Turner Classic Movies (United States feed) has scheduled the 1931 movie Skippy for this Wednesday, the 27th of February. It’s set for 10:15 pm Eastern and Pacific time. I’ve mentioned the movie before but, what the heck. There’s people reading this who missed earlier mentions.
The movie is based on Percy Crosby’s comic strip Skippy. It’s a great comic strip. It’s an influential one, too. It’s one of the comics that Charles Schulz had in mind when making Peanuts. And, with considerable help from Schulz, it’s influenced incredibly many comics. Crosby supposed that kids had feelings and desires and interests that they took seriously, and that good stories would come from taking them seriously. Every comic strip that follows the child’s point of view owes something to it.
It’s not only influential, though. It’s good. I mean, a lot of early comic strips are good, but you have to work a bit to understand them. Like, I enjoy George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, but if take any given day’s strip and ask me what the joke is I’ll often be in trouble. Not Skippy, though. Crosby’s sensibility is close enough to the modern one. There are exceptions, but you can look at the comic and understand what’s supposed to be funny. Clean up the dialogue and redraw it for modern comic strip art sizes and you could run it on a modern newspaper page.
The movie, starring Jackie Cooper, came out in 1931, when the comic was a few years old. It’s got to be among the first full-length movies based on comic strips ever, really. Percy Crosby gets a writing credit, and I believe it. I’m not sure if any specific strips were adapted into the screenplay, but the tone and attitude absolutely is. (Neither of the strips I’m including here are used in the movie, mind.) And much of it is the sort of casual hanging-out of kids who just have some free time and places they’re not supposed to go and the occasional excitement that somebody has some money and things like that.
The movie has a plot, although it takes a while before you see that it’s more than just hanging out. And there is something worth warning: when the plot does swing into action it includes an animal’s death. It’s taken seriously when it happens, and it devastates the character it’s supposed to. But it also includes the attitude that if, say (and to use an animal not in the film, so that I don’t give away just what happens more than necessary), your goldfish dies it’s all right because you can get another goldfish. I know there are people who even today have that attitude, but I don’t understand it myself.
Anyway, if you don’t need that in your comic strip movies, that’s all right. If you want to enjoy what you can without facing that, watch roughly the first hour. Up through the bit where Skippy and Sooky put on a show. Duck out after that and you avoid the shocking stuff.
Director Norman Taurog won an Academy Award for Best Director. Jackie Cooper was nominated for Best Actor. The screenplay, by Sam Mintz, Norman McLeod, and Joseph Mankiewicz, got a nomination for Best Writing. And the whole movie got a nomination for Best Picture. So Turner Classic Movies brings the movie up at least every February, as part of its 31 Days of Oscar. And, well, it’s a solid movie. Worth noticing.
If you’re looking for a recap of the plot of Joe Staton, Mike Curtis, Shelley Pleger, and Shane Fisher’s Dick Tracy, good news! This is a useful spot for that. If you’re reading this after about March 2019 there’s probably a more up-to-date recap. It’ll be at this link.
Polar Vortex and Pauly get to fighting in their hangout. Pauly’s ready to kill Vortex, who’s got the cavalry on the way. He’d taken Honeymoon Tracy’s wrist-wizard communicator out of the ice cream freezer. For some reason Pauly thought this would inactivate it. Tracy and Sam Catchem bust down the door and get into a shootout with Pauly. Pauly lives long enough to say that all this was for his father, Crutch.
… Which you’d think would be a big deal. Or which would be a big deal if it got some attention. Crutch is a character from the very first-ever Dick Tracy storyline. He was the gunman who killed Tess Trueheart’s father. It was the case that brought Dick Tracy into the scientific-detective line. I didn’t recognize this, no, and needed GoComics.com commenters and the Dick Tracy Wikia to guide me. Which all highlights some cool and some bad stuff about Staton and Curtis’s run on the strip. They’re incredibly well-versed in the history of the comic strip and can pull out stuff from about ninety years’ worth of stories. But when they’re doing this isn’t communicated well. To put Dick Tracy up against the son of the first man he gunned down? Good setup. But we didn’t know that was going on until that son was gasping his last breaths. Pauly’s role could be any henchman’s. So, what was the dramatic point made by linking him to the murderer of Tess’s father? In a way that you would never guess without auxiliary material?
Maybe it doesn’t need a point. Life is complicated and messy and has weird links. Maybe Polar Vortex wanted someone who’d try something stupid like this, and summon Dick Tracy’s attention. Tracy does investigate Vortex’s business. I thought he didn’t find anything, but the 18th of November Tracy mentions that Vortex is out on bail after drug-trafficking charges. The kidnapping he seems to get a pass on, even though kidnapping Crystal Plenty was part of the lost plan. Vortex does say he had a plan for killing Tracy, and this was too soon. Maybe Vortex’s plan went wrong. But I’d feel more sure if I were clear on what the plan was.
Well. The next big plot thread started the 21st of October, with the introduction of the (imaginary) comedy duo Deacon and Miller. They’re getting a revival, with a film festival hosted by Vitamin Flintheart plus a new syndicated newspaper comic strip based on the pair. … Which might be the most implausible premise I’ve seen in this strip. And this is a strip that has telepathic, psychokinetic Moon Men and a guy who used a popcorn maker to shoot someone.
The revival’s funded by a trust set up by Miller, redeemable after 40 years. There’s a bunch of money in it, and Polar Vortex has got himself named trustee. And I’m confused on just how myself. It was described as a “neighborhood bank” plan scam. I’m not sure what this is. It reads like the mark (Dick Miller of the comedy team) was convinced to put money into a fake bank. But the scammer went ahead and actually invested it, and pretty well. And I’m comfortable with that, that far. The scam where it turns out to be easier to go legitimate is a fun premise. I loved it in the movie Larceny, Inc. (Well, the movie circles that premise anyway.)
