Saturday, April 28, 2007

What a Character! - Bent-Tail & Bent-Tail, Junior

Over the years, cartoons have presented us with multiple incarnations of mice, dogs, cats, birds and rabbits. But coyotes, those much disparaged residents of the western U.S., seem to be represented by only one larger than life animated figure: Wile E. Coyote.

But four years prior to Wile’s debut in Chuck Jones’ classic 1949 short Fast and Furryous, Disney debuted a coyote character of their own. A clever, cunning and occasionally menacing adversary to Pluto, Bent-Tail first appeared in the 1945 cartoon The Legend of Coyote Rock. He subsequently costarred in three more Pluto shorts throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, and then was the central figure of The Coyote’s Lament, a 1961 episode of the Wonderful World of Color.

Similar in motivation (his stomach) to his Warner Brothers counterpart but distinctly different in personality, Bent-Tail seems to be more noticeably overlooked than many of the other Disney supporting players of the same time period. Mention his name to many self-described Disney animation enthusiasts and you are likely to be met with puzzled expressions.

It is the pursuit of food that forms the basis of Bent-Tail’s interactions with Pluto, and that theme extends throughout all of the character’s appearances. Mutton is his goal in Coyote Rock, and he proves to be quite the villain in his pursuit of a lamb chop dinner. His is not the character of sophisticated buffoonery that Wile E. embodies; Bent-Tail is a sly and quick predator who can easily best Pluto with his wits and his stealth. His plans typically fall victim more to comical circumstances than to any heroic efforts on Pluto’s part.

He may have been a bit too vicious and threatening in that first outing, for when he returned four years later in Sheep Dog, his presence had been softened considerably by the addition of his cute and comical son, Bent-Tail, Junior. In the film, the younger Bent-Tail proves more a hindrance to the elder’s plans than any interference Pluto causes, and the interplay between father and son is very much the focus of the short’s comedy. In fact, in Sheep Dog and the subsequent two “coyote” cartoons that followed it in 1950, Pests of the West and Camp Dog, Bent-Tail and Junior are essentially the stars with Pluto stepping back into more secondary status. Their Laurel and Hardy-esque antics take center stage in all three endeavors. Particularly funny in Camp Dog are Junior’s persistent attempts to make a meal of Pluto while his father tries desperately to pilfer the campers’ stash of groceries.

As was Disney’s habit with television to recycle earlier animation, the Bent-Tail cartoons were edited together in 1961 to form an episode of the Disney anthology program entitled The Coyote’s Lament. Charles Nichols, who had directed all of the Bent-Tail shorts, produced additional animation that evolved the characters of Bent-Tail and Junior into Grandpappy Coyote and Pappy Coyote respectively. Over the course of the episode, the two relate the plight of their species through the telling of their old adventures to Pappy’s son Junior Coyote. The formerly silent characters now had voices, and a nearby chorus of fellow coyotes provided musical transitions that were performed by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Distinct and entertaining in their few appearances, the Bent-Tail characters have since wandered into the desert of Disney obscurity. But thanks to the Disney Treasures DVDs, their lonely howls can still occasionally be heard.


Ed South said...

Your writtings on the animated shorts of the Disney cannon are always fantastic. Thanks for bringing Bent-Tail & Co. into the spotlight. As you mentioned in your post, I consider myself an avid fan of the shorts but the name "Bent-Tail" would have left a question mark on my face, even though I did just watch "Camp Dog" the other day.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks Ed! I really appreciate your very positive feedback.

There's just not enough out there about the shorts--that's why I really enjoy doing these types of posts.

Yuchi said...

I love Bent-Tail.
He's my favorite character, I only wish people were more open to him! :)