cartoon.

    The women in Spector’s matchmaker trilogy (“L’amour the Merrier”, “La Petite Parade”, “Galaxcia”) that came out in the four years before “The Plot Sickens” are equally as unappealing as the wife is here, and I suppose if you wanted to do some sort of gender-based deconstruction of the shorts you could say they represented a society that easily adapted and countenance the stereotyping of ugly women as shrewish middle-aged spinsters. Which might make you feel morally superior to the writers and other staff members at Paramount of half a century ago. Or you could just sit back and enjoy the cartoons on their own terms without trying to inject political analysis based on society as it is in 2009 (and I can find a lot of pop culture today that’s far more misogynistic than anything in this short).

  • Dock Miles

    I think we have a little vocabulary challenge here.

    In my original post, I used the word “bolstered.” Verb derived from the name of a long, cylindrical pillow. Means “prop up,” “support” or, in the context of what I said, “be part of a supportive cultural atmosphere.” It in no way means “create,” “cause” or anything like that.

    I’ll let everybody else decide what sort of a job Mike Fontanelli is doing of representing the rest of my remarks.

  • Surfer Joe

    Whenever I read the word “misogyny” I have the sick feeling that all the fun and life is about to be sapped out of something innocent, harmless, and joyful. “Out of the pool, everybody! He said ‘misogyny’!”

    National Lampoon used to have a feature called “Professor Kenilworth Explains the Joke”, in which a joke was told, and then an academic explained why it wasn’t funny. “Besides the fact that dogs cannot speak and are not generally allowed in bars…”

    These days no blog is complete without Professor Kenilworth.

  • pspector

    When it comes to comments about my father’s work, I like to lay out (hah-hah) until most of the results are in. Generally, that’s because I wouldn’t want people to feel as if they had to temper what they have to say just because an artist’s kin happens to be in the building. In all regards here’s my take:

    - I thought it was really weird, or interesting, or intuitive, or something, that my father had a hand in all of the other cartoons that have been mentioned in the comments section: Finnegans’s Flea, Grateful Gus. Chew Chew Baby, Le Petite Parade, Snuffy Smith, and by way of Eddie Lawrence, Abner the Baseball.

    - My father always went after the gag. In other words, he went FOR THE GAG. That is what cartoonists do, or did, or whatever it is they are still doing. He had the good fortune of coming of age in the early Golden Age: that is, he was began working in the animation industry at the age of sixteen (1930 and pre-Hays-Code), when animators often were writing story on-the-fly as they animated. Throughout the years, he had even more good fortune in being able to write cartoons, layout cartoons, direct cartoons, layout background, have a Sunday comic strip, and work (and also appear) on live TV as a cartoonist. I can’t count the ways, unless someone can come up with a filmography which includes all the industrials, commericals, and WWII Signal Corp animation assigments that he worked on, not to mention silly stuff like Jackie Gleason caraiactures.

    - I can respect the fact that some people might view The Plot Sickens as some brief moment in the larger pantheon of film in which women were depicted in less than idealistic conditions. But really, isnt’ that what cartoons do? No, idiot, not depict women in these conditions but rather depict the human condition in all it’s idiotic conditions!?

    -My dad could write well, draw well, and was very well-read (yet somehow I’m realizing not a great speller!). However, he would be the first to tell you that my mother was more well-rounded than he, IF the question were ever to be posed to him, which I doubt it was. My mother didn’t watch daytime TV, swill beer, nor nag him. In fact, she held some darn good jobs, often in management.

    - The very idea that the posting of THE PLOT SICKENS has degenerated into the type of the discussion that it has is, well, sickening.

    - One of my oldest friends, and this is no lie, happens to be a reknown professor who has for yeasrs taught at a respectied UC campus on the subject of film fro a feminist perspective. She has NEVER asked me these types of questions about cartoons, and it’s not because she’s too polite to ask. I don’t know if she’s ever seen THE PLOT SICKENS, but I can unequivocally tell you that if she has, she laughed at it.

  • Dock Miles

    I’ll still take Virgil Partch –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgil_Franklin_Partch

    who worked the same sort of territory and was more subversive, surreal and true to the foibles of the human condition.

  • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto

    I enjoyed it a lot. It’s just an story about this particular man. It doesn’t give a lot of credit to women with that ending, but I don’t really see the big problem. There are a lot of thrillers about men who want to kill their wives, that doesn’t mean the men in the audience are going to imitate what they watch.

    On the other hand, How To Murder Your Wife was really pretty misoginist. I thought it was a good and enjoyable movie too, but it really was a bit too much against women.

  • pspector

    Oops, while I was in my soapbox son-of glory I forgot the most important part: the cartoon itself. This was the first time I’ve seen it. I thought it really worked surprisingly well on several different levels, especially for the Famous era in which it was made. I loved it…and I’ve seen my share of duds with my father’s name on them. Two parts that stick with me: the husband’s view of the back of his wife’s head, shown a couple of times, and; the animation of the pool taking on the pattern of the alligator’s thrashing tail. Not sure who animated that part. Whomever, great job.

