The Nineteenth Talkartoon: The Bum Bandit, my second look


I’ve already covered the next Talkartoon, The Bum Bandit, a while ago, when I was doing a review of milestones in Betty Boop cartoons. But it’s been a while, and I’m a slightly different person from whom I was then. And there’s a difference between looking at a cartoon as part of the Talkartoons series and looking at it as part of Betty Boop’s character development. We’ll see what comes out different this time. I’m not looking at my earlier comments before writing this.

The Bum Bandit was originally released the 3rd of April, 1931. Its main animators were Willard Bowsky and Al Eugster. We’ve seen both animators before, although not teamed like this. Also animating, without credit, was Grim Natwick, says Wikipedia. I don’t know that they have evidence for this other than that Betty Boop appears. We’ll see.

Slight content warning: there’s a racist joke at about 3:57 in, with a blackfaced character and five, presumably stolen, chickens up his sleeve and going “yassir”.

There’s an easy way to think of the Talkartoons. They were this bunch of things the Fleischers did, with sound and extended music bits, while they were busy discovering Betty Boop. Then once they did, they had the Betty Boop series in all but name and, by the end of 1932, in name too. It’s kind of a Whiggish history. Going through each cartoon, even the ones forgotten because they don’t have Betty Boop in them, shows what it was more probably like: poking around to find some good ideas, finding a fairly decent one in Bimbo, and gradually realizing they had a much better character in Betty Boop.

And this cartoon is almost a miniature of that progression. It starts with Bimbo, certainly. And he’s puttering around doing nothing in particular. This allows a couple of pretty good shooting gags, as none of his shots hit anything near where they ought, and what they do hit makes no contextual sense. One hates to over-praise randomness as a comic virtue, but to unintentionally shoot a cow out of the sky has this gleeful, childish chaos to it. And then, as he tries to rob a train, Betty Boop takes over. Bimbo stays in the cartoon, but he’s not driving the action anymore.

At least, it’s mostly Betty Boop. She’s finally gotten the rail-thin body that marks Canonical Betty. She hasn’t got the right voice, though. She’s voiced (not badly) by Harriet Lee, rather than by Mae Questel (or some others) doing a Helen Kane impression. And she’s introduced as Dangerous Nan McGrew. I’m open to the argument that this isn’t Betty Boop yet. She doesn’t act like Betty.

Curiously, perhaps, Dangerous Nan McGrew was also the titular character of a 1930 Mack Sennett comedy starring Helen Kane. I haven’t seen that movie, so won’t venture any guesses about how that movie might have influenced the character or this cartoon. I mean, Wikipedia puts the movie in the “See also” section for this short, and vice-versa, but that falls short of saying whether there was deliberately a link or what it was.

The cartoon has a slightly weird story setup: we spend some time with Bimbo, establishing that as a bandit he’s kind of a menace. At least he’s willing to shoot, if ineptly. Then Betty Boop/Dangerous Nan comes on, harangues him, and takes him off back home. And that’s it. I’m used to a Fleischer cartoon rambling its way around the plot; it’s surprising to have one that’s basically two scenes and no development of anything.

I can’t say there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. There’s a lot of jokes, some quite ridiculous, but they’re all given enough time to be noticed and appreciated. And none that run on too long, which is a nice feat. Maybe Bimbo’s sheepish “No” after Dangerous Nan asks whether he’s found that cow yet. I’m tickled by Bimbo’s robbing the squirrel, but your tastes are your own. There’s several mice, passengers on the train, although there’s enough mixed species that none of them stand out as obviously Mickey Mouse riffs.

Also the scene of the train screeching to a halt, with this long zooming in until Bimbo stands front and center, is really well-done. The Fleischer cartoons get some respect for technological innovation, albeit mostly in stuff like the multi-plane camera with real-world sets in the background. They get less credit for stuff like this. It makes a simple scene more exciting than it needs to be, and good for them for that.

The center of the short is this song “The Holdup Rag”. I can’t find evidence that the song existed before this cartoon. If it is original for this short, then that’s the more impressive since it is a really catchy tune that I could see being modestly popular in its own right. I don’t remember it being used for similar hold-up or robbery scenes in other cartoons. This seems odd and probably I’m just not thinking of reuses of the song.

