Betty Boop with Henry: the lone cartoon pairing


I maybe have been beating the Henry drum loudly the last couple weeks. On the other hand, when else would I have an audience for this? And Roy Kassinger asked if I had ever reviewed the animated cartoon with Betty Boop and Henry. I hadn’t, so, what better time than now to do it? Maybe last week, then.

This cartoon originally debuted the 22nd of November, 1935. It was the 47th of the Betty Boop line of cartoons, which took the place of the Talkartoons after that series wrapped up.

So, some context. In 1933 the Fleischers launched the Popeye cartoon series, for good reason. Popular comic strips already had a long history of being adapted into animated cartoons. Popeye’s debut was officially in a Betty Boop cartoon. Her presence is a slight thing — she shows up for a musical number in the midst of the action. But it did mean the studio could work out whether Popeye was adaptable to cartoons in a way with minimum risk of failure.

Popeye was a brilliant success, of course. So there’s little else to do but try to repeat the trick. And here we get to Henry. The character had been around three years. The comic strip proper was around about one year when the Flesichers made this short. It was popular, sensibly enough. Henry as a character is clever but lazy, kind but a bit selfish, pleasure-seeking but not hedonist, with a bit of hard-luck about him. He fits in the line of characters like the Little Tramp, Mickey Mouse, or Dagwood Bumstead. It’s easy to like him. And, William Foster notes, was decades ahead of the curve in presenting non-white characters with dignity. There’s great reason to try him out.

There wasn’t a Henry series to follow this. I can’t call that an injustice. The short is pleasant enough. But there’s just not much there. Henry watches Betty Boop’s pet store while she’s out, makes a mess of things, and then re-catches the birds he’d let out. That’s not much of a plot, but it is something. It should have been plenty for the Fleischers. A Fleischer specialty is characters doing a simple thing in complicated ways. They had just months earlier introduced Grampy to the Betty Boop series. His entire point was thinking up Rube Goldberg contraptions to play music or turn the apartment building into a roller coaster or something. And Henry accidentally messing up something and fixing it in some ingenious complicated way would be a natural.

Here, though? The only clever thing he does is drop birdseed on his head to attract birds. And he does that a lot. There’s cute business, like, dancing with Pudgy, or setting two lovebirds together. But that’s a cute sideline, not action. (And the scene with the monkey ought to be funny, and then you remember pet stores would sell monkeys back then, and that’s awful and depressing.) Heck, the opening scene — Henry appearing to walk a plank between mountains, revealed to be a billboard — was clever, at least, with a nice reveal of what’s going on. What if the whole short had been like that? If it had been three minutes of earning animals’ trust and cleaning them or feeding them in silly ways, maybe Henry could have gone to series.

Maybe. One problem with Henry’s cast of characters is that he doesn’t have antagonists. I guess there’s a bully, and he has a teacher he’s afraid of, and his parents will make him take a bath or something. But that’s all a very gentle menace. Popeye comes from, in the comic strip, an action-adventure background. It’s natural to have a big-bad villain there. Popeye and the villain fighting for Olive Oyl gives stories an obvious point. And a reason for something exciting to happen on-screen.

It also helped that Popeye had stuff to say. In the comic strip Henry was mute, much as that distresses me when he’s put on the phone. But presumably he could speak; we just don’t see him doing so. (Apparently in the comic books he spoke as normal.) Popeye, in the comic strip, had personality from his first line. It’s easy to write stuff that’s definitely what Popeye might say and to rule out things he would not. Not his mangled speech; that’s just a marker. “I am what I am and that’s all what I am” is a declaration of character. When he talked in the cartoon it made sense. But Henry? What’s a Henry-esque turn of phrase? Henry’s voice actor — I guess Ann Rothschild, if I’m inferring things from Wikipedia right — tries. But Henry hasn’t got anything to say that shows character.

I could be wrong, though. Little Lulu has a protagonist who’s got that similar pleasant, soft, antagonist-free place as Henry does. And she was adapted into a successful enough string of cartoons by Fleischer Studios successor Famous Studios. And then changed into Little Audrey, when Famous Studios dropped the Little Lulu license. I don’t count myself a fan of them, but each was a successful enough series. Maybe this was a good idea hobbled by a bad first attempt.

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.

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

The 31st Talkartoon: Any Rags? Anybody?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 30th Talkartoon: Betty Boop’s Dizzy Red Riding Hood


We’re back, in the Talkartoons, to ones with known animators. And a good hand, too: Grim Natwick, credited with the creation of Betty Boop in the first place. (There’s two more Talkartoons without known animators, which we should get to in late April and early May.) This is also the last Talkartoon of 1931: it was released the 12th of December. And if I’m not missing something, it’s the second (known) cartoon adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story. And the second Talkartoon in a row that’s a fairy-tale adaptation.

