Betty Boop: So who’s this Freddy character anyway?


Last week’s Betty Boop cartoon, Betty Boop’s Life Guard, raised the musical question of “Where’s Freddy?” They put the question in a song that lasted only about two minutes on-screen but which can last in the head for as much as eight years straight. Sorry about that. But at least as good a question is “Who’s this Freddy person again, exactly?”

Freddy, or Fearless Fred, is Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, for a half-dozen cartoons in 1934 and 1935. It’s repeatedly claimed he was created because under the enforced Production Code Betty Boop couldn’t be dating Bimbo — a dog — once she was finally established as human. I suspect that’s not a complete answer, though. If the Fleischers just wanted Betty Boop to pair up with a human, why not Koko the Clown? He was unmistakably human, and had been on screen for fifteen years, and even canoodled a bit with Betty now and then. Or why not humanize Bimbo? Why add a new character?

My suspicion is that Freddy reflects the discovery of personality. Cartoon characters didn’t lack personality before the early 1930s, but they did tend to be less distinct. Bimbo is faintly pleasant, kind of playful, a little mischievous, easily intimidated: what you’d get from a talented high school theater class producing their very own Little Tramp sketch. You see almost the same personality as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, as Bosko and then Foxy over at Warner Brothers. The biggest difference is in how much the characters seem like blackface jokes.

Soon, though, cartoon characters with personality started taking over. Betty Boop was a forerunner. Goofy appears in 1932; Popeye and his cast in 1933. Donald Duck would appear in 1934. They’re characters of a different order from Bimbo or even Koko. I believe that Fearless Freddy was an attempt to give Betty Boop, and the studio, a credible male lead who has character. And to support this I’d like to show the first cartoon with Fearless Freddy, She Wronged Him Right, which debuted the 5th of January, 1934.

His introductory cartoon is a theatrical performance. Fearless Freddy, Betty Boop, and Heeza Rat play out some versions of themselves. Two of his other appearances, Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No!, his final appearance, would use the same framing device. The plot is the grand Spoof Victorian Melodrama of the sort we all thought was done to perfection by Dudley Do-Right. Perhaps it was; but the Spoof Victorian Melodrama was also being done very well in the 1930s, and in the silent movie era, and for that matter by the Victorians themselves.

At some point you have to wonder if the Victorian Melodrama was ever played straight. You wonder more once you learn that silent movie melodrama villains never tied women to railroad tracks. If you see one, it’s from a spoof. This cartoon is part of a curious genre that seems to exist only as a parody. There’s something weird here.

But you can see why a figure like Bimbo just won’t cut it for a Spoof Victorian Melodrama, and why even Koko wouldn’t do. The role has to be cast by someone who looks the part even as he looks ridiculous. Fearless Fred, helplessly dragged behind a horse, can make the best of his plight by declaring “I think I’ll go this way” and make sense. If Bimbo made the same declaration it would sound like the cartoon was nervous about nobody saying anything for too long.

The stage-set framing adds some weirdness to the look of the cartoon. Sets slide in and out, and people walk on the sets within a fixed proscenium. It’s more fun to watch than it probably would have been without the stage convention. Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No! have even more fun with using stage mechanics to suggest complicated lines of motion and that’s a fun, dizzying, hypnotic illusion.

Outside his roles as a stage character Fearless Fred would play a lifeguard, a soldier (against an army of giant mosquitoes), and a traffic cop. They’re not far off the Spoof Victorian Melodrama hero-role and he’s affably not-quite-ept in them all. While he’s not as strong a character as (say) Wimpy, or even Gabby (from the Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels and some spinoff cartoons), he’s a good step forward. He doesn’t steal a scene from Betty Boop, but it’s at least thinkable that he might.

Century of Slapstick #77: Chaplin’s “The Tramp”


I’m embarrassed to have missed the exact centennial of this. Well, it’s a year full of exciting centennials. Fortunately vaudeville and comedy-history enthusiast Trav SD noticed the day. So, please, a tiny bit late, appreciate the anniversary of the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.

What I Now Know About The Cigarette Industry In Summer 1974


So why am I the kind of person who’ll read They Satisfy, Robert Sobel’s 1978 history of the cigarette industry in America? It’s because of passages like this:

There was a plethora of new brands in the summer of 1974, most of which were unimaginative and soon were discontinued. For years Lorillard had attempted to find a counterpart to Marlboro — a full-flavored smoke witha western motif. It had marketed Maverick, Redford, and Luke, all of which failed. Now it introduced Zach, which in tests featured a pack that looked like blue denim. Zach lasted less than a year. Brown & Williamson had even less luck with Tramps, an attempt to cash in on a revived interest in Charlie Chaplin. Although Chaplin’s face and form weren’t used in commercials, the company paid the retired actor two cents per pack in royalties so as to be able to suggest the connection. American Tobacco had Safari and Super M Menthol; L&M tried the market with St. Moritz, and Philip Morris produced Philip Morris International. This last smoke, a longer version of the old standard, did find a following, but the others were gone by early 1975.

