The 42nd and Final Talkartoon: The Betty Boop Limited


And now, the last of my Talkartoon shorts until sometime next year when I get bored and decide to do a rewatch. This was originally released the 1st of July, 1932. Its credited animators are Willard Bowsky and Thomas Bonfiglio. They’ve been teamed before, on the 21st cartoon, Twenty Legs Under The Sea and in the 31st, Any Rags?. How they missed the 41st is anybody’s guess.

The Talkartoon series, I suppose, started out as a way to feature a song, but have the framing cartoon be a bit more than setting up to follow the bouncing ball. Over the series’ run, Bimbo and then Betty Boop stumbled into beings as characters and the songs grew less important. And now here, for the last of the Talkartoons, it’s a lot of singing. The framing device is ripped from — I’m not sure the proper little genre name. I’ll call it the Gold Diggers of Broadway genre. Specifically it’s ripped from about the second and third reels of these movies, where — having introduced the long-struggling and the young-up-and-coming performers and their prospective marriage-grade partners, the story comes to a stop so a bunch of vaudeville performers can do their acts for posterity and for the last time. (Since, well, if someone’s seen your trick-sneezing act on film they don’t have to go to the last vaudeville theater in town to see you do it live, right?) So it’s basically a bunch of musical bits that could be strung together in any order, and done as long as it takes to fill out the short.

Betty Boop’s song is a version of Max Rich and Mack Gordon’s Ain’tcha? and I’m glad to have that established. I was having trouble figuring out just what it was supposed to be. The act most interesting to me was Koko the Clown’s soft-shoe. It’s a nice, smooth, fluid movement. It got me wondering if it might be rotoscoped. I don’t feel expert enough to call it that, not without supporting evidence. But there’s something in the way his shoulders move, and in this slight shift in the plane that his feet are in. It suggests to me movement studied from film.

There’s an inexplicably tiny cat who wanders in several times to start singing Silver Threads Among The Gold, or as it’s actually known, “Darling, I am growing older”. It’s a good running gag. I think I’ve seen it in other shorts, possibly from other studios, and I’m wondering if this is a first or earliest instance of it. (Hey, some cartoon had to be the first to use Franz Liszt, too.) But why such a tiny cat? I understand if it’s meant to be a kid running out and getting chased off stage, but the cat seems small even for that.

The short offers two solid choices for old-fashioned animated body horror. There’s Betty Boop and the whole gang getting sheared in half by the train tunnel about 5:15 in. There’s the cow getting hit by the train at about 5:40 and recovering well, at least that first time. (The train also looks to me like a detailed, grey-washed cutout, maybe even a picture, moving across frame, rather than cel animation. If it is, it evokes the way silent Koko the Clown cartoons would use stop-motion on regular pictures to, say, animate his being drawn into existence.)

I’m not sure there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. Maybe the steps into the train car being a giraffe’s neck. Maybe the train blowing its nose after being fueled up. Also nice to see that Old King Cole recovered from his death and all that and went into the railroad business. And amongst the long-haired musicians (a variation of the one from Fire Bugs? Maybe? I’m not convinced) is a clearly moonlighting Mickey Mouse, right about 4:35 in.

It’s easy to say cartoons fall apart at the end. It’s hard to come up with a good solid punch line that resolves the storyline. This one has several weird ending problems. First is the kangaroo trying to get to what I had assumed was the bathroom: apparently it’s a phone booth instead? All right, I’ll allow it, although did phones even work on trains that weren’t in stations back then? And it’s more of a peanut vending machine than a phone? I follow each whimsical-step here. It just seems like a lot of steps in a row.

But the bigger one. The train hurdles toward the camera and smashes into it, for one last round of the tiny cat singing “Darling, I am growing older”, at about 5:35. But the short keeps going after that? It’s for some good jokes, including the first cow-smashing bit. And the railroad switch-operator business. (And check out that perspective shot at about 5:55 as he lurches over in his bathtub.) And the train worming its way through that tangle of rail lines is great. But why wasn’t the smash into camera and “Darling, I am growing older” the final bit in the short? It would be such a stronger conclusion to the cartoon, and to the series.

The 41st Talkartoon: Admission Free, a cartoon that jumps the tracks


I am almost out of Talkartoons to have opinions about. Don’t think I’m not just as worried by this as you are. Today’s was originally released the 10th of June, 1932. Its credited animators are Rudolph Eggeman — familiar already from The Cow’s Husband and A Hunting We Will Go — and Thomas Johnson, a new name. The Internet Movie Database doesn’t list any earlier cartoons from Johnson, but he’d go on to a number of great cartoons like Betty in Blunderland or It’s The Natural Thing To Do. Also some of those faintly sad cartoons where it’s the 50s and Popeye lives in the suburbs and is outsmarted by a gopher or something.

There’s a short cartoon-Indians joke early on in the short. There’s also a bit that reads like it’s maybe some kind of joke on Italians. I may be being oversensitive on that point, but the soundtrack during it is “Where Do You Work-A, John”, which rouses my worries.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been disappointed in an arcade cartoon. Even the ones that are just a frame for showing clips of earlier cartoons capture my fancy, somehow. Maybe part is the sense that you can just dip into anything and move on to something else engages me. It seems to engage animators too, possibly because this is a framing device that lets them just use the good parts of a joke.

