Top Cat: The Complete Series Review
The most effectual Top Cat!
Whose intellectual close friends get to call him TC
Providing it's with dignity.
The indisputable leader of the gang.
He's the boss, he's the VIP,
He's a Championship,
He's the most tip-top Top Cat!
Yes, he's the chief, he's the King
But above everything,
He's the most tip-top Top Cat!
Right, let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: his name is not, never has been, never will be, Boss Cat. When Hanna-Barbera’s latest offering was brought to Britain, there was to be found on the supermarket shelves a type of cat food called Top Cat so, to avoid breaching trade and standards laws, the titular character had to be renamed. That’s fine, but there’s only one problem: Boss Cat just sounds wrong, and completely unsuitable. I don’t quite know why it grates so much, it just does - he’s TC, not BC. I’m sure if the great man (or, rather, great cat) himself had known about this clunky rebranding he would have had a few words to say about it. Actually, knowing him, he would have had many words to say about it, being as he is a particularly verbal loquacious member of the feline community. Either way, let’s hold no more of this nonsense about his true name, and banish all thoughts of a cat named Boss.
On paper, I really shouldn’t like Top Cat. Not only am I much more of a dog man than a cat person, but I’ve also never been able to get into the principal source the cartoon is based on, namely The Phil Silvers Show, (or Bilko as it’s more commonly known.) While holding my hands up and fully acknowledging Phil Silver’s skill and massive contribution to television in the 1950s, personally I just can’t connect with the show at all, no matter how many times I try. As such, there’s no reason I should be any more predisposed to a cartoon version, for that is, after all, what Top Cat really is. At the beginning of the sixties, Hanna-Barbera were already beginning to make a habit of turning popular live-action shows of the day into popular cartoon equivalents (the most obvious example being The Flintstones which was based on characters in a show called The Honeymooners) when they envisaged the denizens of Hoagy Alley sometime in 1960. Reportedly commissioned on the basis of a single drawing of TC himself, the series was to debut in prime time, only the second animated series ever to do so, The Flintstones having been the first the previous year. As it turned out it didn’t have the crossover appeal that the stone-age family did, lasting only one season and thirty episodes, but subsequently the series flourished in more youngster-friendly slots, building up a popular reputation that did much to further cement HB’s enduring popularity. TC became another instantly recognisable character, his laconic drawl and endless scheming winning him a legion of fans that have ensured the series remains one of the most successful cartoons from the studio to this day.
This success is down to a mixture of charming archetypal characters, simple but vivid artwork and fun scripting. Although too much is made of the show’s supposed sophistication – on the basis of which it was sold for a prime-time audience – it is certainly a step up from a lot of the studio’s output. The plots, simple as they are, are more coherent than some cartoons of the day, being proper tales rather than a simple slapstick knockabout involving running off the edges of cliffs and things falling on people’s heads (not that there still isn’t the occasional element of that still). All focus on TC’s attempts to raise money and improve the life of himself and those around him, the artful-dodger figure that always endears itself in people’s hearts, the schemer whose plans never quite come off but who never loses heart. The scripts do sometimes struggle to fill in their twenty-six minutes, and the shows, for all the mad dashing about that goes on in them, have a sedate pace, entirely at odds with the average cartoon today. They’re not always entirely predictable either in their outcome: although you would expect each episode to end with TC back to square one, in at least one episode he ends up heading for the starry heights of Hollywood, leaving a defeated foe behind in the alley (quite what leads TC and co to return by the beginning of the next episode is never revealed). TC’s schemes, while sometimes selfish, are never mean-spirited, and his constant optimism and smooth-talking make it easy to see why he’s “the leader of the gang.” And, even if the actual stories aren’t as rounded as some people would have you believe, there’s enough to them (combined with regular references to cultural references of the day – “Marlon and Franky” and “Clarence Darrow”) to raise their game above most similar fare at the time.
This is helped by the detail in the show. The world the characters live in is surprisingly full, giving a better than expected reflection of the variety of character and place you would find in down-town Manhattan at the time. Hoagy’s Alley sees a lot of visitors throughout the series, and TC and co rub noses with all manner of people, from television crews to local mobsters to foreign princes to Italian restaurateurs. The six principal voice artists, together with guests (including Don “Scooby Doo” Messick) reflect the many varied accents you might expect to hear should you venture down that neighbourhood for real – it’s plain some of TC’s group were originally from Brooklyn and Queens as well as Manhattan itself. Similarly, anyone familiar with movies set in one of the city’s Italian suburbs, complete with washing lines slung out high over the streets (here a handy source of essential supplies for the gang) or fire escapes coming down from the buildings will be instantly at home with the setting – even the static backgrounds, so easy to overlook or even slightly condescend to for their simplicity, add detail to the world the characters live in (there’s a scene in one episode which actually zooms in from the entire cityscape to the alley itself which is especially noteworthy). Although the environment never feels quite like it’s the busy, crowded metropolis New York is (mainly down to the limitations imposed by the animation), and it would be misleading to say that the world of Hoagy’s Alley was a completely three-dimensional one (no pun intended), there are enough small details to allow the viewer to immerse themselves in it, should they wish to. Life goes on, and pleasingly each of the six characters seems to lead their own independently of TC – whenever he bangs together his bin lids to summon the gang, we always get to see whatever activity they are being pulled away from, whether it’s Fancy-Fancy entertaining another lady friend or the Brain trying to work out exactly where he is or Benny (one of the most cheerfully gentle characters you will ever encounter in a cartoon) just happily carrying on with his latest hobby. When people talk about the sophistication of the show, it’s much more appropriate to consider this a tribute to these background elements than the plots themselves.
