So the next King Features 1960s Popeye in turn is Popeye de Leon, a Jack Kinney-produced short, and I don’t want to do it. It’s Popeye telling the story of his ancestor Popeye de Leon who came to Florida to find the Fountain of Youth. That’s mostly an okay Kinney-style tone poem of oddly timed dialogue and plot fragments. But it also features Popeye de Leon beating up (off-screen) the “Injuns” who’re shooting arrows at him, and has Olive-Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha as the local Indian woman, with Mae Questel trying to do something that’s a Generic Accent plus a Southern White Belle accent and I’m not being paid to deal with this. Besides, there’s a better Popeye Fountain of Youth plot going on in the vintage Thimble Theatre comics on Comics Kingdom right now. Read that instead.
So instead I’d like to say some kind words for the Max Fleischer cartoons channel on YouTube. They’ve been doing wonderful work in getting new, amazingly clear scans of Fleischer-produced cartoons. These have mostly been Koko the Clown cartoons, with some Talkartoons, and a couple of Color Classics and other miscellaneous pieces.
To date the only Popeye they have is a Popular Science short explaining how to make cartoons. It’s got footage of the making of Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, and also of the device they use to put the cartoons against three-dimensional backgrounds. I imagine without knowing that this is because Warner Brothers has released quite good, high-quality prints of all the Fleischer Studios Popeye cartoons on DVD, and has got many of the Famous Studios shorts as video-on-demand discs too.
The Max Fleischer Cartoons channel is not doing the sort of full high-quality restorations that, say, Warner Brothers could. This is more very good scans from 35mm prints. Even that, though, is a huge step for many of these shorts. The sound (where available) is greatly improved and there’s so many details that are now visible now the cartoons are almost new.
Here’s the Talkartoons that Max Fleischer Cartoons has rescanned, along with my own reviews of the cartoons as based on whatever video I could find on the Internet a couple years ago:
A related channel, but with wider scope, is Not An Animation Historian’s, again on YouTube. This channel has many more studios and more decades of work. This includes a number of Fleischer cartoons, more Popeye, Betty Boop, and more obscure characters like Willie Whopper, Flip the Frog, and the human Tom and Jerry. Also some television cartoons, such as Clutch Cargo and Crusader Rabbit.
Folks going in to any of these should remember there’s racist and sexist presentations in some of these cartoons. Some of them are clearly warned about, such as by being in a playlist described as “banned cartoons’ or a title including “uncensored”. But there are many that just lurk ready to spoil an otherwise good time. Which is how I got to this point to start with.
I forgot that when I first posted this I threatened I’d get bored and do a rewatch of them a year later. Took longer than that and I didn’t rewatch with the intention of rewriting these. I am figuring to resume my 60s Popeye-watching now that this is exhausted and I’m slightly less exhausted, though. I have thought about going on to a more important series, such as the full run of Betty Boop cartoons. Or maybe the 60s-70s Pink Panther cartoons, although that would involve a lot of saying “wow, but the timing on this is excellent” and “they gave this bit character a lot of personality”. Which would not be the worst energy to put out in the world, admittedly.
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.
When this review first ran I observed I had failed to notice if this was the first Talkartoon showing Betty smiling and winking at us in the introduction. I have failed to notice again. I think we do see Old King Cole, though, as an old guy walking past Betty Boop’s change booth at about 1:04, just before Aloysius pops in. Glad he’s not doomed. I still wonder if animators ever considered using penny-arcade-movies as a way to do blackout gags, showing the one minute worth of material they had for a premise and moving on to the next. Outside this I only remember seeing it (in Fleischer/Famous cartoons, at least) used for clip shows.
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.
I haven’t had time to read it yet. It’s bubbling near the top of my reading pile, for whenever I finish Paul C Tumey’s Screwball: The Cartoonists Who Made The Funnies Funny. (It’s about the early-20th-century zany-screwball cartoonists. You know, the people who invented characters leaping backwards out of the panel when they heard the punch line.) Still, I know Amidi’s book is a massive study of the UPA Style that took over so much of animation in the middle of the 20th century. We’re still living in its wake. It’s worth a few hundred megabytes to read about, or at least look at grand pictures.
So we’re coming near the end of this repeat of my Talkartoons reviews. I’ll need to start actually working again soon. I have no regrets about putting this much of my blog in repeat mode. I haven’t had much time or energy for fun stuff since mid-August and I can at least keep my inexplicably long publication streak going with repeats like this. Plus I don’t know how to bring a guest author on anyway.
Hide and Seek is a cartoon I discuss mostly for its strange anachronistic nature. It looks and feels like a much more primitive cartoon than its recorded release date seems to justify. I haven’t got any new insights about its production. But then I also forgot the cartoon entirely after the original publication, so, it would take a stroke of luck to get anything.
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.
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.
I liked this cartoon more than I felt when I reviewed it a couple years ago. It’s fair to say it’s a little dull, compared to the surreal wild heights Talkartoons could reach. But you don’t always need cartoons to be wild surreal adventures. Sometimes it’s nice to have a string of successful jokes in a row.
I’m down to the last four of the Talkartoon series and don’t go thinking that I’m not as worried as you all are what I’ll do when the sequence is done. But until then, what should I do except carry on as if there’s nothing to worry about?
This cartoon was originally released the 29th of April, 1932, so it’s the third of that month’s productions. The credited animators are Alfred Eugster and Rudolph Eggeman. Both have had credits before. Eugster was an animator for Grand Uproar, the once-lost Ace of Spades, The Bum Bandit, and The Herring Murder Case. Eggeman is credited for The Cow’s Husband.
I’d asked in The Cow’s Husband whether (American) bullfighting cartoons are always on the bull’s side. This short makes me wonder about cartoons about hunting, too. Surely they aren’t all on the hunted animal’s side. But the animal does seem to come out the better for the experience. This might be forced on the plots by the convention that these are humorous cartoons. This encourages the story to set the hunter out for basically trivial reasons, as here, where Bimbo and Koko are trying to impress Betty Boop. But if the hunt is for something trivial, then it’s too harsh to have the animal killed, and that means the animal has to come out better than the hunter does.
(It’s not impossible for the hunter to have good reasons and the cartoon to still be funny. On a vein not too different, there’s those Woody Woodpecker cartoons where Woody, or the wolf, or both are on the brink of starvation. It gives the cartoon a solid dramatic background that strengthens the joke. But I see the hunter as the non-ridiculous hero a lot less.)
