The Sixth Talkartoon: Wise Flies


Just that string of words — “sixth Talkartoon: Wise Flies” — looks weird to me. This is because I know from time immemorial that the sixth Talkartoon was Dizzy Dishes, the famous introduction of Betty Boop. I think the problem is Marriage Wows, which I had to skip a couple weeks ago because I don’t know any way to see it. Wikipedia mentions that as a cartoon that turns out not to be lost. I suppose the books I read as a young cartoon enthusiast were unaware of Marriage Wows, so didn’t count it in their list of cartoons.

Now some of you may wonder what happened to the fifth Talkartoon, Fire Bugs. Nothing in particular. I just somehow missed it when I started preparing this, and now it’s too close to deadline for me to have a bunch of other thoughts about a whole other cartoon. I’ll try to loop back and get it next week. I’m sorry for the confusion.

So here’s the sixth Talkartoon. As ever, it’s credited to director Dave Fleischer. Two of the animators get credit, though: William Bowsky and Ted Sears. They didn’t do it all themselves; Wikipedia credits Grim Natwick with animation too. From the 18th of July, 1930, here it is:

Some cartoons keep surprising. I had this one pegged after the first scenes: it’d be a couple flies taunting the guy they’re skiing down, until eventually the spider pokes in, scares everyone, and after a frantic music nuber gets tied up by the blandly pleasant male lead fly. It’s an unexciting story structure but it’s a good, functional one.

I was a little surprised the spider poked in right away to interrupt a fly picnic. Didn’t throw my expectations too badly, though. We’d need to meet the blandly pleasant male lead and the female who’d get abducted by the villain, after all. But the female fly squirts the spider into embarrassed submission, and the spider trots back home, defeated. And turns out to have a wife and to be hungry. That’s a sympathizing touch. It’s easy to hiss at the villain who’s just out to cause harm. When they’re shown to just want to eat? That’s harder. That he’s got a family — in something I didn’t see coming, including kids to feed — makes the narrative stranger. The spider ends up the protagonist, possibly by default as none of the flies seem to be in successive scenes. (Perhaps this reflects different animators taking over the successive scenes.)

But the flies do get some nice odd scenes. A picnic is normal enough for anthropomorphic insects. The fly in a plane is weirder. I imagine it reflects how plane-mad the public was in the early 30s. Maybe it’s whimsy. Maybe it’s thoughtful: the scene is basically that of a guy cruising in his car and picking up a woman. But would a female fly even in principle be impressed by a car? A plane makes sense for that role.

The plotting’s a bit curious. It’s partly spot jokes about flies and a spider, fine enough. And it’s partly about, clearly enough: spider needs to feed himself and his family, but he can’t catch anything. Then about 3:54 in all that’s put on pause so the spider and fly can perform “Some Of These Days”, Shelton Brooks’s toe-tapping hit from 1910. (It had, Wikipedia tells me, got rerecorded by Sophie Tucker in 1926. Sold a million albums that way. Then it got into 1928’s Lights of New York, another candidate for the title of “first talking motion picture”. The cartoon came out in that while the song was inescapable.) But that turns the last scene from hunter-and-prey into an odd infidelity-romance bit. That’s an interesting surprise to me too. It’s a shame that got resolved with the spider’s wife coming out in battleaxe mode. But it does add a nice sad touch to the final chorus of “No flies!”

This isn’t a cartoon with big laughs, at least not for me. There’s a few nice small laughs, like the spider reading the Fly Paper. But overall it’s a curious short that’s not quite plot-driven, but feels like it has more story than just a couple jokes about flies doing things.

Does the title make sense? Absolutely. It’s a little punny, but not absurdly so, and it’s definitely a fly-driven cartoon. Does its ending make sense? Here, too, yes: there’s good reason to end the cartoon at this point rather than another. There aren’t any really good weird body-horror-ish jokes, things where people come flying apart or something crazy like that. The spider’s teeth hopping while he dance and I guess that’s about it.

I don’t know whether to read the sleeping man at the start of the cartoon as a black figure, or just a guy with a heavy beard.

Next Tuesday! I ought to do Fire Bugs. Maybe I’ll do Dizzy Dishes. Maybe I’ll get hopelessly confused again and go review the fifth episode of the Disney’s Hercules Saturday Morning Cartoon for some reason. I don’t know. I’m just doing the best I can.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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