I maybe have been beating the Henry drum loudly the last couple weeks. On the other hand, when else would I have an audience for this? And Roy Kassinger asked if I had ever reviewed the animated cartoon with Betty Boop and Henry. I hadn’t, so, what better time than now to do it? Maybe last week, then.
So, some context. In 1933 the Fleischers launched the Popeye cartoon series, for good reason. Popular comic strips already had a long history of being adapted into animated cartoons. Popeye’s debut was officially in a Betty Boop cartoon. Her presence is a slight thing — she shows up for a musical number in the midst of the action. But it did mean the studio could work out whether Popeye was adaptable to cartoons in a way with minimum risk of failure.
Popeye was a brilliant success, of course. So there’s little else to do but try to repeat the trick. And here we get to Henry. The character had been around three years. The comic strip proper was around about one year when the Flesichers made this short. It was popular, sensibly enough. Henry as a character is clever but lazy, kind but a bit selfish, pleasure-seeking but not hedonist, with a bit of hard-luck about him. He fits in the line of characters like the Little Tramp, Mickey Mouse, or Dagwood Bumstead. It’s easy to like him. And, William Foster notes, was decades ahead of the curve in presenting non-white characters with dignity. There’s great reason to try him out.
There wasn’t a Henry series to follow this. I can’t call that an injustice. The short is pleasant enough. But there’s just not much there. Henry watches Betty Boop’s pet store while she’s out, makes a mess of things, and then re-catches the birds he’d let out. That’s not much of a plot, but it is something. It should have been plenty for the Fleischers. A Fleischer specialty is characters doing a simple thing in complicated ways. They had just months earlier introduced Grampy to the Betty Boop series. His entire point was thinking up Rube Goldberg contraptions to play music or turn the apartment building into a roller coaster or something. And Henry accidentally messing up something and fixing it in some ingenious complicated way would be a natural.
Here, though? The only clever thing he does is drop birdseed on his head to attract birds. And he does that a lot. There’s cute business, like, dancing with Pudgy, or setting two lovebirds together. But that’s a cute sideline, not action. (And the scene with the monkey ought to be funny, and then you remember pet stores would sell monkeys back then, and that’s awful and depressing.) Heck, the opening scene — Henry appearing to walk a plank between mountains, revealed to be a billboard — was clever, at least, with a nice reveal of what’s going on. What if the whole short had been like that? If it had been three minutes of earning animals’ trust and cleaning them or feeding them in silly ways, maybe Henry could have gone to series.
Maybe. One problem with Henry’s cast of characters is that he doesn’t have antagonists. I guess there’s a bully, and he has a teacher he’s afraid of, and his parents will make him take a bath or something. But that’s all a very gentle menace. Popeye comes from, in the comic strip, an action-adventure background. It’s natural to have a big-bad villain there. Popeye and the villain fighting for Olive Oyl gives stories an obvious point. And a reason for something exciting to happen on-screen.
It also helped that Popeye had stuff to say. In the comic strip Henry was mute, much as that distresses me when he’s put on the phone. But presumably he could speak; we just don’t see him doing so. (Apparently in the comic books he spoke as normal.) Popeye, in the comic strip, had personality from his first line. It’s easy to write stuff that’s definitely what Popeye might say and to rule out things he would not. Not his mangled speech; that’s just a marker. “I am what I am and that’s all what I am” is a declaration of character. When he talked in the cartoon it made sense. But Henry? What’s a Henry-esque turn of phrase? Henry’s voice actor — I guess Ann Rothschild, if I’m inferring things from Wikipedia right — tries. But Henry hasn’t got anything to say that shows character.
I could be wrong, though. Little Lulu has a protagonist who’s got that similar pleasant, soft, antagonist-free place as Henry does. And she was adapted into a successful enough string of cartoons by Fleischer Studios successor Famous Studios. And then changed into Little Audrey, when Famous Studios dropped the Little Lulu license. I don’t count myself a fan of them, but each was a successful enough series. Maybe this was a good idea hobbled by a bad first attempt.