So then to the present day. Vortex got charge of the money, and went looking for Peter Pitchblende. Pitchblende is the grandson of Miller, and rightful heir to all this money, and the point person for this whole revival. Vortex’s plan seems to be to get Pitchblende to sign over the money to him. There’s something I don’t understand in the phrase “neighborhood bank” scam, but I haven’t been able to work out what from the strip. I would understand embezzlement. I don’t understand why Vortex can’t just take the money without involving Pitchblende. Also it seems like the revival got started before Vortex contacted Pitchblende. But that might be that the revival would have been airy plans until Vortex dropped the promise of money into it.
Well, Vortex’s plan seems to be … being very slow about repaying Pitchblende for out-of-pocket expenses with the Deacon-and-Miller revival. That at least seems like a workable start to a scam. Vortex claims this is a temporary sideline from his drug-dealing at schools. But it’s hard, especially with a small group. And I’m not sure he understands just stealing money. Like, I’m pretty sure even with a drug-oriented racket he could fake Peter Pitchblende’s signature on stuff. Anyway, he feels the personnel shortage. So Vortex hires some guy he sees talking confidently at the coffee shop. The guy’s named “Striker”, or as we know him, Lafayette Austin. (Austin is getting a lot of attention this year, mostly working undercover in foiling various villains.)
Austin, working undercover, is able to get at Vortex’s files by the cunning plan of being left alone in the room with them. Vortex likes Striker’s energy. He doesn’t like that of street-level pusher Ballpark, who’s been using the drugs instead of pushing them around some. Vortex sends Ballpark to “the bell tower”, which is a literal bell tower. There’s some setup about the experimental infrasound system being good for … well, it’s got to be killing, doesn’t it?
Start of December. The police sweep up drug dealers around Honeymoon and Crystal’s school. And over the rest of town. The cops close in on Vortex and Devil, up in the bell tower. I’m not sure he did get to killing Ballpark, or ever using this infrasound bell tower death machine. Maybe that’s left for a future villain to use, although I’d hope it gets a fresh introduction and explanation of what it’s supposed to do then. The story’s been one of those with a strong enough line of action that you seem like a spoilsport complaining about key parts of it not explained. It makes my life harder.
Vortex tries to, but can’t shoot Tracy. He’s arrested. Austin finds the documents showing that Pitchblende should have the Miller-investment-inheritance. I really don’t understand what the setup of that was. But they turn over the money to Pitchblende and the show can go on. The show features Vitamin Flintheart, playing himself, in a musical based on J Straightedge Trustworthy. This is an in-universe comic strip inspired by and parodying Dick Tracy.
The 16th of December, I believe, starts a new plot. It opens at the Wertham Woods Psychiatric Facility (get it?) where Tulza Tuzon kills several doctors and escapes during a blackout. Tuzon’s better known to the cops as Haf-and-Haf. He’s got a reputation for breaking out of psychiatric hospitals. Last time he did, he got sprayed with some caustic waste, burning half his head. So since then he calls himself Splitface.
He makes for The City, where high-diving star Zelda The Great is performing. This all gets Tracy’s attention. Tuzon is something of a tribute act. Ages ago Tracy “put away” — I don’t know if he means jailed or killed — a serial killer named Splitface. The original Splitface’s ex-wife is Zelda the Great. Haf-and-Haf is also reported to have developed two alternate personas. That’s a development I’m sure won’t mean that I have to provide a content warning about mental health next time around.
But! That’s on hold for two weeks as the strip does another Minit Mystery. This one written by Donnie Pitchford, who writes and draws the Lum and Abner comic strip. And which makes me finally, about two months late, recognize what “Peter Pitchblende” is a reference to. So, y’know, anyone looking to me for insight please remember that that’s the level I’m working at.
(The Si and Elmer referenced in that strip was a syndicated serial comedy. It’s listed as an attempt at cloning Lum and Abner. I am not sure that both shows aren’t more properly clones of Amos and Andy, with hillbilly rather than blackface comedians. Si and Elmer were elderly small-town residents who decided to go into the detective business. At that point in their own series, Lum and Abner were a justice of the peace and the town sheriff, which makes them almost on-point for a Dick Tracy crossover. I haven’t listened to any of the episodes. Apparently something like 95 of the estimated 130 episodes made survive. That’s an amazing record for early-30s radio. Here are something like 67 of them available for the listening. There might be others elsewhere on archive.org.)
So I don’t know anything about the Minit Mystery besides what you saw in today’s strip. I’ll recap that and whatever this Haf-and-Haf/Splitface plot develops in a couple months’ time.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley is a hundred years old! How many of those years did its centennial celebration run? What happened with Peggy Lee? Did Walt Wallet move into the Old Comics Home? Find out here, in seven days, or, y’know, skim through the strip yourself. You’ll probably make a pretty good estimate.
We’re back, in the Talkartoons, to ones with known animators. And a good hand, too: Grim Natwick, credited with the creation of Betty Boop in the first place. (There’s two more Talkartoons without known animators, which we should get to in late April and early May.) This is also the last Talkartoon of 1931: it was released the 12th of December. And if I’m not missing something, it’s the second (known) cartoon adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story. And the second Talkartoon in a row that’s a fairy-tale adaptation.
I do have to offer a content warning. There’s a joke at about 4:20 in playing on the meanings of the words “pansies” and “fairies”.
The title card narration suggests the cartoon will be risque, in the way that pre-Code cartoons are often reputed to be. This is borne out, at least some; the short is driven by Bimbo’s lusting after Betty Boop. Also maybe by the wolf’s lusting after Betty Boop, although that could just be the normal, empty-stomach sort of hunger.
And it’s got Bimbo in his non-screwball-character design. The one where he’s a bit dull. He’s less interesting than he was last week in Jack and the Beanstalk, yes. But he’s not the boring passive participant in the story that he would get to be. About halfway through he surprises me by beating up the wolf, chasing the wolf’s skeleton out of his own skin for a moment of honest-to-goodness horror, and taking his place. (The wolf also accidentally cuts his head off for a moment there, about 3:12 in, but that’s done so quickly it might not even register.) This is (apparently) the first sound cartoon adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story, and only the second in American animation (Walt Disney did a Little Red Riding Hood cartoon in 1922). It’s surprising that even that early on in animation history they felt they had to have the story go this weird.
