A Year in Shorts Day 145: "Life with Feathers"
Content Warning- Today's post contains discussions of suicide
When it comes to the iconic characters Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, I’ve made my feelings fairly clear. Bugs Bunny is hilarious. Pepe Le Pew is not. Speedy Gonzales is a badass. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner are the poor man’s Tom and Jerry, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And Tweety Bird, of course, is my mortal enemy. But somehow, despite being the absolute worst Looney Tune, the Academy loved them some Sylvester and Tweety shorts. Which is unfair on two levels; it was unfair to the much better shorts that they ignored, and it was unfair to associate Sylvester with Tweety Bird. As we’ve seen with Speedy Gonzales, Sylvester can be a great character under the right circumstances. And as his debut short, Life with Feathers, shows, sometimes the right circumstances are incredibly dark.
Life with Feathers is another short from animation legend Friz Freleng, this time released in 1945. The premise is simple, hilarious and genuinely kind of fucked up, which is pretty much the perfect formula for a cartoon. A lovebird (who, thankfully, is slightly less annoying than Tweety) is kicked out of his cage by his wife. Not wanting to live without her, the bird decides it's time to end it all, and figures the best way to do it is to enlist Sylvester to eat him. Sylvester, who is either too clever or nowhere near clever enough for his own good, thinks it must be a trick of some sort and refuses to eat the bird. As you've no doubt learned to expect from these types of shorts, hijinks ensue.
This is, of course, a profoundly morbid setup for a cartoon, and it serves a nice reminder that the old Warner Bros. cartoons were just as much for adults as they were for children. Nowadays you have to watch something like Rick and Morty or South Park to get your cartoons this dark. Your mileage will definitely vary on whether or not a short like this is "appropriate" (it's certainly insensitive), but I personally find it pretty damn funny. Life with Feathers is dark, but not mean-spirited, and there are plenty of classic cartoon antics to keep it light. The best thing about old cartoons has always been the nonsensical physics and anti-logic that they run on, and this short has plenty.
At the same time, it's not a perfect film. It runs out of steam pretty quickly, and there are a lot of slow spots throughout. A short with a premise this good should be absolutely hilarious, but it never quite gets there. And the resolution is pretty weak, playing off hackneyed stereotypes about henpecked husbands (pun intended). I do like Life with Feathers quite a bit, but I don't love it, which is always a shame.
Still, watching Life with Feathers leaves little question as to why Sylvester quickly became an icon. It's not as good a debut as Bugs had, but it shows his potential. That wasn't enough to win the Oscar (Life with Feathers lost to the Tom and Jerry juggernaut with Quiet Please!), but at the very least a star was born.
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"Life with Feathers" is not available to watch on HBO Max, which... I mean, fair enough.
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