The Fifth Talkartoon: Fire Bugs (with a surprise musical visitor)


OK, this time I think I have this pesky “order” of things worked out. With luck, I’ll soon do two Talkartoons in a row in the way they should be. We’ll see. This week’s is Fire Bugs, originally released the 9th of May, 1930. If Wikipedia’s right this is the first Fleischer Studios cartoon to credit the animators. So we know two of the people responsible for its look and humor: Ted Sears and Grim Natwick. Sears would go on to be the first head of the Disney story department. Natwick is famous for something coming up next week if I can do time right. I give that a 50-50 chance of happening.

So. First thought. There was a time when nobody had thought to use Franz Liszt for a cartoon. There was, incredibly, a first time that the strong beat and wonderfully varied melody and great, riotous structure of the Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 was first set to an animated creature clowning around on the piano when something more urgent was under way. This was not that time. The earliest I’m aware of is the 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Opera House. It’s hard to imagine there are many earlier cases. Still, Fire Bugs is one of the early examples of this song becoming the Golden Age of Animation composition.

I had stopped tracking when suspiciously-Mickey-Mouse-like mice appeared in these cartoons because we went a couple weeks without any. This cartoon more than makes up for their absence. Kind Of Mickeys are all over the first scene, in many of the subsequence scenes, and pretty well fill out what would otherwise be negative space in this cartoon. They never quite do much, but they run around, and that can be enough. At least one gets a good gag of being picked up by the fire hose.

There is a lot of fun in this cartoon. It’s a great example of the rubber-hose style where nothing just moves. It has to be wrangled out of shape and then it consents to move. It’s a look I really enjoy. It feels lively.

The title makes sense; it’s a cartoon about a fire fighter that I suppose is our second Bimbo cartoon. And the story parses too; the fire call comes in, Bimbo(?) and his horse Sparky make their way to the scene; they rescue the longhair musician despite his best efforts to finish his piece. It ends at a logical point, as the Hungarian Rhapsody does. Sensible.

There’s not really a blink-and-you-miss-it joke, or else I blinked. (The ‘Fire Water’ barrels in the basement are on-screen too long to really count.) I do like the swapping of positions between Bimbo and Sparky as they slide down the firepole. There’s also, yeah, some dull bits where they drag out a bit of animation, maybe to make sure we saw the pansies dancing, thank you, now move on. Maybe to make sure the cartoon didn’t come in too short. You’d think an apartment fire would be enough for a good cartoon.

The musician at the end saying “My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, I thank you, goodbye” is a pop culture reference. It’s riffing on the tagline of The Four Cohans, or as we know them if we watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies, James Cagney as George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The horse’s name is surely a pop culture reference too. Sparkplug, or Sparky, was the name of Barney Google’s flea-bitten horse in the comic strip that, back then, was incredibly popular. I mean, like, popular in a way you’d think I was joking if I told you about. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was nicknamed “Sparky” after that horse. I haven’t read the strips of the 1930s so I have no informed opinion about whether everybody was just crazy back then. But Comics Kingdom has been running the Barney Google strips of the early 40s, and yeah, they’re pretty interesting. The strip, like many back then, was a serial adventure comic. I could believe it being justifiably a craze.

I already was enjoying the cartoon, even if it stalled for time before getting to the apartment building, when the Liszt kicked in. After that I was fully delighted. Glad to see it.

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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. He/him.

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