Given how well Jack and the Beanstalk went, and that most fairy tales are public domain, it’s not surprising they’d try the trick again. But I don’t know how far they had developed Jack and the Beanstalk before starting work on Dizzy Red Riding Hood. They might have realized they were on to something good. Or both cartoons might have started development about simultaneously as the Fleischer Studios realized they had a story source just waiting around right there to be used.
It doesn’t come off as well as Jack and the Beanstalk, though. This cartoon isn’t so zany as last week’s. There are many good little bits of business, and so a wealth of choices for blink-and-you-miss-it jokes. I’d vote for right up front as the handle for the icebox keeps escaping Betty’s hand, and turns out to be a sausage link poking through a hole anyway. Also that Bimbo eats the fish Betty puts in her basket, and the sausage links leap into his mouth. And that’s before a friendly little frog turns into an outboard motor to help Betty through a large puddle.
There are a lot of good little bits of business. I like the forest leaping into Betty’s way. Also that when we first see the wolf, he, Betty, and Bimbo all enter the scene from different depths; it’s a rare bit of three-dimensionality. And I’m really amused that the wolf goes to the trouble of getting Betty Boop to plant flowers just so he can have flowers to stomp on.
There’s also some good draftsmanship on display in a challenging scene about 2:25 in, where Betty and the Wolf are walking along a curved trail in the woods, and Bimbo keeps poking his head out between trees. It’s the kind of angle that’s not seen enough in cartoons, for my tastes. It’s hard to animate so it looks right. This does look right, although it goes on a bit long, as if the studio was so impressed they’d got it right they were checking to make sure everyone noticed. Always the problem in doing the hard stuff right.
Still, none of the jokes feel that big, or land that strongly. There’s a lot that’s amusing; no real belly laughs. The closing scene, with Betty and Bimbo sitting on the moon as if it were a hammock, is a great image, but it’s a strange closing moment not coming from or building to anything. I like the Moon’s despairing expression, though.
There aren’t credits for the voice actors. The Internet Movie Database credits Little Ann Little with Betty Boop’s voice, plausibly as she’d been doing that the last several shorts. It also credits Billy Murray with Bimbo’s voice, again, credible. I don’t know who does the introduction. It sounds to me like someone impersonating Ronald Colman, but I’m not sure that in 1931 that would be a name people could be expected to recognize. The wolf’s voice — at least his singing voice — sounds to me like Jackson Beck. You’ll recognize him as the voice of Bluto and every other heavy in every cartoon and old-time radio show. But that is my speculation and I am not skilled in identifying voice actors.
The wolf, while singing his threats, rhymes “granny” with “bologna”. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.
The next of the Talkartoon sequence is another one we don’t have animator information about. Sorry. Looking ahead, it appears there’s only two more Talkartoons without credits. Wikipedia also lists this as Betty Boop’s final appearance in dog form. It’s the first Talkartoon based explicitly on a fairy tale (unless one of the lost ones has something). It won’t be the last. From the 21st of November, 1931 — just two weeks after Mask-A-Raid — here’s Jack and the Beanstalk.
OK, so that’s kind of a weird one. It’s got all the major elements of Jack and the Beanstalk — Bimbo, with his earlier, more screwball design, as Jack; a beanstalk; a cow; a giant; a magic hen. The story’s presented in a lightly subverted form. Bimbo’s aware of the giant because of a dropped cigar. Bimbo just having the beans and needing the cow to tell him to use it. The Magic Hen coming out of nowhere. It’s interesting to me there are so many elements of spoofing the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk story. If I’m not overlooking something on Wikipedia this is only the second cartoon made based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story, and only about the fourth time the story was put on film. There are probably some more adaptations that just haven’t been identified. Still, it does suggest this is one of those fairy tales that are adopted more in parody than in earnest. It’s a curious state of affairs.
I mentioned Bimbo’s got his earlier character design here. He’s also got his earlier personality, the one with personality. He’s a more active person than he’s been since The Herring Murder Case at least. For a wonder in a cartoon billed Betty Boop and Bimbo, he’s actually the lead. I’m curious why he doesn’t stay this interesting. It gives the cartoon shape. And a screwball Bimbo can do random weird stuff to fill in jokes during a dull stretch.
There’s no end of casual weird body stuff this cartoon. It starts out with Bimbo taking his cow’s horn off to use as telescope. Bimbo’s arm turns into a rotary drill to plant beans. Bimbo untying Betty by taking her apart and putting her back together. The Magic Hen swapping her head and tail. The Magic Hen flying apart, then pulling herself together by putting her legs through her neck-hole and grabbing her head. File all these images away for a nightmare at some more convenient time.
Not only does a suspiciously Mickey-like Mouse appear about 4:48 in, but he figures into the plot. Makes for a really well-crafted cartoon, as well as the rare short from this era to have four significant characters. Five, if the Hen counts.
I’m not sure the short has any blink-and-you-miss-it jokes; everything is pretty well timed and set up. Also I’m surprised how big a laugh I got out of the bowl of soup smacking the giant in the face. Maybe you’d count the four eggs the Magic Hen lays turning into tires for her own morph into a car. And the car morphing back into the Hen. Both are such quick and underplayed bits of business it’s easy to not see them.
I’m surprised how well this short worked. Betty Boop cartoons would go back to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. This short gives good reason why.
So the next Talkartoon in release order, from the 16th of October, 1931, was In The Shade Of The Old Apple Sauce. Wikipedia tells me it’s a lost cartoon. Certainly I never found it. Wikipedia also says it’s “not to be confused with the Screen Songs from 1929 of the same name”. There was no such 1929 Screen Songs cartoon. They’re thinking of In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree, based on the 1905 song. Shifting the name to “Apple Sauce” just shows how hep the staff of Fleischer Studios was around 1931; apple-based stuff was a slangy way to talk about something being nonsense back then. So that’s why really old cartoons will talk about something being “apple sauce” or someone being an “apple knocker” or something like that. And now, someone who’s a fan of the old-time radio comedy-detective show Richard Diamond understands why that time Richard takes on an assumed identity as “Harold Appleknocker” all the other characters react as if this were a joke the audience was supposed to understand. It would just be weirdly dated, like if a comic detective today gave her name as Allison Supertrain.
