What I Learned Watching The Popeye Two-Reelers


My love wondered something when I wrote up thoughts about Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. That was the first of the two-reelers and, by popular acclaim, the best. I opened the question of whether popular acclaim was right. My love wanted to know if I thought one of the others was actually best. I hadn’t meant anything that certain. I wanted to look at the three two-reelers and see what I thought now.

And, having watched the alternatives recently, and with some time to reflect on each … yeah. I agree with what everybody says about the two-reelers. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor is the best of the set.

That’s not to say any of them are bad. They’re all good-to-great cartoons. And they each have particular strengths. Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves particularly has the virtue of being a really good, really representative Popeye cartoon. That is, all the things that are good about your general one-reel Popeye cartoon are present in Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. It’s got a nice casual plot. It’s got some amusing weird nonsense. (Why would Popeye have a boat that turns into a plane? Why not, if it gets him into the story sooner?) It’s got great little mutterings by Jack Mercer, Popeye’s voice actor.

And Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp has both a tightly-crafted plot and demonstrates that Popeye can play a part while still being himself. It’s great to see Popeye playing a role; peculiarly, he doesn’t do more of that. Even in the one-reelers they might have Popeye meet William Tell or Rip Van Winkle or something. But he wouldn’t play these parts. He would play a part, in some of the incredibly many shorts King Features churned out for television in the early 60s. There’s some of those that have fair enough premises. (Popeye as the starring role in The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere? All right. In a gender-swapped Snow White? Eh, why not?) But the 60s shorts, when they succeed, do so by … being all weird and crazy rather than good.

But Sindbad the Sailor has something more. If I have to say precisely what I would have to credit mood. It doesn’t have much business, and it’s slow about that business. But it’s not boring, and the result is that the cartoon feels epic. There is an argument that Popeye is a superhero. I’m not sure I agree. But he does have many superheroic traits, like extraordinary abilities used for the protection of the needy. A superheroic figure, though, needs an epic setting to match. Sindbad claims his island is on the back of a whale. We see that massive island, if not the whale. It’s presented convincingly. Maybe it is worthwhile starting the short with twenty minutes of introductory songs.

I’d also like to compare the four clip cartoons made of these. But two of them were basically inaccessible. Popeye’s Premiere was certainly the better of the two I could review. It’s got more of the original cartoon, the most important thing. And the framing device for the clips even logically fits the original short. Aladdin was originally presented as the movie whose script Olive Oyl was writing. To see it actually made? Good sense. In comparison Big Bad Sindbad is a merely competent clip cartoon. It’s got an acceptable reason for the clips to be shown, and has maybe more original footage than Popeye’s Premiere did. But it’s a very short cartoon, with barely any of the original. Without the time to set a mood of big, epic things happening the clips are just — nothing.

If I find the other two clip cartoons — Popeye Makes A Movie and Spinach Packin’ Popeye — online I may come back for a proper review. Shall let you know.


And for the sake of convenience here’s my posts on this subject.

The two-reelers:

The clip cartoons made from the two-reelers:

Next week: Not a Popeye two-reeler cartoon.

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The Popeye Two-Reelers Used: Popeye’s Premiere, Given A New Look


When I set out reviewing the two-reel Popeye cartoons I figured I could make six weeks of cartoon-discussion out of them. One week for each cartoon, and one week for each clip carton that reused that footage. This went wrong when it turned out I can’t find an online copy of the two cartoons made out of Popeye The Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. I was ready to declare that the clip made of Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp was also not online. I am very nearly correct in this. The only copy I can find is this Dailymotion video. It’s truncated. It’s, for some reason, flipped horizontally. And it makes me (at least) watch an irritating advertisement every five minutes. And then watch the advertisement again, just in case I wasn’t fed up yet. Well, mutilated is better than not at all. Roughly.

Popeye’s Premiere was released the 23rd of March, 1949. This makes it the first of the clip cartoons based on the two-reelers. It was still over a decade after the original cartoon was in theaters. So we can’t accuse Famous Studios of boring people with cartoons fresh in their memories. And I can at least describe the action.

The framing device for the clip cartoon is … that they’re showing the cartoon. Apparently, Olive Oyl’s script made it through a tortured development process. The setting is the premiere of the movie, with Popeye and Olive Oyl as stars. Dailymotion’s copy truncates their arrival at the theater, and cuts right to Popeye-the-actor nervously waiting for the premiere. And then it starts. Popeye’s very excited by the action. And he seems to be confused about the difference between stuff happening to him and stuff happening to the character he played.

This is a long clip cartoon. It’s about eleven minutes total, putting it at twice the length of the average Popeye cartoon. And most of that is reused footage, spoiling my earlier conjectures about how much new content they maybe had to have for a clip cartoon. As I make it out the original footage is:

  • The first 21 seconds of this clipped version, plus however much animation came before that; maybe a minute total.
  • Popeye getting too excited at the action, from about 1:09 to 1:16 in the DailyMotion version.
  • Popeye getting too excited again and being shushed, from about 2:45 to 2:50 in this version.
  • Popeye-the-actor breaking the fourth wall and defying logic by throwing spinach into the scene of Popeye-as-Aladdin on-screen, about 8:20 to 8:26.
  • Popeye and Olive Oyl cheering on Aladdin, about 9:15 to 9:22.
  • The close, from 10:00 through to the end, about 35 seconds.

Add all that together and it can’t be more than two minutes. The original Aladdin short was enormous — 21 minutes — and the clipped version is still nine minutes long. Big Bad Sindbad shrank sixteen minutes of cartoon down to two and a half minutes of fighting, plus framing devices. This gives the viewer a fair chance at understanding the original two-reeler and what was interesting about it.

Although they will find it less interesting. They re-recorded, I believe, all the audio for the Aladdin clips. Which is reasonable. They don’t want old music, particularly, highlighting where they edited things down. Much of the dialogue is preserved straight from Aladdin and that’s great. But where they do change the dialogue it’s almost all for the worse. It’s for economy of time, I suppose.

But it also drains personality from the short. For example: in the original, when the Vizier gets the lamp, the Genie is shocked, and is whipped into compliance with the Vizier’s orders. Here, he’s shocked but falls in line fast. It’s quicker, but it’s not so interesting. In the original, Aladdin eats four (count ’em!) cans of spinach, each of the last three powering up to fight a new menace. Here, there’s just one extra can of spinach. That’s to fight the dragon, the coolest-looking of the menaces. But there’s not much of that fight either. The sword-fight with the disappearing Vizier shrinks to almost nothing. The baffling conclusion of the Vizier turning into a fish is gone. It’s economical. You get the whole storyline down. But is it fun?

Even the new music for the clipped segments is … fine enough. But it only incidentally fits any of the action. The original finishes off — like many Fleischer Studios Popeye cartoons — with the action scored to The Stars and Strips Forever. Famous Studios used The Stars and Strips Forever rarely, maybe never. That’s fine; that’s a style choice. But what do they have in its place? I watched this cartoon a half-hour ago; I have no recollection of the melody now. The only point where the new cartoon improves on the old is in the next-to-the-last bit of new footage, as Olive-Oyl-the-Actor calls for Popeye to give ’em the old onesie-twosie, moments before Olive-Oyl-the-Princess calls for Popeye to give ’em the old onesie-twosie.

