For those of you who don’t know me, I love to watch movies, making my DVD collection huge. In fact, I’m gonna need to get some more shelves for them. They’ve begun to just get piled in front of others. I love classic movies. Bogart, Powell, Mitchum and Holden are some of my favorites, but I don’t watch just the classics. In fact, as a child I loved kids movies, which isn’t saying much. A personal favorite of mine was, and still is, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I recently dug out my copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit to rekindle childhood fun. Now, after all these years, I have had the time to see all sorts of film classics to expand my “expertise.” After watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I noticed some shocking similarities to another one of my favorite movies, Chinatown. Granted, Chinatown is not in the same category as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but elements and ideas were taken from it to add comedic moments to one of my childhood favorites.
Similar character archetypes are used in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that allow the two movies to be easily compared to one another. For example, much like Faye Dunaway’s character, Evelyn Mulwray, in Chinatown, Jessica Rabbit holds key information to crack the case that Private Investigator Eddie Valiant is set on solving. It isn’t until almost the end of the film that the truth about the blackmail scheme comes out in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Evelyn Mulwray comes to Jake Gettes to solve her husband’s murder, but continues to keep a lot of information away from him until the end. Evelyn Mulwray and Jessica Rabbit both have the sexy, throaty voice that is the norm for noir hardboiled films, such as The Big Sleep or Maltese Falcon. I still have a thing for Lauren Bacall in the Big Sleep.
The other archetype is the private investigator. Though not a classical archetype, the P.I’s of film have a lot of the same characteristics. Hard drinking and hardboiled, the private investigator must rely only on his own skills to solve a crime, shunning the law to get the truth. Eddie Valiant is hired to take pictures of Jessica Rabbit and Toontown owner, Marvin Acme, playing “patty-cake.” After the pictures turn up as a framed motive for Roger to murder Acme, Valiant must use his own skills to uncover the deeply hidden plot. Valiant constantly has a drink in his hand and never shares his findings with the law, which is obviously corrupt. The Jake Gettes character, Jack Nicholson, has a surprisingly similar task in Chinatown. Hired to take pictures to be used in a blackmail scheme, Gettes quickly realizes that he’s played the part of a patsy. Gettes has to skirt the cops because Mr. Cross “owns the police,” according to Evelyn Mulwray. Comparing the two films, it seems Who Framed Roger Rabbit uses this P.I. archetype to parody the Gettes character from Chinatown, giving Valiant the part of the straight man opposite Roger Rabbit.
Even the Weasels in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit mirror characters in Chinatown, such as Claude and a few other hired muscle for Mr. Cross. Even the “Midget,” as Jake Gettes calls him, carries a similar switchblade as one of the Weasels.
The parallels between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Chinatown surprises me in many ways. The basic plot of both, the private eye getting hired by someone to take pictures of infidelity, and the pictures, unbeknownst to the P.I., being used to blackmail a prominent member of society shows an almost formulaic resemblance. The murders of Hollis Mulwray (Chinatown) and Marvin Acme (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), both political figures in each of their respective worlds, send the characters into an uproar. Mulwray heads the Water Department of Los Angeles, giving him power over the water supply. Acme owns Toontown, giving him control over a major section of the entertainment business. The women in both stories, Jessica Rabbit and Evelyn Mulwray, are suspected of murder by the private eye at one point in each story. Another interesting similarity is the idea of Chinatown and Toontown. Jake Gettes used to work in Chinatown years ago, but now he doesn’t go there anymore because “bad things happen” there. This parallels Eddie Valiant’s views on Toontown. After his brother was killed there, Valiant refuses to return. Both Chinatown and Toontown are mentioned in the film but are not shown until the climaxes. Even the most minute details such as Jessica Rabbit and Mrs. Mulwray’s cars have to be considered. Not only are they similar, but they are the same make, model, and color. Chinatown opens with explicit pictures and the sounds of sobbing from a disbelieving husband. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this scene is reconstructed when Roger is viewing the pictures of Acme and his wife. The audience sees each photo one at a time as the husbands in both movies shuffles them. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the pictures become animated frame by frame as they rotate. Just like Curly in Chinatown, Roger moves over to the window blinds and grips them for support.
I find it strange to look at a childhood movie with such a critical eye. When I was a child watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time, I just enjoyed the cartoons with funny voices. Now, I see that the writers of the movie were working on a much more complex level. The movie targets a multigenerational audience, using the cartoons to appeal to the children while its form and structure can be dissected to mirror a classic film like Chinatown.