So Betty Boop sets the cartoon in motion, singing of how she wants animal furs. And returns at the end, horrified that the animals have lost their fur. For this she gets top billing, which shows how little a star can do and still get away with it. The rest of the cartoon is Bimbo and Koko enacting spot jokes about incompetent hunters.
All the jokes here are okay. There’s only one that I find really good. That’s at about 3:15 when the deer(?) Koko’s shooting at grabs a pistol and shoots back. There’s a long bit, starting about 4:15, where an unspotted cat wants to get into the clam bake, and uses Koko’s bullets at spots, that’s clever enough. It didn’t seem like a fresh joke to me, but that might be my remembering watching this cartoon in ages past and knowing where the business all was going. Some folks might like Bimbo’s shooting at a lion only to produce a pride of lions better than I do, and I won’t say you’re wrong. Nor will I say you’re wrong if you like his shooting them all again with one bullet. It’s a joke I feel like I’ve seen before, but I also know I’ve seen it here before.
The story’s structured sensibly enough. It’s paced too steadily, too measured, for me though. Everything feels a bit slow and there’s no build to the story or tension or loopiness or action. You could probably swap the order of any of the hunting gags and make as good a short. There’s not any blink-and-you-miss-it jokes, not if you blink fast enough to spot the deer pulling his pistol out. Maybe Bimbo kissing the bear at about 5:18. Three’s also no really good body-horror jokes as long as you don’t find animals wearing their own fur as clothing horrifying. Some mice finally show up, in the parade at the end, about 6:50 in, at least.
There is some good animation crafting, though. As Bimbo’s slowly pursued by lions, around 3:45, there’s two levels of background. One’s the ground, moving as Bimbo walks. The other’s the sky, in perspective motionless. It adds some good depth to the scene. About 5:41 there’s a great split-screen image, Bimbo and Koko walking back with their furs. That’s some good camera work and the sort of thing you never see in cartoons.
But I have to rate this, overall, a dull cartoon. It’s all competently done, and crafted well enough that even if it ran in the late 30s it wouldn’t stand out as a primitive cartoon, the way (say) Dizzy Dishes might. Good to have reached that level of competence but that’s all it has.
While the point of these reposts was to save myself mental energy I keep wanting to add something to them. I can’t think of a noteworthy observation not already put in my original review, here. So be it. I’m not quite sure what the chess framing adds to the cartoon, I suppose, besides the chance to use checkerboard backgrounds moving around. I suppose I also don’t know why it has to be Old King Cole, who as far as I know wasn’t a regular character in the Fleischer Studio canon.
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.
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.
When I first reviewed this I admitted having no memory of it. It was a Betty Boop cartoon new to me. On rewatching for this, yeah, I remembered nothing about it. There’s a certain delight in having a new installment of a vintage cartoon, or at least one unfamiliar to you. For most of the cartoons I like — Popeye, the Warner Brothers catalogue, Tom and Jerry — if I don’t recognize a theatrical cartoon it’s because it was way too racist to show on TV even in the 70s and 80s. I’m happy that is not the case here.
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.
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.
In spotting characters from other shorts, last time I looked at this, I failed to mention the bootblack in the barber shop. He looks a good bit like the earlier, screwball, model of Bimbo, that faded out as Betty Boop got a definitive appearance. I also mention cursing myself for not geting that book of Fontaine Fox Toonerville Trolley comics. I’m happy to say I found a copy of the book, and bought it, and it’s generally quite good. It’s a panel comic, mostly highlighting the outsized personality of one of the town residents. Also I bought that Top 100 Frank Crumit Songs album on iTunes and it’s largely enjoyable, but there are some songs with racist attitudes or themes. There’s also about 14 versions of “Abdul Abulbul Amir”, including sequel songs about the wives and the children of the original song’s characters, any one of which is an interesting curio but which, if you listen to the album all at once, will drive you to crazy town.
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.
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.
So here’s one of the big ones, one of the Talkartoons everybody knows. I talked about it at great length back in 2018 and I can’t think of much to add here. Maybe that I still can’t stop seeing a bit of Homer Simpson in the Cab Calloway Walrus. There’s better thoughts to have.
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.
I’d wanted to do my statistics recap, looking at readership through September. And then stuff got in the way, so please instead consider another look at an oddly anachronistic Betty Boop cartoon. It’s not just in having a robot, it’s in how it seems like a Bimbo cartoon from six or even twelve months earlier. Still neat to see, though.
I have to apologize a bit for today’s Talkartoon. Not for the content; for the presentation. I can’t find it on archive.org. I’ve found it on YouTube, and that looks good, but the link might expire when I’m not looking. If you’re reading this sometime in the future and find that it has, please let me know and I’ll try to fix things. Might even be on archive.org by then.
The cartoon was released the 5th of February, 1932, just a couple weeks after Boop-Oop-A-Doop. There’s no credits for the animators; not even guesses. It’s the last Talkartoon we can say that about.
The cartoon feels anachronistic. For the first time in ages Bimbo’s got the starring role. And he’s got his older, more screwball-character model design. Betty Boop — well, is Betty Boop even in this one? The cartoon was included in the Complete Betty Boop Collection videotapes in the 90s, but on what grounds? She isn’t named, and she doesn’t look much like Betty Boop. Mostly; there’s the scene where she comes out of the circus tent about 4:50 in where she’s basically on model. She looks closer to the possibly proto-Betty-Boop who figured in Grand Uproar or Teacher’s Pest. And there are a lot of scenes where the camera puts the scene in a circle surrounded by black. Sometimes this irises out to a whole scene. It’s a common technique for cutting between scenes or setting focus that silent movies (cartoons and live-action) used all the time. It faded out with the coming of sound, for reasons I’m not sure about. Here it’s everywhere. Given all this I wonder if the cartoon wasn’t made months, maybe a year, earlier and not released until later on.
Oh yeah also it’s about Bimbo’s Robot. In 1932. If that weren’t bizarre enough the cartoon opens with Bimbo’s television. It’s common enough these days to tell stories about stuff that hasn’t been invented yet. It’s startling to realize they were telling stories about stuff that wasn’t yet invented that long ago. Yes, yes, there were experimental television rigs that could transmit upwards of four blurry lines of a Felix the Cat clock back then. It was still a thing for the imagination, not something everyday people could experience. It was a thing of the future, the way robots were too.
Well, since Bimbo wears his car to go boxing it’s more of a mecha than a robot properly. But the concept was still in rapid flux back then. They wouldn’t even discover how to pronounce “robot” so it doesn’t sound weird until 1964.