I do have to offer a content warning. There’s a joke at about 4:20 in playing on the meanings of the words “pansies” and “fairies”.

The title card narration suggests the cartoon will be risque, in the way that pre-Code cartoons are often reputed to be. This is borne out, at least some; the short is driven by Bimbo’s lusting after Betty Boop. Also maybe by the wolf’s lusting after Betty Boop, although that could just be the normal, empty-stomach sort of hunger.

And it’s got Bimbo in his non-screwball-character design. The one where he’s a bit dull. He’s less interesting than he was last week in Jack and the Beanstalk, yes. But he’s not the boring passive participant in the story that he would get to be. About halfway through he surprises me by beating up the wolf, chasing the wolf’s skeleton out of his own skin for a moment of honest-to-goodness horror, and taking his place. (The wolf also accidentally cuts his head off for a moment there, about 3:12 in, but that’s done so quickly it might not even register.) This is (apparently) the first sound cartoon adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story, and only the second in American animation (Walt Disney did a Little Red Riding Hood cartoon in 1922). It’s surprising that even that early on in animation history they felt they had to have the story go this weird.

Given how well Jack and the Beanstalk went, and that most fairy tales are public domain, it’s not surprising they’d try the trick again. But I don’t know how far they had developed Jack and the Beanstalk before starting work on Dizzy Red Riding Hood. They might have realized they were on to something good. Or both cartoons might have started development about simultaneously as the Fleischer Studios realized they had a story source just waiting around right there to be used.

It doesn’t come off as well as Jack and the Beanstalk, though. This cartoon isn’t so zany as last week’s. There are many good little bits of business, and so a wealth of choices for blink-and-you-miss-it jokes. I’d vote for right up front as the handle for the icebox keeps escaping Betty’s hand, and turns out to be a sausage link poking through a hole anyway. Also that Bimbo eats the fish Betty puts in her basket, and the sausage links leap into his mouth. And that’s before a friendly little frog turns into an outboard motor to help Betty through a large puddle.

There are a lot of good little bits of business. I like the forest leaping into Betty’s way. Also that when we first see the wolf, he, Betty, and Bimbo all enter the scene from different depths; it’s a rare bit of three-dimensionality. And I’m really amused that the wolf goes to the trouble of getting Betty Boop to plant flowers just so he can have flowers to stomp on.

There’s also some good draftsmanship on display in a challenging scene about 2:25 in, where Betty and the Wolf are walking along a curved trail in the woods, and Bimbo keeps poking his head out between trees. It’s the kind of angle that’s not seen enough in cartoons, for my tastes. It’s hard to animate so it looks right. This does look right, although it goes on a bit long, as if the studio was so impressed they’d got it right they were checking to make sure everyone noticed. Always the problem in doing the hard stuff right.

Still, none of the jokes feel that big, or land that strongly. There’s a lot that’s amusing; no real belly laughs. The closing scene, with Betty and Bimbo sitting on the moon as if it were a hammock, is a great image, but it’s a strange closing moment not coming from or building to anything. I like the Moon’s despairing expression, though.

There aren’t credits for the voice actors. The Internet Movie Database credits Little Ann Little with Betty Boop’s voice, plausibly as she’d been doing that the last several shorts. It also credits Billy Murray with Bimbo’s voice, again, credible. I don’t know who does the introduction. It sounds to me like someone impersonating Ronald Colman, but I’m not sure that in 1931 that would be a name people could be expected to recognize. The wolf’s voice — at least his singing voice — sounds to me like Jackson Beck. You’ll recognize him as the voice of Bluto and every other heavy in every cartoon and old-time radio show. But that is my speculation and I am not skilled in identifying voice actors.

The wolf, while singing his threats, rhymes “granny” with “bologna”. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

The 29th Talkartoon: Jack and the Beanstalk and of course Betty Boop and the heck?


The next of the Talkartoon sequence is another one we don’t have animator information about. Sorry. Looking ahead, it appears there’s only two more Talkartoons without credits. Wikipedia also lists this as Betty Boop’s final appearance in dog form. It’s the first Talkartoon based explicitly on a fairy tale (unless one of the lost ones has something). It won’t be the last. From the 21st of November, 1931 — just two weeks after Mask-A-Raid — here’s Jack and the Beanstalk.