I forget if this is the first Talkartoon that’s had not just the “Sweet Betty” song but the introductory title where Betty smiles and winks at us. Talkartoons were about to end and get replaced, production-wise, by the Betty Boop series anyway. Despite the title and her appearance to start things off, she doesn’t have much to do this short. Koko appears, yes, but Bimbo really guides most of the action. And pretty well, too. Stuff like how he slides his pennies down his shirt and then transfers them to his pocket may not have a specific joke. But it’s the sort of action that makes a character more interesting and endearing.

During the part where the monkey watched the fight movie I got to wondering: did animators ever think of this framing device as a way to burn off ideas they only had one or two scenes for? Rather than waste a premise or try to pad two minute’s worth of cartoon into a whole reel? Or to test out characters for their own cartoons? As far as I can tell, no. They just weren’t cautious in that way back then, it seems. And they had little fear of jamming together two or more unrelated cartoons with barely any transition.

Which is just what happens here, somehow. There’s a transition point, yes, Bimbo chasing a rabbit target out of the shooting gallery and into the woods. But somehow the short runs out of arcade jokes and turns into a hunting cartoon. Also jumps from nighttime in the city to daytime in the forest. It’s not a bad hunting short, mind, and the bullet at about 5:20 sneering at the rabbit with the declaration, “go chase yourself” is one of the few funny bits of dialogue from this series. Really all the action with the rabbit is good. As far as I know they didn’t try more with this character, which is a pity. The squirrels are a nice pairing too. But why this change in theme?

The arcade left plenty of room for little jokes you go back and notice. And it starts with a joke that almost gets lost in the digitization. So my blink-and-you-miss-it joke for the week is right up front. The chaser lights around the Penny Arcade sign drip off and run around the whole frame. It’s what’s going on when that weird tinkly sound comes in over the music. Some of the movie or attraction signs are fun, too. I mean, “Oh You Queenie”? “They Forgot To Pull The Shade”? If I hadn’t seen machines with names about like that I’d think they were being too silly. And it’s not a joke at all but I’m startled by the “Play Soccer!” mechanical attraction every time I notice it.

Not sure if that’s a mouse taunting Bimbo at about 4:36. The ears seem too large and floppy, and the tail seems big, but what else could it be?

Bimbo’s brother makes a cameo at about 1:07, in case anyone worried what’s become of him.

The 40th Talkartoon: Hide and Seek, A Cartoon I Need An Answer For


This Talkartoon comes to me as a mystery. I realized while writing this that I couldn’t find it on the archive.org list of Betty Boop cartoons. This is because it has no Betty Boop in it. It’s also not listed under Talkartoons, but the archive.org roster of “subject: talkartoons” doesn’t have any of the 1932 shorts. I could only find one copy of it online, on YouTube; I just hope that it doesn’t go missing before you read these words. Wikipedia says this short was released the 26th of May, 1932. Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice And Magic agrees. I will provisionally accept that as true. But I’d like someone who has primary documentation to confirm because this is a weird one.

Also a mild content warning. The cartoon ends up in China. Not for long. Just long enough for a Chinese man to perform a quick wedding.

So. Yeah. This was allegedly released just about a month after A Hunting We Will Go. The 26th of May, 1932. Is anyone else not buying that? Because this cartoon would make so much more sense if it were released in 1930 instead. Let’s consider:

  • What the heck is with Bimbo? He looks like he did in 1930 and early 1931, before his character had really stabilized and he’d settled on the basic-black look.
  • Where’s Betty Boop? The romantic lead here looks strikingly like a prototype Betty Boop. But at this point why have a Proto-Betty Boop? These aren’t the days of Barnacle Bill or The Bum Bandit. Why not have Betty Boop appear and tie the cartoon to the studio’s clearest star?
  • It’s directed like a silent cartoon. Some of this is the backgrounds. They’ve got this limited use of grey that looks much more like what the studio did just after the transition from paper to full cel animation than what it was doing, say, in last week’s cartoon. Some of this is in framing shots. There’s a lot of use of setting the action inside a circle, against a black backdrop. We saw this all the time in 1930. These days? Not so much.
  • The sound is just awful. Granted some of this is the quality of the print that whoever uploaded this to YouTube uses. But I think it’s something in the source material. There’s no good dialogue even by the standards of a Fleischer cartoon. There’s not many good sound cues. There’s a title card song that seems to have nothing to do with the short. There’s just nothing.
  • There’s just one credited animator, Roland Crandall. This is the first and only Talkartoon that Crandall’s got a credit for. But he did a lot of work for the Betty Boop version of Snow White, and he’d be the animation director for the Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels.

So what if this cartoon has been mis-dated, and it was actually released in late May 1930? That would reduce an otherwise strikingly long gap between Fire Bugs (the 5th of May) and Wise Flies (the 14th of July, 1930). The character designs would make more sense. So would the direction. Also the big part the motorcycle has in coming to life. That has the feel to me of a spot joke that kept growing as it turned out the motorcycle was interesting. The style of the backgrounds makes more sense too, as does the use of a not-Betty-Boop for a Bimbo cartoon.