Despite the screwball-character model Bimbo isn’t a nutty character here, no more than any inventor in a cartoon is. It’s made up for by the story being an actual, successfully formed story. There’s clear motivation for everything Bimbo does, and it builds to a climax that makes sense. It’s a surprisingly non-zany cartoon, but it’s well-crafted.
I can’t say there are any jokes you’re likely to miss by blinking. The horse on top of Bimbo’s invention shack is good but it’s not much of a joke per se; it’s just atmospheric weirdness. Nor are there any real body horror jokes. I can’t figure out what’s going on at about 1:50; I think maybe a dart going through a fanciful heart got cut off by the framing? There’s some good camera work, when the car goes weaving all over the road and when Bimbo’s Robot gets punched high up above the ring. A mouse finally turns up ringing the bell about 4:25 in, and similarly later, and waving a flag during the parade at the end. And I get a good solid laugh from the referee cat’s fast count-out of One-Round Mike.
It’s overall a rather solid showing for Bimbo, who for a wonder gets to lead the flow of action. And for the cartoon, which sets up its premise and develops it without unmotivated weirdness. This might be the one flaw of the cartoon, in that there isn’t a baffling side to it. I’m sorry there’s not information available on who wrote or animated the cartoon. The cartoon shows a plotting skill that is uncommon for Fleischer cartoons of the era. One more anachronism.
When I reviewed this I couldn’t identify a blink-and-you-miss-it gag. I think I’ve spotted one, though. As lion tamer Betty Boop cracks her whip at the lions, there’s one moment where the whip grows a hand that snaps at the lion. That’s a cute, silly little thing. And I seem not to have noticed it before. As the subject line suggests, my thesis is that this is finally a fully-formed Betty Boop cartoon, with all the elements in place and working together. But that includes sexual assault, done with more explicitness than usual. Please be advised if you don’t need that in your recreational reading.
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 imitation 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.
When I started watching this cartoon again I wondered what I was on about, apologizing for the image quality. Then I saw; it’s all badly pixellated. Ah well. I may need to apologize a bit for the cartoon being one long earworm with interruptions for other, smaller earworms. But it is one of the Talkartoons that’s as pleasant just to listen to as to watch for the many visual jokes.
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.
Another Talkartoon repeat, and another fairy tale, this time Little Red Riding Hood. I pointed out the first time this ran that as far as I can tell, this is the first (American) sound cartoon version of the Little Red Riding Hood story. I haven’t seen anything to contradict that, although I don’t know there weren’t live-action adaptations. It’s still odd that they went so far off the story template. Interesting, though.
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.
After two spectacular cartoons we return to the world of merely good ones. Bimbo’s Express is a decent cartoon, a bunch of nice jokes well-arranged. If it’s disappointing it’s only because The Herring Murder case and Bimbo’s Initiation were that much better. It does add to Bimbo’s world a bunch of minor characters, none of whom turned into anything. But one can imagine where the gorilla-and-cat pair might have. They have a good energy together. The horse is pretty snappy too.
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?
When I first reviewed this one I mentioned its strange lack of a dedicated Wikipedia page. It still lacks one, for reasons not obvious to me. It’s one of the strongest Talkartoons. I might nominate it as the best-plotted one, too. It’s got a lot happening, almost all of which works. And it’s the sort of cartoon that shows why black-and-white cartoons get devoted fans. I’m sorry not to have a cleaner print, or one with better sound. But you can still enjoy a packed, almost over-full, cartoon here.
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.
When I first reviewed this I seem to have missed a couple good little jokes. One has the Sun angrily squirted in the eye by a whale, leading the Sun to pop out of place, on a spring, trying to bite the whale back. Good bit of business. I mention the two fighting but the sun popping out like that should get a mention. There’s also two minor characters who look like Betty Boop mermaids. I understand not including this on any lists of Every Betty Boop Cartoon (neither character says or does anything, and they’re only briefly there at all) but it’s neat to see the Fleischers working out they have a character there. I feel a bit warmer about this cartoon today than I did in 2018, but agree with my original assessment that it’s a pretty decent cartoon, lacking a strong enough story to be good on that end, but not arbitrary enough to be a good surreal nightmare-landscape cartoon.
So here, from the 5th of May, 1931 — just a week and a half after The Male Man — is the next Talkartoon in the series, Twenty Legs Under The Sea.
There’ve been a lot of underwater scenes in animation. They’ve always been hard to do. There’s great freedom in characters not having to stick to the ground. But it’s also hard to convey the resistance water offers to movement. And there’s the convention of putting a wavy-motion visual effect over everything, even if a real camera wouldn’t see anything like that. I think it took until Finding Nemo for a cartoon not to use that convention.
This is another cartoon where Bimbo’s pulled into a surreal landscape. He isn’t quite simply minding his business. If he’s going fishing, it’s fair that the fish respond. Even in Swing You Sinners Bimbo did something to earn his torments. But it supports my idea that the animators knew they had a reliable story here. The good part of these Bimbo-in-surreal-landscape cartoons is they give lots of space for weird gags, and the Fleischer Studios were really into weird gags. The bad part is that it wipes out Bimbo as a character. If he’s too screwy a character then he’s not inconvenienced by being in a screwy setting. A strong character in a crazy setting can work, because Duck Amuck, but Bimbo’s no 50s Daffy. He’s not got enough to do to stand up to the setting.
Also this isn’t so wild and surreal a cartoon, really. It starts off promising: Bimbo trying to fish, having a few little weird incidents, and then getting pulled undersea by a giant fish/whale who’d asked for help putting the hook in his mouth. He gets a shave from a lobster barber, and then … is … the King of the undersea world suddenly? Some more songs and then he leads his people to their death. It’s a punch line reminiscent of the grimness of The Cow’s Husband although after many fewer gags.
It’s weird that what we see underwater is a barber and then a throne room. My understanding is that in the silent era shorts were plotted by giving a lead animator the theme and letting them do what seems amusing. I’m not sure how much that was still going on in this era; making the cartoon match with a soundtrack loosens how much the people drawing it can improvise. Bimbo puttering around a town where everything’s normal but it’s done by sea creatures makes sense as a cartoon. Bimbo finding himself somehow king of a weird place makes sense as a cartoon. Shifting between them without obvious reason doesn’t make sense, and in the bad ways. I wonder if one scene was animated by Bowsky and the other by Bonfiglio/Goodson. I also wonder if some connective tissue was lost, or just never animated. The short comes in at 5:52. The last couple weeks have been just over six minutes, and, for example, The Cow’s Husband is seven and a half minutes long. Even ten seconds can be a lot of plot.
