The 21st Talkartoon: Twenty Legs Under The Sea (there’s more; I counted)


There’s a new animator credited in today’s Talkartoon. Willard Bowsky’s turned up repeatedly here, including in Wise Flies and Swing You Sinners!. The new name is Tom Bonfiglio. He’d do a couple more Talkartoons and then, if I’m reading this right, jump over to Disney studios. After that I have a looser sense of what’s happened to him. At some point he changed his name to Thomas Goodson. I can find one biography of Joe Barbera suggesting Goodson worked at Van Buren Studios in the mid-30s. And I can find another biography suggesting Goodson was working in educational films in the 1960s. That’s not much, I admit. It’s what I have.

So here, from the 5th of May, 1931 — just a week and a half after The Male Man — is the next Talkartoon in the series, Twenty Legs Under The Sea.

There’ve been a lot of underwater scenes in animation. They’ve always been hard to do. There’s great freedom in characters not having to stick to the ground. But it’s also hard to convey the resistance water offers to movement. And there’s the convention of putting a wavy-motion visual effect over everything, even if a real camera wouldn’t see anything like that. I think it took until Finding Nemo for a cartoon not to use that convention.

This is another cartoon where Bimbo’s pulled into a surreal landscape. He isn’t quite simply minding his business. If he’s going fishing, it’s fair that the fish respond. Even in Swing You Sinners Bimbo did something to earn his torments. But it supports my idea that the animators knew they had a reliable story here. The good part of these Bimbo-in-surreal-landscape cartoons is they give lots of space for weird gags, and the Fleischer Studios were really into weird gags. The bad part is that it wipes out Bimbo as a character. If he’s too screwy a character then he’s not inconvenienced by being in a screwy setting. A strong character in a crazy setting can work, because Duck Amuck, but Bimbo’s no 50s Daffy. He’s not got enough to do to stand up to the setting.

Also this isn’t so wild and surreal a cartoon, really. It starts off promising: Bimbo trying to fish, having a few little weird incidents, and then getting pulled undersea by a giant fish/whale who’d asked for help putting the hook in his mouth. He gets a shave from a lobster barber, and then … is … the King of the undersea world suddenly? Some more songs and then he leads his people to their death. It’s a punch line reminiscent of the grimness of The Cow’s Husband although after many fewer gags.

It’s weird that what we see underwater is a barber and then a throne room. My understanding is that in the silent era shorts were plotted by giving a lead animator the theme and letting them do what seems amusing. I’m not sure how much that was still going on in this era; making the cartoon match with a soundtrack loosens how much the people drawing it can improvise. Bimbo puttering around a town where everything’s normal but it’s done by sea creatures makes sense as a cartoon. Bimbo finding himself somehow king of a weird place makes sense as a cartoon. Shifting between them without obvious reason doesn’t make sense, and in the bad ways. I wonder if one scene was animated by Bowsky and the other by Bonfiglio/Goodson. I also wonder if some connective tissue was lost, or just never animated. The short comes in at 5:52. The last couple weeks have been just over six minutes, and, for example, The Cow’s Husband is seven and a half minutes long. Even ten seconds can be a lot of plot.

There is a lot of music. After the lack of any really featured cartoon last week there’s an abundance now. Anchors Aweigh, My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean with some good bits of a whale and the Sun fighting it out, a bit of doggerel that I guess you’d call We’re Going Over To Maggie’s (which I can’t find information about, so I guess it’s original to the short? Or a now-forgotten folk song, maybe), what I guess is an original piece about We Are The King’s Bodyguards. The last has a riff that sounds to me like Merrily We Roll Along, which was a then-very-new song. (And isn’t it weird to think that song was ever new?)

There’s no mice. Where would they even fit in? (Easily: just put a couple in the boat.) There is a really solid body-horror gag as a pair of fish swim ahead of their own bodies, so their faces and skeletons can eat tiny turtles about 4:25. (Yes, their skeletons swim ahead with their faces. It’s a little hard to make out with the contrast as it is here. Watch as they emerge from their bodies and as their bodies catch up.) The sun trying to bite at the whale/giant fish is a nice touch of weirdness. And I would rate as a blink-and-you-miss-it joke how Bimbo’s lighter doesn’t work when he’s in the boat (he has to do a nicely complicated bit of lighting a candle), but works perfectly when he’s underwater.

I can’t call this a good cartoon. It’s an amiable one, and I’m not sure that We’re Going Over To Maggie’s isn’t going to become part of the soundtrack of my puttering-around-in-life. But there isn’t a story, just a string of set-pieces. And the set-pieces are all nice enough, but not all that exciting or funny or weird. There’s some stronger ones coming.

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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.

5 thoughts on “The 21st Talkartoon: Twenty Legs Under The Sea (there’s more; I counted)”

  1. I’d chalk up the Bimbo as King of the Sea occurrence as the same cartoon phenom explored in the British/”Hey Bulldog” cut of “Yellow Submarine” that explained away why the Beatles were dead ringers for Pepperland’s SPLHCB. As George Harrison would tell you “It’s all in the mind, you know.”

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