And now on looking at my earlier comments: I’m relieved I don’t say anything that seems particularly ridiculous to me now, especially since apparently I just reviewed this back in June? It doesn’t seem like that recently, but 2017 was a lot of a year.

The Fourteenth Talkartoon: Mysterious Mose, perhaps Betty Boop’s first showing


I can’t do the thirteenth Talkartoon, not for want of will. That one, Accordion Joe, is not technically a lost cartoon. The UCLA film library has prints of the title. But that’s as good as lost for someone like me who isn’t near Los Angeles and can’t be bothered to, like, try finding a copy. So we move on to the next.

I’ve enjoyed the last several Talkartoons, no question. They’ve been nice discoveries, cartoons I had never seen before, or not seen in so long I’d forgotten them. This week’s is different. It’s one I know well. She’s not named in it, and she’s still not quite found her right model yet. But it’s got Betty Boop. And unlike her previous outings, she’s the protagonist, at least for the first half of the cartoon. For the first time she’s important to the goings-on. From the 26th of December, 1930, and animated by Willard Bowsky, Ted Sears, and (Wikipedia says) Grim Natwick, here’s Mysterious Mose.

This is almost the type case for a minigenre of cartoons the Fleischers would do: the surreal adventure set to a jazzy tune. Here the tune is Mysterious Mose, which Wikipedia tells me was a new song in 1930. I had assumed it was a folk song given new form. Live and learn, if all goes well.

These cartoons-set-to-jazz include some of the best of the decade, or of all time. They would give us beauties like Minnie the Moocher — apparently some of the earliest known footage of Cab Calloway performing — and Snow White. And lesser but still fantastic pieces like Popeye’s Me Musical Nephews. I don’t have a good idea why a surreal jazz cartoon works so reliably. I understand classical music playing well against cartoons: the strong structure gives the chaos of the cartoon more room to play. A good jazz piece has the illusion of a looser structure, though, so what is the cartoon playing against? I suppose you could argue that the apparent freedom of a jazz piece harmonizes well with the apparent visual freedom of the cartoon. But that seems like we’re getting near an unfalsifiable hypothesis. On the other hand, maybe it’s just that animated cartoons go well with both classically-structured music and the strong beat of this kind of jazz (and swing, come to think of it).

So the cartoon is great throughout. It starts out nice and creepy, the proto-Betty sitting up in bed surrounded by mysterious noises. And haunted! I’m not sure if we need to see Betty put her blanket over an invisible creature in her bed three times, but it is such a solid gag I can’t fault them doing it. It’s a neat bit of business and I don’t think I could resist.

I’m not sure that I like Betty Boop’s nightshirt flying off twice. I’ve been getting less amused by women left vulnerable. But it’s as close as they probably dared to having her be frightened out of her skin. And for the early, most normally scary parts, vulnerability is emotionally correct.

Halfway through Bimbo shows up, as Mysterious Mose. And more strongly the screwball character I’ve realized he was in his early days. We loose the spookiness as Bimbo brings a string of inventive weirdness in. And then even Bimbo fades out of the protagonist’s role, as stuff gets crazier without him until he takes drastic action with a tuba. I think all the jokes work, but it does reach a point where there’s no longer narrative. We don’t necessarily need narrative, but it does leave the cartoon without a good reason to end now rather than a minute sooner or later, other than that the song’s run long enough.

Take your pick for the body-horror joke of the cartoon. There’s plenty of choice. I’d probably take the cat who recovers from being smacked by turning into nine cats, or the chain of fish that turn into a caterpillar. There’s also Betty’s toes growing faces and arms to hug each other. The shadow of Mysterious Mose popping his head off and bouncing it. Then slipping in through the keyhole and snipping his own shadow off. Mose moving so much by turning into an ink dot and changing the shape of that mounted moose head. A couple mice show up, around 4:55 in, to add to the music and signal the action getting out of Bimbo’s lead for a minute.