There is a lot of music. After the lack of any really featured cartoon last week there’s an abundance now. Anchors Aweigh, My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean with some good bits of a whale and the Sun fighting it out, a bit of doggerel that I guess you’d call We’re Going Over To Maggie’s (which I can’t find information about, so I guess it’s original to the short? Or a now-forgotten folk song, maybe), what I guess is an original piece about We Are The King’s Bodyguards. The last has a riff that sounds to me like Merrily We Roll Along, which was a then-very-new song. (And isn’t it weird to think that song was ever new?)
There’s no mice. Where would they even fit in? (Easily: just put a couple in the boat.) There is a really solid body-horror gag as a pair of fish swim ahead of their own bodies, so their faces and skeletons can eat tiny turtles about 4:25. (Yes, their skeletons swim ahead with their faces. It’s a little hard to make out with the contrast as it is here. Watch as they emerge from their bodies and as their bodies catch up.) The sun trying to bite at the whale/giant fish is a nice touch of weirdness. And I would rate as a blink-and-you-miss-it joke how Bimbo’s lighter doesn’t work when he’s in the boat (he has to do a nicely complicated bit of lighting a candle), but works perfectly when he’s underwater.
I can’t call this a good cartoon. It’s an amiable one, and I’m not sure that We’re Going Over To Maggie’s isn’t going to become part of the soundtrack of my puttering-around-in-life. But there isn’t a story, just a string of set-pieces. And the set-pieces are all nice enough, but not all that exciting or funny or weird. There’s some stronger ones coming.
This is a post office cartoon. I didn’t ask, on original publication, why there aren’t more post office cartoons. This one’s pretty great, with a lot of nice weird action and several changes of setting and pace that make sense and stay interesting. On the other hand, maybe there aren’t all that many post office jokes to do. Sometimes one cartoon is all you can do with a premise. Still, it’s a good showcase for Bimbo, who’s more interesting than his usual. And a great showcase for the Fleischer Studios imagination, stuffed full of weird little jokes. I regret the print archive.org has of this cartoon is so muddy. Maybe we aren’t missing any important jokes but we are seeing them more dimly than we ought.
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.
Now my third look, I suppose, if this counts as a fresh look. Not sure I have much to add to these comments from 2018. But I am amazed again to look at the animation and see how much better, in technique, the Fleischer studios got in only two years. I mention it in my original comments, but rewatching all these shorts in a month’s time emphasizes how fast they improved.
I’ve already covered the next Talkartoon, The Bum Bandit, a while ago, when I was doing a review of milestones in Betty Boop cartoons. But it’s been a while, and I’m a slightly different person from whom I was then. And there’s a difference between looking at a cartoon as part of the Talkartoons series and looking at it as part of Betty Boop’s character development. We’ll see what comes out different this time. I’m not looking at my earlier comments before writing this.
The Bum Bandit was originally released the 3rd of April, 1931. Its main animators were Willard Bowsky and Al Eugster. We’ve seen both animators before, although not teamed like this. Also animating, without credit, was Grim Natwick, says Wikipedia. I don’t know that they have evidence for this other than that Betty Boop appears. We’ll see.
Slight content warning: there’s a racist joke at about 3:57 in, with a blackfaced character and five, presumably stolen, chickens up his sleeve and going “yassir”.
There’s an easy way to think of the Talkartoons. They were this bunch of things the Fleischers did, with sound and extended music bits, while they were busy discovering Betty Boop. Then once they did, they had the Betty Boop series in all but name and, by the end of 1932, in name too. It’s kind of a Whiggish history. Going through each cartoon, even the ones forgotten because they don’t have Betty Boop in them, shows what it was more probably like: poking around to find some good ideas, finding a fairly decent one in Bimbo, and gradually realizing they had a much better character in Betty Boop.
And this cartoon is almost a miniature of that progression. It starts with Bimbo, certainly. And he’s puttering around doing nothing in particular. This allows a couple of pretty good shooting gags, as none of his shots hit anything near where they ought, and what they do hit makes no contextual sense. One hates to over-praise randomness as a comic virtue, but to unintentionally shoot a cow out of the sky has this gleeful, childish chaos to it. And then, as he tries to rob a train, Betty Boop takes over. Bimbo stays in the cartoon, but he’s not driving the action anymore.
At least, it’s mostly Betty Boop. She’s finally gotten the rail-thin body that marks Canonical Betty. She hasn’t got the right voice, though. She’s voiced (not badly) by Harriet Lee, rather than by Mae Questel (or some others) doing a Helen Kane impression. And she’s introduced as Dangerous Nan McGrew. I’m open to the argument that this isn’t Betty Boop yet. She doesn’t act like Betty.
Curiously, perhaps, Dangerous Nan McGrew was also the titular character of a 1930 Mack Sennett comedy starring Helen Kane. I haven’t seen that movie, so won’t venture any guesses about how that movie might have influenced the character or this cartoon. I mean, Wikipedia puts the movie in the “See also” section for this short, and vice-versa, but that falls short of saying whether there was deliberately a link or what it was.
The cartoon has a slightly weird story setup: we spend some time with Bimbo, establishing that as a bandit he’s kind of a menace. At least he’s willing to shoot, if ineptly. Then Betty Boop/Dangerous Nan comes on, harangues him, and takes him off back home. And that’s it. I’m used to a Fleischer cartoon rambling its way around the plot; it’s surprising to have one that’s basically two scenes and no development of anything.
I can’t say there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. There’s a lot of jokes, some quite ridiculous, but they’re all given enough time to be noticed and appreciated. And none that run on too long, which is a nice feat. Maybe Bimbo’s sheepish “No” after Dangerous Nan asks whether he’s found that cow yet. I’m tickled by Bimbo’s robbing the squirrel, but your tastes are your own. There’s several mice, passengers on the train, although there’s enough mixed species that none of them stand out as obviously Mickey Mouse riffs.
Also the scene of the train screeching to a halt, with this long zooming in until Bimbo stands front and center, is really well-done. The Fleischer cartoons get some respect for technological innovation, albeit mostly in stuff like the multi-plane camera with real-world sets in the background. They get less credit for stuff like this. It makes a simple scene more exciting than it needs to be, and good for them for that.