OK, so that’s kind of a weird one. It’s got all the major elements of Jack and the Beanstalk — Bimbo, with his earlier, more screwball design, as Jack; a beanstalk; a cow; a giant; a magic hen. The story’s presented in a lightly subverted form. Bimbo’s aware of the giant because of a dropped cigar. Bimbo just having the beans and needing the cow to tell him to use it. The Magic Hen coming out of nowhere. It’s interesting to me there are so many elements of spoofing the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk story. If I’m not overlooking something on Wikipedia this is only the second cartoon made based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story, and only about the fourth time the story was put on film. There are probably some more adaptations that just haven’t been identified. Still, it does suggest this is one of those fairy tales that are adopted more in parody than in earnest. It’s a curious state of affairs.

I mentioned Bimbo’s got his earlier character design here. He’s also got his earlier personality, the one with personality. He’s a more active person than he’s been since The Herring Murder Case at least. For a wonder in a cartoon billed Betty Boop and Bimbo, he’s actually the lead. I’m curious why he doesn’t stay this interesting. It gives the cartoon shape. And a screwball Bimbo can do random weird stuff to fill in jokes during a dull stretch.

There’s no end of casual weird body stuff this cartoon. It starts out with Bimbo taking his cow’s horn off to use as telescope. Bimbo’s arm turns into a rotary drill to plant beans. Bimbo untying Betty by taking her apart and putting her back together. The Magic Hen swapping her head and tail. The Magic Hen flying apart, then pulling herself together by putting her legs through her neck-hole and grabbing her head. File all these images away for a nightmare at some more convenient time.

Not only does a suspiciously Mickey-like Mouse appear about 4:48 in, but he figures into the plot. Makes for a really well-crafted cartoon, as well as the rare short from this era to have four significant characters. Five, if the Hen counts.

I’m not sure the short has any blink-and-you-miss-it jokes; everything is pretty well timed and set up. Also I’m surprised how big a laugh I got out of the bowl of soup smacking the giant in the face. Maybe you’d count the four eggs the Magic Hen lays turning into tires for her own morph into a car. And the car morphing back into the Hen. Both are such quick and underplayed bits of business it’s easy to not see them.

I’m surprised how well this short worked. Betty Boop cartoons would go back to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. This short gives good reason why.

The 28th Talkartoon: Mask-A-Raid, Where Betty Takes Top Billing


So the next Talkartoon in release order, from the 16th of October, 1931, was In The Shade Of The Old Apple Sauce. Wikipedia tells me it’s a lost cartoon. Certainly I never found it. Wikipedia also says it’s “not to be confused with the Screen Songs from 1929 of the same name”. There was no such 1929 Screen Songs cartoon. They’re thinking of In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree, based on the 1905 song. Shifting the name to “Apple Sauce” just shows how hep the staff of Fleischer Studios was around 1931; apple-based stuff was a slangy way to talk about something being nonsense back then. So that’s why really old cartoons will talk about something being “apple sauce” or someone being an “apple knocker” or something like that. And now, someone who’s a fan of the old-time radio comedy-detective show Richard Diamond understands why that time Richard takes on an assumed identity as “Harold Appleknocker” all the other characters react as if this were a joke the audience was supposed to understand. It would just be weirdly dated, like if a comic detective today gave her name as Allison Supertrain.

But there’s no seeing that cartoon. So I move on to the next, from the 7th of November is Mask-A-Raid. There’s no credits to say who the animators were.

Before getting there, though, I have to share a content warning. At the center of the cartoon is the song Where Do You Work-A John, also known as the Delaware Lackawanna Song. It was a novelty hit, five years old at the time, and written by Mortimer Weinberg, Charley Marks and Harry Warren. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians made it a canonical hit, but Harry Reser and other bandleaders covered it too. Thing is it’s written with the sort of lighthearted stereotyping that was fine back in the days when big city police could start their investigation into the bomb set off in the business district by just looking up who they could think of who was Italian.

The verses used in the cartoon don’t get to the really troublesome ones, but there’s still a bit of an edge there. And there’s masquerade masks that get the stereotyping more on point, with Italian and, for whatever reason, Chinese faces. It doesn’t read to me as malicious, just absurd, but I don’t want to toss surprises up at you.

The short starts with an interesting title: it’s Betty Boop in Mask-A-Raid with Bimbo. It’s not surprising to us today that Betty Boop would have taken first billing, and is sending Bimbo down to guest-star status. But what was going on in 1931 that they saw this coming? Betty Boop’s turned up more and more, yes, but it’s hard to see what she’s done that’s more interesting than Bimbo has.

I mentioned with Minding The Baby that Betty Boop cartoons develop a stock plot. This one draws closer to it: Betty and Bimbo play a while, a big bad interrupts their fun, and then Bimbo has to rally into action. There isn’t the kidnapping and chase to this; it’s just a duel between Bimbo and the King (and his men). But it’s still early in the series.

