I had to make a distinction in the title by adding the "(1971)", because I want to make it clear that when I say "The Cat in the Hat" I am definitely not referring to the 2003 film version starring Mike Myers. That had some moderately funny moments and thankfully gave a name (Conrad) to the boy in the story, which had been bothering my daughter Becca for a while, but it was largely a crude mess of a movie. But having read the books about the hat wearing feline night after night to my girls, we had to rent that film and also borrow the older animated television version from the library and see how they were. The film version went right back after watching it once and I ended up buying the video of the animated version which we've happily watched over and over and over. And I'm probably going to buy the DVD of the animated version as well. So that should say it all right there.
The version I'm referring to is a 26 minute show produced for television in 1971. Among the show's producers were Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones (both known for animating and directing Looney Tunes), David H. DePatie (who along with Freleng created the Pink Panther animations), and some other guy named Dr. Seuss (who also wrote the script). Starring as "The Cat" was the great novelty singer Allan Sherman (who had one of the earliest kids' music hits with "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh"), and providing the voice of the fish was the legendary voice actor Daws Butler (the voice of Snagglepuss, Yogi Bear, Elroy Jetson, Quick Draw McGraw and many others). So there was definitely some great talent on board for this project, and with Seuss himself a big part of the production you'd think it would probably capture the spirit of his work pretty well, right? Well, it definitely does, and then some. Actually, I suppose you could say that the Mike Myers movie captured the spirit of the Seuss book and then some, but the "and then some" would be meant in a bad way. This "and then some" only adds to the enjoyment.
The show begins with the same premise as the book, where two kids with nothing to do on a rainy day are visited by a strange cat who basically wants to cause trouble and mess their house up. But then it takes a very different direction, where the Cat is quickly asked to leave and is about to go when he realizes that his precious "moss-covered, three-handled family grudunza" is missing. This leads to more lunacy from the Cat and more aggravation for the fish, and best of all it leads to several wonderful songs, which are the best part of an all-around terrific show.
The first song as the kids are sitting around grumbling that there is "absolutely positively nothing to be done" is definitely the most throw-away of the show, but the songs really build from there. The next song is the Cat's dramatic lament for his lost grudunza, and it's with this song that you start to get the idea of how special this show is. With a sublimely nice melody, we have the Cat singing oh so very earnestly, "I'll never see my darling, moss-covered, three-handled family grudunza anymore." There's a just barely under-the-top brilliance to it that has to be seen and heard to be appreciated.
From there the kids, the Cat and the fish are busy searching for this so-called grudunza (which elicits a great line from the ever-skeptical fish, "I'll tell you this... it's not in the unabridged dictionary!"). That leads to a fun bouncy show-tune styled number called "Calculatus Eliminatus", which is the Cat's scientific method for finding something that is lost. The idea is to eliminate and mark all of the places where the missing object isn't, thereby revealing where it must be. More grumbling by the fish follows, which leads the Cat to sing the self-loathing anthem, "I'm a punk, a crutunkulous shnunk." This song is vaguely in the style of "...Mr. Grinch" and although I like it a lot, it's kind of a time filler compared to the other songs and doesn't really advance the plot at all (not that this show is really about 'intricate plotting', though). Following that, the Cat tries to relax the very stressed out fish by singing an exquisite lullaby called "Beautiful Kittenfish". This song is gorgeous with its simple melody, even with silly lyrics directed at the fish like "bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop, bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep".
With the fish asleep, it is the Cat's chance to get serious with the grudunza search, and he enlists the help of his bizarre cohorts, Thing One and Thing Two, who can supposedly find "anything under the sun", which introduces the next song. The song jumps nicely between the Cat's steady marching rhythm and the Things' more frenetic pace as they complain that "there's always some fish, some sour-belly fish, whose only one wish is to flatten the fun". It's amusing to think that everywhere the Cat and his Things go, there's a complaining fish trying to thwart their efforts to have fun.
By this point the fish has had quite enough, and is almost hysterical, yelling "Get those Things out of this house!", to which the Cat replies, "But what is a house without Things?" The fish claims that the Cat isn't really a cat ("whoever heard of a six foot cat?!") and that the strange thing he is wearing on his head can't really be called a hat, can it? This leads to what would be called "the 11 o'clock number" in musical theater terms, or in other words, the big number just before the ending that everybody will remember and hum on the way home. And this song certainly delivers in that respect and is a real showstopper. Starting off with a cute sing-song melody, the Cat demonstrates how he would most certainly be considered a cat wearing a hat in any country around the world. "In English 'cat'/'hat'. In French 'chat'/'chapeau'. In Spanish 'el gato in a sombrero'." This part is repeated and built upon enough times that you'll remember it after the first time you've watched it, and even learn some important things, such as that "cat in a hat" is "gwonka in a bonkequank" in Eskimo. Throughout these verses there are brief musical interludes that are homages to the countries mentioned, including Spanish mariachi and German polka. The charm of the song actually starts to win over the fish and he joins in, even offering the Russian translation of "chapka" in a "shlyapa". This leads the song into another direction, one-upping itself as a chorus fervently sings, "He's a cat of many countries. He's a cat of many hats. Many, many foreign countries and an awful lot of hats." This song goes on and on and must be several minutes long, and yet it is thoroughly enjoyable at every turn. My only disappointment is that it ends at all.
But then the mother's car horn is heard and the kids and the fish realize that she is coming down the street and whatever is to be done about the huge mess in the house? As in the book, the Cat leaves and then quickly returns with his many-armed clean-up machine. You would probably expect this to be an extremely hurried operation, but the Cat is nothing if not cool, and he cleans everything up calmly and confidently while singing a wonderful torch song that is sweetly sad and also beautifully poignant, "Sweep, sweep up the memories, those old untidy memories of what we had one day." I'll bet Babs (Streisand, not Bunny) could have had a hit with this song, as it is perfectly in the vein of things like "The Way We Were". And then, the gwonka in the chapeau is gone, and the mother returns with a surprising revelation. And then the video is rewinded and watched again. And I don't mean that necessarily with my kids, although they love it... But I like this show so much that I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening to it on my own, repeatedly.
The songs for the show were created by Dean Elliott, and they are astounding and memorable at every turn. Elliott also wrote the songs for the cartoon version of "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Sneetches", which came out in 1973, but the songs in that sound kind of cheesed out, as you might expect from music in the 70's, and they don't have nearly the same appeal for me. Thankfully, that kind of 70's cheese hadn't kicked in too hard yet by 1971, so the Cat in the Hat songs were just brilliant and timeless songs, enjoyable for any time or era. If you haven't seen this yet, then by all means find out if your local library has a copy and check it out (make sure it is the right one, though, as there is also a "Cat in the Hat" video which is just someone reciting the book verbatim with pictures from the book as a slideshow). And if you like this as much as I do you'll want to go directly to one of the following links or to eBay and get yourself a copy...
The Cat in the Hat (1971) DVD on Amazon.com
Seuss Celebration DVD on Amazon.com (which includes this and other Seuss shows)