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A Tale of Old Whiff (1960)
"Old Whiff" (original title)

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8 January 1960 (USA)  »

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Bert Lahr's fragrant cartoon
17 July 2002 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

"Scent of Mystery" is notorious as the film that (literally) had a smell. Filmed in Smell-O-Vision, it bombarded the audience with aromas. Concealed dispensers sprayed the cinema with concentrated essence, on cue, then sprayed a neutraliser to remove the scent before the next spray was dispensed. As with 3-D movies, Smell-O-Vision had a tendency to rub the audiences' noses (literally) in the gimmickry. Actors in "Scent of Mystery" keep commenting on the various odours they detect, and there are lots of close-ups of freshly-baked bread or garlic cloves or some other pungent substance being shoved towards the camera for our olfactory inspection. But very few cinema managers were willing to spend money to instal the unwieldy Smell-O-Vision system, so most audiences saw "Scent of Mystery" without its odours. Smell-O-Vision was the brainchild of producer Mike Todd, bankroller of the Todd-A-O sound recording process; after his death in a plane crash, "Scent of Mystery" was brought to completion by his son Mike Jnr.

Less well-remembered than "Scent of Mystery" is the short subject that was released with it: "Old Whiff", also punningly known as "A Tale of Old Whiff". (Old Whiff is a dog, and this is his TALE ... geddit?) Conceived by Mike Todd Snr as an experimental prototype for the Smell-O-Vision process, "Old Whiff" is the only cartoon in the history of animation that LITERALLY stank up the movie houses. "Old Whiff" is also historically significant as the first cartoon filmed in 70mm.

Bert Lahr does hilarious work as the voice of Old Whiff, a cartoon bloodhound searching for a museum's lost dinosaur bone worth $100,000 ... but whose search is hampered by the fact that he has lost his sense of smell. While the bloodhound meanders through this cartoon, muttering to himself in Bert Lahr's distinctive voice, we see various items which Old Whiff encounters ... including a hot dog, mustard, soap, soup, chocolate, violets, pine trees, a field of clover and a horse. We also SMELL those objects; at least we smell them if the Smell-O-Vision process is working properly. But poor Old Whiff can't smell anything.

"Old Whiff" was produced by Nathan Zucker, directed by Alan Zaslove, written by Leo Salkin and animated by innovative animator John Hubley, who also created Mr Magoo ... and this cartoon has UPA-style graphics very similar to Hubley's best-known films. Bert Lahr is perfectly suited to play a mournful bloodhound. My only complaint is that Old Whiff sounds rather too much like the Cowardly Lion. Lahr apparently decided to recycle the vocal crotchets of his most famous characterisation, instead of inventing an entirely new character. Also, this cartoon's villain (designed by Hubley) looks almost exactly like Boris Badenov from the Bullwinkle cartoons ... although actually 'Old Whiff' had its cinema premiere before the Bullwinkle cartoons were transmitted.

I saw "A Tale of Old Whiff" WITHOUT the Smell-O-Vision apparatus ... an absence which diminishes the effect of this film, as we're meant to be able to smell all the items that Old Whiff doesn't notice. Still this is an excellent and innovative cartoon ... not especially funny, but charming and imaginative. I wish that it were widely available, even without the Smell-O-Vision.

If John Waters does a modern remake of "The Tale of Old Whiff" (filmed in Odorama), you can guess what sort of aromas the dog would be sticking his nose into. Fortunately, this cartoon confines itself to smells that a human audience would enjoy.

I'll rate "Old Whiff" 8 out of 10; it's a clever cartoon that deserves to be better known, with or without Smell-O-Vision.


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