There’s a nice blink-and-you-miss-it joke, at about 3:50. It’s when Betty’s heart flutters out and over to Bimbo, and Bimbo’s heart reaches out to grab it. Bimbo’s heart is wearing a robber’s eyemask. Great touch.

I’d thought that while scared Betty’s eyes spiralled, a use of this effect for something other than “character is being hypnotized”. I was wrong, though. They’re just flashing in concentric circles. Well, it looked like an eye spiral initially.

The Twelfth Talkartoon: Up To Mars, thanks to a pantsless Mickey Mouse


This week’s cartoon happens to call out Merry Christmas. And to get a Happy New Year back. That’s the sort of subtle act of timing that’s really beyond my abilities; it just got lucky. But here’s Bimbo’s second cartoon in three weeks, and the second in which he was named as such. From the 20th of November, 1930, and animated by Rudy Zamora and Shamus Culhane: Up To Mars.

So why does this short start in an amusement park? (At least after some striking and neat special effects animation.) Why not, I suppose you could say. Also that it’s somewhere you could just have lots of big firecrackers hanging around. I suspect there’s a deeper reason. It goes back to A Trip To The Moon. I don’t precisely mean Georges Méliès and one of the maybe three silent movies even people who don’t care about silent movies recognize. But that helps. A Trip To The Moon was a ride at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, in Buffalo, New York, showing exactly that. It was moved to Coney Island to be one of Steeplechase and then Luna Park’s signature rides. And to inspire trip-to-outer-space rides, to the Moon or Mars or other worlds, from there. So a trip to Mars starting at an amusement park might not be just because you gotta get rockets from somewhere. It might be because you could get to Mars from there.

Other planets, in the cartoons, were often wackyland places of reverse-logic and sight gags; see Tex Avery’s 1948 The Cat That Hated People for similar and I’ll admit better sight gags. I haven’t checked what earlier, and particularly silent, cartoons did with other planets. But the placement makes sense; jumping to another planet does give license to get weird and surreal.

It’s the second cartoon where Bimbo gets named. But he gets less distinctive stuff to do than even in last week’s Sky Scraping. I suppose he makes the choice to chase after the strikingly Mickey Mouse-like rodent that had been in his Roman candle. But that’s not a lot of character. And once up on Mars he has even less to do; he’s mostly just watching the shenanigans. Arguably the mouse does more to affect the cartoon. I kept waiting, once Bimbo fell in with the Martian soldiers, for him to be detected and that to become the story. Somehow it never did. He does get a few frustrated moments to snarl and snap at people in a satisfyingly dog-like manner, which is worth something certainly.

This is the second week in a row that the Moon gets punctured. Also the depiction of Saturn as a character with a big hat is one that I believe gets repeated in the October 1932 Betty Boop’s Ups And Downs.

It’s maybe too well-established to count as a blink-and-you-miss-it joke but I laughed when Bimbo tried to light the rocket and sets a cat’s tail on fire instead. The elderly Martian dancing with his detached legs and no body is a good reliable body-horror joke.

The Eleventh Talkartoon: Sky Scraping, Where Bimbo Gets A Name


So, something new’s added to the Talkartoon family for this short, released the 1st of November, 1930. Bimbo’s emerged from his prototypical form as this slow-motion screwball character who’s been around five-or-so times. He’s worthy of a name. It’s not given on-screen because of course not. But it’s there in the title card that I assume is the original title card and not a later addition.

There’s a couple cartoon premises that seem to always work for me. One of them is the orchestra, typically playing the Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two. And another is this short’s theme, that of skyscraper-building. My supposition is that the premise gives the cartoon a natural, logical structure. The underlying material is necessarily ordered, so the cartoon can riff on that and have pretty near every joke land. (And one of the all-time best-ever cartoons is Friz Freleng’s “Rhapsody in Rivets”, fusing the two premises.) With skyscraper-building cartoons I think there’s another factor: all those steel girders. That is, to use the setting at all you need to draw these big steel meshes, often in perspective. It’s hard work drawing a plausibly in-construction skyscraper, and I think the knowledge that they put all this work in influences the audience. The dazzling visual can carry a weaker script.