There’s a lot of this cartoon I don’t get. Not the plot. It’s straightforward and silly and while there’s nonsense to it, there’s not crazy, surreal bits. What I don’t get is there’s a lot that seems like it’s got to be a reference to something. Take the droopy-faced, huge-nosed mask at about 2:20 in. That’s got to be a Chico Marx caricature, right? It seems to make sense, although I don’t think of him as having so large a nose that making it something you have to carry by wheelbarrow a sensible caricature. But if it’s spoofing someone else? … Okay, who? I feel like I should be more sure here. At the end of the short Bimbo goes into a little scat-singing reverie, and that makes sense so far as anything does in the short. But is Bimbo impersonating anybody particular? The body language feels like it to me. His hair grows out. Just a joke that he’s a singer now? But I had understood long hair, back then, to signify classical music fanatics. My best guess is Bimbo’s impersonating one of the band’s singers. I don’t know who that would be, though. I think the music was done by Harry Reser and whatever he called his band in 1931. But what do my ears know?

I’m not sure whether this is a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. But there is a lot going on in Bimbo’s first scene, when he’s the bandleader and a bunch of smaller animals are playing the hippopotamus. There’s a lot going on there and if you notice, say, the suspiciously-Mickey-like mouse playing his toes like a xylophone you maybe missed the dog(?) drumming on the hippo’s head. It’s also easy to miss how the suspicious mice who carry Betty’s cape come to riding on her cape. But that’s also less funny, at least to me. (And there’s more mice in the big scrum around 4:55.) Maybe the guy who tosses peanuts into the trunk of the elephant blowing a fanfare at about 4:25. That’s not a lot of joke, but I don’t remember ever noticing it in twenty years of watching this cartoon. As for body horror, well, there’s not a strong candidate. The gag where two knight’s swords go into each other at about 5:10 creeps me out for reasons I can’t explain, so I’ll go with that.

The 26th Talkartoon: Minding The Baby, where Betty got her name


The title card this cartoon credits it to “Betty Boop and Bimbo”. I think that’s the first time we’ve seen Betty Boop’s last name established in one of these cartoons, and I’m surprised that doesn’t rate mention on the Wikipedia articles about this cartoon or about Talkartoons in general. This short also lacks animator credits. Talkartoon credits Shamus Culhane and Bernard Wolf, on what grounds I don’t know. Its release date was either the 9th of September, 1931, according to the Talkartoons page, or the 26th of September, according to its own page. Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic was the 26th, which makes for a neater arrangement of things altogether.

Most serieses grow stock templates for stories. It’s not laziness or anything exactly; it’s just that the people making a series realize they’ve got these characters who do this kind of thing well, and so go to telling that kind of story more. There is a loose template for Betty Boop and Bimbo cartoons: Betty wants to play with Bimbo, and they do, and some monster comes in and spoils the fun, often kidnapping Betty, until Bimbo rallies into action and everything collapses into chaos. Minding the Baby isn’t there. But I can see that template in embryo. Bimbo’s kid brother isn’t your classically-formed monster. But he does serve a lot of the same role, spoiling Betty and Bimbo’s fun and taking the initiative away from them.

We start with a crying baby and a gently wicked-in-that-30s-cartoon-way version of Rock-a-Bye-Baby. Bimbo’s got to watch his baby brother Aloysius. Also Bimbo has a baby brother Aloysius. This brings the ratio of Fictional People Named Aloysius To Show They’re The Comedy’s Annoying Character to Actual People Named Aloysius In Real Life to infinity-to-zero.

The cartoon’s a buffet of “Hey, that tune!” moments; right as Bimbo’s mother drops off Aloysius there’s background music burned into my brain as the tune for Betty Boop’s Birthday Party (“This is Betty’s/Birthday party jaaaaam”). There’s some incidental music around 2:00 that’s just in everything or at least feels like it. Similarly the jaunty little tune as Bimbo jumps rope. “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” and “How Dry I Am” and “By The Beautiful Sea” are cartoon staples, not just for this studio. The player piano-scroll music that the hippo plays with his snores has been driving me crazy because I can’t pin down the title. This whole paragraph is making me sound ill-prepared. The songs are there, though.

The cartoon’s got a story. It’s a loose one. Aloysius can go on making trouble, or at least old-baby jokes like smoking cigars and checking the Stuck Market, as long as it needs to. But there is reason for stuff to happen, and for Aloysius’s mischief to get bigger and bigger until it ends in some calamity. Surprising to me on rewatch was that Bimbo just gives up on watching Aloysius pretty early on. I’d expect good comic tension to be driven by his having to be both at Betty’s and keeping Aloysius from falling out the window. Instead, mostly, Aloysius gets into and out of his own trouble. Makes you wonder if they really need to watch the kid after all.