And yet.

There is the copyright date on the title card. The Proto-Betty-Boop is a weird figure, but any weirder than in The Robot — also a 1932 release? And also one with the white-model Bimbo? And the circles of action on a black background?

Apart from one Koko the Clown short, all the Internet Movie Database’s work for Crandall is dated from 1932 through his retirement (from animation) in 1941. And if a 5-May-to-14-July gap in 1930 is implausibly long, then how do I answer the 29-April-to-10-June gap that relocating Hide and Seek to that year would create?

All right, perhaps. It’s still weird. I wonder if Hide and Seek weren’t finished much earlier but not released until some scheduling issue demanded it. Also whether The Robot might have had a similar fate.

So I turn this over to people who know how to access primary documentation: the heck’s the deal here? Huh? You know?


There’s little information about this cartoon online. So I’m going to run out my column here with what happens. This is for the benefit of people trying to figure out what the heck happened after this mysterious cartoon vanishes from YouTube and the whole Internet.

The plot: A kidnapper grabs Proto-Betty Boop. Bimbo and his motorcycle give chase, pursuing him into a mountain and down into Hell. They’re captured by a demon. The motorcycle rescues Bimbo and Proto-Betty, and they make it to a happy ending.

And here’s a more detailed list of incidents, as opposed to just the plot. The title card opens with a tune about you being a detective called in to solve a hold-up and ultimately hypothesizing you’d have to say your prayers. The short opens in a bank where Proto-Betty Boop withdraws a bag of money. A lurking crook whom I thought was Bimbo at first cackles and follows. Bimbo, a cop working one of those traffic island signals you see in 1920s and 1930s shorts, notices the crook. The traffic signal picks up the crook’s card (“I. Grabber, Kidnaper [sic], office 66 Snake St”).

Proto-Betty strolls out of the bank, past I Grabber’s storefront (it even lists him as proprietor). She walks past his open trap door. Grabber pulls a rope out of the trap door and walks behind Betty. This ultimately pulls a goat up behind them. He grabs Proto-Betty and ties her atop the goat.

Bimbo spots this, and takes out three giant links of sausage, which he fashions into a motorcycle. He pursues Grabber up an impossibly steep mountain. Bimbo’s motorcycle can’t manage the incline until it sneaks back into town for a drink from the “Tea Shoppe” speakeasy. Thus fortified it’s able to drive uphill and, at that, through a boulder.

The two chase through an Old Man Of The Mountain rock face and to the smouldering volcanic crater up top. There they race around the cone in the center of the volcano, until the ground level drops down as an elevator. They arrive in Hell’s Kitchen. Grabber and the goat are taken by a giant demonic hand and put into an iron stove. Bimbo and Proto-Betty are grabbed by a demonic hand and taunted by a devil who looks more like a hippopotamus than anything else. The hippo-devil puts them in an icebox.

Meanwhile Bimbo’s motorcycle, undetected, searches for everybody. He finds the stove, and Grabber and the goat baked into pies, where he leaves them. (Their intact heads poke out of these pies; leaving them like that is shocking.) The motorcycle breaks through the icebox and carries Bimbo and Proto-Betty onto a miniature golf course, a reminder that 1930 was when miniature golf was first, er, big. This hole — number 19 — has a dragon or alligator putting a tethered ball through a wooden half-pipe ramp and looks pretty fun, truth be told.

Bimbo, Proto-Betty, and the motorcycle fall through the 19th Hole, down the tunnel to China, 4000 miles below. They land in a Buddha(?) statue’s hands. From it emerges a minister, who marries Bimbo and Proto-Betty Man.

The 38th Talkartoon: Chess-Nuts; could this be the end of Old King Cole?


Today’s Talkartoon is another from April of 1932. And it’s another animated by Shamus Culhane. The other animator was William Henning, who hasn’t been credited on a Talkartoon before. He did work on Swing You Sinners! though.

A word before we get to the action. The sexual-assault subtext that runs through a lot of Betty Boop cartoons is less subtexty this time around. I mean, the bad guy drags her into a bedroom at one point. And there’s lower-level stuff played for laughs, like Betty’s clothes coming off or an animal peeking up her dress. If you don’t want to deal with that, don’t worry. You’re not missing a significant cultural event. I’ll catch you next time.

Something you discover and rediscover a lot watching black-and-white cartoons: they’re not afraid to have real-world and cartoon interactions. They maybe have more the farther back you go, which seems opposite the way you’d expect. This short’s framed with footage of old guys playing chess. It’s not much interaction. And they do a common trick of using a still frame to animate over. But it’s still neat to see.

Some time ago these Talkartoons introduced this leering old guy that I wanted to identify as Old King Cole. I dropped it as I couldn’t think where I’d gotten that from. It must be this short; the song’s clear enough about who this is.

Framing the action as an anthropomorphized chess game is a fun idea. It doesn’t quite hold together logically, if someone would care about the logic of why the King would need his Queen to marry him. And it has some weird knock-on effects, like forcing Bimbo and Koko to go in white versions of their models. Given that Betty also wears a black dress it seems like it’d be easier if the three of them were the black pieces and Old King Cole in white. Maybe it’s so the resolution can be the white king Bimbo capturing the black queen Betty?

