Statistics Saturday: The Hardest Things To Understand In Old Movies


The racial and ethnic stereotypes are hard to understand, especially the obsolete stereotypes, but what throws more people than you might imagine is how they used to pronounce 'robot'.
Also hard to get used to: how they said ‘Los Angeles’ with a hard g, the way Bugs Bunny did when he was affecting a manner or something.

Some Giant Kids Tromping Around, Plus Mathematics Comics


I don’t mean to brag but over on my mathematics blog I’ve recently had two roundups of mathematically themed comic strips. The “Hatless Aliens” Edition let me reveal that Einstein’s paper introducing “E = mc2 doesn’t actually contain the equation “E = mc2”, so please go over there to read about that. The “Trapezoid” Edition let me introduce someone to Percy Crosby’s classic comic strip Skippy, which I also count as a public service.

To give folks who stick around here something to read, though, might I offer a pair of installments from Winsor McCay’s classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland? The backstory is a little involved and hard to summarize since, well, it’s dreamland, but in the installment from September 29, 1907, Nemo and company are sneaking around, best as giants can, Manhattan. In the installment from October 6, well, the sneaking has really advanced to knocking the city over. These things happen.

Nemo and Impie watch as Flip rampages accidentally through the city.
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland for the 29th of September, 1907; reprinted on Gocomics.Com on the 28th of April, 2015.

But it all shows off McCay’s style: incredibly gorgeous artwork drawn with stunning precision — in the second strip look at how consistent the city buildings are between panels 1, 2, and 5, even though it wouldn’t make any difference if they were to vary — and with the loose dreamy narrative that the title of the strip implies. It’s not the kind of comic strip that I could imagine running in the newspapers today. Partly that’s because weekly narrative strips are, except for Prince Valiant, dead; partly that’s because this sort of whimsy is a very hard thing to create or to sustain.

Nemo, Impie, and Flip try to douse the burning city, and are shot by the Navy.
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland for the 6th of October, 1907; reprinted on Gocomics.Com on the 30th of April, 2015.

I feel I should say something about Impie, but I don’t know what. The character was picked up earlier along Nemo and Flip’s adventures and I don’t know what I can say.

Betty Boop’s Life Guard


Previously listed as a first Betty Boop:


Each of the last several weeks I’ve said it was the last of the Betty Boop firsts. I’ve been wrong each time. I thought of another and this time I think it’s the last of the firsts, and why would I be wrong yet another week in a row?

Betty Boop’s Life Guard came out the 13th of July, 1934. This makes it the first of her cartoons released after the creation of the Production Code Administration, the enforcers of the Hays Code. Their rules about suitable public entertainment would tamp down Hollywood’s most risque elements. And Betty Boop would be tamed.

This cartoon doesn’t show much harm its post-Code release. Betty Boop isn’t introduced with her “Made of pen and ink/ She can win you with a wink” refrain. Many commentators say that, and her winking and hip-shaking, were too suggestive for the Hays Code. I haven’t seen a source for that.

But the plot’s appealing. The opening shot, of the seashore and waves removing and putting back the beach crowd, is one the studio would reuse into the 1950s. They were right to; it’s a good gag. Lifeguard Fearless Freddy warns Betty about going out too far in the ocean. She’s confident because she has her inflatable rubber horsey. I’m amazed to learn they had inflatable rubber horseys in 1934. They barely had men going shirtless at the beach back then.

Still, as foreshadowed, Betty’s inflatable rubber horsey deflates, and she goes underwater. This presents a nice sequence of undersea jokes featuring Betty as a mermaid. Everyone goes about singing “Where’s Freddy?”, up to the point that Betty gets chased by a sea serpent. The sea serpent reminds me of the Jabberwocky from Betty In Blunderland, Betty Boop’s Alice In Wonderland/Through The Looking-Glass cartoon released in April of 1934. For that matter, the plot is pretty much that of Betty In Blunderland, a fantasy sequence of Betty in a surreal and wondrous land interrupted by a monster come to grab her away. Betty In Blunderland is a great cartoon, worth attention on its own. I’m not surprised the Fleischers would remake it just three months later. It seems a little odd that Betty and everyone else are so hot for this Freddy fellow, but wondering where he is at least gives something for the musical number to be about.