The center of the short is this song “The Holdup Rag”. I can’t find evidence that the song existed before this cartoon. If it is original for this short, then that’s the more impressive since it is a really catchy tune that I could see being modestly popular in its own right. I don’t remember it being used for similar hold-up or robbery scenes in other cartoons. This seems odd and probably I’m just not thinking of reuses of the song.
And now on looking at my earlier comments: I’m relieved I don’t say anything that seems particularly ridiculous to me now, especially since apparently I just reviewed this back in June? It doesn’t seem like that recently, but 2017 was a lot of a year.
I apologize that I must be late in recapping the plot of Alley Oop. I did not have the time to write up the summary as I’d hoped. I intend to post tomorrow and then get back to the usual weekly schedule.
When I first posted this review my comment about (American) bullfighting cartoons seeming to always come down on the bull’s side started an interesting conversation. Partly, about whether the cartoons really are on the bull’s side. Like, in this short, the bull attacks first. Doesn’t that show the bull is villainous? My instinct is to say the bull’s fighting for his life, after all; we wouldn’t hold it against the protagonist if he got help. (And, since Bimbo is a screwball character here, the attack doesn’t do any harm anyway.) I still feel that way, but it is an attitude I’m bringing to the cartoon. Is it the cartoon’s attitude?
When I first reviewed this I didn’t say anything about the trash-talking song between Bimbo and the Bull. It’s wonderful stuff, though. Great little song.
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.
There’s another gap in my Talkartoon knowledge, as Ace of Spades was for decades lost. A copy was found in 2010, I’m told, and I haven’t seen it. This one, it’s a lumberjacking cartoon, one with a content warning for a blackface joke, something animators kept putting in to otherwise good cartoons so we could enjoy them less. But it also inspires some thoughts about the phenomenon where referencing a thing is taken as joking about a thing. I don’t have an answer for why we do that, or why it’s so often successful. It’s interesting to see how that’s always been with us, though.
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.
I can’t do the thirteenth Talkartoon, not for want of will. That one, Accordion Joe, is not technically a lost cartoon. The UCLA film library has prints of the title. But that’s as good as lost for someone like me who isn’t near Los Angeles and can’t be bothered to, like, try finding a copy. So we move on to the next.
I’ve enjoyed the last several Talkartoons, no question. They’ve been nice discoveries, cartoons I had never seen before, or not seen in so long I’d forgotten them. This week’s is different. It’s one I know well. She’s not named in it, and she’s still not quite found her right model yet. But it’s got Betty Boop. And unlike her previous outings, she’s the protagonist, at least for the first half of the cartoon. For the first time she’s important to the goings-on. From the 26th of December, 1930, and animated by Willard Bowsky, Ted Sears, and (Wikipedia says) Grim Natwick, here’s Mysterious Mose.
This is almost the type case for a minigenre of cartoons the Fleischers would do: the surreal adventure set to a jazzy tune. Here the tune is Mysterious Mose, which Wikipedia tells me was a new song in 1930. I had assumed it was a folk song given new form. Live and learn, if all goes well.
These cartoons-set-to-jazz include some of the best of the decade, or of all time. They would give us beauties like Minnie the Moocher — apparently some of the earliest known footage of Cab Calloway performing — and Snow White. And lesser but still fantastic pieces like Popeye’s Me Musical Nephews. I don’t have a good idea why a surreal jazz cartoon works so reliably. I understand classical music playing well against cartoons: the strong structure gives the chaos of the cartoon more room to play. A good jazz piece has the illusion of a looser structure, though, so what is the cartoon playing against? I suppose you could argue that the apparent freedom of a jazz piece harmonizes well with the apparent visual freedom of the cartoon. But that seems like we’re getting near an unfalsifiable hypothesis. On the other hand, maybe it’s just that animated cartoons go well with both classically-structured music and the strong beat of this kind of jazz (and swing, come to think of it).
So the cartoon is great throughout. It starts out nice and creepy, the proto-Betty sitting up in bed surrounded by mysterious noises. And haunted! I’m not sure if we need to see Betty put her blanket over an invisible creature in her bed three times, but it is such a solid gag I can’t fault them doing it. It’s a neat bit of business and I don’t think I could resist.
I’m not sure that I like Betty Boop’s nightshirt flying off twice. I’ve been getting less amused by women left vulnerable. But it’s as close as they probably dared to having her be frightened out of her skin. And for the early, most normally scary parts, vulnerability is emotionally correct.
Halfway through Bimbo shows up, as Mysterious Mose. And more strongly the screwball character I’ve realized he was in his early days. We lose the spookiness as Bimbo brings a string of inventive weirdness in. And then even Bimbo fades out of the protagonist’s role, as stuff gets crazier without him until he takes drastic action with a tuba. I think all the jokes work, but it does reach a point where there’s no longer narrative. We don’t necessarily need narrative, but it does leave the cartoon without a good reason to end now rather than a minute sooner or later, other than that the song’s run long enough.
Take your pick for the body-horror joke of the cartoon. There’s plenty of choice. I’d probably take the cat who recovers from being smacked by turning into nine cats, or the chain of fish that turn into a caterpillar. There’s also Betty’s toes growing faces and arms to hug each other. The shadow of Mysterious Mose popping his head off and bouncing it. Then slipping in through the keyhole and snipping his own shadow off. Mose moving so much by turning into an ink dot and changing the shape of that mounted moose head. A couple mice show up, around 4:55 in, to add to the music and signal the action getting out of Bimbo’s lead for a minute.
There’s a nice blink-and-you-miss-it joke, at about 3:50. It’s when Betty’s heart flutters out and over to Bimbo, and Bimbo’s heart reaches out to grab it. Bimbo’s heart is wearing a robber’s eyemask. Great touch.
I’d thought that while scared Betty’s eyes spiralled, a use of this effect for something other than “character is being hypnotized”. I was wrong, though. They’re just flashing in concentric circles. Well, it looked like an eye spiral initially.
This week’s cartoon happens to call out Merry Christmas. And to get a Happy New Year back. That’s the sort of subtle act of timing that’s really beyond my abilities; it just got lucky. But here’s Bimbo’s second cartoon in three weeks, and the second in which he was named as such. From the 20th of November, 1930, and animated by Rudy Zamora and Shamus Culhane: Up To Mars.