Anyway it’s a good excuse to have a lot of checkerboard patterns moving in perspective, which lets the animators show off what they can do. And there’s a wealth of the weird little mutable-world jokes that black-and-white cartoons get a reputation for: Bimbo’s crown reaching out and punching Old King Cole. A table reaching up to pull Betty’s dress back down. Betty dragging a window out of place. Old King Cole running into a door so hard he falls apart.

There’s a bunch of blink-and-you-miss-it jokes. Maybe you noticed about 1:48 where Bimbo’s hands fall off for a second. But did you notice about 3:50, when Old King Cole is carrying Betty off, that his feet keep slipping out of his shoes and dropping back in? Old King Cole’s falling-apart and reassembling after hitting the door about 3:15 is also done very quickly and underplayed. Plenty of choices here; I’d give the nod to the shoes business since I’ve seen this cartoon dozens of times over the last twenty years and only noticed it today.

Mice only appear once here, as Betty throws a vase through the wall and an adulterous mouse runs back home about 5:26. But then after the initial establishing scene Betty Boop doesn’t show up herself until about 2:45 in. The short is much more a Bimbo cartoon, and he’s actually an effective lead for it. Old King Cole skulks about in a nicely Snidely Whiplash-y manner. Bimbo plays well against him. Some ages ago I talked about Betty Boop’s short-lived boyfriend Fearless Fred. I suspected that Fred’s creation was because Bimbo couldn’t play the Hero role in a Spoof Victorian Melodrama. That Bimbo’s just too vague a person to have a good comeback to the Villain’s taunting. Maybe I was wrong; he holds his own here. But I stil can’t see Bimbo quite playing Fred’s role naturally, for all that he succeeds here.

The closing music tells us Old King Cole is dead and gone. I don’t remember his turning up in another cartoon. But never know; there’s no reason that he couldn’t.

The 37th Talkartoon: The Dancing Fool, The Rarest Kind Of Betty Boop Cartoon


This week’s Talkartoon is an unusual one. Not in content; in content it’s a dance party cartoon, with the characters ultimately playing to music until the Fleischer Studio meets the contractually obligated length. It’s rare in that I have absolutely no memory of this cartoon.

Backstory. In the 90s I got the eight-VHS Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection. It wasn’t complete, as I knew even back then. There are some lost Betty Boop cartoons, which nobody could be blamed for not including. There are some follow-the-bouncing-ball singalong cartoons which have Betty Boop and which didn’t make the cut. You can disagree with that editorial judgement but they did have to get the whole collection in with less than 16 hours of video. The live-action shorts with Betty Boop didn’t make the cut. This is an easily defended choice if your goal was to show all the Betty Boop cartoons. Anyway, the variety — and picture quality — of the cartoons was fantastic and I watched all the tapes a lot, even the ones with mostly boring late-run shorts.

And I have no memory of ever seeing this one. If the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, it was there, squeezed between Jack and the Beanstalk and the Screen Songs cartoon Let Me Call You Sweetheart. The first is easy to remember; I reviewed it just a couple weeks ago. The second is easier to remember than this; it includes live-action segments from Ethel Merman. I guess that’s sufficient reason to overlook it.

So this cartoon is credited to animators Seymour Kneitel and Bernard Wolf. Both are familiar hands at this point. It was released the 8th of April, 1932. I can’t find a version on archive.org, only YouTube. This is a version that has a clearer picture with less rasterization. But somehow the whole picture jumps around and sways a bit. I don’t know how. It’s close enough to the beat that I thought it might be an impressive technical bit by the Fleischers, to have the whole scene bounce in a way complementary to the characters’ motion. But it seems to be more some weirdly complicated bit of digitizing the cartoon.

As teased, I’m indifferent to this cartoon. It’s pleasant. It’s got some nice examples of the cartoon character trope of not falling before one notices one’s in the air. It’s got the nice doing-stuff-too-hard gag of Bimbo and Koko hauling their plank and paint all the way up a building and walking across several tall buildings to drop back down to ground level. It’s got some nice bits of business besides that too. Bimbo using his stubby tail as a paintbrush. The mice that pop up out of the windowsill about 3:37 to sing Betty Boop’s name. The mice at about 1:15 who come out ready to catch the falling Bimbo and whose work doesn’t even get noticed.

There’s two halves to the cartoon, one that’s just Bimbo and a weird-voiced Koko; and one that’s Betty and her entourage dancing. Betty took long enough to show up I wondered if she had only a cameo and that’s why I didn’t remember the cartoon from The Definitive Collection. There’s I suppose logic in going from the sign-painting stuff to the dance-party stuff. I wonder if they didn’t start out trying to do a window-washers or a sign-painters cartoon and stitched it to some dancing stuff when they ran out of jokes. Not that the first half isn’t amiable; there’s just not a lot going on.

I can’t pick out a favorite blink-and-you-miss-it joke. Maybe the mice with the rescue trampoline, since they’re underplayed so. Most everything else is very well-established and given time to register, especially later on as the short turns to a lot of dancing. There’s some nice, well-done animation here. I particularly like the tiger hopping out of the strips and dancing with those as partner. (I’m suspiciously easily amused by characters leaping out of their patterns or colors.)