Skyscraper-building would probably always be popular; the idea just boggles the mind to start. The skyscraper races of the late 1920s added fine and ridiculous drama to the construction, and if you haven’t read up about the spire on the Chrysler Building and its secret installation please go look that up now. Thank you. In the early 30s the last spurt of skyscrapers under construction, such as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, were much-needed work for thousands of people, and a curious note of not-yet-broken ambition. Great themes to hang art on.

So. Bimbo finally gets a name this cartoon. But he’s not called by name in the cartoon. He’s also barely in the cartoon itself. I suppose we do see him repeatedly, but I’m not sure that he stands out compared to the other workers. Dragging his feet to get to work and tripping over two bricks, working sleepily, but racing home, is fine enough, but it’s not a deep bit of personality.

And it feels odd that Bimbo trips over two bricks but hasn’t got a third punchline. And that there’s two strings of him sleepily laying mortar on bricks but not a third. The so-called Rule of Three is, like many comic rules, better a guideline for not screwing up a premise. But this does feel like punch lines were set up and then unresolved. I’d suspect scenes lost to editing but it’s tough to figure what they would be or why.

There’s suspiciously-Mickey-Mice all over this short. And even a suspiciously-Felix-the-Cat too, at about one minute in, having swallowed a quartet of mice while they passed behind a billboard. Which was almost my moment of weird body horror this short. All the while they passed behind the billboard I was thinking about oh no, they’re going to go there. But somehow the skyscraper reaching up high enough its structure pierces the Moon hit me harder. It’s a solid joke, especially as I didn’t suspect it coming.

A couple years after this short Disney would create the multiplane camera, making it possible to have animated elements moving in foreground, middle-ground, and background. The Fleischers would one-up that by building a multiplane camera that could also use real-world sets, for some live-and-animated scenes that are still dazzling. This short might prototype that, by having the girders and people in the foreground moving while the background’s held fixed. It’s a simple trick, but an effective one: there’s distance here.

A skyscraper-building cartoon has three compelling end points: the work day ends, or the building’s finished, or the building collapses in ruin. (And note how “Rhapsody in Rivets” does it.) This short takes mostly the first ending, fair enough, albeit with a weird coda after Bimbo’s rushed home from work. So, once more, I’m satisfied.

The Tenth Talkartoon: Grand Uproar


The next cartoon would be Swing You Sinners!, but I just reviewed that for Halloween and I don’t think it’s been long enough I’d have different feelings about it now. So here’s the next, instead. From the 3rd of October, 1930: Grand Uproar, animated by Seymore Kneitel and Al Eugster. Kneitel’s already shown up here a bunch that we know of. This is Al Eugster’s first credited appearance. Eugster spent over six decades animating, from silent-era Felix the Cat to Disney’s Snow White to the last years of the Paramount studio, when Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi made it their strange own, and on past the end of theatrical cartoon shorts.

The cartoon felt a little out of place, somehow. After a bunch of Bimbo cartoons in a row he doesn’t appear this time At least unless one of the characters is meant to be him in a modified form. Perhaps one could argue the Gay Caballero is meant to be Bimbo. On the first look at the Senorita I wondered if she might be an off-model Betty Boop, but I don’t think that’s sustainable. She’d need more hair curls over her face, I think. And maybe they just weren’t thinking about Bimbo for this one.

Wikipedia gives the release date of this carton as the 3rd of October, 1930, barely a week and a half after Swing You Sinners! was released. That seems weirdly close to me; no other pair of Talkartoons their first year were released so near one another. It made me wonder if the short was made earlier, perhaps before Bimbo started to crystallize as a character, and got held up any. But it doesn’t look as primitive as, say, Fire Bugs did. I’m curious how the scheduling for the short worked out. It’s probably foolish to read too much into the timing of successive shorts, though. The release dates don’t seem to show any particular pattern. February 1931 has two Talkartoons released in a single week.

There’s no end of suspiciously Mickey Mouse-like characters in it. And I’m not sure I have a candidate for the blink-and-you-miss-it joke. All the clear jokes are made pretty clearly, with about the right focus to appreciate them. There are several Fleischer studios cartoons that feature stage presentations and, for my tastes, they always work. There’s something about putting on stage theatrics with cartoon mechanisms that works for me. But I also couldn’t get enough of the hippopotamus apologizing his way through rows of the audience, so, what do I know?

