Remakes have always been with us. Famously, the only version of The Wizard of Oz anyone cares about is at least the fifth filmed version of L Frank Baum’s classic, and nowhere near the last. The only version of The Maltese Falcon anyone watches is the third made between 1929 and 1939. Partly that’s because a good idea is worth doing again, certainly at least until it’s done well. Partly that’s because movies are kind of disposable. Oh, a movie will last as long as the film, or the file, lasts, and you can experience it as long as it lasts. But as a commercial prospect, a movie comes into being, is watched a while, and then is forgotten. A remake gives it a new season in the popular culture. Cartoons get remade a lot, probably because the same reasons that make it sensible to remake a movie apply even more to cartoon shorts.
I wanted to write about the Betty Boop short Ha! Ha! Ha, released the 2nd of March, 1934, because it’s listed as the last theatrical appearance of Koko the Clown. Koko was, at least in a few shorts, Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, although he was more often just a friend of hers. And he was the star of the Fleischer’s cartoons from the 1920s, including many of their oddest features. He was also star of a 1960s string of Out Of The Inkwell cartoons.
Ha! Ha! Ha! gets described as a remake of the 1924 Koko the Clown short The Cure. I think that’s overstating things. There are some pieces the shorts have in common. The framing is that of the Out Of The Inkwell cartoons: producer Max Fleischer draws a character out of the inkwell, and the cartoon characters interact a bit with the real world. Then they try extracting a tooth and eventually cartoon laughing-gas escapes into the real world, to produce some amazing and disturbing real-world animation. But I don’t think that’s enough to call one a remake of the other.
The Betty Boop cartoon is the more professional of the two, I must admit. It’s better drawn and the story holds together better. The line of action from the cartoon paper, to the office, to the city makes more sense. And it’s remarkably funny considering the last quarter of the short is just one joke — something new encounters laughing gas, and starts laughing — repeated over and over.
But The Cure might be better. Some of this is that I’m charmed by how the short features a rabbit as Koko’s partner. But I also like the way the story doesn’t quite hang together. It’s got a more dreamlike, loopy quality, and more of an improvised feel. And while the Betty Boop version has some magnificent images as laughing gas escapes to the world — the gravestones, particularly, are the sort of image that will last in the mind — I think the earlier version has better jokes all around. And the interactions between the live action and the animated figures are more ambitious and thus more fun.