Where I Should Be And Where I Am


So what I should be doing is working out some messes with web site APIs. An API is a thing which is supposed to let your web site do a thing, but that doesn’t work. Then you search for explanations of why it doesn’t work, and you find people who’ve had a problem that seems like it might be the same one you have. It has some answer that the original poster says worked, but when you read it, there’s somehow just enough words missing that you can’t be sure quite what you were supposed to have set up already and what was supposed to change and what’s a completely different conceptual framework from your traditional ideas of “working” and “not working”. It’s all good fun.

What I am doing is watching a bunch of low-effort gangster movies from the 1930s with ever-growing fascination at the intense nasal twang with which actors of this era would say, “HEL-lo, in-SPECT-or”.

I believe history will vindicate my choice.

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The Sixth Talkartoon: Wise Flies


Just that string of words — “sixth Talkartoon: Wise Flies” — looks weird to me. This is because I know from time immemorial that the sixth Talkartoon was Dizzy Dishes, the famous introduction of Betty Boop. I think the problem is Marriage Wows, which I had to skip a couple weeks ago because I don’t know any way to see it. Wikipedia mentions that as a cartoon that turns out not to be lost. I suppose the books I read as a young cartoon enthusiast were unaware of Marriage Wows, so didn’t count it in their list of cartoons.

Now some of you may wonder what happened to the fifth Talkartoon, Fire Bugs. Nothing in particular. I just somehow missed it when I started preparing this, and now it’s too close to deadline for me to have a bunch of other thoughts about a whole other cartoon. I’ll try to loop back and get it next week. I’m sorry for the confusion.

So here’s the sixth Talkartoon. As ever, it’s credited to director Dave Fleischer. Two of the animators get credit, though: William Bowsky and Ted Sears. They didn’t do it all themselves; Wikipedia credits Grim Natwick with animation too. From the 18th of July, 1930, here it is:

Some cartoons keep surprising. I had this one pegged after the first scenes: it’d be a couple flies taunting the guy they’re skiing down, until eventually the spider pokes in, scares everyone, and after a frantic music nuber gets tied up by the blandly pleasant male lead fly. It’s an unexciting story structure but it’s a good, functional one.

I was a little surprised the spider poked in right away to interrupt a fly picnic. Didn’t throw my expectations too badly, though. We’d need to meet the blandly pleasant male lead and the female who’d get abducted by the villain, after all. But the female fly squirts the spider into embarrassed submission, and the spider trots back home, defeated. And turns out to have a wife and to be hungry. That’s a sympathizing touch. It’s easy to hiss at the villain who’s just out to cause harm. When they’re shown to just want to eat? That’s harder. That he’s got a family — in something I didn’t see coming, including kids to feed — makes the narrative stranger. The spider ends up the protagonist, possibly by default as none of the flies seem to be in successive scenes. (Perhaps this reflects different animators taking over the successive scenes.)

But the flies do get some nice odd scenes. A picnic is normal enough for anthropomorphic insects. The fly in a plane is weirder. I imagine it reflects how plane-mad the public was in the early 30s. Maybe it’s whimsy. Maybe it’s thoughtful: the scene is basically that of a guy cruising in his car and picking up a woman. But would a female fly even in principle be impressed by a car? A plane makes sense for that role.

The plotting’s a bit curious. It’s partly spot jokes about flies and a spider, fine enough. And it’s partly about, clearly enough: spider needs to feed himself and his family, but he can’t catch anything. Then about 3:54 in all that’s put on pause so the spider and fly can perform “Some Of These Days”, Shelton Brooks’s toe-tapping hit from 1910. (It had, Wikipedia tells me, got rerecorded by Sophie Tucker in 1926. Sold a million albums that way. Then it got into 1928’s Lights of New York, another candidate for the title of “first talking motion picture”. The cartoon came out in that while the song was inescapable.) But that turns the last scene from hunter-and-prey into an odd infidelity-romance bit. That’s an interesting surprise to me too. It’s a shame that got resolved with the spider’s wife coming out in battleaxe mode. But it does add a nice sad touch to the final chorus of “No flies!”

This isn’t a cartoon with big laughs, at least not for me. There’s a few nice small laughs, like the spider reading the Fly Paper. But overall it’s a curious short that’s not quite plot-driven, but feels like it has more story than just a couple jokes about flies doing things.

Does the title make sense? Absolutely. It’s a little punny, but not absurdly so, and it’s definitely a fly-driven cartoon. Does its ending make sense? Here, too, yes: there’s good reason to end the cartoon at this point rather than another. There aren’t any really good weird body-horror-ish jokes, things where people come flying apart or something crazy like that. The spider’s teeth hopping while he dance and I guess that’s about it.

I don’t know whether to read the sleeping man at the start of the cartoon as a black figure, or just a guy with a heavy beard.

Next Tuesday! I ought to do Fire Bugs. Maybe I’ll do Dizzy Dishes. Maybe I’ll get hopelessly confused again and go review the fifth episode of the Disney’s Hercules Saturday Morning Cartoon for some reason. I don’t know. I’m just doing the best I can.