I was more interested when I thought the background and everything bounced in time with the music.

The 36th Talkartoon: Crazy Town, a place to visit


So after that weirdness of two Talkartoons released the same day, the Fleischer Studios went to a more relaxed pace. They didn’t release the next short until the 25th of March, 1932. This one was animated by Shamus Culhane and David Tendlar. Culhane has had credits here before. Tendlar is a new credit. He doesn’t seem to have any other credits on the Talkartoon series either. But he’d stick around, staying with Fleischer and then Famous Studios until that was finally shut down, and then to Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. I’m tickled that he’s got a lot of credits for Superfriends cartoons; a lot of my impression of what superheroes should be like are basically “like the one where the Wonder Twins are outwitted by an abandoned roller coaster”. I’m not sure Tendlar had anything to do with that one, but he is credited on the episode where a mad scientist sends a Stupid Ray back in time to prevent modern humans from evolving, so he can rule a planet of Neanderthals, and the plan would have worked except some Superfriends were visiting Skylab, which was outside the effect’s reach? … I’m pretty sure I have that right, and it’s still wrong. Anyway, here’s a Talkartoon.

The short starts with a familiar song, “Hot-cha-cha” with a fresh set of lyrics. We saw it back in Dizzy Dishes, that introduced who we’d know as Betty Boop. And it’s got a nice title sequence of looking at a booklet and letting that open into the action. Live action-and-animation hybrids were common in the 20s, always startling to people who think Who Framed Roger Rabbit or possibly Mary Poppins invented the idea. The Fleischers built their main series in the 20s on this sort of thing and it’s good to see they hadn’t lost that yet.

I also can’t see a cartoonish, overstuffed trolley without thinking of Fontaine Fox’s long-running panel strip The Toonerville Trolley, and cursing myself for never buying the book collecting strips from that used book store back in Troy, New York, in the late 90s. I don’t think there’s any reference being made here. The trolley driver and the banana-eating guy at about 3:00 in look to me like Old King Cole, from Mask-A-Raid. But that might just be that skinny old white guys in these cartoons tend to blend together.

The short itself is a long string of spot jokes. Betty and Bimbo travel to Crazy Town, and as implied, everything’s silly there. Mostly everything gets a basic reversal. A fish waves around a pole and catches a man. At the barber shop waving the scissors over a head makes hair grow. Big animals make tiny squeaks and a suspicious mouse (at about 5:45) roars like a lion. There’s not a lot of deep thinking going into the story-building here. This goes deep; the short isn’t even decided on whether Bimbo is a screwball character doing wild stuff (like early on, when he plays the trolley’s contact pole like a bass), or a straight-man to whom things happen (as when he and Betty watch with terror the approach of the Vermin Supreme ’32 supporter wearing hats on his feet and a boot on his head), or someone who comes around to embrace the weirdness (as when he gets into the barber shop’s logic). Betty doesn’t do much except react to stuff this short, but it does mean she’s got a consistent viewpoint.

I don’t think I can name a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. Everything’s given about the time it needs. I can say the train station joke, with the station holding still and the city sliding behind it, catches my imagination. For its practical benefits, of course. But also because I think of how in a couple years the Fleischers would develop that set-back camera, which let them put animated stuff in front of real-world models that move. It’s always a stunning effect. It’s often the best part of a dull cartoon. And I think of what the city-moving-behind-the-station joke would look like with that effect.

The central song, “Foolish Facts”, wasn’t written for this cartoon. It looks like it should be credited to Frank Crumit. He was renowned for recordings of “Frankie and Johnnie” and “Abdul Abulbul Amir” and writing the fight song for Ohio State University. And he recorded titles that sound like the titles you’d make up about a phonograph star of around 1930, like “She Gives Them All The Ha-Ha-Ha”, “I Married The Bootlegger’s Daughter”, “Oh! Didn’t It Rain”, “There’s No One With Endurance Like The Man Who Sells Insurance”, and “The Prune Song”. Yes there’s a Top 100 Frank Crumit Songs album available on iTunes for only US$5.99. Warning, at least one of the “Foolish Facts” verses not used in this cartoon does one of those 1930s oh-ha-ha wives-are-the-worst-right-fellas jokes. But if you can take that I have to say that’s a good value for a heaping pile of songs that all sound kind of like old-time cartoon music.

The Other 34th Talkartoon: Swim Or Sink; your choice


So last week I reviewed what I called the 34th Talkartoon, Minnie the Moocher. But there is a definitional problem here. There was another Talkartoon released the same day, the 11th of March, 1932. Which one is first? Lists seem to have settled on Minnie the Moocher, I assume on grounds of alphabetical order. The other Talkartoon of that busy day is Swim Or Sink. It’s animated by Bernard Wolf and Seymour Kneitel, both names we’ve seen before. Wolf in Minding the Baby. Kneitel in Barnacle Bill, Grand Uproar, and several less notable shorts. Here’s Swim Or Sink, or as it’s often aptly titled, S.O.S..

