Given the Internet-paced, information-overload mentality of today's news media, it's difficult to remember that early daily papers were an outlet for thoughtful artistic expression as much as information, and "a columnist was expected to be something of a scholar and a poet." At least, according to journalist/author E.B. White, who (more than 50 years ago) introduced a collection of Don Marquis' newspaper columns by complaining at length about how the state of the art had degraded since Marquis' heyday, and how beautifully Marquis typified his time. Still, even for his era, Marquis was an odd duck. In 1916, his New York Evening Sun column began to play host to the unpunctuated, uncapitalized free verse of "Archy," a dead writer reincarnated as a cockroach, living a rough bohemian life among New York's alley cats, rats, and insects. The Archy columns—part poetry, part serialized fiction, part philosophical meanderings—were an immensely popular fixture of New York's literary scene for more than a decade.
The 1971 animated feature Shinbone Alley loosely adapts a handful of those columns, maintaining their melancholy bonhomie. But it isn't nearly as mannered as Marquis' style—it's an anarchic, manic, visually sloppy feature, strongly recalling Ralph Bakshi's contemporaneous work. Eddie Bracken reprises his earlier TV role as Archy, a sad-sack bug who chatters nonstop through emotional situations, particularly his affection for and disapproval of frowsy, aging, unrepentantly trashy alley cat Mehitabel (a perfectly cast Carol Channing). Originally a 1957 Broadway show (scripted in part by an up-and-coming Mel Brooks), Shinbone Alley naturally features a number of mostly unmemorable songs, crooned in Bracken's toneless voice and yowled in Channing's characteristic screech. Between Archy's nervy babble and the periodic songs, the film leaves little time for reflection, and the soundtrack is as busy as the stylized, scratchy visuals.
But Shinbone Alley has its ramshackle charms, particularly when Archy takes time to talk homespun philosophy, and the visuals get aggressively psychedelic. Or during the wild insects-vs.-humanity war sequence, designed by Krazy Kat creator George Herriman. Like Marquis' column anthologies, Shinbone Alley feels like a collection of short works—some compelling, some just space-fillers. But also like Marquis, the film is one of a kind, and worth delving into for the novelty. They really don't make 'em like this any more.
Key features: A dullish featurette on animation, featuring Alley director John D. Wilson.