The Fourth Talkartoon: Hot Dog (it’s just Bimbo)


At least, Wikipedia says this is the introduction of Bimbo. He doesn’t look a lot like the figure I know from a lot of Betty Boop cartoons. But characters were more fluid things back then. The figures billed as “Betty Boop” before she got title credit are all over the place; why not Bimbo too? Here’s Hot Dog, originally released the 29th of March, 1930.

So, uhm. I understand that in the early days cartoons weren’t exactly plotted. They were sort of sketched out with the idea that here was the theme, and here are the obvious high points to hit, and each of the main animators would take a segment and do what seemed to make sense. It’s a hard way of doing things well. You can see why plotting took over. When this loose, semi-improvised format works it gives cartoons a wonderful jazzy vibe, even in the days before sound. Each segment is this joyous burst of nonsense and who cares if, like, different scenes are using different models for the star? When it doesn’t work there’s a slog of scenes that don’t have points repeating the one gag someone had for, like, a car going down the street.

Hot Dog is curiously in-between those. It’s got a clear plot. Bimbo is cruising the streets to pick up a woman. When he finally does it’s kinda assault-y, and a cop (who looks more like what Bimbo settled on than Bimbo does here) gives chase. Bimbo stumbles into one of those parades police are always having in Keystone Cops pictures and the occasional Harold Lloyd short. Marched into court, Bimbo pleads his case: it’s the Saint Louis Blues. With the song played well enough, he leaves.

It’s a surprising introduction to Bimbo. Betty Boop shorts prepare me to see him as the guy who points at stuff and says “Oh!” until they drag Koko the Clown out of retirement. I can’t fault him cruising for women. Picking up someone not even the slightest interested puts me in the weird case of rooting for the cartoon cop.

Thing is for all the clear direction of the plot there’s not a lot to watch here. It’s like all the animators figured someone else would have the showpiece bit. There’s some fair enough jokes in each bit. I like the car moseying by growing its tires into long legs, at about 2:07 in. There are a lot of little throwaway bits of silly business and things moving in that rubber-body style in the whole court scene.

But the whole cartoon plays like setup for jokes. There’s no really big scenes, no payoffs. And even for an era when you could count on any good bit of business being repeated there’s a lot of repetition here. And padding: why does it take so long for Bimbo and his car to appear in front of the woman he eventually grabs? Why spend so much time playing “Pop Goes The Weasel” while she just walks along the edge of the frame? I wonder if they didn’t realize the cartoon was running short and looked for stuff they could just repeat. I’m not sure I even have a favorite joke here. There’s some nice freaky 30s cartoon style humor in the grabbed woman growing roller skates out of her toes at about 3:03. And there’s the car tires growing into legs. The picture of Justice interacting with Bimbo. But that’s about it. It’s left me wondering if there’s some contemporary pop-culture reference here that I’m missing.

I didn’t spot any suspiciously Mickey Mouse-like mice. I suppose Bimbo is meant to be the Fleischer studios’ Mickey Mouse, but nobody would confuse him for Mickey at a glance.

The cartoon is in a weird state where the cartoon never gets around to anything bad, but it doesn’t have any good stuff either. Wikipedia claims this to be the first Fleischer Cartoon using grey tones, which I guess is so if you don’t look at Radio Riot. Maybe they mean using grey tones throughout the short. But in that case I’m not sure that the parade-of-police scene uses grey. Still, it has historic import for introducing Bimbo and, at 2:55 in, his immortal first words: “My[?] sweet-loving[?] sweet[?]” They were still working out sound in 1930. Also, apparently, how to pitch woo.

The Third Talkartoon: Radio Riot


I didn’t ditch the second Talkartoon on purpose. It’s just that the short, a 1929 titled Marriage Wows, might as well be a lost cartoon. According to Wikipedia the UCLA film library has the nitrate elements for it. But otherwise? As far as I’m aware it’s not available online, and it might not even be available for normal non-scholarly people at UCLA to see. There is a 1949 Famous Studios short of the same title, but goodness knows whether it’s a remake of the early talkie. Possibly it is in part; the 1949 short is the sort of string of spot gags that would be as easily made in 1929. And the central song is Me and My Gal, from 1917. But the 1949 cartoon is a Screen Songs follow-the-bouncing-ball short. Talkartoons, as far as I know, never did that. Besides, Fleischer Studios already had the Screen Songs series going in 1930.

I’ll put that aside and go on to the next Talkartoon. Originally released the 13th of February, 1930, it’s Radio Riot. There’s no credits for it, besides the Directed by Dave Fleischer title, but we’ll start getting some idea who drew stuff in the next couple cartoons.

So there we have it. First, yes, the title makes sense and has something to do with the cartoon. The framing device is a day’s worth of radio programming. Morning exercises, a musical number, a scary story for impressionable kids. It’s a short programming day but after all it is only an eight-minute cartoon. It’s a framing device much like SCTV used in its first season, before they got into telling plots of the backstage happenings.