But there’s no seeing that cartoon. So I move on to the next, from the 7th of November is Mask-A-Raid. There’s no credits to say who the animators were.
Before getting there, though, I have to share a content warning. At the center of the cartoon is the song Where Do You Work-A John, also known as the Delaware Lackawanna Song. It was a novelty hit, five years old at the time, and written by Mortimer Weinberg, Charley Marks and Harry Warren. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians made it a canonical hit, but Harry Reser and other bandleaders covered it too. Thing is it’s written with the sort of lighthearted stereotyping that was fine back in the days when big city police could start their investigation into the bomb set off in the business district by just looking up who they could think of who was Italian.
The verses used in the cartoon don’t get to the really troublesome ones, but there’s still a bit of an edge there. And there’s masquerade masks that get the stereotyping more on point, with Italian and, for whatever reason, Chinese faces. It doesn’t read to me as malicious, just absurd, but I don’t want to toss surprises up at you.
The short starts with an interesting title: it’s Betty Boop in Mask-A-Raid with Bimbo. It’s not surprising to us today that Betty Boop would have taken first billing, and is sending Bimbo down to guest-star status. But what was going on in 1931 that they saw this coming? Betty Boop’s turned up more and more, yes, but it’s hard to see what she’s done that’s more interesting than Bimbo has.
I mentioned with Minding The Baby that Betty Boop cartoons develop a stock plot. This one draws closer to it: Betty and Bimbo play a while, a big bad interrupts their fun, and then Bimbo has to rally into action. There isn’t the kidnapping and chase to this; it’s just a duel between Bimbo and the King (and his men). But it’s still early in the series.
There’s a lot of this cartoon I don’t get. Not the plot. It’s straightforward and silly and while there’s nonsense to it, there’s not crazy, surreal bits. What I don’t get is there’s a lot that seems like it’s got to be a reference to something. Take the droopy-faced, huge-nosed mask at about 2:20 in. That’s got to be a Chico Marx caricature, right? It seems to make sense, although I don’t think of him as having so large a nose that making it something you have to carry by wheelbarrow a sensible caricature. But if it’s spoofing someone else? … Okay, who? I feel like I should be more sure here. At the end of the short Bimbo goes into a little scat-singing reverie, and that makes sense so far as anything does in the short. But is Bimbo impersonating anybody particular? The body language feels like it to me. His hair grows out. Just a joke that he’s a singer now? But I had understood long hair, back then, to signify classical music fanatics. My best guess is Bimbo’s impersonating one of the band’s singers. I don’t know who that would be, though. I think the music was done by Harry Reser and whatever he called his band in 1931. But what do my ears know?
I’m not sure whether this is a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. But there is a lot going on in Bimbo’s first scene, when he’s the bandleader and a bunch of smaller animals are playing the hippopotamus. There’s a lot going on there and if you notice, say, the suspiciously-Mickey-like mouse playing his toes like a xylophone you maybe missed the dog(?) drumming on the hippo’s head. It’s also easy to miss how the suspicious mice who carry Betty’s cape come to riding on her cape. But that’s also less funny, at least to me. (And there’s more mice in the big scrum around 4:55.) Maybe the guy who tosses peanuts into the trunk of the elephant blowing a fanfare at about 4:25. That’s not a lot of joke, but I don’t remember ever noticing it in twenty years of watching this cartoon. As for body horror, well, there’s not a strong candidate. The gag where two knight’s swords go into each other at about 5:10 creeps me out for reasons I can’t explain, so I’ll go with that.
This Talkartoon was released the 22nd of August, 1931. This was not quite a month after Bimbo’s Initiation. But Wikipedia tells me this was the first entry of the 1931-32 film season. It doesn’t seem like much of a season break. But there are changes. Most importantly, Bimbo’s no longer the sole credited lead character. There’s no credited animators, and I don’t see any clear guesses about who’s responsible.
So one of those things I never knew was a thing growing up: “Moving Day” didn’t used to just be whenever it was you roped a couple friends into lugging a couch down three flights of stairs and back up a different three flights. Used to be — per Edwin G Burrows and Mike (Not That Mike) Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 — a specific day, the 1st of May. Most leases would expire then and the city would convulse in a mad dash for cartage as everybody tried to get to a new spot. Gotham doesn’t make clear to me when this Moving Day lapsed. I would guess during World War II, given the housing shortages, when rational people might leap at the chance to sleep inside the fireplace since at least it’s a warm spot in walking distance of the defense plant. But my point is that when this cartoon was made, and when it was first shown, “Moving Day” likely had this suggestion of a specific, big event that people went through nearly annually.
The core of any Moving Day cartoon is, yeah, how to carry stuff in silly ways. The short doesn’t disappoint in having good approaches for this. My favorite is the overall busy scene breaking out at about 3:24 in, when movers toss furniture down the rain gutter and pop the roof off to throw stuff down to the patio and so on. It’s got that big-complicated-mechanism action so dear to the Fleischer Brothers. There’s some other fine silly bits, such as carrying the stove or the bathtub out. Or Bimbo carefully bringing furniture out the window and untying it to drop. And very well, too, with an almost perfect call from below of “I got it!” after each drop.
At least when the moving action finally gets started. The short does take its sweet time getting there. It isn’t all wasted time. Yes, we’ve got the idea that it’s Bimbo’s Moving Van after about three seconds of seeing the moving van. But there is some fun to be had seeing the horse pull the van in a silly way. Also to spot the well-done background, moving at an angle and years before multi-plane cameras were a thing. Also there’s establishing the gorilla and the small cat. Also, I’m apparently incapable of not giggling every single time the cat gets squashed or walks underneath the gorilla and emits that poor, sad little “mew”. I’m not sure it needs as long as it gets. But, oh, that helpless “mew”. Also there’s one of the few jokes you could miss this short if you blinked; a wheel falls off the van and the vehicle staggers until it gets things back.