For all the title promises an “uproar” there’s really not one. The action is all fairly well controlled. Even the climax doesn’t feel like it’s getting out of control. It’s funny enough, I think, and fitting. Just the title promises more chaos than the short delivers. There’s nothing wrong with a cartoon like this that’s just a bunch of jokes in a setting. But that there isn’t a protagonist probably keeps it from being able to build to any particular finale. Possibly the cartoon needed more Bimbo.

I have the impression the early joke about looking at the hippopotamus with all those diamonds is a reference to something, but I don’t know what it is.

The Eighth Talkartoon: Barnacle Bill; and Betty Boop gets a name (it’s not Betty)


If the Fleischer Studios cartoons have any reputation in the current pop culture it’s “those black-and-white cartoons the animators must have been on drugs when they drew”. They always say this about stuff packed with weirdness and whimsy and more nonsense than is needed. It seems to reflect some need to make alien the mindset that does stuff purely for fun, as though intense play were unfit for the dignity of modern life. And like most reputations it’s overblown. Most of their cartoons are straightforward things with little fillips of weirdness because they had the time to fill.

So here’s one of the cartoons that isn’t an exception. It’s eight minutes of almost nothing but weirdness. This cartoon, originally released the 30th of August, 1930, was animated by Seymour Kneitel and Rudy Zamora, along with — Wikipedia says, anyway — Grim Natwick. And it’s kind of a weird one.

This is listed as a Betty Boop cartoon. It was on the eight-VHS Betty Boop collection I watched so often in the 90s. I imagine anyone with a clear idea who Betty Boop was would list this as one of her cartoons, even though she’s still in that dog-based model abandoned not soon enough. But the cartoon gives her a name, clearly and obviously, in Bimbo’s notebook: she’s Nancy Lee. Apparently “Betty Boop” is a rewrite, the way Tom Cat started out as Jasper. Huh.

Or it’s a character. The cartoon has a — well, plot seems like the wrong word. But it’s doing something. It’s playing out the folk/drinking song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. A cleaned-up version was a hit song of 1928 and again 1930. Bimbo, acting consistently with the screwball nature I talked about in Dizzy Dishes, sneaks off his ship. And then gets into character, I suppose, as Barnacle Bill. Perhaps Betty’s just playing the character of Nancy Lee here. It seems a little weird, but in 1935 the Fleischer studios would pretty much remake this as a Popeye cartoon, Beware of Barnacle Bill. And in that one Bluto is certainly “playing” Barnacle Bill.

But that’s plenty of fussing about Betty Boop’s “original” name. There is a lot going on in this cartoon. Nearly every moment is a weird visual gag. I wonder if this is a side effect of tying so much of the cartoon to the song. There’s not a lot to do visually if you stick to the lyrics of any version of the song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. One person sings four lines, and the other person sings four lines. If you’re going to make it visually interesting you have to pack in weirdness. So sure, Bimbo knocks on the door with his tail. Or he leaps into the sofa as though it were a pool of water. Or Betty/Nancy’s chairs sneak out of the room and a sofa takes their place. The front door shrinks in horror and hides when Barnacle Bimbo threatens to tear it open. The apartment door swallows him into the room.

Put aside, though, how packed it is with throwaway visual gags. Did you notice the camera angles here? There are all sorts of weird perspective shots. Some of them make sense, shooting Bimbo from far above when he’s talking to Betty on the second floor, or Betty from below when she’s talking to Bimbo down below. Being above Bimbo when he’s walking up or down stairs makes sense. But, for example, the opening scene doesn’t need the boat to be charging at the camera to read cleanly, even to allow the boat (and bird) to sing. They chose to start from a weird perspective. It’s easy to imagine these scenes being framed in boring ways.