In content that hasn’t aged well. There’s a quick rather Jewish caricature in a fish that shows up for a line about 2:50 in. And there’s a bunch of pirates who are clear what they plan to do with Betty Boop. Nothing like in Boop-Oop-A-Doop. And Betty’s dress keeps riding up.

Swim Or Sink is nowhere as famous or renowned as Minnie the Moocher. And fair enough, really. It has some quite good animation in the ship-sinking. And a couple nice effects bits. But it doesn’t have any technique as impressive as Cab Calloway rotoscoped into a singing walrus. And the music’s merely ordinary. Picking “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor” for a song about being at sea or being confronted by pirates doesn’t take imagination.

It might be the more strongly constructed cartoon, though. It’s got two parts, a big action scene of the steamer sinking, and then a chase scene of Betty Boop, Koko, and Bimbo menaced by pirates. Throughout there’s reasons for people to be doing what they’re doing. The spot jokes of animals struggling through the ship-sinking can mostly go in any order, but all of them work. And for some reason I’m always tickled by the lightning bolt that sews together the hole it’s cut in the sky.

The sinking ship almost does that “going down three times” gag about sinking that Roy Kassinger was asking about earlier, but it falls short. I think the pirate ship growing eyes and a mouth and swallowing Betty Boop’s raft is exactly the sort of joke we look for in black-and-white cartoons. So is the pirate captain morphing into a snake when he declares he’ll keep Betty to himself.

About 3:55 in the pirate’s sword menacing Koko grows a mouth and licks its lips; the joke was good in Bimbo’s Initiation and it works here too. The anchor shaking itself dry and sneaking into the doghouse is such a neatly done gag, too. I also like Koko, Bimbo, and Betty doing this funny little walking-dance while the pirate crew chases them.

There’s a suspiciously Mickey-like mouse at about 1:45 in, putting on a doughnut as lifesaver. Another’s on the pirate ship about 3:38 in with rather too much sword. And one more, for good measure, dangling from a rope about 6:05 in. I’m not sure there is a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. Maybe early on, when the parts of the doomed ship are falling back into place, when the last bit of the ship — the smoke — drops back into the funnels.

I don’t think there’s any body-horror jokes here, unless you count the pirate crew falling into a giant fish. They seem to be having a jolly time of it at least. The ending might seem abrupt. But “dodging out of the way so your chasers fall overboard” does make sense as a way out of a chase. Works for them.

The 34th Talkartoon: Minnie the Moocher, you know, that one.


Today’s Talkartoon is a famous one. One that people might have heard of. Possibly by name; it often lands on the top of lists of all-time great cartoons and certainly of all-time great black-and-white cartoons. Possibly by reputation. It’s got images that define, for many people, the surreal world that pre-color cartoons did all the time. It’s a cartoon for which we have credits. The animators were Willard Bowksy, Ralph Somerville, and Bernard Wolf. Bowsky we’ve seen on (particularly) Swing You Sinners! and Mysterious Mose. Somerville is a new credit. Wolf was on Minding The Baby. From the busy 11th of March, 1932, here’s Minnie the Moocher.

Back around 2000, when the Star Wars prequels were still looked on with optimism, Conan O’Brien visited an animation studio. He played around with the motion-capture gear. They used it to render a particularly silly version of C-3PO. Jerry Beck, then with Cartoon Brew, noted that Conan O’Brien put in a great motion-capture performance. He was a natural, putting in big, expressive movements that turned into compelling animation well.

Before motion-capture there was rotoscoping. The Fleischer Brothers hold the patent, United States patent number 1,242,674, on it. The technique, filming some live-action event and using that to animate a thing, made it possible to draw stuff that moved like real stuff did. If you don’t see what I mean, look at anything animated by Winsor McCay. This line work was always precise and well-detailed and fantastic. Then look at how any object in his cartoons falls down. Yeah.

It got a bad reputation, especially in the 70s, as a way studios would finish animation cheaply. Film a guy doing the thing, and then trace the action, and you’re done. But as with most tools, whether it’s good or not depends on the source material. Use the rotoscope footage to guide the line of action and you get better results. Start from interesting live-action footage and you get interesting results. And here, finally, is my point: this cartoon starts with great live-action footage.

It starts with Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, in what Wikipedia tells me is their earliest known footage. That’s worth watching on its own. Calloway moves with this incredible grace and style, beautiful and smooth. There’s moments I wondered if the film was being slowed or sped up, with the tempo of the film itself changing. Surely not; that sort of trick is easy enough today but would take far too much coordination for an animated feature of 1932. They’re building the short on rotoscoping some awesome footage.

So awesome it barely matters that Betty Boop is in the short. Even less that Bimbo is. There’s a bare thread of a reason for any of this to happen. A hard-to-watch scene of Betty’s father berating her, leavened by the weirdness of her father’s rant turning into a well-played record. And to ramp the weirdness up a bit, her mother changing the record. Betty’s given comfort by inanimate objects around her that she doesn’t notice, then decides to run away from home. She writes a farewell letter, and about 3:06 in draws Koko the Clown out of the inkwell. It’s a cute joke; most of the Koko the Clown cartoons did start with Koko being pulled out out of the inkwell. Koko’s also the figure that the Fleischers first used rotoscoping to animate. They can’t have meant that subtle a joke. It’s enough to suppose they saw someone dipping a pen in an inkwell and referred to that. But it does serve as this accidental bit of foreshadowing of what would happen.