So this clip cartoon is a fascinating one, especially compared to Big Bad Sindbad. This is a better clip cartoon, in that it shows more of the original cartoon. And it put more effort into the extracted cartoon. The re-recorded dialogue preserves most of what’s good about the original cartoon. And it puts Jackson Beck’s voice in for the Vizier’s; the touch of Bluto helps. It feels to me like more of an effort is being made to have the resulting cartoon be good. I appreciate that.

The Popeye Two-Reelers: Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp


For the fifth week of my reviews of the three Popeye two-reelers we get to the last, and longest: Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. It’s got four credited animators: David Tendlar, Nicholas Tafuri, William Sturm, and Reuben Grossman. Tendlar animated everything the Fleischers and Famous Sudios ever did, and then went on to Terrytoons, Filmation, and Hanna-Barbera. Tafuri first animated for the Fleischers in 1934 with the Popeye cartoon The Two-Alarm Fire. He’d stick around until Famous Studios closed. Sturm did a number of Popeye cartoons and then went off to Jam Handy Films; if you’ve seen the Handy Studio’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer you’ve seen more of his work. Grossman seems to have this as his first animation credit. He’d do some more Fleischer/Famous Studios work through 1945. Then he seems to disappear until the late 50s, doing TV animation for Felix the Cat, Linus the Lion-Hearted, and The Mighty Hercules.

It premiered the 7th of April, 1939, more than a year after Popeye met Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, and about eight months before the studios’ first feature-length movie, Gulliver’s Travels. It’s more than a year since Disney shocked everybody with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And it’s about ten months before Disney would release their second feature-length movie, Pinocchio. I offer this for context about what long-form animation was like.

Now. The best print I can find of the short is on YouTube and therefore subject to vanishing at any moment. I suspect it’s just ripped from the Popeye DVDs released last decade and that when some copyright-holder notices they’ll file a claim. The original short is in the public domain and that’s on Archive.org, so should stick around forever. I’ll include that too, but the prints on Archive.org are the horribly faded ones that you found on every public-domain videotape in the 90s. So they’ll be around, but look like used chewing gum.

And a small content warning. The short’s set in Cartoon Arabia. There are some minor characters who’re black and drawn in that “Hey! African people sure have lips, don’t they?” style. Blink and you miss it, but, how do I know when you’re going to blink? There’s also a quick bit where a character salaam-ing make the first wordplay joke you’d think of.

And here is an Archive.org link for a more stable copy of the short.


The cartoon opens with a framing device. Olive Oyl’s writing treatments for Surprise Pictures. Why?

Well, so they have a punch line for the end of the cartoon, sure. It sets up for a joke so obvious (“if it’s a good picture, it’s a Surprise”) that Wikipedia’s fooled into thinking it’s in the short. The joke hanging, unresolved, for twenty minutes makes it much funnier than it would have been in a one-reeler version of this cartoon. But … so what? What would we lose if the framing device were chopped off?

I’m not just padding my word count. The choice to frame the cartoon action was made for reasons. But what? SCTV demonstrated the brilliance of framing everything as a movie-of-the-week production. You could write only the parts of the sketch that you liked. Skip the boring stuff and the audience can follow along. As a draft movie script Olive Oyl has an even bigger advantage. If some part of the story doesn’t make sense (“But why does the Vizier turn into a fish?”) that’s fine. It’s something they’ll iron out in rewrites. But apart from the one intertitle, at about 4:10 in, the short doesn’t do that. And the intertitle, that great silent-movie innovation explaining the stuff that couldn’t be conveyed by expression, action, and the audience having a lick of sense, could have been in an unframed short anyway.

So what does the framing get us? And the best answer I can see is that it gives a reason for Popeye to be playing the character of Aladdin. Popeye had by this point done 69 cartoons, but always as Popeye. Perhaps they didn’t realize that he could be Popeye inhabiting another role.

Which is an historical irony. In the earliest years of Thimble Theatre — long before Popeye made the strip interesting, and even before it became a serial adventure strip — Segar cast the strip as, well, a nightly theatrical production. The framing device was that Olive Oyl, Ham Gravy, et al were characters. They’d be set up with a card about today, Olive’s the wife of Ham (or whatever) and here’s the evil mortgage-holder, and then they’d do the joke. Next day, here Olive’s the attractive waitress and Ham and some other character are customers and all that. It’s a cute pretext and if some web comic isn’t using that, they should. But for daily jokes it’s way too much overhead. It would work better for serial storylines and maybe that’s how Thimble Theatre transitioned into being a serial-story comic. I don’t know; I haven’t read examples of the strip in its transition.

You see an (unintentional?) echo of this in the way Popeye shorts start with the basic characters but scramble their relationships. Here Popeye and Olive Oyl are all but married and Bluto threatens to break them up. Here Popeye and Bluto are old friends and they’re enchanted when they meet this waitress. Here Popeye and Wimpy are roommates and Olive Oyl tries to invite Popeye over for lunch. But they’re always Popeye and Olive Oyl and Bluto and Wimpy. To date, only Bluto’s arguable roles as Sindbad and Abu Hassan have had him as an actor playing a part.

It seems a strange lack of faith in the characters that they’d let Popeye play Aladdin only with an excuse. I think they could have gotten away with it had they skipped the framing and just had everyone say of course Popeye is Aladdin. But I have the advantage of hindsight; nobody could know what the cartoon would play like before it was made. And I grew up watching Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol and its spinoff series The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo. I had the idea of cartoon characters playing other roles presented in a good, accessible way early on. It’s hard to say whether Mister Magoo was more born to play Ebeneezer Scrooge, Victor Frankenstein, Don Quixote, or Puck.

And there’s more reason to be sad they didn’t try an unframed story. Leslie Cabarga, in The Fleischer Story, mentions that while preparing their first feature-length film the studio considered having Popeye play Lemuel Gulliver. I don’t know why they didn’t go with that; possibly it was fear that Popeye as a character would be too weird for a feature-length movie. Would that have been a better movie? With everything else the same but the more charismatic Popeye at its center? … Probably. And “casting” Popeye would have made the rest of the story different.

So that’s eight hundred words on the short they didn’t make. What about the one they did?

Well, for one, it’s a short made without the three-dimensional set-back process that Sindbad the Sailor and Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves used. Why not? It can’t be that the process was getting too expensive; they were using it for pretty near every regular short, both color and black-and-white, at the time. Possibly they couldn’t think of a good place to use the process. Except, like, they already had a cave set built for Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. Why not have the magic lantern be in that cave, alongside jewels left over from Sindbad the Sailor? They were apparently considering it. FleischerStudios.com has a 1939 Popular Science short about how animation works that shows off scenes from the making of this short. It includes, about 3:45 in, footage of the setback process being used for Aladdin. It shows off a nice three-dimensional castle and a reappearance by the Rokh from Sindbad. No idea why that was cut; perhaps they felt the sequence too long or too discursive. Or maybe the setback scene was staged for Popular Science with sets and cells they happened to have around. (I’m not sure that Olive Oyl is drawn, in the Rokh’s claws, as the Princess rather than as she was dressed in Sindbad.) Maybe the Fleischers felt that pulling out the three-dimensional sets would break the “reality” of the Aladdin story being a movie. Maybe Surprise Pictures didn’t go in for location shooting.