Does the short have an ending? Yes, it does, and then it blows right past it. Coming to the end of a round of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” is the sensible stopping point. Finding that Bimbo’s been hitting on Gus Gorilla’s girlfriend (I suppose?) makes great internal logic. It makes Bimbo out to be a bit of a jerk, but a screwball character tends to be a jerk anyway. And puffing yourself up as Barnacle Bill is choosing to embrace the jerkiness. When they redid this as Beware of Barnacle Bill they cast Bluto as Barnacle Bill, wisely realizing that as the only moral person in his universe Popeye couldn’t take that role. Also I wonder if this doesn’t justify Bimbo fearing Gus Gorilla in Dizzy Dishes. Surely the cartoons were in production simultaneously, at least at some point. Maybe the logic of who did what to who got mixed up. Or, yeah, maybe it’s just that the big hulking character is always the villain and the scrawny little guy is the protagonist.

And yet after this perfectly good ending the short goes on. We get a chase, and a nice ridiculous one. I guess it gets the short up to eight minutes, if that’s what they were going for. It does end with delightful weirdness. But it’s also the sort of strangeness-for-strangeness’s-sake that gets these cartoons their reputation. … Well, all right. A lot of these cartoons are really weird.

There’s some suspicious-looking mice at about 0:53 and 1:25 in the short, all scenes before Bimbo gets off the ship. It’s hard to pick a best blink-and-you-miss-it gag — there’s a lot to feast on — but I’ll nominate the ship walking into harbor and having sneakers on. It’s another odd little touch in a short that’s overflowing with them.

The Seventh Talkartoon, And The One Anyone Knows Anything About: Dizzy Dishes


Finally maybe back on track. I’m up to the seventh of the Talkartoon series. It’s arguably the most famous one. It’s one I’ve already reviewed, because it’s the debut of Betty Boop. But, heck. I’ve seen the cartoon many times. What’s one more? From its original release the 9th of August, 1930, here’s Dizzy Dishes.

Bimbo’s looking different from how he did in his debut in Hot Dog. It’s a common fate of characters in those days. It’s a small change, mostly: his head’s black rather than white. Or maybe I was wrong in Hot Dog and Bimbo was supposed to be the cop. As mutations go this isn’t a big one. Betty Boop would change much more between this, her first prototypical look, to the iconic image and then a bit more to her final appearance in her own cartoons.

Bimbo does a fair job driving the action this short. Everything that goes on relates to how he’s the waiter and apparently chef of this cabaret and not all that interested in being either. It’s a strange choice. I mean, it’s amusing, yes. Fair enough he should find a flood of rhyming orders annoying. That he goes the long, ridiculous way around actually preparing roast duck? That he puts it off for a dance number? The internal logic is weird. Granted that Gus Gorilla (if the Internet Movie Database is right in identifying him) looks menacing. How is he going to be less dangerous if he’s served his roast duck? How does hacking a chopping block into a locomotive engine help matters any?

And I guess the answer has to be that Bimbo, this cartoon has a personality. And that personality is the zany screwball. He’s not as fast-paced or as wild as black-and-white Daffy Duck. But try imagining this cartoon done with that early Daffy Duck as the waiter. It kinda fits, doesn’t it? … And then it makes sense that Bimbo doesn’t even try to placate a menacing-looking customer. A screwball doesn’t work if he cares.

The cartoon devotes a lot of its time to a song, like all these shorts have done so far. And that gives what everyone agrees is the debut of Betty Boop. She hasn’t quite got the form that would have her eighty years later still be put on bumper stickers I’ve never seen on an actual car. Really, her original, Grim Natwick-designed model is kind of hideous. Bimbo’s smitten, although I can’t say that’s due to her inherent charisma. It seems like any singer-character put in this role would do just as well. Her voice is appealing enough, but I might think that because of later associations. There is a weird little irony that in Betty Boop’s debut Bimbo steals nearly all the chances to sing “boop-oop-a-doop”. I’m not sure anyone could look at this and realize, yeah, that singer’s the character who will take over this series and then get her own cartoon series after that.