However, background elements are nothing if they bolster something not worth the effort, but with Top Cat that’s not a problem. One quickly forgets that the central premise is pure Saturday-morning kid’s TV – let’s face it, this is a show about a talking cat, living in a world in which humans and felines live side by side – when presented with a character as charismatic as TC is. Although some credit naturally has to be given to the animators, the largest part of his success is undoubtedly down to the vocal talents of Arnold Stang. In the wrong hands TC’s habit of drawling on at great length, endlessly spouting what is quite often complete rubbish (he’s evidently a cat who likes the sound of his own voice, never saying with ten words what he can say with a hundred) would be irritating, especially when it is coupled with his sometimes smugness. Yet Stang (who looks so completely unlike what you would think the voice of Top Cat would look like that I had to double check it was really him) manages always to make him charming without being insufferable. At the end of the day TC is a bit of a ham, instilling even the simplest statement with great drama, but it works, the character never crossing the line into annoying, which he could very well have done. He might be constantly pulling the wool over Dibble’s eyes, but the satisfaction and enjoyment he evidently gets from doing so is tempered by affection, similar to the affection one has for a slightly stupid pet. Stang doesn’t exactly give his character much subtly, but keeps his voice warm enough that we’re always on his side.
And he’s surrounded by a likeable bunch of friends too. Although some are based on characters from The Phil Silvers Show (as well as TC himself, Benny is plainly based on Private Dwane Doberman, not least because they are both played by the same actor, Maurice Gosfield) there’s also more than a trace of characters from Damon Runyon (on whose stories Guys and Dolls was based) about them. Characters with names like Benny the Ball and The Brain with their Noo Yoik accents feel more than a touch Runyonesque in places, and that’s before you count the fact that proper gangsters are very much a part of TC’s life - in one episode Hoagy’s Alley itself even comes under attack in a bullet strewn fight. (This isn’t one of TC’s finest moments, as he dives into his bin and cries out “Dibble, save me!”). As ever in HB cartoons, each character has his own particular characteristic: Spook is the beatnik or hipster, forever waffling on in a kind of watered-down jive talk, Fancy-Fancy is the ladies man, Brain is the dimwit and so on. Each has an intentionally distinctive voice, with a slightly different accent, and all are enthusiastically voiced by the ensemble actors, none more so than Allen Jenkins as the constantly suffering Officer Dibble, who infuses the harassed policeman, always looking over his shoulder in case the Captain should come by, with an exasperation borne of wanting to lead a quiet life. As with all the best antagonists, he and TC have a love-hate relationship, although when it comes down to it there’s a lot more love than hate there. TC is a thorn in Dibble’s side, but, as he says in one episode when he thinks the cats aren’t coming back, “The alley won’t be the same.” There are numerous examples throughout the thirty episodes of TC helping Dibble out, even allowing him to arrest him at the end of one (“Well, you have to let him win sometimes!”)
Visually, Top Cat bears all the hallmarks of what you expect from classic Hanna-Barbera. Whenever a character has to run off somewhere they disappear in a coloured blur (even referenced in the script with TC’s often-heard command to his men to “Blur, boys, blur!”) while there are usually multiple incidents each episode of the famous looping-backgrounds that are have become synonymous with HB’s output. The thick lines which delineate all the characters and their environs were necessary at the time, given both the smallish size of a lot of American televisions which demanded extra clarity in the images and also by the fact the show was originally broadcast in black and white. The art is actually quite revealing of social trends at the time - not only do we see what cars and fashions were like, but we also see people (admittedly usually the bad guys) smoking, something you would never see nowadays in a family-friendly show. There are also no characters of any complexion other than Caucasian to be seen anywhere. In such things shows like this, as innocuous as they are, can be pretty revealing on a sociological level.
That said, Top Cat comes from a simpler, gentler era of cartoons, but holds up incredibly well today. Its array of charming characters, simple but entertaining plots and over-riding sense of fun ensures that it has stood the test of time. It’s not surprising it didn’t succeed in prime-time – there’s not nearly enough to satisfy an adult viewer not feeling indulgent or with some nostalgic link to the series – but it’s still one of the jewels in HB’s crown which, considering their significant contribution to popular culture, is certainly saying something. Even today people remember Top Cat with affection (not least that joyous theme tune – only in the last couple of months MSN listed it as one of the greatest ever), something I’m sure TC himself would have not been surprised about one bit. The world of Hoagy’s Alley may not exist any more in real life, but it’s a place that’s stood the test of time and is well worth another visit. Even if it will annoy Dibble.