I’m still more tickled by the cat’s many little “mew” cries. Between those and the guy down below yelling how he’s got the furniture Bimbo’s dropped, this might be a new high-water mark for Talkartoons having funny lines from characters.
This is the first cartoon titled Bimbo and Betty — no Boop, yet — which I suppose shows how the Fleischers realized that Betty had something Bimbo just hadn’t. I’m surprised they recognized it so early. Here she’s got more screen time than, I think, since The Bum Bandit. But all Betty does is spend her time clipping her toenails (complete with a face on her toe, a joke the studio would come back to) and setting up a decent if stock, slightly racy, joke from Bimbo. She could bring a little more to the proceedings.
It’s not a bad cartoon. Lesser than Bimbo’s Initiation, but most cartoons are. It’s got a larger cast than average, and I keep finding the extra cast more interesting than the main. I’m not sure if the horse, gorilla, and cat show up in other cartoons. They make a good impression, especially considering how little they get to do. It’s got to be in the cat’s pathetic little crushed “mew”.
I knew when I stumbled in to reviewing the Talkartoons that there were few cartoons my readers might plausibly have seen. There’s The One That Introduced Betty Boop (Dizzy Dishes). There’s The One Where Cab Calloway is a Walrus (Minnie the Moocher). And then … there’s this. It’s always listed as the best Bimbo cartoon. It’s often listed on the top-50 or top-100 cartoon shorts. It’s listed as one of the best Betty Boop cartoons, on the basis of a few seconds of cameo appearances. I learned, almost memorized, it watching it on the eight-VHS Complete Betty Boop series in the 90s. The animator is uncredited. This is so unfair. Everyone says Grim Natwick. It was originaly released the 24th of July, 1931, and Wikipedia says it ended the 1930-31 film season for the Talkartoons.
Let me clear out the bookkeeping. There’s a Suspiciously Mickey-Like Mouse at 0:35, putting the cover on the sewer and locking Bimbo into his adventure. The strongest body-horror gag has to be when Bimbo’s shadow gets beheaded. I’m inclined to think all the jokes here are so well-framed there’s not a blink-and-you-miss-it gag. But I also remember the guy I hung out with weekends in grad school blinking and missing the bit where Bimbo reaches for a doorknob and it flees to the other side of the door, so that counts for that. On to the bigger-picture stuff.
There’ve been several Bimbo-trapped-in-a-surreal-landscape cartoons. I’d rate this as the best we’ve seen, but would entertain arguments for Swing You Sinners!. It’s certainly the most nightmarish. Previously Bimbo’s at least transgressed in some way, however minor, before getting tossed into the nightmare. Here he’s minding his own business and the weirdness comes out to eat him. Hurrying right to the craziness also means there’s plenty of time to stuff the cartoon full of it.
This cartoon shows an incredible amount of skill behind it. There’s no slack points. There’s some quieter moments in the craziness, yes. They’re deployed with this great sense of pacing, chances for the audiences to rest before the action picks up again. Too much frenetic action is exhausting; here, the tempo varies well and reliably enough that the cartoon stays easy to watch.
And the cartoon is framed so well. There’s a healthy variety of perspectives. There’s changing perspectives, several times over, as Bimbo comes to the end of a tunnel and gets dropped off into a new room. Changing perspectives is always difficult for animation. Even in the modern, computer-drawn or computer-assisted era it’s difficult to make look right. And Bimbo’s Initiation pulls the trick several times over.
The segment that most amazes me every time I watch it starts at about 4:45, after Bimbo’s swallowed by the innermost door. Watch the line of movement. Bimbo’s falling towards the camera, tossed side to side by the chute. He then runs toward the camera and to the left, in roughly isometric view, as axes fall. Then he hops onto the spiral staircase, running down while the camera rotates around his movement. Then he jumps off the staircase into a hall to run to the right. His second, beheaded shadow, runs up and joins his actual shadow. Then he turns and starts running toward the camera as steel doors snap shut behind him. This is all one continuous, seamless shot, without an edit until 5:26. And when it does edit it’s to zoom in tighter on Bimbo, with the doors behind. He keeps running toward the camera until he falls out that chute and the camera pivots to the side, at about 5:42. It’s such an extended and well-blocked sequence. That 57 seconds alone shows how misleading it is to say cartoons of this era were nearly improvised. There was planning going in to how much stuff would fit here, and how it would fit together. The music supports this too. I’m not sure there’s been a Talkartoon with as tight a connection between the tune and the action.
I’m not sure there are any poorly-composed or poorly-considered shots in the cartoon. The shot of Bimbo lighting a candle, seeing the rope snap tight, and then following that to the spikey trap above is as perfect as I’ve ever seen in any cartoon or movie.
Insofar as there are any weaknesses here, it’s that the setting does obliterate Bimbo as a character. There were a couple cartoons where he was developing into a low-key screwball character. He could be sort of an Early Daffy Duck that isn’t so tiring to imagine around. Here, he can’t say or do anything interesting enough to stand up to the setting. Looking at the list of future Talkartoon titles I don’t see any that feature Bimbo as much of a character. The studio’s shifting to Betty Boop. It’s an interesting choice considering she hasn’t had a good part yet. Bimbo’s moving to be her boyfriend or partner or the guy who’s around while she’s center stage. Shame he doesn’t get better parts, but at least he could be the star of this. How many characters never get even one good outing?
I’ve been trying to watch these cartoons in the order of their release. And that I get from Wikipedia’s page about Talkartoons. Some individual cartoons have their own Wikipedia pages. Many of the earliest don’t, but as the series shifts from “any old thing with a song” to “Bimbo” and finally “Betty Boop Cartoons” fewer entries lack pages. This week’s hasn’t got a page and I’m surprised by that. It’s talked about in Leslie Cabarga’s The Fleischer Story in the Golden Age of Animation, the book on the studio’s history. Not much, but think of all the cartoons that don’t get even that.