It’s also made without Bluto, or a character who looks like Bluto. This makes more sense. The evil Vizier — I guess he’s just called the Villain here — needs to suggest cunning and devious wit. The one scene where he’d really need it, coaxing Aladdin into the Secret Cave, is disposed of in a title card. But the character has to be believable in his scheming. Bluto has might to him, but scheming? Not so much. Wimpy — another missing character — could scheme very well. But his schemes are devoted to more petty grifts. Swiping free food? Sure. Killing Aladdin, stealing the kingdom, and marrying Olive Oyl? Too mean, and too much work, for him. Of the regular Popeye characters the only one who’s really got the combination of cunning and evil and ambition for the role would be the Sea Hag. That would be some interesting casting. But it’d be hard to do the marrying-the-princess story in 1939. And the Sea Hag never got animated by the Fleischers (or Famous Studios), sorry to say. Maybe Poopdeck Pappy could have done the role but that would also have complicated the story.

It seems to me like Wimpy could have been cast as the Genie. Don’t know why they didn’t. I guess they better liked their impression of That Guy I Keep Thinking Is Ed Wynn But Isn’t. You know. I’m having no luck pinning down who I do mean.

More exceptional stuff about this short. Unlike the other two-reelers the villain isn’t introduced with a song. Or gets a song at all; only Popeye does, the right solid “What Can I Do For You”. There’s no long lazy introduction to the scenery, either. It’s all introduced quickly, with the story moving along at a steady, solid clip. And the characters finally get to have dialogue. I mean, they say stuff that’s got personality and that’s reliably funny. It’s even playful, teasing the fourth wall (Popeye’s riff about having never made love in Technicolor before) or the short’s continuity (the new lap exchanged for the old being a flashlight).

This is the longest Popeye short, and his longest appearance in theaters until Robert Altman’s work. 21 minutes in all. I don’t blame TV syndication for not showing it too often. It also makes three two-reelers. Among them all, that’s just under 55 minutes of stories, all from the 1001 Arabian Nights, or at least adjacent to them. It’s got me wondering why they didn’t make another two-reeler cartoon, set up some framing device, and then release it as a Popeye motion picture. Add another twenty-minute short on and you have something near enough the length of the movie they did release, Gulliver’s Travels (76 minutes) and Mister Bug Goes To Town (78 minutes).

In the climax — and it’s a fantastic climax — Popeye eats four cans of spinach. I believe that’s the most he eats in any short; the only possible ties are clip cartoons where a bunch of his daring-escapes get featured. It’s a great climax, four rallies of the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man theme in slightly higher keys, followed by a really long rendition of The Stars And Stripes Forever. A lot of action. A lot of great action. It also set a record for Coolest Looking Dragon That Gets Disappointingly Instantly Foiled which stood until Rankin/Bass’s 1985 adaption of L Frank Baum’s The Life And Adventures of Santa Claus.

There may, inexplicably, have been no three-dimensional footage for this short. There’s still great moments. The long zoom into the Secret Cave is one. The Princess’s diamond sparkling so brightly that it forms a spotlight, and panning out to Aladdin on his horse, is another. Often Fleischer cartoons have a sort of rambling, jazzy quality, where it feels like they didn’t work out the storyline much before filming. And that’s great for giving a cartoon a spontaneous, out-of-control feeling. But this one is well-crafted. Consider the moment where the Vizier, having lost the lamp, sits miserably at a table sipping coffee, while Aladdin as the prince zooms past. In a moment this scene tells everything about that the Vizier was doing, and how his understanding of everything has changed, and it sets him back into action, all the while that Aladdin’s storyline is moving toward romancing the Princess. It’s tight, efficient writing that doesn’t feel like it’s forcing the plot along. It’s a foreshadowing of the Superman cartoons the studio would make in the 1940s, in being these beautiful and, generally, well-scripted and awesome affairs.

The Popeye Two-Reelers Reused: Two I Can’t Show You


I had a great idea going here. I’d show one of the two-reeler Popeye cartoons, and then show its reincarnation as a one-reeler clip cartoon. I’m foiled here. Not because Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves wasn’t used for a clip cartoon. Because I can’t find a copy of the clip cartoon online. I’m surprised and baffled by this. I could accept it somehow not having fallen into the same public-domain existence that so many other Famous Studios cartoons did. But to just evaporate altogether?

Ah well. And that’s particularly bad as there’s two clip cartoons based on Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. One I remember with confidence so let me talk about that. It’s Popeye Makes A Movie. This was released the 11th of August, 1950, or over two years before Big Bad Sindbad. That it is so much earlier may be why Popeye has the full complement of four nephews in it. By 1952 there were cutbacks.

The premise is … well, right there in the title. Popeye’s explicitly an actor here, and he’s making a movie about fighting Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. Is it supposed to be the two-reeler movie actually released in the 1930s? Oh, who cares. If you have fun doing that, go ahead, but there’s just no fitting it all into one continuity. But Popeye’s an actor here, and he brings his nephews to watch a day of filming. And that’s the framework on which the clips are hung. There’s some of Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy walking through the desert. There’s the bandit raid on the city, at which point the nephews get confused between fact and fiction and start punching Abu Hassan or maybe Bluto.

That seems to me a fair way to break up the clips. It’s a more interesting one than in Big Bad Sindbad, when the surviving nephews asked Popeye whether he got killed. That now there’s two clip cartoons that break up the clipping mid-action, where it’s not really needed, makes me wonder. Remember my wondering if there a production rule about how much of the cartoon could be recycled footage? I can’t time the clips from Popeye Makes A Movie, but the clips from Big Bad Sindbad were suspiciously close to 50% of the runtime. Now I wonder if there was a production rule about how long reused footage could be without some new footage.

The interruption also lets the clip cartoon go right to Popeye in Abu Hassan’s cage. It gets to the point where Popeye’s captured and lowered into the shark pit. Here the nephews again forget they’re watching some pretend action, and toss Popeye a can of spinach. This would seem to produce a continuity error in the movie being made. If we take the two-reeler as the produced movie, then, they must have done reshoots when the nephews were safely away from the studio.

It’s a fair enough premise. Gives a reason to show clips. If you’re alert enough to the realities of film production to question whether they’d film a walking-in-the-desert scene, a raid-on-a-city scene, and a battle-in-a-cave scene on the same day, well, shut up and go play outside. All right.


The other clip cartoon with Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves I remember more vaguely. But it’s interesting in that it’s also a clip cartoon for Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. And it, too, isn’t available online that I can find. It’s Spinach Packin’ Popeye, originally released the 21st of July, 1944. The name is a riff on Pistol-Packin’ Mama. That’s an inescapably popular and catchy song which made up about two-fifths of all sound during World War II. (If you look at the posters on the wall at R K Maroon’s office in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you’ll see a card for a Pistol-Packin’ Possum, another riff on the song.) I know, I know, you think — from movies and TV shows — that it was Glenn Miller’s version of American Patrol. No. It’s just easier for modern productions to record dialogue over an instrumental. In reality, between the 14th of October, 1943 and the 26th of March 1944, not a single sound that wasn’t Pistol-Packin’ Mama was produced domestically, and it stayed popular with soldiers until the USO performers curled up into helpless little balls pleading, “no … no … no more requests”.