What happens is Cab Calloway, rotoscoped and rendered as a walrus and singing “Minnie the Moocher”, then a brand-new song. Betty and Bimbo spend the song watching the walrus sing and dance. The backgrounds smoothly dissolve between nightmare scenes. Weird little spot gags about skeletons and ghosts and demons and all carry on. Eventually a witch(?) arrives and everybody runs off, possibly chasing Betty back home, possibly running from the witch(?).

(Quick question: why is Bimbo here? He doesn’t do anything besides be scared, and Betty’s already doing that. Is he lending his star power to the short? … Well, I can think of a purpose he serves. There’s a sexual charge in a strange, powerful menacing a lone woman. That the being is a rendition of a black man adds to the sexual charge. That the woman is here depicted as young enough to be living with her parents heightens that further. But having Betty and Bimbo together diffuses that charge. It’s not eliminated, and I think the short benefits from that charge being present. But it leaves the menace more exciting than worrisome. I don’t know that the animators were thinking on that level. It’s enough to suppose they figured the series was a Betty-and-Bimbo thing so of course Bimbo would be there. Betty hasn’t had a solo vehicle yet. I think it’s a choice that makes the short work better though.)

So there’s not much of a plot. And Betty and Bimbo don’t do anything interesting. That’s all right. This short is built on its technical prowess. Cab Calloway’s dancing is this wonderful magical thing. It turns into animation that’s magical. (For the most part. There’s a bit of the walrus chucking ho-de-ho-de-ho at about 6:58 in that my brain insists on reading as Homer Simpson laughing. That’s not this short’s fault and I hope I haven’t infected you with the same problem.)

There’s all the body horror you could want in this short. To me, the creepiest moment is the cat nursing her young; you, take your pick. The joke that I think it’s easiest to blink and miss has a well-established setup. That’s in how Betty, running away from home, rolls up the one thing she plans to keep, her toothbrush. The joke is she tosses it aside before jumping out the window. It’s so quick a thing did you even notice it when you first watched? I don’t spot any mice in the short, which surprises me since they could fit the ghosts-and-spirits styling easily. Maybe they ran out of time.

The 32nd Talkartoon: Boop-Oop-A-Doop, At Last


It’s another Talkartoon without animation credits. There’s one more, after this, for which we don’t know or have a strong idea who the animators were. And it’s a shame (as it always is) to not know, since this is a cartoon with several noteworthy claims to historic interest. It also needs a content warning. There’s a lot of Betty Boop cartoons with sexual assault as subtext. This time around it’s pretty text. If you duck out at about 5:40 you can avoid the whole thing.

Also I apologize that the archive.org version is so badly pixellated. There’s a much clearer version on YouTube, but I am not at all confident that’s an archival-quality URL. At least for right now here’s a much cleaner version.

So this was the second Talkartoon of January 1932, coming out on the 16th. And it’s of historic significance. It’s the first appearance of the title song “Sweet Betty”, Betty Boop’s theme. I believe it’s the first time we get Betty Boop’s name shown on-screen. And we’ve finally got a very clear example of the Betty Boop Template Cartoon. It’s several minutes of puttering around with spot gags and little jokes, and then the Big Bad, with lust in his eyes and cutaway x-ray of his heart, tries to abduct Betty Boop, until her more desirable suitors pursue and vanquish him.

To my tastes the first part of the cartoon is the best. A circus offers plenty of room for little jokes. And for great dramatic angles. I like the severe angle for the high-diving act, but one could argue that’s the only shot that would make the joke read at all. The angle for the lion sneaking up on Betty is a more free choice, and it’s a great one, very nicely heightening the sense of danger.

That’s also the completely plotless part, though. Not that any of the jokes are bad. Just there’s no reason they have to be in this or any other order, and none of them build to anything. My favorite would be the fat girl who grows and shrinks with each cycle of an air pump. You take your pick. All the jokes are established well enough I don’t think there is a real blink-and-you-miss-it joke. Maybe I blinked and missed it. The closest would be that the bearded lady’s beard is growing so fast that her helper is cutting it every beat. There are some suspicious-looking mice, appearing about 1:12 in as the Tall Man falls apart. (If you don’t recognize what’s going on with the elephant and Koko the Clown, it’s this: the elephant has a giant inkwell on his back. The elephant pokes his trunk into the inkwell and squirts out a drop that turns into Koko, an imigation of how silent-era Koko the Clown shorts started.)

So this time around Koko the Clown takes billing above Bimbo. Bimbo appears, he just doesn’t get billing. He gets a decent runner of a joke, as the peanut vendor. And gets to have Aloysius, it looks to me, as target for his vending. The choice seems odd. If you don’t recognize Aloysius then it’s just an odd choice to cast an infant in a role that any character could do. But if you do recognize Aloysius as Bimbo’s little brother then it’s a really odd choice to cast him in a role that any character could do.