Wikipedia does credit this as the first appearance of Bimbo in his “canonical” form. And as the first sound cartoon appearance of Koko the Clown, the character that made the Fleischer Studios and star of extremely many cartoons about him being drawn, getting into a fix, and then being poured back into an inkwell. Would really have thought those two points noteworthy enough for a page to be made. Anyway, the credited animators are Shamus Culhane (then listed as “Jimmie”; when he went into business for himself he took on a more distinctive-to-Americans name) and Al Eugster. Both have already had cartoons in this series before. Originally released the 26th of June, 1931 — more than a month after Silly Scandals — here’s The Herring Murder Case.
Quick content warning: there’s a pansy-voice character and a couple lines approaching (Jewish) ethnic humor. I don’t think they spoil the cartoon (one could even say the ethnic-humor bits are just characterization). But they are there.
So, for the record, the first words spoken aloud by Koko the Clown — at the time, a character a dozen years old and the flagship character of the studio — were “[ stammering gibberish ] my come — come on, the poor — poor herring- herring was sh- sh- shot, oh my, come on, help”. Not an auspicious start. But it is plot-appropriate, for the rare Talkcartoon that has a clear and direct plot.
That friend you have who doesn’t quite like anything however much he likes it has a complaint about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And, like your friend at his most irritating, he kind of has a point. Toontown looks like a great place. But it has an inauthenticity to it. Actual cartoons of the Golden Age of American Animation weren’t so frantic and busy and packed as the Toontown sequence was. It’s defensible artistically. For one, the daily lives of each Toontown citizen is their life story with themselves as protagonist; that we normally only have to take six minutes of a character at once doesn’t mean the rest of their days aren’t like that. But it does mean there’s much more stuff happening visually than an actual cartoon of around 1947 would have.
Most of the time. Some cartoons do get that dense and packed with weird activity. And here, from 1931, is one that’s like that. Especially right after the Herring’s murder: the scenes of the city are full of everything happening, including buildings come to life and writhing in a panic. And then special effects get in the way. After Koko comes on, in animation I assume is swiped from an older Out of the Inkwell cartoon, he runs through a city street haunted by ghostly cat heads for the reasons. It’s one of a lot of showy bits of animation technique in the cartoon.
Another: Bimbo following footsteps up the stairs. It’s a walk cycle, yes, but it’s one that moves in very slight perspective. It’s well-done, and a bit hypnotic. They’ll do a similar walking cycle on steps in the next cartoon, one with more amazingly done animations. But there are a lot of extreme perspectives and stuff moving in on the camera and tricky camera moves throughout the short. In ranking of animation ability the studios have always been Disney first, and everybody else behind. But the Fleischers were often second, and this is one of those times they were a close second.
Among my favorite cartoon motifs is doing simple stuff in complicated ways. The short offers plenty of that, starting with the gorilla’s shooting a gun that itself shoots out a bird that does the shooting. Koko putting his head through the window twice while trying to lead Bimbo to the crime scene. Koko running ahead of his “shadows” and having to go back to get them. The elevator opening up to a set of stairs.
Did you blink and miss that the level indicator makes two full circuits while getting the stairs down to ground level? That’s my favorite quick little joke. But there’s plenty to choose from, such as the moon being blown along by the heavy winds as Bimbo and Koko get to the house. The secret panel offering Bimbo a short beer is too well-established to be a blink-grade joke. But it gets a little more charge when you remember the short was made in 1931, still during Prohibition.
The female herring gets Mae Questel’s voice this short, so there’s no figure who can at all be credited as a proto-Betty-Boop. A shame, since Betty’s involvement however fleeting would probably have got this cartoon more notice. Its got a clear story, quite a density of jokes, a soundtrack that clearly ties to the action, and even a sensible ending. I like 30s cartoons, especially from the less-than-Disney studios, but recognize that as one of my eccentricities. This is one I don’t think an ordinary person would understand as funny.
There’s another of those mice popping in, one with Happy Feet at about 5:21, and then possibly a different one fleeing the gorilla at about 5:50. I trust that “They shot me! Holy mackerel, is this the end of the Herring?” is an imperfect quoting of Little Caesar, which opened in January of that year and made Warner Brothers all the money in the world. Can’t blame the Fleischer studios for riffing on that.
I went in to the next Talkartoon in release order, the 24th of April, 1931’s The Male Man, not knowing anything about it but guessing that it would probably be a bunch of post-office jokes. If not those, then body-building jokes. Wikipedia hasn’t got a specific entry on the short. The credited animators — Ted Sears and Seymore Kneitel — aren’t new ones to this series. Nor is Grim Natwick as the uncredited animator. So past that, it was an open field in which anything might well happen.
I had certain expectations once I knew for sure this was a post-office cartoon. A bunch of door-to-door jokes, mostly showing the person at home not wanting to be bothered. Maybe getting bad news and retaliating against Bimbo. Also a bunch of the mechanization-of-daily-life jokes, in sorting and routing packages and stuff. Maybe some scenes of dealing with customers come to the post office. And that’s more or less what’s delivered. Bimbo never works the post office customer counter, but otherwise it’s about what I expected.
A hobo living inside a mailbox? That’s a good joke. The mailbox that gets smaller as Bimbo squeezes letters out is also a solid one. That Bimbo keeps dropping letters is also about what I’d expect. (And not all letters; there’s a fair mix of packages, so that even a boring setup scene is more interesting than it has to be.) That another of those omnipresent mice would appear at 1:17 in and start scooping them up, the way the Department of Street Cleaning people are always cleaning up after parades in this era of cartoons, also works. The mouse throwing the letters down the sewer at 1:31 surprised me, yes; I thought he’d just be one of those quietly helpful minor characters helping chaos from breaking out. The letter-sorting slots (with amusingly equal space given to Africa, New Jersey, Mexico, Harlem, Egypt, and B’kly’n, and what work is done by that second ‘ there?) feeding back to the same bin has that classic-cartoon sense of pointless modern activity. All quite properly formed stuff and I was amused by this all and appreciated the energy with which it was delivered. It also has some nice technique: Bimbo walking along a curved path in perspective at about 2:50. And Bimbo walking along rooftops, moving in perspective, at about 3:00. A couple good Prohibition-era gags. Santa Claus, for crying out loud.