The premise for this clip cartoon is more boring. Popeye goes to a scheduled boxing match with Bluto after donating blood. The weakened sailor gets knocked out. Olive Oyl declares she’s finished with this weakling. Popeye tries to argue he is not a weakling, and shows his photo album to prove it. The album has pictures(?) from Sindbad the Sailor and Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. These come to life to show the clips, a device used in earlier clip cartoons too. None of this convinces Olive Oyl, but that’s all right, since his being knocked out was all a dream anyway.

Gathering around the photo album is a dull way to introduce clips. But it’s the sort of dull that doesn’t get in the way of the action either. I suspect it’s the clip-show equivalent of, in prose, tagging speech with “Name said”. It’s just invisible. I know I had to read the plot summary to have any memory of what the framing device was, and even the still frames on that Popeye Wikia didn’t help me much. The title card looks great, at least.

But there again is that breaking up of clips into at least two segments. This encourages my thinking that there was some production rule here. One might wonder why this cartoon featured two of the two-reelers and not more recent footage. A sufficient answer there is that they’d have had to be too recent footage. This was, if Wikipedia has the production schedules right, only the fifth color one-reeler Popeye cartoon. Popeye’s first one-reel color outing, Her Honor The Mare, was released the 26th of November, 1943. A snarky cartoon series of today might have characters flashing back to the stuff they aired last week. I can’t imagine getting away with that in theatrical shorts of the 40s.

I would have sworn there were other Popeye shorts that used “weakness after blood donation” as a premise for showing clips. Actually researching this suggests indicates I’m just wrong. I’m a touch surprised that Popeye, given his general moral-upstandingness, wasn’t shown to donate blood more. But it’s hard to figure a joke line to follow that. People getting Popeye’s blood and going on to feats of impossikible strength is obvious, but they’d do that from just eating spinach at his direction. (Which, come to think of it, is another storyline I don’t think they used.) Maybe they were working around guidelines about how to present the effects of blood transfusion. Maybe it just never occurred to anyone.

The Popeye Two-Reelers: Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves


Today my subject is the second of the two-reeler Popeye cartoons. Its original release was the 26th of November, 1937. This is one day short of a year after the previous two-reeler, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. The credited animators are Willard Bowski, Geroge Germanetti, and Orestes Calpini, all of whom worked on Sindbad.

So, ah, this short. You see what the title is. I’m not quite sure that I need to warn people about its content. It’s got a lot of characters meant to be Arabian. And it was drawn in the 1930s. I don’t think there’s ethnic stereotypes direct enough to be offensive. But there’s stuff close enough to leave me uncomfortable. Most of it comes to Popeye being a surprisingly bad traveller, grumbling that he can’t read the menu or stuff like that.

This short opens gorgeously. One of the Fleischer’s greatest technical tricks was the setback camera. It let them use real, three-dimensional models as backdrop to animation. They used it to good effect. They had a knack for making models that looked like animated backgrounds. It — and a multiplane camera — get used for the opening credits. It’s almost a dare to the Disney studios, challenging them as masters of animation. Disney would respond by releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves the next month. So, yeah, Disney won the year. But it was a close one.

Still. As much as the setback camera got shown off in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor, here it gets used. I lost track of how many backgrounds are three-dimensional settings. But it seems less showy to me. The setback seems to be used only to make the camera moves more interesting. It strikes me as being like the difference between a technology demonstration and a mature use of the technology.

As with Sindbad the short opens with the heavy, looking like Bluto playing a part, singing about himself. It’s not as long or as catchy a song as Sindbad’s bragging song. It’s not bad. But Sindbad had a nice call-and-response bit, and call-and-response songs are always more fun. Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy get on screen much sooner than in Sindbad. They’re even given something of a reason to encounter Abu Hassan, with Popeye and Wimpy the Coast Guard (huh?) troops responding to the worldwide (huh?) distress call. Popeye’s boat turning into an airplane is as loopy a thing as the logic for his involvement. And I love the way this gets treated. It’s casual and confident, sure that the audience will buy all this. (Does the ship-plane crashing count as another shipwreck for Popeye?)

I’m impressed by how well this cartoon is put together. It’s got a clear plot. But it’s still got plenty of time for amusing sidelights. And many great little asides by Jack Mercer as Popeye.

Yet it still seems lesser than Sindbad. I’m not sure what it’s missing. It might be in the efficient, quick way that this cartoon gets to work. Sindbad opens with a lot of atmosphere. It luxuriates in the vastness of Sindbad’s island. It builds slowly. It gives this impression of hugeness.

Forty Thieves has a great, vast desert. A good-looking city. The cave of the Forty Thieves, too. But I don’t feel the same epic scale to this. Maybe the editing is too sharp and the story progression too efficient. The short has a few moments that feel it. Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy in the incredible distance walking across the desert by night and day, particularly. But that doesn’t last long. The short has plenty of stuff happening. But it feels more like a regular (if good) Popeye cartoon running longer, instead of something different in kind.

Once again it’s surprisingly long for Popeye to meet the heavy. Popeye doesn’t face Abu Hassan until about 8:40 in. That’s 40 seconds sooner than Popeye met Sindbad, in a carton that’s a full minute longer. It’s still longer than the average Popeye cartoon just for them to be on-screen together. Their first fight is funnier than Popeye’s meeting with Sindbad. There’s something delightful and childlike about Abu Hassan stealing Popeye’s belt. Popeye swiping his long underwear right back is a perfect topper.

As I watch it, and re-watch it, I’m left wondering why I don’t like it as much as Sindbad. The animation’s at least as good. The plotting may be stronger. The dialogue is much better. A lot of the best bits are Jack Mercer muttering whatever popped into his head. But so much of what he thought of was great. Seriously, Popeye slamming uselessly against the solid wall of the Forty Thieves’ cave and declaring “it’s giving way”? Perfect. He’s got many other great lines too; listen to any random fifteen-second bit and there’ll be something you like. The biggest story weakness is how little Wimpy adds to the proceedings. His pursuit of a duck in Sindbad had a clear story to it. Here, he’s just here. But even he gets a great blink-and-you-miss-it joke in snagging some chicken while chained to a post.

There’s less direct interaction between the animated characters and the real, setback backgrounds. Nothing like Sindbad picking up a handful of gems and letting them drop. The most dramatic is Popeye and all coming up to a traffic signal in the desert, and that’s nothing but them watching a thing change. But there’s also much more real background. The final battle between Popeye and Abu Hassan feels slight. Possibly it’s diffused too much by Popeye having to get past the Forty Thieves first. I am aware that last time around I thought there could be a battle between Popeye and all the animal residents of Sindbad’s island. And this time I get a battle between Popeye and all the Forty Thieves and I’m still not satisfied. Somehow, despite it being a nice big battle. Maybe Popeye needed to use the twisker punch again.

Something you notice in the Thimble Theatre comic strip is that Popeye spends a lot of time in the desert for a sailor. Possibly Segar thought that irresistibly funny a setup. And now here we are in the second of the two-reelers, and he’s wandering the desert. And I can’t help remembering that the 1980s version of Popeye — the G.I.Joe cartoon’s Shipwreck — was also first encountered in the desert. There’s something deep going on here.