There’s no mice at all, suspiciously Mickey-like or otherwise. There’s a couple good bits of body horror. For me the biggest is the cat that gets pulled inside-out by the vacuum. I know there’s other people who’ll find more primal the punch line of Bimbo zipping Aloysius’s mouth closed. By the way, at the time zippers were a basically new thing. I mean, they had been invented decades earlier, but it was only in the 20s that design and manufacturing had got good enough that they could be used. To put the joke in a modern context it’d be kind of like synch’ing Aloysius’s voice to an iPhone that you then mute. I admit it’s a sloppy translation.

I’m not sure about a good blink-and-you-miss-it joke. There’s several nice bits of statues coming to life long enough to participate in the action. But they’re also pretty well-established. Bimbo dangling down a floor and licking a windowsill cake would be a good one, except it’s done a second time. Yes, in service of setting up a third dangle, where he licks a cat (to the same hilariously pathetic little “mew” as in Bimbo’s Express, I think). Still, the cartoon shows a good bit of polish. The setup’s reasonable, it’s developed well, and it comes to a conclusion that’s very nearly a full conclusion. The cartoons don’t feel slapdash at this point.

The 25th Talkartoon: Bimbo’s Express, a moving cartoon


This Talkartoon was released the 22nd of August, 1931. This was not quite a month after Bimbo’s Initiation. But Wikipedia tells me this was the first entry of the 1931-32 film season. It doesn’t seem like much of a season break. But there are changes. Most importantly, Bimbo’s no longer the sole credited lead character. There’s no credited animators, and I don’t see any clear guesses about who’s responsible.

So one of those things I never knew was a thing growing up: “Moving Day” didn’t used to just be whenever it was you roped a couple friends into lugging a couch down three flights of stairs and back up a different three flights. Used to be — per Edwin G Burrows and Mike (Not That Mike) Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 — a specific day, the 1st of May. Most leases would expire then and the city would convulse in a mad dash for cartage as everybody tried to get to a new spot. Gotham doesn’t make clear to me when this Moving Day lapsed. I would guess during World War II, given the housing shortages, when rational people might leap at the chance to sleep inside the fireplace since at least it’s a warm spot in walking distance of the defense plant. But my point is that when this cartoon was made, and when it was first shown, “Moving Day” likely had this suggestion of a specific, big event that people went through nearly annually.

The core of any Moving Day cartoon is, yeah, how to carry stuff in silly ways. The short doesn’t disappoint in having good approaches for this. My favorite is the overall busy scene breaking out at about 3:24 in, when movers toss furniture down the rain gutter and pop the roof off to throw stuff down to the patio and so on. It’s got that big-complicated-mechanism action so dear to the Fleischer Brothers. There’s some other fine silly bits, such as carrying the stove or the bathtub out. Or Bimbo carefully bringing furniture out the window and untying it to drop. And very well, too, with an almost perfect call from below of “I got it!” after each drop.

At least when the moving action finally gets started. The short does take its sweet time getting there. It isn’t all wasted time. Yes, we’ve got the idea that it’s Bimbo’s Moving Van after about three seconds of seeing the moving van. But there is some fun to be had seeing the horse pull the van in a silly way. Also to spot the well-done background, moving at an angle and years before multi-plane cameras were a thing. Also there’s establishing the gorilla and the small cat. Also, I’m apparently incapable of not giggling every single time the cat gets squashed or walks underneath the gorilla and emits that poor, sad little “mew”. I’m not sure it needs as long as it gets. But, oh, that helpless “mew”. Also there’s one of the few jokes you could miss this short if you blinked; a wheel falls off the van and the vehicle staggers until it gets things back.

I’m still more tickled by the cat’s many little “mew” cries. Between those and the guy down below yelling how he’s got the furniture Bimbo’s dropped, this might be a new high-water mark for Talkartoons having funny lines from characters.

This is the first cartoon titled Bimbo and Betty — no Boop, yet — which I suppose shows how the Fleischers realized that Betty had something Bimbo just hadn’t. I’m surprised they recognized it so early. Here she’s got more screen time than, I think, since The Bum Bandit. But all Betty does is spend her time clipping her toenails (complete with a face on her toe, a joke the studio would come back to) and setting up a decent if stock, slightly racy, joke from Bimbo. She could bring a little more to the proceedings.

It’s not a bad cartoon. Lesser than Bimbo’s Initiation, but most cartoons are. It’s got a larger cast than average, and I keep finding the extra cast more interesting than the main. I’m not sure if the horse, gorilla, and cat show up in other cartoons. They make a good impression, especially considering how little they get to do. It’s got to be in the cat’s pathetic little crushed “mew”.