Then about 3:40 in things change. Bimbo delivers a letter to the abandoned, haunted house, and gets pulled down to the basement and a panel of a dozen shrouded skeletons who demand a letter be sent. The letter morphs in strange, surreal ways: turning into teeth, growing, squirming out of his hand. Menacing Bimbo. And the threat of the envelope dominates the next two and a half minutes of cartoon. More envelope menace than I would have guessed a cartoon could support.
That might make it sound like I wasn’t amused. No, no, I had a great time with this. I never saw this coming. It foreshadows the classic Bimbo’s Initiation in how Bimbo is pulled into a strange, surreal, threatening setting through no fault of his own. It also echoes the action in Swing You Sinners, although there at least Bimbo had done something to morally deserve retribution. It gives him great stuff to react to, although the side effect of that is he as a character gets lost. Personality is, to a large extent, the stuff you do that wouldn’t be done by anybody else in the same situation. If a skeleton hands you an envelope which then falls on the floor, turns into a pair of dentures, and bites your finger, what is there you can do? There’ve been times in this series when Bimbo’s threatened to become a character in his own right, a screwball looney kind of like we’d see later in the decade with Daffy Duck. But here’s another case where the setting overwhelms him. All he can do is react.
Stuff ends with a cascade of letters that’s spectacular to behold and beyond the limits of what the digitization process could sustain. It does remind us that when the Fleischers wanted their cartoons could be as technically proficient as anyone in the business, which is to say Disney.
I don’t quite get Bimbo in the post office remarking on the fish who’s addressed Alaska. I mean, I get it, but only as a bit of weirdness. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a deeper joke, or to refer to anything in the pop cultural air at the time. Might just be that sending something to Alaska, a remote territory where Presidents go to die of food poisoning, was something Bimbo could reasonably find remarkable.
I’m not sure whether the short ends properly. I feel like the octopus closing in on Bimbo while gathering letters was the setup for a possibly trimmed joke. But it is acceptable that the octopus just wants the letters delivered too. Hard to read that ending.
This week’s Talkartoon is from the 13th of March, 1931. One of the credited animators was Shamus Culhane again. The other, Rudolf Eggeman, didn’t get listed in the credits for anything we’ve seen so far. And I don’t know much about him. The Early NY Animators blog has a tiny bit more, including attributions for some scenes in “Dizzy Dishes” and “Barnacle Bill”, plus cartoons I hope to get to. Early NY Animators found recollections of him working as far back as 1916, for the Pat Sullivan studio, but with the note that he had a reputation for crude and messy work. If Eggeman animated anything after 1932 they don’t know about it, and nor does the Internet Movie Database. (The IMDB doesn’t have anything from before 1930, when Eggeman joined Fleischer Studios, though.)
Do bullfighting cartoons always come down on the bull’s side? At least in the American tradition. I confess my deep ignorance of other countries’ animation patterns. I can’t offhand think of one, though, where the audience is clearly expected to be on the toreador’s side. Even when the bull is a big, menacing, unfriendly presence. I suppose the knowledge the bull would really be doomed however the fight goes makes him unavoidably sympathetic.
So this gives the cartoon some plotting trouble. You can have a sympathetic character be the toreador; Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and the Pink Panther did some great work in their bullfighting cartoons. But Bimbo’s a weaker character than any of them, even here where he’s doing the sorts of reality-warping gags that you’d get from screwball Daffy Duck. Take the bull, who’s naturally sympathetic to start with, and start his cartoon with a minute of teary farewells to his children and even his fly, and there’s no hope for Bimbo to actually star in his own short.
The teary farewell does give the first line of Talkartoons dialogue I remember making me laugh aloud though: the second child’s reassuring “Don’t worry, daddy, we’ll collect your insurance” is great. It makes more shocking the next child’s “never mind, Pop, momma’s gonna buy us a new daddy”. It feels like a joke from a more modern, cynical-edging-on-nihilistic cartoon. I didn’t like that; it felt like a shock-for-the-sake-of-shock joke, and I’m less fond of those these days. But that cynicism is of a piece with the end, and the bulls marching off unknowingly into the butcher’s.
So Eggeman had a reputation for sloppy work, albeit work that the Early NY Animators blog credits with good, funny expressions and movement. This makes for an interesting counterpoint because this cartoon features rotoscoping. Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope (the patent was issued 100 years ago this past 9th of October). It made the studio. Thanks to tracing the movement of a real figure they were able to make Koko the Clown move in more natural, believable ways in-between being melted into a blob of ink or stretched into a hammock or something. It’s still one of the indispensable tools for the animator. Every studio would use it when they had some movement they needed to get right. It’s at least intellectually part of the heritage of motion-capture animation.
The bull’s dance is rotoscoped. I’m curious who the original dancer was, but that’s probably lost to time. The animation suddenly bursting into this smooth, gracious ballet figure, though, still stands out. I haven’t got any idea who did the actual tracing and adaptation of the original movement to a bull’s body shape. Maybe it was Culhane, who did have a strong drafting hand.
The cartoon several times uses the gag of someone’s accessory going about its business while they do something else. That’s a Fleischer Studios staple. It’s also got a nice proper fight-cloud, that I don’t remember encountering in the Talkartoons before. I only spot mice once, a trio of them on the giraffe’s neck at about 6:38 in.
I like the logic of the parade reversing course after the cop warns they’re going the wrong way down the one-way street. But my favorite blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag is Bimbo and the bull staring one another down, nose to nose, until Bimbo’s nose comes off him and attaches to the bull. I was worried they’d repeat the joke, spoiling its whimsy, their next face-to-face showdown.
So there’s no lost-or-good-as-lost cartoons or, as best I can tell, misnumbered entries or any other weirdness. Last week I talked about the Bimbo cartoon “Tree Saps”. This week, “Teacher’s Pest”. The one odd thing about this: it was released the 7th of February, 1931. That’s four days after “Teacher’s Pest”. I’d like to say that obviously Bimbo-mania was sweeping the country. But the next Talkartoon after this wouldn’t come out for a full month. They must’ve just had a slot that needed filling. This is a cartoon animated by Grim Natwick and Seymore Kneitel and who knows if anyone uncredited was in there too.