So why does this short start in an amusement park? (At least after some striking and neat special effects animation.) Why not, I suppose you could say. Also that it’s somewhere you could just have lots of big firecrackers hanging around. I suspect there’s a deeper reason. It goes back to A Trip To The Moon. I don’t precisely mean Georges Méliès and one of the maybe three silent movies even people who don’t care about silent movies recognize. But that helps. A Trip To The Moon was a ride at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, in Buffalo, New York, showing exactly that. It was moved to Coney Island to be one of Steeplechase and then Luna Park’s signature rides. And to inspire trip-to-outer-space rides, to the Moon or Mars or other worlds, from there. So a trip to Mars starting at an amusement park might not be just because you gotta get rockets from somewhere. It might be because you could get to Mars from there.
Other planets, in the cartoons, were often wackyland places of reverse-logic and sight gags; see Tex Avery’s 1948 The Cat That Hated People for similar and I’ll admit better sight gags. I haven’t checked what earlier, and particularly silent, cartoons did with other planets. But the placement makes sense; jumping to another planet does give license to get weird and surreal.
It’s the second cartoon where Bimbo gets named. But he gets less distinctive stuff to do than even in last week’s Sky Scraping. I suppose he makes the choice to chase after the strikingly Mickey Mouse-like rodent that had been in his Roman candle. But that’s not a lot of character. And once up on Mars he has even less to do; he’s mostly just watching the shenanigans. Arguably the mouse does more to affect the cartoon. I kept waiting, once Bimbo fell in with the Martian soldiers, for him to be detected and that to become the story. Somehow it never did. He does get a few frustrated moments to snarl and snap at people in a satisfyingly dog-like manner, which is worth something certainly.
This is the second week in a row that the Moon gets punctured. Also the depiction of Saturn as a character with a big hat is one that I believe gets repeated in the October 1932 Betty Boop’s Ups And Downs.
It’s maybe too well-established to count as a blink-and-you-miss-it joke but I laughed when Bimbo tried to light the rocket and sets a cat’s tail on fire instead. The elderly Martian dancing with his detached legs and no body is a good reliable body-horror joke.
Not many second thoughts about this Talkartoon review from back in the day. I love a skyscraper-building cartoon and I’m not sure the theme has ever failed for me. I guess we’ll see if and when I get back to the King Features Popeye shorts and if they do a skyscraper-building cartoon.
So, something new’s added to the Talkartoon family for this short, released the 1st of November, 1930. Bimbo’s emerged from his prototypical form as this slow-motion screwball character who’s been around five-or-so times. He’s worthy of a name. It’s not given on-screen because of course not. But it’s there in the title card that I assume is the original title card and not a later addition.
There’s a couple cartoon premises that seem to always work for me. One of them is the orchestra, typically playing the Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two. And another is this short’s theme, that of skyscraper-building. My supposition is that the premise gives the cartoon a natural, logical structure. The underlying material is necessarily ordered, so the cartoon can riff on that and have pretty near every joke land. (And one of the all-time best-ever cartoons is Friz Freleng’s “Rhapsody in Rivets”, fusing the two premises.) With skyscraper-building cartoons I think there’s another factor: all those steel girders. That is, to use the setting at all you need to draw these big steel meshes, often in perspective. It’s hard work drawing a plausibly in-construction skyscraper, and I think the knowledge that they put all this work in influences the audience. The dazzling visual can carry a weaker script.
Skyscraper-building would probably always be popular; the idea just boggles the mind to start. The skyscraper races of the late 1920s added fine and ridiculous drama to the construction, and if you haven’t read up about the spire on the Chrysler Building and its secret installation please go look that up now. Thank you. In the early 30s the last spurt of skyscrapers under construction, such as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, were much-needed work for thousands of people, and a curious note of not-yet-broken ambition. Great themes to hang art on.
So. Bimbo finally gets a name this cartoon. But he’s not called by name in the cartoon. He’s also barely in the cartoon itself. I suppose we do see him repeatedly, but I’m not sure that he stands out compared to the other workers. Dragging his feet to get to work and tripping over two bricks, working sleepily, but racing home, is fine enough, but it’s not a deep bit of personality.
And it feels odd that Bimbo trips over two bricks but hasn’t got a third punchline. And that there’s two strings of him sleepily laying mortar on bricks but not a third. The so-called Rule of Three is, like many comic rules, better a guideline for not screwing up a premise. But this does feel like punch lines were set up and then unresolved. I’d suspect scenes lost to editing but it’s tough to figure what they would be or why.
There’s suspiciously-Mickey-Mice all over this short. And even a suspiciously-Felix-the-Cat too, at about one minute in, having swallowed a quartet of mice while they passed behind a billboard. Which was almost my moment of weird body horror this short. All the while they passed behind the billboard I was thinking about oh no, they’re going to go there. But somehow the skyscraper reaching up high enough its structure pierces the Moon hit me harder. It’s a solid joke, especially as I didn’t suspect it coming.
A couple years after this short Disney would create the multiplane camera, making it possible to have animated elements moving in foreground, middle-ground, and background. The Fleischers would one-up that by building a multiplane camera that could also use real-world sets, for some live-and-animated scenes that are still dazzling. This short might prototype that, by having the girders and people in the foreground moving while the background’s held fixed. It’s a simple trick, but an effective one: there’s distance here.
A skyscraper-building cartoon has three compelling end points: the work day ends, or the building’s finished, or the building collapses in ruin. (And note how “Rhapsody in Rivets” does it.) This short takes mostly the first ending, fair enough, albeit with a weird coda after Bimbo’s rushed home from work. So, once more, I’m satisfied.
I’m not sure why my original review of Swing You Sinners, the ninth Talkartoon, was so circumspect in its content warning. I remember a tedious argument with someone about how “eating watermelon and fried chicken” could be a racist stereotype against Black people when basically everybody likes watermelon and fried chicken. I may have been giving too much credit to people who claim to not understand how something could be racist-coded. My original 2017 review — another one out of order, so that it could coincide with Halloween — was rather close to the start of the modern discussion about how much of The Classic Cartoon Look derives from minstrel shows. Anyway, this is a short cartoon that’s a great example of what’s fun and exciting and glorious about black-and-white cartoons, with movement and music and pacing and surreal images and a plot that makes impressionist sense. If “Bimbo’s Initiation” didn’t (deservedly) get in the way, this is probably the Talkartoon that would get on best-cartoons-of-all-time lists.
I’m not figuring to wholly abandon order in these reviews of Fleischer Studios Talkartoons. It’s just that it is Halloween, and it is the Fleischer Studios, and surely they’ve got some cartoon with a nice dose of spirits and demons and graveyards and the sorts of merry gruesomeness that makes for the fun of Halloween. If I’m not overlooking something in the titles they don’t have an actual on-point Halloween cartoon. But spooky-enough stuff? Oh yeah. They got plenty of that.