The 24th Talkartoon: Bimbo’s Initiation, the only Bimbo cartoon you ever heard of


I knew when I stumbled in to reviewing the Talkartoons that there were few cartoons my readers might plausibly have seen. There’s The One That Introduced Betty Boop (Dizzy Dishes). There’s The One Where Cab Calloway is a Walrus (Minnie the Moocher). And then … there’s this. It’s always listed as the best Bimbo cartoon. It’s often listed on the top-50 or top-100 cartoon shorts. It’s listed as one of the best Betty Boop cartoons, on the basis of a few seconds of cameo appearances. I learned, almost memorized, it watching it on the eight-VHS Complete Betty Boop series in the 90s. The animator is uncredited. This is so unfair. Everyone says Grim Natwick. It was originaly released the 24th of July, 1931, and Wikipedia says it ended the 1930-31 film season for the Talkartoons.

Let me clear out the bookkeeping. There’s a Suspiciously Mickey-Like Mouse at 0:35, putting the cover on the sewer and locking Bimbo into his adventure. The strongest body-horror gag has to be when Bimbo’s shadow gets beheaded. I’m inclined to think all the jokes here are so well-framed there’s not a blink-and-you-miss-it gag. But I also remember the guy I hung out with weekends in grad school blinking and missing the bit where Bimbo reaches for a doorknob and it flees to the other side of the door, so that counts for that. On to the bigger-picture stuff.

There’ve been several Bimbo-trapped-in-a-surreal-landscape cartoons. I’d rate this as the best we’ve seen, but would entertain arguments for Swing You Sinners!. It’s certainly the most nightmarish. Previously Bimbo’s at least transgressed in some way, however minor, before getting tossed into the nightmare. Here he’s minding his own business and the weirdness comes out to eat him. Hurrying right to the craziness also means there’s plenty of time to stuff the cartoon full of it.

This cartoon shows an incredible amount of skill behind it. There’s no slack points. There’s some quieter moments in the craziness, yes. They’re deployed with this great sense of pacing, chances for the audiences to rest before the action picks up again. Too much frenetic action is exhausting; here, the tempo varies well and reliably enough that the cartoon stays easy to watch.

And the cartoon is framed so well. There’s a healthy variety of perspectives. There’s changing perspectives, several times over, as Bimbo comes to the end of a tunnel and gets dropped off into a new room. Changing perspectives is always difficult for animation. Even in the modern, computer-drawn or computer-assisted era it’s difficult to make look right. And Bimbo’s Initiation pulls the trick several times over.

The segment that most amazes me every time I watch it starts at about 4:45, after Bimbo’s swallowed by the innermost door. Watch the line of movement. Bimbo’s falling towards the camera, tossed side to side by the chute. He then runs toward the camera and to the left, in roughly isometric view, as axes fall. Then he hops onto the spiral staircase, running down while the camera rotates around his movement. Then he jumps off the staircase into a hall to run to the right. His second, beheaded shadow, runs up and joins his actual shadow. Then he turns and starts running toward the camera as steel doors snap shut behind him. This is all one continuous, seamless shot, without an edit until 5:26. And when it does edit it’s to zoom in tighter on Bimbo, with the doors behind. He keeps running toward the camera until he falls out that chute and the camera pivots to the side, at about 5:42. It’s such an extended and well-blocked sequence. That 57 seconds alone shows how misleading it is to say cartoons of this era were nearly improvised. There was planning going in to how much stuff would fit here, and how it would fit together. The music supports this too. I’m not sure there’s been a Talkartoon with as tight a connection between the tune and the action.

I’m not sure there are any poorly-composed or poorly-considered shots in the cartoon. The shot of Bimbo lighting a candle, seeing the rope snap tight, and then following that to the spikey trap above is as perfect as I’ve ever seen in any cartoon or movie.

Insofar as there are any weaknesses here, it’s that the setting does obliterate Bimbo as a character. There were a couple cartoons where he was developing into a low-key screwball character. He could be sort of an Early Daffy Duck that isn’t so tiring to imagine around. Here, he can’t say or do anything interesting enough to stand up to the setting. Looking at the list of future Talkartoon titles I don’t see any that feature Bimbo as much of a character. The studio’s shifting to Betty Boop. It’s an interesting choice considering she hasn’t had a good part yet. Bimbo’s moving to be her boyfriend or partner or the guy who’s around while she’s center stage. Shame he doesn’t get better parts, but at least he could be the star of this. How many characters never get even one good outing?

The 23rd Talkartoon: The Herring Murder Case


I’ve been trying to watch these cartoons in the order of their release. And that I get from Wikipedia’s page about Talkartoons. Some individual cartoons have their own Wikipedia pages. Many of the earliest don’t, but as the series shifts from “any old thing with a song” to “Bimbo” and finally “Betty Boop Cartoons” fewer entries lack pages. This week’s hasn’t got a page and I’m surprised by that. It’s talked about in Leslie Cabarga’s The Fleischer Story in the Golden Age of Animation, the book on the studio’s history. Not much, but think of all the cartoons that don’t get even that.