The Popeye Two-Reelers Reused: Big Bad Sindbad


So if there’s any genre of story that modern pop culture has rejected it’s the clip show. The last time I remember it defended was on a Saturday Night Live hosted by whoever played the non-Tina-Yothers sister on Family Ties. She notes that clip shows were great, since as an actor you got paid for a whole show and only had to do five minutes’ work. They would let anyone get a little bit ahead of the content hole. They were probably more more tolerated before the rise of home recording. I think of the burial notice for clip shows, at least in the sorts of nerdly pop culture I like, being that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Riker has a case of poisoning that can only be cured by watching clips of the first two seasons of Next Generation. That episode has an overblown reputation as the worst thing modern Star Trek has ever produced. Even if you can’t stand a clip show, for crying out loud, modern Star Trek also did a Lwuxana Troi/Ferengi Comedy cross-over episode. And the Enterprise episode where Trip Tucker got wrist-pregnancy from a holodeck.

And as I say, clip shows used to be more tolerated. Certainly more common. The first Popeye cartoon released after last week’s topic, Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor, was itself a clip cartoon, I’m In The Army Now. And all the Fleischer two-reeler cartoons were themselves reused, later on, in the Famous Studios days. And I wanted to take a moment to look at one of these.

Big Bad Sindbad was released the 12th of December, 1952. So probably the original was out of any theaters. They could be forgiven for supposing most of the audience wouldn’t remember the action or animation well. The credited animators, for the new stuff, were Tom Johnson and William Henning. The director for the new stuff was Seymour Kneitel. Kneitel worked at the Fleischer studios forever. He ran its incarnation as Famous Studios forever too. So if you watch a lot of Popeye cartoons you see that name a lot. And he married Max Fleischer’s daughter. One imagines this made Thanksgiving more exciting after Paramount Studios fired Max Fleischer and keept Kneitel around. I can’t say from personal knowledge.

So. When I watched this cartoon, as a youngster, I was always excited and disappointed. The exciting part is the two-and-a-half-minutes of footage from Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor. Even my young untrained eye, that was also perfectly happy to watch the Filmation series of Tom and Jerry cartoons, recognized that as something special. It was just too good.

And it affected the surroundings. Popeye by this time was usually dressed in all white, an outfit he got during World War II and didn’t shake for decades. Except this. I suppose to not confuse kids, Popeye in the present-day framing story wears his classic original black-and-white-era outfit. Somehow even that just looks better.

The disappointing stuff, of course, was that it wasn’t the whole two-reeler. You got just a tiny slice of the cartoon that was really interesting, patched into a cartoon that’s already quite short. The version at archive.org runs five minutes, two seconds. And half a minute of that is credits.

Disappointing to me, now, is that none of the story of the original gets included. The original two-reeler hasn’t got much of a story to start with, but at least it has something. Here, all that’s excerpted is a couple minutes of Sindbad and Popeye punching each other. The catchy songs are missing. There’s no Boola, no Rokh, nothing. Even Wimpy only appears for a split-second. There’s no panning across any of the three-dimensional sets. One would almost think the Famous Studios ashamed by how much the old stuff would outclass their current animation. (So far as I know the Famous Studios never used the setback tabletop technique.)

And it’s not as if they couldn’t have found time. The framing device is an adequate one. Popeye takes his three then-surviving nephews [*] to a nautical museum; okay, that makes sense as a thing he might do. They encounter three exhibits, the first two of them used to deliver correctly formed jokes, the third to let Popeye tell a story. Putting aside whether George Washington can be considered a sailor, that’s all okay enough. It’s a character who has a reason to be telling this story to people who have a reason to listen.

[*] Yes, Popeye started out with four nephews. The story goes that Max Fleischer wanted to one-up Donald Duck’s nephews. But the nephews first appeared as Popeye’s imaginary children in a dream. And as Famous Studios wore on, the four nephews dropped to three, and eventually to two. The story there goes that this was to save animation cost on characters who were already visually identical and voiced by the same actor (who was already on staff and performing Popeye’s lines) to start with. This seems hard to believe, but then, why else drop one of them?

Anyway, once all that’s out of the way they could run as much of the original cartoon as they liked. Why so little? I suppose because they needed the clip cartoon to run at least five minutes. But that time after that was wasted. A shame; that makes it a little too obvious that the cartoon’s there to satisfy a contratual obligation to produce technically new animated product. A bit more story would have helped. Or if they don’t want the short to have more time, let the nephews ask impudent questions that Popeye answers. “Gee, Uncle Popeye / Did you / Get Killed?” is an adequate start but only just. At least they showed my favorite gag from the original, Sindbad knocking an endless supply of maritime stuff out of Popeye.

Though now I wonder; was there some requirement that reused material be no more than 50 percent of the cartoon? That there were pretty near two and a half minutes of old footage in a five-minute cartoon is suggestive. But it could also be coincidence. There’s more of Popeye and Sindbad facing off that they might theoretically have used, even without having to include something of Boola or the Rokh or the lions or all that.

I’m not surprised they re-recorded the voices from the two-reeler footage. Probably the original sound elements were lost and all they had was the final mix that, among other things, had the hard-to-edit-around tune of The Stars And Stripes Forever on it. I am surprised they changed Olive’s line of encouragement to “give him the ol’ onesey-twosie” from “give him the ol’ twisker punch”. Were they afraid the “twisker punch” was too slangy a term?

Wikipedia notes this as one of only two theatrical cartoons to have both Popeye’s Nephews and Wimpy in the action. The other is Popeye Makes A Movie, another clip-show cartoon using footage from the two-reelers. This short is one of six with Popeye’s Nephews and Bluto, if you count Sindbad as Bluto playing a role. Use this information only for good purposes.

Next week: back to the actual two-reelers.

The Popeye Two-Reelers: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor


When the world and I were young, Popeye the Sailor Man hadn’t quite left pop culture. He still got an hour each weekday on WNEW to show off all the theatrical releases plus the King Features Syndicate cartoons of the 60s. I loved them all. I had that problem of the young of not understanding that some cartoons were rather bad. But I did understand that some cartoons were better. Usually the older ones. The ones with the ship doors that slid closed were almost all better than the King Features Syndicate cartoons. And even then, I knew there were some transcendant cartoons, ones that were so much better than anything else ever done. I only ever found three of them. This is because three were all they made. I want to look at them each in turn, now.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor was released the 27th of November, 1936. It’s the first of the three two-reel cartoons. It has three credited animators, Willard Bowsky, George Germanetti, and Edward Nolan. Uncredited animators include Orestes Calpini and Lillian Friedman. Bowsky’s familiar from the Talkartoons series. He has shorts like Swing You Sinners! and Mysterious Mose and The Betty Boop Limited to his name. George Germanetti and Edward Nolan haven’t got credits for any Talkartoons. Neither have Orestes Calpini nor Lillian Friedman.

Friedman was (so far as is known) the first woman ever hired as an animator in United States animation. She worked on some Color Classics, Hunky and Spunky, as well as a bunch of Betty Boop cartoons. Wikipedia credits her for animating the two-headed giant and Popeye’s “twisker” punch. Calpini would animate about a jillion Famous Studios cartoons in the 40s, and be the uncredited animator for a bunch of shorts. Among them are Cartoons Ain’t Human, a fantastic short in which Popeye becomes an animator; and several of the Superman shorts.

