Hairball and Hairbrain

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I love cats, so it's always bothered me to see them get sh*tted on in various movies and TV series throughout the years. Some examples: Ripley dropping and banging Jonesy around in his cat carrier as she runs from the monster in Alien; the Tanner's family cat constantly trying to avoid being eaten by the title character on Alf; the cat who electrocutes himself in National Lampoon's Christmas, etc. I could on and on, but the truth is, the entertainment industry hasn't treated felines very well on-screen. If they're not being the butt of jokes or tortured by brats and dogs, they're also pretty much being neglected in ways that would be considered animal abuse today.

And perhaps the worst example of this, and one that really got me riled up this weekend, is an old Art Carney movie called Harry and Tonto that PBS aired. This 1974 film is about a widower named Harry who lugs his poor cat Tonto (a Morris lookalike) across the country as he visits relatives and old girlfriends as well as new people, after his Upper West Side apartment building is demolished and he has no other place to go. It's a good thing this movie was released in the 70s, because if it came out today PETA and the ASPCA would be all over its behind. Here are some of the ridiculous myths about cat care that this movie propagates:

MYTH#1: Cats love to travel

FACT: OK, so some cats - like Cleveland Amory's Snowball in the 1987 non-fiction hit "The Cat Who Came for Christmas" - don't mind being lugged around in trains, planes, and automobiles and staying in strange motel rooms and apartments. However, that's the exception and definitely not the rule - most are smart enough to know that pulling out the cat carrier means they're going to be taken someplace they don't want to go. You also cannot bring a cat in a movie theater, a book store, a casino, or just about any other public place like Harry does in the movie.

Not to mention that not once in the film did I see Tonto using a litter box, a required accessory of any trip involving a cat. They cannot tolerate a long drive for hours at a time.

MYTH #2: Cats can survive on nothing but milk and water.
All throughout the film, Harry feeds Tonto nothing but milk and water. "Drink your milk, Tonto" he drunkingly slurs at one point outside of a Las Vegas casino. "It's got proteins and vitamins and minerals for you."

FACT: The classic scene of giving a cat milk in a movie or TV show just drives me insane. Cats are carnivores. They need MEAT and cat food (and not just the dry stuff either; that can damage their intestinal track if they receive nothing but dry food.) Certainly in the 18th century cats had to forage for their own food and were the household's official mousetrap but by the 70s we knew better - and we had the 9Lives commercials to prove it!

MYTH#3: You can walk a cat on a leash.

FACT: The cat will walk you. "Walking" a cat does not so much mean leading one, but following him or her around as they investigate their surroundings.

I don't recommend this movie for any cat lover - at the end of the film, Tonto dies. Alone in what looks like an awful mini prison for cats while Harry sings an Irish drinking song to him. We don't even see Harry bringing Tonto to a vet to find out what's wrong - and it takes one of Harry's chess mates to point out to him that "Tonto doesn't look so good." Well of course he doesn't - he hasn't been feeding him! Some concerned pet owner.

What's weird is that the critics loved this movie. This poster is full of glowing comments including a headliner from Today Show movie reviewer Gene Shalit. One critic even goes so far as to say that Harry and Tonto is "One of the best movies of the seventies so far"! In fact, Carney won an Oscar for his performance in the film, which I'm guessing was the Academy's way of recognizing him late in his career.

And poor Tonto? Well, I hope he fired his agent or at least clawed him after this dog of a movie.


  1. Blimey, have you actually been able to put a cat on a leash?

    I remember trying to do that with my cat growing up. He wasn't having any of that. Claws and blood (my blood) everywhere!

    My sister worked out a way of getting the leash over his head, but 20 seconds later he would wriggle his way out of it.

    It was obviously a futile thing to try: like you say, a cat's just too headstrong to let you walk him or her anywhere!

    Consider this movie crossed off my Netflix list! :)

  2. Richard, your description of that event made me LOL. Cats + leashes is usually not a good idea.

  3. Three year old post but anyway:
    I can only assume you haven't seen the film, are highly unobservant, or are trolling. Let me respond.
    1) Cat travel, Harry clearly comments that cats, especially at Tonto's age dislike change in environment. However when the wrecking ball is swinging into the side of your building sitting there is no longer an option. Harry had to move, and wanted his beloved Tonto with him. Yes if the casino pit bosses saw Tonto they might have made a stink, but Harry is so charming he might have talked them into looking the other way.

    2) Cat Food. At the beginning of the film - the opening scene in fact- Harry is buying all sorts of treats for Tonto at the Deli. The Deli owner comments that Tonto eats better than he does! Harry replies food is important to a cat because they don't have much else in their lives. Harry then feeds Tonto liver back home. Later Harry convinces a bus passenger that his cat is hungry and the passenger gives Tonto part of a hero sandwich. In the motel we see Tonto abscond with a piece of chicken.

    3) Cats on a leashe. Rare I grant you but throughout the film we see Tonto is a very easy-going feline; willing to handled and petted by strangers. We see him sleeping in the windowsill of the car as it travels etc. Perhaps Harry has trained him. Keep in mind that in the film we see a trained cat do these things so it's obviously not impossible. I take my own cat on a leash/harness as I don't want him to get away when we walk in the bush. I live on an acreage with a coyote problem. When our cats go out we supervise them.

    Your final complaint lacks even basic coherence. Tonto dies alone? Irish drinking songs? No vet? As I recall clearly, upon being alerted to Tonto not looking well, Harry immediately drops everything and abandons his chess set and takes Tonto away. We next see the pair at what is obviously a vet facility unless you know of some sort of "LA Facility for Cat Disposal Pens" dreamed up in your fevered imagination. Harry stays with his friend until the end, singing to Tonto as he has throughout the film. A saddened Harry leaves after Tonto is gone. The folk song about lovers/love and their walks together have nothing to do with drinking, also Sir Harry Lauder the songs composer was Scottish not Irish. In the next scene we see Harry now walks alone.

    The films anachronistic error about cat years/human years is not correct though they do try to explain that Tonto was old, lived a full life and expired naturally.

    Harry and Tonto is a beautiful poignant film and the best I have seen involving a human/pet storyline.


  4. Anonymous/BW -- I think the humor in my post is completely lost on you. What about my post makes you think I didn't watch the film? This is a personal blog which means it's about my opinion, and my opinion on this film is that it stunk. Stop taking it like a personal insult. The ending was so bad and sad and yes, Harry didn't do enough in time to save his friend. That vet's office looked like a concentration camp for animals. If you disagree with that than I would hate to be your cat.


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