And after five and a half minutes of amiable small jokes the plot kicks in. The ringmaster’s heart grows lusty and he — you know, as the template plot develops it gets less explicit. You get a big bully-type character who just abducts Betty Boop. Coming into her tent and asking if she likes her job? That’s a little raw. It’s a relief that Betty Boop seems to be adequately fighting him off. Also that Koko leaps in to her defense. I’m amused that he gets kicked right back out five times over, and he’s only able to successfully fight off the ringmaster by fighting ridiculously, with a big ol’ hammer.

Betty Boop sings “Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away”, one of the enormously many catchy little tunes that Sammy Timberg wrote for the Fleischer Studios and, later, Famous Studios. The most-used of them has to be “It’s A Hap-Hap-Happy Day”, which you can hear in the introductory scene on ever Famous Studios cartoon from 1940 to 1966. And I know what you’re thinking but no, “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man” was written by a completely different Sammy working for Fleischer Studios. Sammy Lerner.

It’s the first cartoon with “Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away”. It’s not the first time Betty Boop’s sung it, though. Because, but good grief, on the 26th of December, 1931, Paramount dropped a live-action short starring Rudy Vallee. In Musical Justice Rudy Vallee and his band are the judge and jury at the Court of Musical Justice. It’s one of a peculiar genre of shorts from back in that day. In this genre, modern music is held up as this terrible stuff that’s degrading society and all that. But it’s argued, successfully, that this stuff isn’t really bad. Sometimes there’s an argument that modern music reflects classic rules of composition and all. Sometimes even that it uses bits of Great Music.

Anyway, so, in Musical Justice Betty Boop, played by Mae Questel for what I think was the first time, pleads for Judge Rudy Vallee and the jury the Connecticut Yankees to let her go on singing heartfelt lines like “Boop-oop-a-doop”. I think the song gets a couple more uses, but not so many. That’s all right. It’ll stick in your head already.

The 31st Talkartoon: Any Rags? Anybody?


I have to apologize right from the start for this week’s Talkartoon. Not so much about the content. Although I should warn it does use several times the joke that it’s funny if a woman’s clothing should fall off. Men lose their clothes too, but it’s meant to be funny that you can see Betty Boop’s bra. What I have to apologize for is I can’t find a good version of the cartoon online. Archive.org has one with nasty compression artifacts. I don’t see one on YouTube that’s much better. Which figures, since this is a densely packed cartoon with a lot of visual jokes. Sorry; best I can do.

This was originally released the 2nd of January, 1932. It’s the first Talkartoon of that year. And it’s got credited animators: Willard Bowsky and Thomas Bonfiglio, a team that also gave us Twenty Legs Under The Sea.

Can a cartoon be made up entirely of side gags? Sure, especially in the 1930s, and especially from the Fleischer Studios. There is something holding all the jokes together. It’s Thomas S Allen’s ragtime hit of 1902, Any Rags?. It’s a catchy song; here’s a 1904 recording. You maybe haven’t heard of Thomas S Allen but you know at least one of his other songs: 1905’s Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal. Yes, I’m also shocked to learn that song is newer than, like, the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The song, and cartoon, are built on one of those jobs that today seems to come from another dimension, the rag-and-bone man. The job, of gathering up trash that can be put to a new purpose, is still there, of course. It’s just that it, too, has been industrialized, with metals and paper and plastics being gathered by the city every other week (or whatever), and clothing gathered every couple months. Or you see them in the people rooting around trash bins for soda pop cans that can be turned in for the deposits. Still the job as it was sounds daft: gather stuff people were throwing out, and then sell it to other people? Without Craigslist to mediate?

Betty Boop gets top billing, pretty good considering she doesn’t even appear until the cartoon’s halfway over, and is in it about a quarter as long as Bimbo is. Props to whoever her agent was. Koko gets a mention too, and he’s only in for one quick joke. Bimbo is the center of a lot of stray and amusing and often wild little jokes. He doesn’t seem to me to provoke most of them, to be an active participant. But he’s there while they happen, which is worthwhile.

There’s almost nothing but blink-and-you-miss-it jokes this short. I like the string of nonsense items the housewife hangs on the clothesline, starting about 1:30. But there’s plenty of choice. Bimbo swiping the moustache off a lion demanding to know what’s the deal with stealing his pants? Bimbo’s spurned valenteine-heart dropping out of scene on a parachute, about 3:25? The statue of Atlas eagerly showing off his globe to the auction attendees? Take your pick. I don’t spot any real body horror along the jokes. I would have expected, at minimum, the cat that’s put through the clothesline wheel to end up shaved. Maybe everyone at the studio was feeling kindhearted that week.

There’s a fair, not excessive, number of suspiciously Mickey-like mice in the short. A couple turns up about 1:10 in, in the birdcage that Bimbo fishes out of the trash bin. (This short summarizes so weird.) The housewife and her clothespin-attaching assistant at about 1:30 in are also mice.

I like this cartoon throughout. There’s very little story structure. I suppose the auction has to happen near the end, and the garbage turning into a home at the end, but the rest is arbitrary. That’s all right; the progression of music gives enough structure for the short to stay enjoyable and keep feeling like it’s going somewhere. It’s a good example of building a short without any real plot or big jokes. Just lots of little bits of business.