So let me start with the first that’s clearly Halloween-ish enough. It’s Swing You Sinners!, originally released the 24th of September, 1930. The credited animators — they were finally getting some attention — were Willard Bowsky and Ted Sears. Wikipedia reports that also animating were George Cannata, Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster, William Henning, Seymour Kneitel, and Grim Natwick. That’s a heck of a power lineup there. Think of any mid-20th-century cartoon whose animation impressed you and at least one of that set was one of its animators. I exaggerate only slightly.
About 3:30 into the short is a weird Jewish-caricature spirit. Apparently this specific scene was drawn by Culhane and in his memoir (Talking Animals and Other People, as I remember from Like 1992 well worth the read) he worried about that. But, you know, he knew a lot of Jewish people, some of them on staff, so surely that was fine.
Not mentioned so far as I remember: this is a cartoon in which Bimbo, drawn in all black apart from his shoes, gloves, eyes, and a patch around his mouth, starts out by stealing a chicken, gets pursued by a cop, and stumbles into a surreal jazzy environment. I don’t think I’m over-interpreting the cartoon to say there’s some racial coding going on here. Not that chicken-stealing in the comics is an exclusively black pastime. If it were we’d have a major reinterpretation of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith to do. But when I hear lines of dialogue delivered like Amos and Andy characters would I know something’s going on. I’m not that clueless.
If I haven’t put you off the short altogether, then, let’s watch now.
So. There’s a somewhat similar, famous cartoon, Bimbo’s Initiation, that we’ll get to in time. It’s more famous because of a Betty Boop cameo that gets it attention from her fans. In it Bimbo gets roped in off the street and subjected to a long, strange series of surreal and slightly horrifying experiences. I didn’t quite realize how much “Bimbo In A Nightmare World” was a recurring theme for the Talkartoons.
Have to say it fits him well, though. He’s a pretty generic character; going out trying to steal a chicken is more active than I’m used to for him. But it does make it easier for the audience to identify with the lead character if he isn’t trying (or even able) to do anything about the situation. The world’s gone mad for him, and that makes for some fine nightmarish imagery.
As Bimbo-In-A-Nightmare-World cartoons go, I think this is less frightening than Bimbo’s Initiation. That’s due to the plot setup. Here, Bimbo starts out trying to steal a chicken; so, his being plunged into a demon-haunted world makes sense as moral balance. In Bimbo’s Initiation he doesn’t do anything to earn his torments; he’s literally just walking down the street and falls in a hole. (A manhole, but something something evoking Alice’s rabbit-hole something something literary reference.) Stealing a chicken is disreputable, certainly. It’s forgivable, if the person has to steal or starve. But it gives moral justification for Bimbo’s torments.
And they’re a good set of torments, must say. There’s some astounding animation effects here. This cartoon came out seven months after last week’s entry, Radio Riot, and it feels like it’s years ahead. You really get a sense of how fast sound recording and cel animation were improving to watch a pair like that. The fight between Bimbo and the chicken is fantastic, with the spinning of the background a trick so good I’m surprised more animation studios didn’t rip it off. From about 6:50 on there’s no real story left; there’s just astonishing scenes.
Wikipedia claims the cartoon was animated by a “complete new staff” following several animators quitting, and that makes it all the more amazing. But they did have a heck of a talent pool with Culhane, Eugster, Kneitel, and Natwick. I don’t really know anything about George Cannata (almost nobody does) and William Henning, but still, that’s a heck of a team to have.
Unless I blinked and missed it there’s no suspiciously-Mickey-Mouse-like characters in the short. The title may be uninspired but it makes sense; the action is built around singing “Swing You Sinners” and it’s hard to think of a more logical name. Has it got a logical ending? Yeah. There’s an arbitrariness to why have the action stop now rather than ten seconds sooner or later on. But given the setup the story has to end with Bimbo either atoning for his sins or being trapped in them forever, and since the Fleischers were a New York City studio, it’s the latter option. Disney or Warner Brothers or someone else on the west coast would have let him out.
It’s hard picking out a best blink-and-you-miss-it gag. The format inspires stuffing the screen full of weird little bits. I think I’d pick out the double ghosts sleeping in the stairwells, seen at about 6:05 in. But there’s so much great stuff happening. There’s the animate scythe at about 5:25. There’s the underpants that turn into an extra ghost at about 6:25. It’s not a gag — it’s part of the nightmare — but the graveyard walls enclosing Bimbo at about 4:50 is is fantastic. Good solid scary cartoon.
Anyone interested in the history of theatrical short cartoons knows how messy Bugs Bunny’s creation was. There’s several plausible “first” Bugs Bunny cartoons, including several black-and-white forerunners with rabbits who … don’t look or don’t act quite right, but not in any way that clearly distinguishes them from Early Bugs. It should not surprise that Betty Boop had a similar confusing early history. Still, as I hadn’t watched the early Betty Boop cartoons in production order before, I was taken by surprise by how she wasn’t quite herself in her second cartoon.
If the Fleischer Studios cartoons have any reputation in the current pop culture it’s “those black-and-white cartoons the animators must have been on drugs when they drew”. They always say this about stuff packed with weirdness and whimsy and more nonsense than is needed. It seems to reflect some need to make alien the mindset that does stuff purely for fun, as though intense play were unfit for the dignity of modern life. And like most reputations it’s overblown. Most of their cartoons are straightforward things with little fillips of weirdness because they had the time to fill.
So here’s one of the cartoons that isn’t an exception. It’s eight minutes of almost nothing but weirdness. This cartoon, originally released the 30th of August, 1930, was animated by Seymour Kneitel and Rudy Zamora, along with — Wikipedia says, anyway — Grim Natwick. And it’s kind of a weird one.
This is listed as a Betty Boop cartoon. It was on the eight-VHS Betty Boop collection I watched so often in the 90s. I imagine anyone with a clear idea who Betty Boop was would list this as one of her cartoons, even though she’s still in that dog-based model abandoned not soon enough. But the cartoon gives her a name, clearly and obviously, in Bimbo’s notebook: she’s Nancy Lee. Apparently “Betty Boop” is a rewrite, the way Tom Cat started out as Jasper. Huh.