  • Thad

    Funny how all the people complaining about this wonderfully biting cartoon are all male…

  • Thad

    What the worst kind of white feminists (and I’m including white male-feminists, like the spineless gits in this thread) try to do is pull the “race” card with stuff like the Big Bertha wife. Maybe this would work if this was what all white women were depicted as in the movies (like the smiling ‘spooks’, or Asians preparing “Kamikaze on rice”) but white women were depicted as broadly as the white males. Truth is, yeah, there was a lot of sexism in the world then, but not a lot of it made it to the screen as the white feminists want you to believe. Hell, I’d say that movies are more sexist today than they ever were “then”… You can name reams of broad-ranged actresses from the Golden Age that are icons for things other than their looks, which can’t be said for most of today’s actresses.

  • Surfer Joe

    Applying “isms” like “sexism” sort of inadvertently implies that this was a conscious movement and that an agenda was being deliberately presented. It’s as if we’re watching “Battleship Potemkin” or something and these are the central ideas of the film, rather than just our entirely subjective interpretations of attitudes that may have since (generally) changed.

    What all this comes down to is typing, and more than 99% of all fictional characters are just types. How many absent-minded German professors have you seen? How about militant, crew-cut-wearing gym coaches? Are all waitresses really from Brooklyn? The only time we get all excited about this stuff and start stroking our beards over it is when it seems to involve our cultural sensitivities.

    But that’s all usually- almost always- just tangential. The fishwife exists on screen not to demean women, but because people like to laugh at the familiar- familiar gags, familiar types. It’s there because it got a laugh last time.

    If you ever present a totally original character to your producers, God forbid, they’ll eventually try to change it into a type, so they can understand it. “Make her from Brooklyn! Have her smack gum and mispronounce words!”

  • cgeye

    “Funny how all the people complaining about this wonderfully biting cartoon are all male…”

    Wow.

    Do ya think it’s because it’s because women who read Cartoon Brew know when to pick their battles, and pointing out the background radiation of misogyny spread by this Famous series (since that series probably won’t be a blockbuster anywhere in the present market) would be shooting a gnat with an elephant gun?

    I’ll worry about upcoming *first-run* cartoons that have a problem with women, rather than rehash all the ways male cartoonists WENT FOR THE GAG regardless of those gags classifying entire categories of people as below white men.

  • Surfer Joe

    Question:

    “Do ya think it’s because it’s because women who read Cartoon Brew know when to pick their battles, and pointing out the background radiation of misogyny spread by this Famous series (since that series probably won’t be a blockbuster anywhere in the present market) would be shooting a gnat with an elephant gun?”

    Nope.

    Oh, I’m sorry, that was rhetorical, wasn’t it?

    Actually, I’m extremely upset about the male character, because the clear and intended message of the cartoon was that ALL MALES ARE EXACTLY LIKE HIM. I’m just sure that’s what it all means. Oh, those hateful bastard animators!

    To recover my battered sense of self-worth, I’m going to watch a James Bond film now, because the clear and intended message of those is that ALL MALES ARE EXACTLY LIKE HIM.

  • Surfer Joe

    I just wanted to add a big “Thank you” for the posting of this great, fun cartoon that I had never seen, and also thank pspector for joining us and adding his insights. Always interested in hearing more about your dad and his work.

    Sorry you had to be subjected to all the absurd weeping, wailing, wringing of hands, rending of garments, pulling of hair, and gnashing of teeth that attends any form of humor on the web these days. Hope you’ll weigh in again.

    The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.

  • pspector

    Surfer Joe — It was a gas! I loved all the comments, regardless of opinion (even my own). That cartoon is almost 50 years old. Who ever thought anyone would still be talking about it? Thanks! – Paul

  • Surfer Joe

    The good stuff lives on. I think most of the animators of my generation would love to think that anything we ever did would provoke this much interest in fifty years.

    We tried to put our hearts into our work, too, but were always getting ‘em stomped flat!

  • Marin Pažanin

    This was a great cartoon. I love Famous Studios cartoons in which someone is trying to kill somebody(or himself). One of the rules in Famous Studios cartoons is:
    HAVE A GUN, WILL TRAVEL.
    That guy doesn’t have any luck. The second wife is like the first one!
    Poor Myron!

    Cast&Crew:
    Credited Director: Seymour Kneitel
    Animation Director: Irv Spector
    Animation: Irv Spector, John Gentilella, Larry Silverman
    Story: Irv Spector
    Scenics: Robert Owen
    Music: Winston Sharples

    Originally released on 19.12.1961.

  • Marin Pažanin

    EastmanColor, not Technicolor