The dominant motif of this cartoon is size. It is full of bigness. The cartoon is large in running time: it runs 16 and a quarter minutes before the video ends, and it still has a few seconds to go. (This cartoon, like all the 30s Popeyes, is in the public domain. This is great for accessibility. But what you can access is often a lousy print or cut in weird ways. This was the best version I found.) That’s three times the length of some other theatrical Popeye shorts. (Granted, the shortest of shorts, but still.)

It’s on a big island, that Sindbad claims to be atop a big whale. Its inhabitants are big; the lions (big cats) are small denizens. Boola isn’t just a two-headed giant; he’s two, maybe two and a half times Popeye’s size. The Rokh is so enormous he barely fits in frame. His takeoff makes me think of footage of World War II-era super-bombers. That’s only more amazing considering the cartoon was made five years before that was a pressing concern. It starts with a long braggadocio song. It’s three and a half minutes of Sindbad singing of how he’s the most remarkable extra-ordinary fellow. It has a purpose, besides being catchy. It also sets up all the minor bosses Popeye has to beat up before coming to the main battle. But then we get another minute of Popeye singing his own bragging song. That’s a more familiar one, the full long version of the Popeye the Sailor Man song, and always good to hear. Still, it means the cartoon’s plot doesn’t even set in until five and a quarter minutes in.

Did you notice that, while watching? … Well, maybe. It’s easy to get restless when the movie expects you to be awestruck. It demands attention. If you’re letting it run while also checking social media, then that first third of the cartoon is wasted. If you are watching, well, then you see what is some astounding animation. The backgrounds start out gorgeous, and then almost immediately leap past gorgeous into three-dimensional beauty. Fleischer Studios arguably topped Disney’s multiplane camera. They used a camera that could film real-life, movable sets, on which the characters would interact. Cartoons on a real-life background is as old as cartoons are. But cartoons on a movable, three-dimensional background? And a backdrop that isn’t “real”, but designed to look like the pictures do? That’s stunning then. It’s still stunning now. Just to make sure audiences were stunned then, Sindbad picks up a pile of “real” jewels and lets them fall through his fingers, about 2:25 in. By then, complaining about the bareness of the plot — considering its length — seems petty.

Also stunning, but more subtly, is the Rokh’s flight. It is hard to animate flight so that it looks realistic. It is hard to animate big things moving slowly so that it looks realistic. But here, in the Rokh attacking Popeye’s ship, we get an enormous bird slowly circling and then finally striking, and none of the motion looks false. I wonder if it was rotoscoped from footage of a real bird’s circling. I’ve also been trying to work out whether the bird’s three turns are all unique animation. I have the suspicion that it’s all the same single turn cycle, but with camera movement added so that it looks different. But that speculation I make just because it had to be hard to get it looking that good the one time; three times would be far harder. If I were directing, I’d look for ways to reduce the technical challenges here, and that seems like one of the few possible ways.

Still the cartoon makes some mistakes. Not just that it’s 9 minutes, 25 seconds before Popeye and Sindbad are even in the same frame. There’s reasons it takes them that long to meet. (And how long antagonists spend directly facing each other is basically irrelevant to how good a story is. Until it’s pointed out, do you even notice in The Wrath of Khan that Kirk and Khan are never in the same room?) They’re littler things. The one that bugged me as a kid, and still bugs me today, is when Popeye asks who Sindbad is. This gets a quick reprise of Sindbad’s “most remarkable, extraordinary fellow” song. But with none of the island residents actually singing “Sindbad, the sailor”. The animals all mouth it, twice, but the actual answer to Popeye’s reasonable question is omitted. Maybe the Fleischers figured the audience would be singing along? (And there’s some animation the cartoon definitely reuses. At the end, they do cry out “Popeye, the sailor”.

And here’s a subtler one: why is Wimpy in this cartoon? Well, there’s an obvious reason. J Wellington Wimpy is this wonderful character. He might well have taken over the Thimble Theatre comic strip if Popeye hadn’t secured his position in charge of the strip first. Just the other day my love and I were discussing his character. Whether he is actually a mooch with refined, intellectual inclinations. Whether he affects that persona as part of his eternal petty scamming. He can add this subtle, otherworldly bit of nonsense to any story he’s in. He can offer this surreal moment of drifting into and out of frame, in search of hamburger. It’s reminiscent of the way Harpo Marx would crash through a plot scene and crash back out again, without the now-awkward part where Harpo is chasing down terrified women.

So that’s a great setup. Wimpy trying futilely to catch a duck? Perfect running gag. It’s used that way just the once, though, interrupting Popeye’s and Sindbad’s first encounter. Popeye even asks “how did you get in here?”. And then that bit ends, with Wimpy no more part of the story.

But I could be wrong to call that short use of Wimpy a mistake. I’m trying to think of another moment where Wimpy could wander through without spoiling the flow of action. He can wander through a tense moment fine; the distraction is great when it’s two people glaring at each other. But to drift through actual punching? That would flow weird.

Something I’m not at all sure was a mistake: Sindbad’s island is filled to the brim with good-looking monsters. Big (of course) cats, serpents, dragons, gorillas, vultures, all that. This seems like a setup for a battle royale of Popeye lost inside a massive fight cloud. He’d done that before, in cartoons where he was washed, shipwrecked, onto a jungle island. (For as good a sailor as we’d like to think he is, Popeye opens a lot of cartoons shipwrecked. But, he does survive those shipwrecks, so that’s some skills.) Maybe the animators thought that would be too difficult to animate. Maybe it was too difficult to fit into the storyline; would such an all-animals battle royale come after Boola, after the Rokh, after Sindbad? It seems to me Popeye’s previous battle-royale wins were after he’d eaten his spinach; that’s got to come as he’s had enough with Sindbad. So maybe there’s just not a good time for the dragons and all to get into the action.

I am disappointed these figures didn’t turn up in other cartoons. I suppose the Popeye cartoons were moving away from being able to support talking animals or mythical creatures in them. At least except creatures that came from inside the comic strip, like Eugene the Jeep and Alice the Goon. (And even they got only a few appearances.) I think some of the dragons appeared in Betty Boop cartoons like Betty Boop in Blunderland. Maybe the characters — almost all of whom look interesting — got work in other Fleischer series, ones without recurring characters.

As with the Talkartoons series, the main dialogue is pretty bland stuff. Functional, but not that interesting. The characters have asides, though, and those range between good and great. For my money, the best is Popeye declaring that Sindbad “you can push me just so far”. But there’s plenty to choose from. My favorite throwaway gag is Sindbad beating up Popeye, who stays in place while a heap of nautical equipment falls out of his clothing. It reminds me again of the Harpo Marx bit where all the stolen cutlery in the world falls out of his sleeves, one spoon at a time. But again, there’s all sorts of funny little throwaway gags in this short. Enjoy the buffet.

The short was nominated for an Academy Award for best cartoon. It was the Fleischer Studios’ first nomination. They lost, to Disney’s The Country Cousin, a version of the Aesop’s Fable about the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Disney studios won the Academy Award for Cartoons every time it got awarded in the 1930s. Fleischer Studios would never win an Oscar, though it would get nominated four times. Its successor Famous Studios wouldn’t even get nominated. Animation historian Jerry Beck found lists of cartoons considered but not nominated, and Famous Studios, and Popeye, got considered, at least.