But the cartoon’s got a decent flow to it. There’s fewer dull segments, and few bits where the cartoon is clearly just repeating an amusing gag until everybody in the audience gets it. There’s a suspiciously Mickey-like mouse back in this cartoon, applauding at about 4:30 in. The roast duck laying an egg that hatches into another roast duck (about 4:10 in) is such a weird moment. When I showed a friend this, back in 1998 when we only had episodes on videotape — nobody had solved the problem of sharing video online back then — he was horrified enough he nearly refused to watch the rest. You don’t get cartoons like that anymore.

And as long as I’ve got Betty Boop under discussion: I just discovered that Comics Kingdom has started reprinting the Sunday installments of the Betty Boop comic strip. They started this months ago; I hadn’t heard is all. I hate to admit, but the strip — about Betty Boop’s foible-filled life as a movie star — is pretty dire. But at least you can make out where the jokes are supposed to be. I have my suspicions that possibly Max Fleischer didn’t actually write and draw every panel.

The Fifth Talkartoon: Fire Bugs (with a surprise musical visitor)


OK, this time I think I have this pesky “order” of things worked out. With luck, I’ll soon do two Talkartoons in a row in the way they should be. We’ll see. This week’s is Fire Bugs, originally released the 9th of May, 1930. If Wikipedia’s right this is the first Fleischer Studios cartoon to credit the animators. So we know two of the people responsible for its look and humor: Ted Sears and Grim Natwick. Sears would go on to be the first head of the Disney story department. Natwick is famous for something coming up next week if I can do time right. I give that a 50-50 chance of happening.

So. First thought. There was a time when nobody had thought to use Franz Liszt for a cartoon. There was, incredibly, a first time that the strong beat and wonderfully varied melody and great, riotous structure of the Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 was first set to an animated creature clowning around on the piano when something more urgent was under way. This was not that time. The earliest I’m aware of is the 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Opera House. It’s hard to imagine there are many earlier cases. Still, Fire Bugs is one of the early examples of this song becoming the Golden Age of Animation composition.

I had stopped tracking when suspiciously-Mickey-Mouse-like mice appeared in these cartoons because we went a couple weeks without any. This cartoon more than makes up for their absence. Kind Of Mickeys are all over the first scene, in many of the subsequence scenes, and pretty well fill out what would otherwise be negative space in this cartoon. They never quite do much, but they run around, and that can be enough. At least one gets a good gag of being picked up by the fire hose.

There is a lot of fun in this cartoon. It’s a great example of the rubber-hose style where nothing just moves. It has to be wrangled out of shape and then it consents to move. It’s a look I really enjoy. It feels lively.

The title makes sense; it’s a cartoon about a fire fighter that I suppose is our second Bimbo cartoon. And the story parses too; the fire call comes in, Bimbo(?) and his horse Sparky make their way to the scene; they rescue the longhair musician despite his best efforts to finish his piece. It ends at a logical point, as the Hungarian Rhapsody does. Sensible.

There’s not really a blink-and-you-miss-it joke, or else I blinked. (The ‘Fire Water’ barrels in the basement are on-screen too long to really count.) I do like the swapping of positions between Bimbo and Sparky as they slide down the firepole. There’s also, yeah, some dull bits where they drag out a bit of animation, maybe to make sure we saw the pansies dancing, thank you, now move on. Maybe to make sure the cartoon didn’t come in too short. You’d think an apartment fire would be enough for a good cartoon.

The musician at the end saying “My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, I thank you, goodbye” is a pop culture reference. It’s riffing on the tagline of The Four Cohans, or as we know them if we watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies, James Cagney as George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The horse’s name is surely a pop culture reference too. Sparkplug, or Sparky, was the name of Barney Google’s flea-bitten horse in the comic strip that, back then, was incredibly popular. I mean, like, popular in a way you’d think I was joking if I told you about. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was nicknamed “Sparky” after that horse. I haven’t read the strips of the 1930s so I have no informed opinion about whether everybody was just crazy back then. But Comics Kingdom has been running the Barney Google strips of the early 40s, and yeah, they’re pretty interesting. The strip, like many back then, was a serial adventure comic. I could believe it being justifiably a craze.

I already was enjoying the cartoon, even if it stalled for time before getting to the apartment building, when the Liszt kicked in. After that I was fully delighted. Glad to see it.