Gay Purr-ee is an animated film musical produced by United Productions of America and released by Warner Bros. in 1962. It features the voice of Judy Garland in her only animated-film role, as well as Robert Goulet in his first feature film. The film received positive reviews, but was a box office disappointment.
The story is set in 1895 France and takes place predominantly in Paris. However, it begins on a farm in rural Provence. The lovely housecat Mewsette and the accomplished but shy mouser Jaune Tom are in love ("Mewsette"), until the former is frustrated with his plebeian ways (and those of the farm), to the point of calling him a "clumsy country clod". Inspired by the human Jeanette's stories of glamour and sophistication in Paris ("Take My Hand, Paree"), Mewsette runs away by taking a train to the big city ("Roses Red, Violets Blue"), where she encounters the slick con-cat Meowrice (Paul Frees). Taking advantage of the country kitty's naivete, he puts her in the care of the sultry Madame Henretta Reubens-Chatte, who promises to turn Mewsette into a dainty debutante known as "The Belle of all Paris". Unbeknownst to Mewsette, Meowrice is grooming her to be the mail-order bride of a rich American cat in Pittsburgh known as "Mr. Henry Phtt" ("The Money Cat"). Meanwhile, Jaune Tom and his sidekick Robespierre arrive in Paris, searching for Mewsette.
Training does not go well. Just as Mewsette is about to give up and return to the farm, Meowrice takes her out to see the cat side of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées and the Mewlon Rouge and then take a buggy ride back home ("The Horse Won't Talk"). Reinvigorated, she returns to her studies. Jaune Tom and Robespierre arrive just at that moment but get waylaid by one of Meowrice's shadowy cat henchmen and barely escape drowning in Paris's famous labyrinthine sewers. By coincidence, Jaune Tom displays his incredible mouse-hunting skills in front of Meowrice (known as "Virtue-Mousety"), who sees a money-making opportunity, gets them drunk ("Bubbles"), and sells them as mousers to a ship bound for Alaska. On the ship, Robespierre consoles a depressed Jaune Tom, telling him that any problem, regardless of size, can be broken up into manageable pieces, by remarking that even the mighty ocean is made up of little drops of water. Jaune Tom has a vision of Mewsette singing about how no problem is unconquerable, and the importance of never giving up ("Little Drops of Rain").
Mewsette finishes her training and is now lovely enough to impress even Meowrice, who commissions a series of paintings of her by such famous artists as Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso (an opportunity for the animators to indulge in some artistic parodies), so that he can send them to Mr. Phtt. Meowrice quietly writes a check to pay his "sister", Madame Reubens-Chatte (using disappearing ink, so that the check is worthless), and takes Mewsette to his hideout in Notre Dame. There, he reveals his plan to ship her to America and tries to coerce her to enter a luggage crate, but after seeing a portrait of Mr. Phtt depicting him as fat and old, she manages to escape Meowrice and his sidekicks. In the resulting chase scene, she leads them to a bulldog, who injures Meowrice badly enough to put him out of action for six weeks. Meanwhile, his sycophants (who are nowhere near as intelligent as he is) comb the city without success, searching for Mewsette.
Meanwhile, not long after they reach Alaska (a howling wilderness of snow), Jaune Tom and Robespierre strike gold thanks to the former's mouse-hunting skills. Now wealthy, the two cats hurry back to Paris.
A disillusioned and homeless Mewsette wanders around the streets of Paris, eventually ending up sitting atop a bridge over the river, considering ending her misery ("Paris is a Lonely Town"), but gets captured by Meowrice and his sidekicks. She is taken to the Gare du Nord railway station, en route to a boat to America, and all hope seems lost, when Jaune Tom and Robespierre arrive. They have been aided by Madame Ruebens-Chatte, who is irritated that her own "brother" double-crossed her and tears up the worthless check. In a humorously over-the-top fight scene inside the boxcar of a moving train, the three heroes defeat Meowrice and pack him into the crate intended for Mewsette, doubtless that this will be a nasty surprise for Mr. Phtt. The film concludes with Mewsette, Jaune Tom and Robespierre enjoying the high life in Paris that Mewsette was seeking when she left home ("Mewsette Finale").
Gay Purr-ee was the second and final feature film, following 1001 Arabian Nights with Mr. Magoo, produced by UPA (United Productions of America), a studio which had revolutionized animation during the 1950s by incorporating design and limited animation.
The script for Gay Purr-ee was written by Dorothy Webster Jones and her husband, Warner Bros. Cartoons veteran director Chuck Jones. The latter Jones also ultimately produced the project, moonlighting for UPA in violation of his exclusive contract with Warner Bros. One of the former animators from his Warner Bros. unit, Abe Levitow, directed the film. According to the production notes on the DVD edition, it was Garland who suggested that her Wizard of Oz songwriters, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, should write and compose the songs for Gay Purr-ee.
When Warner Bros. picked up the film for distribution, they discovered that Chuck Jones had worked on the film. After a long debate with management over the details of Jones' exclusivity agreement, Warner fired Jones in July 1962 and laid his staff off after they had finished their next cartoon. Jones later hired his old unit after Warner Bros. Cartoons was closed at his first independent studio, Sib Tower 12 Productions.
The film was theatrically released in October, 1962 to positive reviews from film critics, but became a box office flop.
Chuck Jones had been under an exclusive contract with Warner Bros., and worked on this film in violation of his contract. After Warner Bros. picked up the film from UPA for distribution, they discovered his work on the film and fired him, resulting in his departure for MGM.
When Judy Garland was approached about doing this film, it was she who reportedly suggested that her two good friends (and The Wizard of Oz (1939) collaborators) Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg provide the music and lyrics, respectively. It was to be both men's last full-length score for any medium.
Golden Books' children's division published a "Little Golden Books" version of "Gay Purr-ee" to coincide with the original theatrical release of the film.
When the nefarious Meowrice hatches a plot to shanghai Jaune Tom and Robespierre and sell them as ship's cats, he escorts them to the celebrated feline cabaret, the "Mewlon Rouge", under guise of friendship. During this scene, the famous French artist Toulouse-Lautrec - who painted many advertising posters for the real Moulon Rouge - is portrayed as a bearded, green-colored cat sitting at a nearby table, tossing back a drink and sketching his surroundings.