The 23rd Talkartoon: The Herring Murder Case


I’ve been trying to watch these cartoons in the order of their release. And that I get from Wikipedia’s page about Talkartoons. Some individual cartoons have their own Wikipedia pages. Many of the earliest don’t, but as the series shifts from “any old thing with a song” to “Bimbo” and finally “Betty Boop Cartoons” fewer entries lack pages. This week’s hasn’t got a page and I’m surprised by that. It’s talked about in Leslie Cabarga’s The Fleischer Story in the Golden Age of Animation, the book on the studio’s history. Not much, but think of all the cartoons that don’t get even that.

Wikipedia does credit this as the first appearance of Bimbo in his “canonical” form. And as the first sound cartoon appearance of Koko the Clown, the character that made the Fleischer Studios and star of extremely many cartoons about him being drawn, getting into a fix, and then being poured back into an inkwell. Would really have thought those two points noteworthy enough for a page to be made. Anyway, the credited animators are Shamus Culhane (then listed as “Jimmie”; when he went into business for himself he took on a more distinctive-to-Americans name) and Al Eugster. Both have already had cartoons in this series before. Originally released the 26th of June, 1931 — more than a month after Silly Scandals — here’s The Herring Murder Case.

Quick content warning: there’s a pansy-voice character and a couple lines approaching (Jewish) ethnic humor. I don’t think they spoil the cartoon (one could even say the ethnic-humor bits are just characterization). But they are there.

So, for the record, the first words spoken aloud by Koko the Clown — at the time, a character a dozen years old and the flagship character of the studio — were “[ stammering gibberish ] my come — come on, the poor — poor herring- herring was sh- sh- shot, oh my, come on, help”. Not an auspicious start. But it is plot-appropriate, for the rare Talkcartoon that has a clear and direct plot.

That friend you have who doesn’t quite like anything however much he likes it has a complaint about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And, like your friend at his most irritating, he kind of has a point. Toontown looks like a great place. But it has an inauthenticity to it. Actual cartoons of the Golden Age of American Animation weren’t so frantic and busy and packed as the Toontown sequence was. It’s defensible artistically. For one, the daily lives of each Toontown citizen is their life story with themselves as protagonist; that we normally only have to take six minutes of a character at once doesn’t mean the rest of their days aren’t like that. But it does mean there’s much more stuff happening visually than an actual cartoon of around 1947 would have.

Most of the time. Some cartoons do get that dense and packed with weird activity. And here, from 1931, is one that’s like that. Especially right after the Herring’s murder: the scenes of the city are full of everything happening, including buildings come to life and writhing in a panic. And then special effects get in the way. After Koko comes on, in animation I assume is swiped from an older Out of the Inkwell cartoon, he runs through a city street haunted by ghostly cat heads for the reasons. It’s one of a lot of showy bits of animation technique in the cartoon.

Another: Bimbo following footsteps up the stairs. It’s a walk cycle, yes, but it’s one that moves in very slight perspective. It’s well-done, and a bit hypnotic. They’ll do a similar walking cycle on steps in the next cartoon, one with more amazingly done animations. But there are a lot of extreme perspectives and stuff moving in on the camera and tricky camera moves throughout the short. In ranking of animation ability the studios have always been Disney first, and everybody else behind. But the Fleischers were often second, and this is one of those times they were a close second.

Among my favorite cartoon motifs is doing simple stuff in complicated ways. The short offers plenty of that, starting with the gorilla’s shooting a gun that itself shoots out a bird that does the shooting. Koko putting his head through the window twice while trying to lead Bimbo to the crime scene. Koko running ahead of his “shadows” and having to go back to get them. The elevator opening up to a set of stairs.

Did you blink and miss that the level indicator makes two full circuits while getting the stairs down to ground level? That’s my favorite quick little joke. But there’s plenty to choose from, such as the moon being blown along by the heavy winds as Bimbo and Koko get to the house. The secret panel offering Bimbo a short beer is too well-established to be a blink-grade joke. But it gets a little more charge when you remember the short was made in 1931, still during Prohibition.

The female herring gets Mae Questel’s voice this short, so there’s no figure who can at all be credited as a proto-Betty-Boop. A shame, since Betty’s involvement however fleeting would probably have got this cartoon more notice. Its got a clear story, quite a density of jokes, a soundtrack that clearly ties to the action, and even a sensible ending. I like 30s cartoons, especially from the less-than-Disney studios, but recognize that as one of my eccentricities. This is one I don’t think an ordinary person would understand as funny.

There’s another of those mice popping in, one with Happy Feet at about 5:21, and then possibly a different one fleeing the gorilla at about 5:50. I trust that “They shot me! Holy mackerel, is this the end of the Herring?” is an imperfect quoting of Little Caesar, which opened in January of that year and made Warner Brothers all the money in the world. Can’t blame the Fleischer studios for riffing on that.

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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