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Judy Garland was in the midst of a remarkable career comeback when she supplied her speaking and singing voice for Gay Purr-ee (1962), an animated musical. She had just appeared in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), her first movie in seven years, and she had a CBS television special and two more feature films lined up to follow: A Child Is Waiting (1963) and I Could Go on Singing (1963), which would become her final picture. For the three weeks in November 1961 that she spent recording her voice for Gay Purr-ee, Garland was paid $50,000 plus 10% of the gross, an unusually generous provision for the time.
Garland was but one of several high-powered artists involved with Gay Purr-ee, a film that despite having many strong individual components was seen by most critics as a disappointment. Indeed, The Hollywood Reporter declared it to be "one of those inexplicable projects involving people of the highest talent that just doesn't come off."
Aside from Garland, those people included fellow actors and voice artists Robert Goulet (in his big-screen debut), Red Buttons, Hermione Gingold and Mel Blanc; songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, who had created songs for Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939) (and, in Arlen's case, A Star Is Born ); and the famous Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, who wrote this film with his wife Dorothy.
The criticism generally centered around Gay Purr-ee's attempt to appeal to both adults and children, the result being that it truly satisfied neither. The story -- of a little country cat in 1890 who longs for the color and excitement of the city, and therefore heads to Paris -- was seen as too uninspired and cloying for adults, while the brilliantly stylized animation -- which worked in simulations of art by Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat and Picasso -- was deemed too sophisticated for kids to appreciate.
The technical achievements of the film, however, drew universally high praise, with Variety deeming the artwork to "rank with the finest ever manufactured in the specialized realm of the animated cartoon." The New York Times echoed the sentiment, praising "a fetching color canvas that blends some truly lovely pastels with classical works by art masters," and "a superbly imaginative panorama of Paris." Overall, the paper called the film "a pretty, pleasant seasonal package for family audiences." Arlen's and Harburg's eight songs also drew praise, especially the superb blues number "Paris Is a Lonely Town," which, as sung by Garland, became the score's biggest hit.
Gay Purr-ee was produced by UPA (United Productions of America), an animation studio most famous for creating Mr. Magoo. Originally the film was to be distributed by United Artists, but after a falling-out over financial matters, UPA president Henry Saperstein moved the distribution deal to Warner Brothers.
This was an ironic switch, because Warners was angry with Chuck Jones, one of their best and longest-serving animators, for having "moonlighted" with a rival studio when he co-wrote Gay Purr-ee for UPA in the first place. This caused a management dispute, and Jones left Warners soon thereafter. A year later, in 1963, the Warner animation unit closed altogether.
Gay Purr-ee director Abe Levitow had been an animator in Chuck Jones' unit at Warner Brothers. The two later teamed up again to co-write and co-direct The Phantom Tollbooth (1970).
By Jeremy Arnold