The action gets a bit out of synch with the animation. I’d think that’s an error of how the short was digitized and uploaded. But these were still very early days for sound-synchronized cartoons, and I can’t rule out that the animators just misjudged the timing. It’s striking to me that in the bit of singing about “who’s the greatest man in history” the students’ responses are perfectly timed but one answer off.
This short features a Young Bimbo. At least, one who’s a kid young enough to go to school and have an off-screen mother and all that. I think this is the first time he’s been shown in a variation from the generic young adult who could work in a lumber mill or get hauled into court for harassing women. There’s also a girl who looks, to me, plausibly like a Young Betty Boop. This isn’t normally listed as a Betty Boop cartoon, and I’m not at all sure they meant the girl Bimbo meets in the hallway to be anyone particular. I’m not sure the knew yet that Betty Boop was going to be anybody either; she wouldn’t be named until “Silly Scandals”, released in late May 1931.
One thing I like in old cartoons, and that the Fleischer studios were prone to doing, is basic stuff made complicated. So I’m tickled that Bimbo gets out of bed by climbing through the footer. Or that he travels the last couple feet into school by going up the see-saw and using that to propel himself, and then his books, into the building. This is an era that didn’t tend to have strong narratives or much of any dialogue. Doing things in roundabout ways is not yet worn out. I also appreciate that a lot of Bimbo’s motion is in perspective, approaching or receding the camera. It makes walking across the screen something more.
The song that the teacher leads everyone in, after “Good Morning To You”, is a folk tune named “Bulldog on the Bank” or “Pharaoh’s Daughter” that I never heard of either. Here’s a transcription of at least one version of the lyrics, and a recording of date unknown to me. It’s a shame the cartoon’s recording is bad because I couldn’t understand the joke in the verse just by listening to it.
A pair of mice pop in, quickly, at about 2:16 in. A monstrously large one shows up at 6:56 in the dance. I’m tickled by the early joke of Bimbo setting his alarm clock back an hour, and by the quick moment of the clock’s retaliation. I have to call that the best blink-and-you-miss-it joke; there’s not a lot of competition in this short. Arguably competition: Bimbo stopping in to feed the pet frogs in the lowest stair-step. (Also, did anyone ever keep frogs in a stair-step? It seems ridiculous but not impossible.) Their first pair of names, Max and Dave, are funny if you are the kind of person who remembers the names of the Fleischer Brothers. Their second pair of names, Amos and Andy, are of course a reference to radio’s long-running contemporary examination of the effects the Great Migration on the American experience.
I have no idea why the short ends in a string of musical instruments morphing into one another as Bimbo plays them. Nor have I got an idea why it should end in a string of letters and arithmetic problems and stuff dancing around the background. Possibly they didn’t have a better way to conclude the short. I sympathize with the problem.
I have to skip another cartoon in this Talkartoons progress. The fifteenth, Ace of Spades, was apparently lost for decades. Wikipedia says the cartoon was found in 2010. I don’t have a copy. If you have one, let me know, I’d be interested to see.
So here’s the next of them. It was originally released the 3rd of February, 1931 — a busy week; next week’s Talkartoon was released the 7th — and animated by Grim Natwick and Ted Sears, both of whom have had mentions here before. It’s “Tree Saps”. And, ah, a quick content warning. Al Jolson. (Well, a blackface gag.) It’s the tag of the short, after the building finishes falling down.
I’ll get to the first 7 minutes, 16 seconds of this 7 minute, 35 second short in a bit. But I have got a rhetorical question: why did like every cartoon of this era think it was a killer gag to have a character get blackened up and then call out “Mammy?” I mean, yes, I get that Al Jolson was as big a star then as he isn’t now. And that it’s a easy joke to make. But it’s not much of a joke. It’s more a moment of “remember this popular thing and giggle!” I know, we always have these things. And it’s easy in a moment of twitchiness while trying to think of something funny to call on it. I suppose it stands out because blackface gags have a social charge to them that, like, an Austin Powers impersonation hasn’t gathered. I’d rather they have worked a little harder back then.
Up to that point, though, it’s an amiable cartoon. The title suggests a logging camp and that’s just what we get. I’m a little curious what the earliest logging camp cartoon is; it doesn’t seem like it’s a setting anyone uses anymore. Standing out to me is how many of the lumberjacks are asleep, or near asleep. I feel like there’s a payoff to that which is missing.
It’s otherwise a long series of spot jokes about how cutting down trees might go wrong. Easy enough, and the sort of cartoon that can run as long or as short as you need to fill time. Here, it’s about five minutes before the short figures that’s enough lumberjacking, let’s do a chase. And not much of a chase, as a tornado for some reason gets entered into the narrative? I guess it ends the action, and makes for a bunch of silly action in the climax. But why a tornado?
Bimbo doesn’t get to act all screwball this time around. He’s probably the most responsible lumberjack of the bunch. And he keeps losing focus to his seal(?) partner who needs a steady bribe of fish to act. I’m curious why Bimbo’s given such a dull role this cartoon. It’s possible to be an entertaining straight man, but he’s not doing it.
There’s a mouse showing up regularly in the cartoon as one of the lumberjacks, appearing at just before 1:30, 2:15, 3:30, 4:40, and 5:30, the half-minute mark through the whole short. There’s a surprising lack of really body-horror-ish jokes. Also of jokes you miss by blinking. I mean, I like the seal uprooting and replanting a tree that Bimbo keeps missing, but that’s too well clearly presented to miss. I love the musicians playing instruments while thrown in the air, particularly the cats on the fiddle, but again they’re too central to miss. Bimbo grabs and drinks a glass of water while falling, but that isn’t much of a joke either. It’s just activity.
That the lumberjacks play instruments in the end doesn’t come from nowhere. They’re set up for it in the introductory scene. It does give the cartoon the chance to end with action set to the William Tell Overture. Good piece, certainly. The sort of thing that gives a strong beat for the action to play against.