So here’s a question: how much did the enforced Hays Code affect the cartoon? The Production Code Administration was only established the 13th of June, 1934, too late for major changes in a cartoon getting released a month later. But the newly enforced code wasn’t a surprise dropped onto Hollywood from nowhere in the middle of June either. The very similar Betty In Blunderland would probably have passed without major changes. That Betty Boop was famous for risque jokes didn’t mean that was all she could do.

In Life Guard there’s a little bit of business about 5:30 into the picture with a Jewish rag-collector fish. It seems to me like it should have run afoul of the Code’s prohibition of “willful offense to any nation, race or creed”. But perhaps it like too many ethnic jokes was perceived as just playful. Goodness knows blackface jokes would take decades to finally register as objectionable.

Betty Boop’s cartoons generally got less entertaining after 1934. It’s easy to blame the Hays Code, although this entry shows that perfectly sound Betty Boop episodes could be made under its dictates.

Betty Boop: Hollywood On Parade


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


Last week I showed off Betty Boop’s first live-action appearance. She had a second, with a new actor. This second person to play Betty Boop in person was Bonnie Poe, who would also voice the character in animation from 1933 through 1938. If I am reading the release dates correctly, this live-action short is the first time her version of Betty Boop was heard. So I cover two Betty Boop firsts at once.

This is an installment of the Hollywood On Parade series, in which Paramount pointed the camera at its stars puttering around. They might be doing it in character, they might be doing a sketch, they might just be trying to further the illusion that every celebrity is pals with every other celebrity. This one is more of a sketch.

Last week’s Musical Justice short was one that could easily have been a cartoon. This week is even more so. Indeed, it’s been cartoons by all the major studios. The scene opens on a Hall Of Fame, and the wax museum figures come to life in that identity-challenging way that wax museum figures do. In a stunning plot twist replicated only in every Betty Boop cartoon ever, a menacing figure kidnaps Betty and it’s the responsibility of the bland pleasant male lead to rescue her.

Before watching, I must warn: there’s some ethnic humor in the middle, about 5:20 in. I love this era of filmmaking but I don’t see why they found that kind of humor irresistible.

The bland pleasant male figure made the protagonist is Eddie Borden, a celebrity I don’t feel bad about calling obscure. He was in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, the Internet Movie Database tells me. I don’t remember what part he played in it, but I’m sure he was funny, because for crying out loud even Zeppo was funny in Monkey Business. He also appeared in several Laurel and Hardy movies, though again, I don’t recognize the parts.

The short looks ready to follow a straightforward plot as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula wakes, abducts Betty, and then vanishes, and Borden pursues her. It’s easy to imagine the six-minute cartoon that would be made of this plot. They’d surely have wandered through sets and tried to pick up more characters, as done here. I’m willing to suppose audiences at the original release (the 10th of March, 1933) had a better chance than I have of recognizing stars like Charles Murray and George Sidney. They’re the Safari-I-Guess guys who do a vaguely-Abbot-and-Costello bit and join Eddie Borden. (Murray you might, possibly, know as the Wizard in the unfortunate Larry Semon-produced 1925 Wizard of Oz movie.) But would the animated version of this end with Gayne Whitman as Chandu the Magician?

Possibly. Nonsensical endings were not unknown at the Fleischer Studios. But I admit I don’t get this conclusion. From the way it reads Chandu seems to be the villain of the piece, which seems out of character, but then what is the ending supposed to be?

It’s a curious short. Bela Lugosi and Clara Bow are celebrities famous enough they’re still recognizable. Don’t tell me if I’m wrong. Bonnie Poe is at least recognizable to vintage animation fans. The other celebrities are at least well-connected. It takes longer to get through its points than the animated version would, possibly just because they had ten minutes to fill instead of six. And it shows how easily one could do a Betty Boop cartoon in live action, leaving only the question of why they didn’t do it more?