Since last week I showcased the first Betty Boop cartoon, I thought to change things up a little bit by this week showing the first Betty Boop cartoon. This reminds us of the need to have a clear conceptual theory of what constitutes a Betty Boop cartoon. The character began as an unnamed dog-human critter, but reappeared in Fleischer Studios Talkartoons, with her design gradually becoming more human, the character gaining some personality. In this cartoon, Silly Scandals, she gains a name — at least, she gets to be called Betty — and she’s almost completely made the transition to extremely slender, wide-headed human. She’s still got dog ears; those wouldn’t last much longer.
Still, she isn’t the star of this cartoon, released the 23rd of May, 1931. Bimbo is. He’s still the vaguely genial presence that every early-30s cartoon had, here, sneaking his way into a vaudeville show. What saves the cartoon from being too generic is that the famed Fleischer Studios strangeness is hard at work here. Any cartoon character — well, any silent cartoon character; the habit strangely faded away once sound came in and grey-washed art came into vogue — might morph into an umbrella to sneak around somewhere; it’s a rarer mind that has the sun hide behind a cloud and pull a drawstring to start the shower. And the final sequence, with a hypnotized Bimbo subject to a string of body-shaping manipulations, finds that boundary between “technically impressive” and “unwitting nightmare fuel” and charges right over like it’s trying to start a war. And then it gets dazzling. It’s an amazing production all around.