Or it’s a character. The cartoon has a — well, plot seems like the wrong word. But it’s doing something. It’s playing out the folk/drinking song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. A cleaned-up version was a hit song of 1928 and again 1930. Bimbo, acting consistently with the screwball nature I talked about in Dizzy Dishes, sneaks off his ship. And then gets into character, I suppose, as Barnacle Bill. Perhaps Betty’s just playing the character of Nancy Lee here. It seems a little weird, but in 1935 the Fleischer studios would pretty much remake this as a Popeye cartoon, Beware of Barnacle Bill. And in that one Bluto is certainly “playing” Barnacle Bill.
But that’s plenty of fussing about Betty Boop’s “original” name. There is a lot going on in this cartoon. Nearly every moment is a weird visual gag. I wonder if this is a side effect of tying so much of the cartoon to the song. There’s not a lot to do visually if you stick to the lyrics of any version of the song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. One person sings four lines, and the other person sings four lines. If you’re going to make it visually interesting you have to pack in weirdness. So sure, Bimbo knocks on the door with his tail. Or he leaps into the sofa as though it were a pool of water. Or Betty/Nancy’s chairs sneak out of the room and a sofa takes their place. The front door shrinks in horror and hides when Barnacle Bimbo threatens to tear it open. The apartment door swallows him into the room.
Put aside, though, how packed it is with throwaway visual gags. Did you notice the camera angles here? There are all sorts of weird perspective shots. Some of them make sense, shooting Bimbo from far above when he’s talking to Betty on the second floor, or Betty from below when she’s talking to Bimbo down below. Being above Bimbo when he’s walking up or down stairs makes sense. But, for example, the opening scene doesn’t need the boat to be charging at the camera to read cleanly, even to allow the boat (and bird) to sing. They chose to start from a weird perspective. It’s easy to imagine these scenes being framed in boring ways.
Does the short have an ending? Yes, it does, and then it blows right past it. Coming to the end of a round of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” is the sensible stopping point. Finding that Bimbo’s been hitting on Gus Gorilla’s girlfriend (I suppose?) makes great internal logic. It makes Bimbo out to be a bit of a jerk, but a screwball character tends to be a jerk anyway. And puffing yourself up as Barnacle Bill is choosing to embrace the jerkiness. When they redid this as Beware of Barnacle Bill they cast Bluto as Barnacle Bill, wisely realizing that as the only moral person in his universe Popeye couldn’t take that role. Also I wonder if this doesn’t justify Bimbo fearing Gus Gorilla in Dizzy Dishes. Surely the cartoons were in production simultaneously, at least at some point. Maybe the logic of who did what to who got mixed up. Or, yeah, maybe it’s just that the big hulking character is always the villain and the scrawny little guy is the protagonist.
And yet after this perfectly good ending the short goes on. We get a chase, and a nice ridiculous one. I guess it gets the short up to eight minutes, if that’s what they were going for. It does end with delightful weirdness. But it’s also the sort of strangeness-for-strangeness’s-sake that gets these cartoons their reputation. … Well, all right. A lot of these cartoons are really weird.
There’s some suspicious-looking mice at about 0:53 and 1:25 in the short, all scenes before Bimbo gets off the ship. It’s hard to pick a best blink-and-you-miss-it gag — there’s a lot to feast on — but I’ll nominate the ship walking into harbor and having sneakers on. It’s another odd little touch in a short that’s overflowing with them.
From this moment in my Talkartoons rewatch, Betty Bop began taking over. As mentioned in the original post, it’s not obvious from her first appearance that she was the new It character. Years later, I stil don’t know how it is we know the gorilla’s name is Gus. The Betty Boop comic strip has been through at least one full circuit of its (Sunday strip) run and … it gets some characters in place, and does all right by them, but it’s still quite generic.
Finally maybe back on track. I’m up to the seventh of the Talkartoon series. It’s arguably the most famous one. It’s one I’ve already reviewed, because it’s the debut of Betty Boop. But, heck. I’ve seen the cartoon many times. What’s one more? From its original release the 9th of August, 1930, here’s Dizzy Dishes.
Bimbo’s looking different from how he did in his debut in Hot Dog. It’s a common fate of characters in those days. It’s a small change, mostly: his head’s black rather than white. Or maybe I was wrong in Hot Dog and Bimbo was supposed to be the cop. As mutations go this isn’t a big one. Betty Boop would change much more between this, her first prototypical look, to the iconic image and then a bit more to her final appearance in her own cartoons.
Bimbo does a fair job driving the action this short. Everything that goes on relates to how he’s the waiter and apparently chef of this cabaret and not all that interested in being either. It’s a strange choice. I mean, it’s amusing, yes. Fair enough he should find a flood of rhyming orders annoying. That he goes the long, ridiculous way around actually preparing roast duck? That he puts it off for a dance number? The internal logic is weird. Granted that Gus Gorilla (if the Internet Movie Database is right in identifying him) looks menacing. How is he going to be less dangerous if he’s served his roast duck? How does hacking a chopping block into a locomotive engine help matters any?
And I guess the answer has to be that Bimbo, this cartoon has a personality. And that personality is the zany screwball. He’s not as fast-paced or as wild as black-and-white Daffy Duck. But try imagining this cartoon done with that early Daffy Duck as the waiter. It kinda fits, doesn’t it? … And then it makes sense that Bimbo doesn’t even try to placate a menacing-looking customer. A screwball doesn’t work if he cares.
The cartoon devotes a lot of its time to a song, like all these shorts have done so far. And that gives what everyone agrees is the debut of Betty Boop. She hasn’t quite got the form that would have her eighty years later still be put on bumper stickers I’ve never seen on an actual car. Really, her original, Grim Natwick-designed model is kind of hideous. Bimbo’s smitten, although I can’t say that’s due to her inherent charisma. It seems like any singer-character put in this role would do just as well. Her voice is appealing enough, but I might think that because of later associations. There is a weird little irony that in Betty Boop’s debut Bimbo steals nearly all the chances to sing “boop-oop-a-doop”. I’m not sure anyone could look at this and realize, yeah, that singer’s the character who will take over this series and then get her own cartoon series after that.
But the cartoon’s got a decent flow to it. There’s fewer dull segments, and few bits where the cartoon is clearly just repeating an amusing gag until everybody in the audience gets it. There’s a suspiciously Mickey-like mouse back in this cartoon, applauding at about 4:30 in. The roast duck laying an egg that hatches into another roast duck (about 4:10 in) is such a weird moment. When I showed a friend this, back in 1998 when we only had episodes on videotape — nobody had solved the problem of sharing video online back then — he was horrified enough he nearly refused to watch the rest. You don’t get cartoons like that anymore.