I’m not sure why my original review of Swing You Sinners, the ninth Talkartoon, was so circumspect in its content warning. I remember a tedious argument with someone about how “eating watermelon and fried chicken” could be a racist stereotype against Black people when basically everybody likes watermelon and fried chicken. I may have been giving too much credit to people who claim to not understand how something could be racist-coded. My original 2017 review — another one out of order, so that it could coincide with Halloween — was rather close to the start of the modern discussion about how much of The Classic Cartoon Look derives from minstrel shows. Anyway, this is a short cartoon that’s a great example of what’s fun and exciting and glorious about black-and-white cartoons, with movement and music and pacing and surreal images and a plot that makes impressionist sense. If “Bimbo’s Initiation” didn’t (deservedly) get in the way, this is probably the Talkartoon that would get on best-cartoons-of-all-time lists.
I’m not figuring to wholly abandon order in these reviews of Fleischer Studios Talkartoons. It’s just that it is Halloween, and it is the Fleischer Studios, and surely they’ve got some cartoon with a nice dose of spirits and demons and graveyards and the sorts of merry gruesomeness that makes for the fun of Halloween. If I’m not overlooking something in the titles they don’t have an actual on-point Halloween cartoon. But spooky-enough stuff? Oh yeah. They got plenty of that.
So let me start with the first that’s clearly Halloween-ish enough. It’s Swing You Sinners!, originally released the 24th of September, 1930. The credited animators — they were finally getting some attention — were Willard Bowsky and Ted Sears. Wikipedia reports that also animating were George Cannata, Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster, William Henning, Seymour Kneitel, and Grim Natwick. That’s a heck of a power lineup there. Think of any mid-20th-century cartoon whose animation impressed you and at least one of that set was one of its animators. I exaggerate only slightly.
About 3:30 into the short is a weird Jewish-caricature spirit. Apparently this specific scene was drawn by Culhane and in his memoir (Talking Animals and Other People, as I remember from Like 1992 well worth the read) he worried about that. But, you know, he knew a lot of Jewish people, some of them on staff, so surely that was fine.
Not mentioned so far as I remember: this is a cartoon in which Bimbo, drawn in all black apart from his shoes, gloves, eyes, and a patch around his mouth, starts out by stealing a chicken, gets pursued by a cop, and stumbles into a surreal jazzy environment. I don’t think I’m over-interpreting the cartoon to say there’s some racial coding going on here. Not that chicken-stealing in the comics is an exclusively black pastime. If it were we’d have a major reinterpretation of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith to do. But when I hear lines of dialogue delivered like Amos and Andy characters would I know something’s going on. I’m not that clueless.
If I haven’t put you off the short altogether, then, let’s watch now.
So. There’s a somewhat similar, famous cartoon, Bimbo’s Initiation, that we’ll get to in time. It’s more famous because of a Betty Boop cameo that gets it attention from her fans. In it Bimbo gets roped in off the street and subjected to a long, strange series of surreal and slightly horrifying experiences. I didn’t quite realize how much “Bimbo In A Nightmare World” was a recurring theme for the Talkartoons.
Have to say it fits him well, though. He’s a pretty generic character; going out trying to steal a chicken is more active than I’m used to for him. But it does make it easier for the audience to identify with the lead character if he isn’t trying (or even able) to do anything about the situation. The world’s gone mad for him, and that makes for some fine nightmarish imagery.
As Bimbo-In-A-Nightmare-World cartoons go, I think this is less frightening than Bimbo’s Initiation. That’s due to the plot setup. Here, Bimbo starts out trying to steal a chicken; so, his being plunged into a demon-haunted world makes sense as moral balance. In Bimbo’s Initiation he doesn’t do anything to earn his torments; he’s literally just walking down the street and falls in a hole. (A manhole, but something something evoking Alice’s rabbit-hole something something literary reference.) Stealing a chicken is disreputable, certainly. It’s forgivable, if the person has to steal or starve. But it gives moral justification for Bimbo’s torments.
And they’re a good set of torments, must say. There’s some astounding animation effects here. This cartoon came out seven months after last week’s entry, Radio Riot, and it feels like it’s years ahead. You really get a sense of how fast sound recording and cel animation were improving to watch a pair like that. The fight between Bimbo and the chicken is fantastic, with the spinning of the background a trick so good I’m surprised more animation studios didn’t rip it off. From about 6:50 on there’s no real story left; there’s just astonishing scenes.
Wikipedia claims the cartoon was animated by a “complete new staff” following several animators quitting, and that makes it all the more amazing. But they did have a heck of a talent pool with Culhane, Eugster, Kneitel, and Natwick. I don’t really know anything about George Cannata (almost nobody does) and William Henning, but still, that’s a heck of a team to have.
Unless I blinked and missed it there’s no suspiciously-Mickey-Mouse-like characters in the short. The title may be uninspired but it makes sense; the action is built around singing “Swing You Sinners” and it’s hard to think of a more logical name. Has it got a logical ending? Yeah. There’s an arbitrariness to why have the action stop now rather than ten seconds sooner or later on. But given the setup the story has to end with Bimbo either atoning for his sins or being trapped in them forever, and since the Fleischers were a New York City studio, it’s the latter option. Disney or Warner Brothers or someone else on the west coast would have let him out.
It’s hard picking out a best blink-and-you-miss-it gag. The format inspires stuffing the screen full of weird little bits. I think I’d pick out the double ghosts sleeping in the stairwells, seen at about 6:05 in. But there’s so much great stuff happening. There’s the animate scythe at about 5:25. There’s the underpants that turn into an extra ghost at about 6:25. It’s not a gag — it’s part of the nightmare — but the graveyard walls enclosing Bimbo at about 4:50 is is fantastic. Good solid scary cartoon.
2 thoughts on “Reposted: The Ninth Talkartoon: Swing You Sinners!”
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone denying the racial overtones of Jazz Age cartoons, even taken entirely apart from the (largely settled) debate about whether character tropes were derived from minstrel iconography. In many cartoons, jazz music is associated with immorality and the underworld (both in the Earthly and ghostly sense) on the negative side and with revelry and free-spiritedness on the more positive side. These are some of the same stereotypes Whites have applied to Black culture generally. There is a mixture of admiration and fear that, to me, seems to betray a certain envy of the coolness of jazz culture. I see in cartoons like this one an attempt to have it both ways: the (White) audience gets to enjoy the forbidden fruit while also maintaining their stance of moral superiority.
That said, I think the animators were probably genuine admirers of jazz music. There has got to be some real affection going on, especially in the Fleischer cartoons. It’s complicated and can’t be sorted neatly into good versus bad intentions.
I remember fairly strong resistance to the notion that the Standard Cartoon Model derived from minstrel shows. I suspect a blend of White guys never having been pushed to think about it, and also suffering the conflict of knowing that minstrel shows were bad but, like, Bugs Bunny is really good so something has to be wrong there.
It’s my belief the Fleischer animators — and a lot of animators generally — were real admirers of jazz. I suppose the number of jazz-themed cartoons could reflect its commercial success, but the music is so reliably played as cool that it’s hard to think they didn’t like it. There certainly were cartoons that would use popular music while retaining a respectable distance.
I’m thinking of, for example, this live-action short in which a modern crooner is brought before the Heavenly Bureaucracy, there to defend the silly nonsense he does against the Musical Greats. And presents a defense that all this popular modern music really is tricks and licks that can be traced to respectable folks, like the members of his jury (Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov, etc) wrote. Structurally, the short lets them perform popular tunes while portraying themselves as upholders of great traditions, and that sort of construct could have been done here.