As with last week’s Talkartoon, Noah’s Lark, I believe this cartoon was drawn on paper. After the first scene there’s not much grey in the cartoon; it’s in black and white, mostly. I suspect the frog’s scenes were done on animation cels, and the rest on the old-fashioned white paper.

Speaking of the frog. I know there’s animation fans who see a frog of this vintage and think of Ub Iwerks’s Flip the Frog. He was the star of a couple dozen genial shorts after Iwerks left the Disney studios and set up his own animation company. It’s coincidence, though. The first Flip the Frog cartoon was released in August 1930. Frogs must just have been in the air.

There’s a double dose of Suspiciously Mickey Mouse-like characters. First there’s a pair doing exercises in the scene starting about 3:18 into things. And then there’s a bunch more, mouse kids I assume, in the ghost-story scene that starts at 6:19 and closes out the short.

I’m not sure there’s a proper blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag that I really liked. Possibly the way the exercising radio receiver and table about 1:15 in are out of step with the frog’s direction. But I did enjoy the frog explaining the exercise program was brought to you by the “Noiseless Biscuits Company”. It sounds enough like a company name that you don’t right away notice the nonsense. That’s often the best sort of nonsense.

The most startling joke to me: the goldfish doesn’t jump back in the fishbowl! The heck, guys? It also looks to me like the first pair of mice meet a grizzly yet not-quite-on-camera end. There’s implicitly something sad going to happen to those flies caught on paper as part of that radio star’s “Where o Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”. Video is innocent in this one.

Does the short have an ending? Yes, it has. The framing device implies there’ll be a last broadcast of the day, and of the short, and that makes narrative sense. And the scary part makes for a good closing act. I am again satisfied.

On The Loose with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts


ZaSu Pitts. Not really a household name anymore, although at least a name you sometimes heard, when I was growing up. Probably it’s from the way the syllables fall together. What I wouldn’t realize until I got into old-time radio was that she was, to me, the perfect expression of a particular type of comic actor. I was surely primed for that by the imitations and impersonations of her, especially in the way Olive Oyl has always been played. Thelma Todd, I admit, I thought about less. She had a less catchy name, even if she was in some of the Marx Brothers’ best movies. And she died longer ago.

Nevertheless, they’re both solidly funny people. And Hal Roach, looking as ever for good comic pairings, tried them out together. One of the results is the short I want to show off this week, On The Loose. It was originally released the 26th of December, 1931, which seems like a strange release date to me. That’s because the short is mostly a trip to Coney Island.


The Coney Island thread is what drew my attention to this short. I’d been thinking of amusement parks and movies which feature them. The premise is that Pitts and Todd — playing themselves, or at least the Screen Versions of themselves — are stuck always being taken to Coney Island for dates and are fed up with it. This does inspire the question of whether anyone in a live-action short goes to an amusement park for fun or whether it’s all frustration and anxiety. But never mind that.

What most fascinates me here is the accidental-documentary nature of it. The rides and attractions as shown are more or less what you could really experience in Coney Island in the 30s, at least by reports, down to, yes, sitting in stands watching people come out of the funhouse and get jabbed by clowns. They were different times, is what we have to remember. And I love getting to see the rides that may not have been the biggest draws or the most famous stunts but were just normal and unremarkable and, happily, preserved on film.

MiSTed: What To Invent


Back in the days before the Earth’s crust had solidified, when Usenet was a thing, grew an art form called the MiSTing. The practice developed in the news groups dedicated to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and was our modest imitation of the show: take some original posting and intersperse it with comments, along the line of the of the riffs that Joel or Mike and the robots (collectively, The Brains) would. The first MiSTing I’m aware of was called “Hopping Mad At MST3K”, a person’s rant about how those rotten kids these days won’t even watch an old movie without talking through it and this was obviously MST3K’s fault.

Rants would be one of the mainstays of MiSTings, back when the newsgroups were active and I was in touch with the MiSTing culture. Fan fictions were another mainstay; I firmly believe that MiSTing would not have had a culture if not for Stephen Ratliff’s notorious “Marissa Picard” Star Trek: The Next Generation fan fiction. Surprisingly uncommon back in the glory days of Usenet MiSTings were examples of this group: the slightly pompous expository lump. This one is from the magazine Modern Mechanix, originally printed in 1937, and I only know of it because the Modern Mechanix blog summons old articles, some interesting, some funny, some both, to its pages.

The Thanksgiving season has always been a kind of unofficial Mystery Science Theater 3000 holiday: it’s the anniversary of when the show first debuted, and many of their movies were dubbed turkeys, and Turkey Day MST3K marathons were shown first on Comedy Central and then the Sci-Fi Channel, and today get done in organized online gatherings that I won’t participate in because our ISP doesn’t offer enough bandwidth to watch videos online. But the text form is pretty easy to enjoy at your leisure and I hope you do.

(This one is a slightly unusual form of the classic MiSTing; there’s no host sketches involved. The original material was too short to justify sketches. But a full-length MiSTing might be unreadable in WordPress form. We’ll see. Consider this an experiment.


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