All thirty episodes from the original series are presented on four disks. As with the other titles in the Hanna-Barbera Cartoon Classics range, the disks are housed in an attractive fold-out box which is sleeved in a semi-transparent holder with new artwork based on the series. As the box folds out details of each disk's contents are listed, including episode titles and the extras that go with them. There are also a few trivia questions which, while not diverting for more than a second or two, are a fun addition.
Each disk bar the last holds six episodes, the last being dual-sided and holding the remaining twelve. The menus are designed to look like Hoagy's alley, with the TC theme running in the background. Watch for a few moments and various characters pop up with lines of dialogue from the show. There is an option to Play All and all episodes are subtitled, although regrettably none of the extras are.
For a series that's over forty years old the prints have certainly weathered well and could easily have come from a cartoon produced much more recently. The colour is sometimes not quite as vivid as you may expect (although this may be simply down to how the cartoon was originally made) and there are the odd slight artefacts that look like they are built-in to the original cels - one episode in particular has a stripe down one section - but bad flaws are rare and overall there's nothing serious to complain about, with virtually no problems in the digital transfer, aside from the very occasional occurrence of aliasing.
Although the dialogue doesn't have the crystal clarity we expect from cartoon releases nowadays, the audio tracks are perfectly acceptable. As ever, there is a very slight muffling that comes from the recording techniques used back then, but it's so minor as to be negligible - after five minutes you'll completely forget it's there.
There are commentaries on three "key" episodes. All have the same team, made up of three animation historians (Jerry Beck, Earl Kress and Mark Evanier) and the voice of Spook and the Brain Leo de Lyon. Although there is a certain element of meandering at times, with the speakers not entirely sure of their facts, for the most part these are highly entertaining to listen to, providing a great mix of trivia and anecdotes about the show.
Intriguing comparison between the initial storyboards and final episode of nearly a complete episode, The Missing Heir. Boasting the original name for the series, "JB and Co", it may take only the truly dedicated to watch the complete episode this way, but it's certainly revealing how the episodes were planned out.
Back to Hoagy's Alley: The Making of Top Cat
Presented by Leo de Lyon, this fun featurette focuses mainly on the characters themselves. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera appear briefly at the beginning in archive footage with an anecdote about how the show was commissioned, but beyond that, and a quick look at photos of the voice artistes, this is all about what happens on screen and makes a nice, if rather lightweight, extra.
Cool Cats in Interview
Two charming interviews. Although the presenter, cartoon historian Earl Kress, has a habit of cracking bad jokes at the beginning and then chuckling appreciatively, the sessions themselves are well worth a watch. The first is with Top Cat himself, Arnold Stang. He gives a gentle interview about his fellow cast members, for whom he doesn’t have a bad word to say and, while it’s not very revealing, it’s a pleasant enough watch. The same could be said for the second, but benefits from having three participants, namely Leo de Lyon, Marvin Kaplan (the voice of Choo-Choo) and writer Barry Blitzer. As a reminiscent chat between three old colleagues it’s great, although there isn’t that much insight into the processes that went into making the show.
Top Cat Sing-a-Long
This consists of the opening sequence, with the music but sans vocals, accompanied by the lyrics to the theme running along the bottom of the screen together with the musical notes. Aside from the problem that the lyrics aren't actually right at one point (in the last line, it has the word "boss" instead of "chief"), which would seem a fairly important part of such an extra, this is fun if you really really want to make your own version of the theme. Picture quality's not quite as good as on the regular episodes for some reason though.
Top Cat Collection
An impressively large collection of art from the series. Amongst other things we see here are original concept art, artist's guides for how to draw each of the main characters in typical poses, especially commissioned artwork for posters and publicity material, and a whole plethora of pencil drawings from the making of the show. Some of these latter are so faded as to be virtually undecipherable, but someone has evidently gone to a lot of trouble here to collect so much material, which is appreciated.
Top Cat Kellogg's Commercials
"Kellogg's cornflakes... shouldn't be wasted on women when TC's around." Two black-and-white adverts centred around Top Cat's attempts to finagle some cornflakes from first Dibble and then Fancy (not one of his more impressive schemes, admittedly). The ads have deteriorated quite a bit but are nice to have. These are then followed by the Kellogg's sponsor announcements that presumably ran before the end credits on the show's original broadcast.
The Hanna-Barbera Classics Collection gets another fine addition to add to its growing list. As ever, the presentation of the episodes, both in the packaging and on the disks themselves, is immaculate, and there's a real effort gone into the extras commissioned. The only slight criticism is that the main documentary of the series isn't as wide-ranging as it could be - we don't get to see anything of the 1987 film Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats beyond a single still or TC's appearances in other shows, and there's not a lot about the making of the show either. Fortunately, the contribution of several of the original voices in both the commentaries and other interviews makes up for this, resulting in a satisfying package for a much-loved series.