Wikipedia does credit this as the first appearance of Bimbo in his “canonical” form. And as the first sound cartoon appearance of Koko the Clown, the character that made the Fleischer Studios and star of extremely many cartoons about him being drawn, getting into a fix, and then being poured back into an inkwell. Would really have thought those two points noteworthy enough for a page to be made. Anyway, the credited animators are Shamus Culhane (then listed as “Jimmie”; when he went into business for himself he took on a more distinctive-to-Americans name) and Al Eugster. Both have already had cartoons in this series before. Originally released the 26th of June, 1931 — more than a month after Silly Scandals — here’s The Herring Murder Case.

Quick content warning: there’s a pansy-voice character and a couple lines approaching (Jewish) ethnic humor. I don’t think they spoil the cartoon (one could even say the ethnic-humor bits are just characterization). But they are there.

So, for the record, the first words spoken aloud by Koko the Clown — at the time, a character a dozen years old and the flagship character of the studio — were “[ stammering gibberish ] my come — come on, the poor — poor herring- herring was sh- sh- shot, oh my, come on, help”. Not an auspicious start. But it is plot-appropriate, for the rare Talkcartoon that has a clear and direct plot.

That friend you have who doesn’t quite like anything however much he likes it has a complaint about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And, like your friend at his most irritating, he kind of has a point. Toontown looks like a great place. But it has an inauthenticity to it. Actual cartoons of the Golden Age of American Animation weren’t so frantic and busy and packed as the Toontown sequence was. It’s defensible artistically. For one, the daily lives of each Toontown citizen is their life story with themselves as protagonist; that we normally only have to take six minutes of a character at once doesn’t mean the rest of their days aren’t like that. But it does mean there’s much more stuff happening visually than an actual cartoon of around 1947 would have.

Most of the time. Some cartoons do get that dense and packed with weird activity. And here, from 1931, is one that’s like that. Especially right after the Herring’s murder: the scenes of the city are full of everything happening, including buildings come to life and writhing in a panic. And then special effects get in the way. After Koko comes on, in animation I assume is swiped from an older Out of the Inkwell cartoon, he runs through a city street haunted by ghostly cat heads for the reasons. It’s one of a lot of showy bits of animation technique in the cartoon.

Another: Bimbo following footsteps up the stairs. It’s a walk cycle, yes, but it’s one that moves in very slight perspective. It’s well-done, and a bit hypnotic. They’ll do a similar walking cycle on steps in the next cartoon, one with more amazingly done animations. But there are a lot of extreme perspectives and stuff moving in on the camera and tricky camera moves throughout the short. In ranking of animation ability the studios have always been Disney first, and everybody else behind. But the Fleischers were often second, and this is one of those times they were a close second.

Among my favorite cartoon motifs is doing simple stuff in complicated ways. The short offers plenty of that, starting with the gorilla’s shooting a gun that itself shoots out a bird that does the shooting. Koko putting his head through the window twice while trying to lead Bimbo to the crime scene. Koko running ahead of his “shadows” and having to go back to get them. The elevator opening up to a set of stairs.

Did you blink and miss that the level indicator makes two full circuits while getting the stairs down to ground level? That’s my favorite quick little joke. But there’s plenty to choose from, such as the moon being blown along by the heavy winds as Bimbo and Koko get to the house. The secret panel offering Bimbo a short beer is too well-established to be a blink-grade joke. But it gets a little more charge when you remember the short was made in 1931, still during Prohibition.

The female herring gets Mae Questel’s voice this short, so there’s no figure who can at all be credited as a proto-Betty-Boop. A shame, since Betty’s involvement however fleeting would probably have got this cartoon more notice. Its got a clear story, quite a density of jokes, a soundtrack that clearly ties to the action, and even a sensible ending. I like 30s cartoons, especially from the less-than-Disney studios, but recognize that as one of my eccentricities. This is one I don’t think an ordinary person would understand as funny.

There’s another of those mice popping in, one with Happy Feet at about 5:21, and then possibly a different one fleeing the gorilla at about 5:50. I trust that “They shot me! Holy mackerel, is this the end of the Herring?” is an imperfect quoting of Little Caesar, which opened in January of that year and made Warner Brothers all the money in the world. Can’t blame the Fleischer studios for riffing on that.

