I spent much of the last year watching about one Talkartoon per week. The series was the Fleischer Studios’ first major project in sound cartoons. It ran just under three years before giving way to a Betty Boop series. What do I take away from it?
First, I appreciate just how fast animation technique was developing then. Not so much in sound, really, although yes, there is that. But apart from audio fidelity I can’t say that the last Talkartoons were much better at using sound than the first ones. There’s foley effects to match important stuff on screen in both Radio Riot and in Admission Free. There’s music riffs dropped down, usually because the lyric of the original song references something on-screen. There’s pauses in the action for characters to start singing, early cartoons and end. I’m not sure they got any better at using sound. Character dialogue, for example, started out nonexistent and stayed pretty well near it.
But in the visual side of animation, the ability to draw a thing moving in funny ways? The cartoons grew amazingly. The first few were distinctly 1920s style, with high-contrast black images on white backgrounds. Soon there were greys. By the end the cartoons had these great shades that, if they weren’t color to start with, at least evoked color. Characters stopped moving in these little chunks where they do a thing, stop, and start doing another thing. Instead action flows together. They learned how to rotoscope action in greyscale so it fits the cartoons.
And the Fleischers showed off how much they could do with the camera angle changing mid-scene. Bimbo’s Initiation is a great example, especially for that extremely long continuous shot of Bimbo running away. But there’s examples all over. Including, in The Betty Boop Limited, a bit of perspective shot that foreshadows the Fleischer’s multi-plane camera work of later years. And all that in under three years. It’s an aspect of the development of animation that gets forgotten under the stories of sound and of Technicolor.
Also surprising: Bimbo had a personality! Two personalities, really, and character variants to match. One, the standard, is this generically pleasant guy who reacts to things, and somehow that became the only Bimbo we know. But the other is more inventive, more active. He’s not quite wild enough to be a screwball character. But you can see it from there, which is a noteworthy step for your generic early-30s inkblot character. I understand his becoming a secondary character to Betty Boop, and then getting knocked back to the minors by Popeye. But couldn’t the more interesting version have shown up more?
And another surprise: Betty Boop really didn’t have a personality! At least, she got a lot of parts, yes. But she gets top billing in these cartoons pretty fast considering how little she has to do with the action. It’s left me more curious about why Betty Boop rose to stardom. It’s easy to see why Popeye took over the Thimble Theatre comic strip once he showed up; he was always saying and doing something a hundred times more interesting than the entities around him. But Betty Boop? She sings, fine. She’s an object of attention. But apart from The Bum Bandit, where she’s not Betty Boop, she hasn’t had a really good part. She’s just the star because … she’s the star? It’s all on charisma, I suppose.
I was delighted to find in Fire Bugsan early example of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 being the cartoon soundtrack. And I was amused to find characters reappearing in new roles: Old King Cole switching from being the creepy bad guy to just being the engineer. Bimbo’s little brother Aloysius becoming any old annoying brat they needed around. Now that I’m primed to notice reused characters I’m curious what the Fleischer Studios Day Players group looks like.
I was also delighted to learn about the recording career of Frank Crumit. At least to learn he had like 480 billion songs all of which sound like old-time cartoon music. Most of them aren’t too problematic, but, yeah, that was the not-delightful part. I knew the Delaware Lackawanna Song (“Where Do You Work-A John”) almost wholly from its appearance in Mask-a-Raid, and on finally looking up the lyrics had a nasty surprise. That’s been the way with the bits we might charitably say reflect how society has changed from the early 30s. Or how we might say, ethnic or racist jokes that sometimes don’t crash the whole cartoon. They are there. There’s more than I’d like. But apart from Mask-A-Raid none of the cartoons (that survive) have depended on ethnic jokes. And they’ve avoided being nastier than, oh, those Indians make these war whoops. I don’t like it, but we’ve seen much worse. Worse is, yeah, where the sexual-assault subtext of Betty Boop cartoons lunges out of the text, grabs you by the nose, and smacks you across the face. Somebody get the poor woman pantyhose that stay in place.
Has this project changed my mind about anything substantial? Hard to say. I’ve always liked black-and-white cartoons, even primitive ones like Noah’s Lark. I had not before seen Swing You Sinners!, itself a minor sin as it’s fantastic. But to find a music-heavy 30s Fleischer cartoon is right up my alley? That’s not exactly catching anyone off-guard with a fast-breaking Zontar story. I appreciate Bimbo a bit more than I did before. And I have new questions about the Fleischer studios, particularly weird cartoons like The Robot or Hide and Seek that seem anachronistic.
Mostly, it’s given me a chance to look closely at a thing I already liked and see new aspects of it. That’s worthwhile even if it hasn’t changed my mind about the cartoons.