Popular acclaim has it that this was the best of the Popeye two-reelers. But then, what does everybody who takes cartoons as a subject worth thinking about know that I don’t?


Also hey, it turns out this is my 2,001st post around here. I’m as surprised by that fact as you are.

Here’s What I Thought About All The Talkartoons I Watched


One last post before, I imagine, I retire the Talkartoons tag. I want to make it that little bit easier for people to find all the various cartoons, so, here’s a heaping pile of links to each of the shorts that I reviewed. Not included are the handful of cartoons that are lost, or that were lost until recently and can’t be seen by normal ordinary mortals like me.

Next week, I start a shorter-term, limited-scope project: looking at the two-reel Popeye cartoons, those lush full-color 1930s beauties. And I do have a plan for something after that project finishes. Thanks for letting me explain pop culture references of 1932 to you all!


The Fleischer Studio’s Talkartoons, 1929 – 1932

  1. Noah’s Lark
  2. Marriage Wows (Not reviewed; pretty near a lost cartoon, with only the UCLA film library having nitrate elements for it.)
  3. Radio Riot
  4. Hot Dog
  5. Fire Bugs
  6. Wise Flies
  7. Dizzy Dishes
  8. Barnacle Bill
  9. Swing You Sinners!
  10. Grand Uproar
  11. Sky Scraping
  12. Up to Mars
  13. Accordion Joe (Not reviewed; the UCLA film library claims they have a copy, but they haven’t given me any chance to see it, because they’re biased against absolutely uncredentialed amateur reviewers who never even ask to see it.)
  14. Mysterious Mose
  15. Ace of Spades (Not reviewed; the cartoon, long lost, was recovered in a cave in Borneo and is available only by special inquiry in the basement when the clock strikes midnight.)
  16. Tree Saps
  17. Teacher’s Pest
  18. The Cow’s Husband
  19. The Bum Bandit
  20. The Male Man
  21. Twenty Legs Under the Sea
  22. Silly Scandals
  23. The Herring Murder Case
  24. Bimbo’s Initiation
  25. Bimbo’s Express
  26. Minding the Baby
  27. In the Shade of the Old Apple Sauce (Lost cartoon; if found please keep in a cool, dry place and contact responsible authorities, in case there are any.)
  28. Mask-A-Raid
  29. Jack and the Beanstalk
  30. Dizzy Red Riding Hood
  31. Any Rags?
  32. Boop-Oop-a-Doop
  33. The Robot
  34. Minnie the Moocher
  35. Swim or Sink
  36. Crazy Town
  37. The Dancing Fool
  38. Chess-Nuts
  39. A Hunting We Will Go
  40. Hide and Seek
  41. Admission Free
  42. The Betty Boop Limited

What Did I Learn From Watching Nearly Every Talkartoon?


I spent much of the last year watching about one Talkartoon per week. The series was the Fleischer Studios’ first major project in sound cartoons. It ran just under three years before giving way to a Betty Boop series. What do I take away from it?

First, I appreciate just how fast animation technique was developing then. Not so much in sound, really, although yes, there is that. But apart from audio fidelity I can’t say that the last Talkartoons were much better at using sound than the first ones. There’s foley effects to match important stuff on screen in both Radio Riot and in Admission Free. There’s music riffs dropped down, usually because the lyric of the original song references something on-screen. There’s pauses in the action for characters to start singing, early cartoons and end. I’m not sure they got any better at using sound. Character dialogue, for example, started out nonexistent and stayed pretty well near it.

But in the visual side of animation, the ability to draw a thing moving in funny ways? The cartoons grew amazingly. The first few were distinctly 1920s style, with high-contrast black images on white backgrounds. Soon there were greys. By the end the cartoons had these great shades that, if they weren’t color to start with, at least evoked color. Characters stopped moving in these little chunks where they do a thing, stop, and start doing another thing. Instead action flows together. They learned how to rotoscope action in greyscale so it fits the cartoons.

And the Fleischers showed off how much they could do with the camera angle changing mid-scene. Bimbo’s Initiation is a great example, especially for that extremely long continuous shot of Bimbo running away. But there’s examples all over. Including, in The Betty Boop Limited, a bit of perspective shot that foreshadows the Fleischer’s multi-plane camera work of later years. And all that in under three years. It’s an aspect of the development of animation that gets forgotten under the stories of sound and of Technicolor.

Also surprising: Bimbo had a personality! Two personalities, really, and character variants to match. One, the standard, is this generically pleasant guy who reacts to things, and somehow that became the only Bimbo we know. But the other is more inventive, more active. He’s not quite wild enough to be a screwball character. But you can see it from there, which is a noteworthy step for your generic early-30s inkblot character. I understand his becoming a secondary character to Betty Boop, and then getting knocked back to the minors by Popeye. But couldn’t the more interesting version have shown up more?

And another surprise: Betty Boop really didn’t have a personality! At least, she got a lot of parts, yes. But she gets top billing in these cartoons pretty fast considering how little she has to do with the action. It’s left me more curious about why Betty Boop rose to stardom. It’s easy to see why Popeye took over the Thimble Theatre comic strip once he showed up; he was always saying and doing something a hundred times more interesting than the entities around him. But Betty Boop? She sings, fine. She’s an object of attention. But apart from The Bum Bandit, where she’s not Betty Boop, she hasn’t had a really good part. She’s just the star because … she’s the star? It’s all on charisma, I suppose.

I was delighted to find in Fire Bugsan early example of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 being the cartoon soundtrack. And I was amused to find characters reappearing in new roles: Old King Cole switching from being the creepy bad guy to just being the engineer. Bimbo’s little brother Aloysius becoming any old annoying brat they needed around. Now that I’m primed to notice reused characters I’m curious what the Fleischer Studios Day Players group looks like.

I was also delighted to learn about the recording career of Frank Crumit. At least to learn he had like 480 billion songs all of which sound like old-time cartoon music. Most of them aren’t too problematic, but, yeah, that was the not-delightful part. I knew the Delaware Lackawanna Song (“Where Do You Work-A John”) almost wholly from its appearance in Mask-a-Raid, and on finally looking up the lyrics had a nasty surprise. That’s been the way with the bits we might charitably say reflect how society has changed from the early 30s. Or how we might say, ethnic or racist jokes that sometimes don’t crash the whole cartoon. They are there. There’s more than I’d like. But apart from Mask-A-Raid none of the cartoons (that survive) have depended on ethnic jokes. And they’ve avoided being nastier than, oh, those Indians make these war whoops. I don’t like it, but we’ve seen much worse. Worse is, yeah, where the sexual-assault subtext of Betty Boop cartoons lunges out of the text, grabs you by the nose, and smacks you across the face. Somebody get the poor woman pantyhose that stay in place.

Has this project changed my mind about anything substantial? Hard to say. I’ve always liked black-and-white cartoons, even primitive ones like Noah’s Lark. I had not before seen Swing You Sinners!, itself a minor sin as it’s fantastic. But to find a music-heavy 30s Fleischer cartoon is right up my alley? That’s not exactly catching anyone off-guard with a fast-breaking Zontar story. I appreciate Bimbo a bit more than I did before. And I have new questions about the Fleischer studios, particularly weird cartoons like The Robot or Hide and Seek that seem anachronistic.