And now my mind is captivated by the scene in Tobacco Industry Master Command, sometime around February 1974. “Gentlemen,” says the President of Tobacco, a burly guy who insists on people calling him “The Head Honcho” believe he thinks that makes him sound approachable and friendly before he kicks their knees in. “This is 1974! It’s a turbulent year! Nixon’s destroying the national belief that government can be a useful force, and America is about to finish the last Skylab mission! What are we going to do to get more people to smoke?”

And one meek fellow from Lorillard says, “We were thinking, maybe, we could try a blue denim-y package?”

A guy from Brown & Williamson says, “I don’t want to brag, but, we have a little project in mind wherein we’re going to just start giving Charlie Chaplin money without getting anything specific in return!”

The guys from American Tobacco and L&M were dozing through the question, but the Philip Morris guy said, “Um … maybe … do the same stuff, only more?”

And the President of Tobacco leans back, puts his feet up on the desk and says, “Boys, I don’t know who, but someone who walked into this room today just had the best cigarette idea of 1974.” Everyone else applauds The Head Honcho, or else.

And that’s why I read these kinds of books.

Silent Comedies: The Mechanic (1924)


I’d like to offer another silent comedy bit today, so, let me offer The Mechanic, from 1924, starring Jimmy Aubrey, who I admit I don’t know much about. Wikipedia offers that he worked with Charlie Chaplin and with Laurel & Hardy, but that’s not so distinguishing a set of properties as you might think as Chaplin, Laurel, and Aubrey worked for Fred Karno. Karno was one of the leading producers for music hall performances, and brought quite a few of the greats of British stage comedy to British and to American attention, and so is one of the basic links to use if you need to connect any early 20th century stage performers. (And maybe later ones: Wikipedia delights me by noting that Karno’s houseboat, the Astoria, is still afloat at Hampton, Middlesex, where Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour uses it as a recording studio.)

The Mechanic is at archive.org, although it’s obviously not complete: credits, particularly, are missing, and if someone cut scenes from the reel before archive.org got hold of it I wouldn’t know. The jokes are stagy and somewhat padded, I admit, but the timing of jokes, particularly slapstick ones, has gotten generally much faster over the decades. The short, like many silents, also has the distracting value that if you look away from the action you can see actual Los Angeles of that time, and for that matter just the view of a garage back in the days when garages might be called things like Gasoline Alley are interesting. On archive.org the film is in two bits, a fifteen-minute main sequence and for some reason thirteen seconds that didn’t quite fit. Embedded below ought to be a YouTube copy of the first portion of this, and I trust you can find the last quarter-minute.

On How To Make A (Silent) Comedy


The blog Movies, Silently reprints a Photoplay essay from 1925 in which Al Christie explains his formula for reliable comedy. Christie worked largely — I want to say entirely, but I’m not sure — in short subjects; his imdb.com profile lists 762 titles he produced, 460 he directed, and 173 that he wrote, stretching from 1912 to 1947, so I suppose we just have to hope he liked making short subjects.

I admit not recognizing most of the titles (although he apparently was an uncredited producer for the 1930, non-Jack-Benny, version of Charlie’s Aunt), since they tend to sound like Old Short Subject Titles, eg, Calling All Crooners (1937) or Short Change (1924). Well, Tillie’s Punctured Romance stands out, but this is the W C Fields version from 1928. (The Charlie Chaplin version is on archive.org, but Christie didn’t have anything to do wit it as far as I know.) Unfortunately short subjects are harder to appreciate than full-length movies; even Turner Classic Movies mostly uses them to fill in schedule gaps, and rarely has the time to curate or to put into cultural context any of the ones it does have. A occasional night of Robert Benchley shorts or of George Méliès films is great, and appreciated, but it doesn’t give the audience the chance to appreciate the whole field.

In his article Christie gives six “time-tested situations” that he says are reliable comic starters, and they’re probably still a sound base for plot-driven comedy, particularly visual comedy:

  1. Heaving the pie.
  2. The lover foiled.
  3. The Amateur Expert.
  4. The Crowner Crowned — or The Socker Socked.
  5. Papa and the Baby.
  6. Caught in the Act.

I’d like to think that “Papa and the Baby” has worn out its freshness, although if we take this to mean “father figure acts like a dope”, well, it may still have worn out its freshness but it’s also pretty relied upon, so it’s doing business for somebody. I’ve got a fondness for the Amateur Expert motif, which is good for (one) absurdist explanations to common things and (two) getting people into situations where they’re hopelessly outclassed.

The whole article, though, I think’s worth reading, not just because of its insights into how to make a short silent comedy that people will respond to, but also because these fine points about what people laugh at are written in a slangy mid-20s movie-publicity-magazine style that’s itself charming in its antiquity (“this goes back to the French farces of Moliere, and hence does not germinate with the Genus Americanus of Ribticklus”? Really, Al, you want to commit that to print?).