Mostly, it’s given me a chance to look closely at a thing I already liked and see new aspects of it. That’s worthwhile even if it hasn’t changed my mind about the cartoons.

The 42nd and Final Talkartoon: The Betty Boop Limited


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Should I Watch When I Run Out Of Talkartoons?


This coming Tuesday I figure to post an essay about the 42nd and last of the Fleischer Studios’ Talkartoons series. I forget just how I stumbled into reviewing each (available) one in turn. But I’ve liked how it turned out. It’s given me the chance to watch some cartoons for the first time, and to watch all of them anew.

Thing is, what to do next? I could go back to writing something original each day but that’s hard. Having a review of stuff I like works well for me. I like having the reason to look at something I enjoy. I like noticing the evolution of things. I like getting to explain cultural references of 1932. It satisfies the know-it-all urge in me. And that’ll need extra satisfaction now that The Straight Dope with Cecil Adams is ended. (Sob!) I like knowing that if I ever really tried I could write a month’s worth of some day of the week’s entries in an afternoon. I never, ever will.

I’ve thought about moving right into the Betty Boop line of cartoons proper, which among other things would schedule my Tuesdays for a year and a half to come. That’s a comfortable thought. Popeye is also fantastic and I’m not sure I would get tired of that, not at least before we get to the postwar cartoons. Or I could go for something less well-examined.

And that’s what I’m doing here: would anyone have nominations for a set of things I might review, one per week? I’m open to other cartoon series. I’d prefer ones that are well-represented on archive.org, so that essays stay sensible. I’m open to cartoons that haven’t been thoroughly digested by other bloggers. I’m also open to ones of historic interest. … And I admit, I’d prefer ones whose historic import I don’t have to spend too much time justifying why anyone in 2018 should care. So I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the Van Beuren filmography, but, probably would do The Little King cartoons first. And I know I’m one of nearly a dozen people who still find The Little King interesting.

I’m also open to other stuff, such as live-action shorts, or even old-time radio programs. As I say, the important things are that they be accessible to readers without too much effort. Ideally something that could be embedded in my essays and trusted to remain indefinitely. Any thoughts?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 39th Talkartoon: A Hunting We Will Go


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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile On TV


Turner Classic Movies has sometimes been showing cartoons before the Tarzan movies on Saturday mornings. Whoever writes the cable guide summaries described one, airing before Tarzan Putters Around In Manhattan For Some Reason, like this:

Wild Elephinks

In this early-1930s precursor to the cult tv series Lost, Popeye and Olive Oyl find themselves shipwrecked on a… New.

So, Wild Elephinks is not a good cartoon. It’s from early on, before the Fleischers realized that Popeye had a personality. It’s also one of the surprisingly many cartoons that start with Popeye shipwrecked, one of those little recurring things that make you wonder exactly how good a sailor he is. He and Olive Oyl wash up on an island with a bunch of animals on it, all of which Popeye beats up, because what’s more attractive in your hero than punching a mink to death?

I appreciate whoever wrote this caption having a bit of fun given how much nothingness the cartoon’s real premise had. But why do they have to cut off all the TV show summaries that early? Has anyone told the summary writers that they have, like, 130 characters to work with? If they haven’t, why haven’t they? Don’t these summarizers ever go home, check on their work, and realize that everything after the first twenty words was cut off? Does that make them angry? Does that make them sail to a remote island and punch every animal? These are all questions I feel I cannot answer.

How To Move A Plant (Non-Emotionally)


Moving a plant is not a chore you should rush. Really you shouldn’t be rushing any chores, what with how they’re chores. A rushed chore feels skittish, much as you might, and will try to run off. A defensive chore ends up spraying out side tasks as distractions. You may have noticed the results of this. You start off trying to organize the shelf of Books That Friends Who Don’t Read Gave You. You’ve barely gotten to alphabetizing the fourth copy of the novelization to The Thirteenth Floor, which you spent a quixotic two months defending as far superior to The Matrix before remembering that you could go outside and roll down a grassy hillside all afternoon.

Somehow you find yourself in the refrigerator, shelves cleared, sponging off some congealment that seems to be maple syrup hybridized with vinaigrette and store-brand Dr Pepper equivalent. In someone else’s house, one you’re thinking of buying at the tax auction. You have no recollection how it happened. I couldn’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, not since they put all those tags on the cinder-block house two streets over. This is just how chores work.

Nevertheless before moving a plant — remember that? — you need to prepare. Without proper planning even something as simple as cutting down a weed tree could cause the Moon to tumble out of its orbit and go rolling through Appalachia, leaving many stricken West Virginians considerably flatter. How is left as an exercise to the student.

The first step is to warn the plant as early as possible that it will be moved. Moving is traumatic. The plant needs to appreciate the friends and familiar places it’s about to be torn from. They also can get started dreading the new cliques they’ll be plunged defenselessly into a month before the end of the school year. Remember to insist to the plant that it has a say in this move, although not one that would change your plans.

The next step is to have a place to move the plant to. There are great ideas to grow plants hydroponically, without any particular location. It turns out hydroponically means that it’s four spindly lima beans in injected-foam cups during second grade. This may not fit your plant-relocation needs, what with how you have a fourth-grade understanding of fractions and compound sentences.

A great place to deposit a plant is inside a hole. You can purchase a hole, of course. But a great many people with mobility issues depend on pre-dug holes. I feel guilty taking any stock away from them. Funny, that’s the same look the person at the garden supply store gave me. Anyway, I’m able to dig roughly cylindrical holes myself. I encourage that for people who can do it, since it’s such a great experience.

The easiest way to dig a roughly cylindrical hole is with a post-hole digger. Yes, it’s way too much mechanism for this task. It’s just so much fun to lift the digger in the air and toss it in the ground with this satisfying CHUNK, and squeeze it and twist it around and scoop up a heap of dirt and swing it over, dropping the dirt on an unsuspecting smaller sibling. Of course you need a post-hole digger for this. And you can’t just wander in to the grocery store and go to the “P” section and buy the first thing you see. They’ll be filed under “D” for digger. Unless your grocery store uses Reverse Polish Notation, in which case you’re back to “P” again, but who does that? Who isn’t trying to make a point, I mean?

You should keep digging until you have enough hole, which comes when you feel the sense of inner tranquility that comes from outgrowing the idea that you’re a giant long-necked dinosaur used down at the quarry and settling into the idea that you’re pretending to be a hydraulic pile driver. One you do, ponder how it is you have no idea what a pile driver does. I mean, there’s the obvious: it temporarily flattens cartoon animals, but gets broken by the mighty skull of Popeye the Sailor Man. It turns out pile drivers are used to drive piles. Here a pile is a long cylinder of something that’s pretty stern. They get driven into soft soil so that the piles make a better foundation that the dirt does. This may help you feel a sense that the world is abundant in things that are ordinary and unobtrusive but really quite clever.

This might make the plant seem like a rather provincial concern. That’s all right. Explain this to the plant and it will figure out arrangements for itself.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 33rd Talkartoon: The Robot, surely Not A Time-Traveller’s Prankish Insertion To History


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.