The 22nd Talkartoon: Silly Scandals, My Second Look


I’ve looked at this Talkartoon before. It was part of my sequence of Betty Boop firsts. This is credited as the first cartoon in which Betty Boop is named, and that’s half right. She’s named Betty, at least, which is a step up from what she’s been before. And it’s animated by Grim Natwick, at least according to Wikipedia; the animator goes unnamed by the actual credits. From the 23rd of May, 1931 — two and a half weeks after Twenty Legs Under The Sea — here’s the next Bimbo cartoon, Silly Scandals.

So in 1930 everyone who was capable of making a sound recorded a version of Walter Donaldson’s You’re Driving Me Crazy. I’m up for that. It’s a solid, catchy song about the sense of obsession with a lost love. And the singer avoids sounding terrible about their obsession. I’m surprised it hasn’t been used more in cartoons. But perhaps its use was limited by how the song doesn’t make sense unless there’s a credible target for this obsession in the cartoon. And once you get past Betty Boop there’s a shortage of female cartoon characters who are, at least in-universe, supposed to be sexy. Desirable, perhaps, but someone who could appear on stage with a racy song and not seem at least a bit ridiculous for doing it? Might have to wait for Jessica Rabbit there.

This is listed as one of the early Betty Boop cartoons. There’s good reason to call this Early Betty: she’s nearly reached the canonical character design. She’s got Mae Questel’s voice. She’s doing Betty Boop things: singing and receiving a male’s gaze. She’s not the lead of the cartoon; rather as in Dizzy Dishes, she’s just something that Bimbo stares at for the middle third of the picture. (Also as with Dizzy Dishes, someone else gets her “Boop-oop-a-doop” line.)

But it’s a Bimbo cartoon. He gets some nice business early on trying to sneak into the vaudeville theater. The best business is also the first bizarre visual gag here, his pulling up his own shadow to disguise himself as an umbrella. I like that sort of endlessly-morphing world joke in cartoons. They were more common in silent cartoons, which also tended to be high-contrast black-and-white stuff. Without having to worry about grey value or, worse, actual colors you could turn one shape into another with a minimum of distractions. After sneaking in there’s Betty’s song, and a bunch of standard someone’s-in-the-way-at-the-theater jokes. They’re done well enough, they’re just ordinary. And yeah, there’s a couple iterations of Betty’s dress falling down and revealing her bra. It’s not a very racy joke, but it is the sort of thing they’d never do after the Motion Picture Production Code got serious in 1934.

Bimbo once more ends up helpless and caught in a bizarre, surreal environment. It’s a good story shape. And it lets the cartoon close with a minute of weird body-morphing gags, hands and feet growing to weird shapes. And then 25 seconds of pure special effects, dancing circles and spirograph shapes and all that. It’s the sort of close that unimaginative people are joking about when they say the animators must have been on drugs back then. But it’s also structurally weird. The story has got the structure of “Bimbo transgresses/is caught/is thrown into a wild, surreal punishment” that he’s been through several times already. But the transgression — sneaking into the theater — isn’t one that the magician could have known about. Unless the transgression is just meant to be laughing at the flower trick not going according to plan. But that’s not a lot of transgression; if the magician can’t take someone giggling when a flower sasses him back, he’s in the wrong line of work.

There’s two blink-and-you-miss-it gags. The first, that I like better, is the curtain lifting to reveal two janitors shooting dice and getting the heck off stage fast. The other is just the curtain lifting again to show the tattered, ugly base. There is a solid bit of body horror, in the magician (meant to be the Faintly Mickey Mouse character this cartoon? He hasn’t got the ears but the snout and nose are evocative) terrifying a dog into becoming two strands of sausage links. Creepy stuff.

The 21st Talkartoon: Twenty Legs Under The Sea (there’s more; I counted)


There’s a new animator credited in today’s Talkartoon. Willard Bowsky’s turned up repeatedly here, including in Wise Flies and Swing You Sinners!. The new name is Tom Bonfiglio. He’d do a couple more Talkartoons and then, if I’m reading this right, jump over to Disney studios. After that I have a looser sense of what’s happened to him. At some point he changed his name to Thomas Goodson. I can find one biography of Joe Barbera suggesting Goodson worked at Van Buren Studios in the mid-30s. And I can find another biography suggesting Goodson was working in educational films in the 1960s. That’s not much, I admit. It’s what I have.

So here, from the 5th of May, 1931 — just a week and a half after The Male Man — is the next Talkartoon in the series, Twenty Legs Under The Sea.

There’ve been a lot of underwater scenes in animation. They’ve always been hard to do. There’s great freedom in characters not having to stick to the ground. But it’s also hard to convey the resistance water offers to movement. And there’s the convention of putting a wavy-motion visual effect over everything, even if a real camera wouldn’t see anything like that. I think it took until Finding Nemo for a cartoon not to use that convention.

This is another cartoon where Bimbo’s pulled into a surreal landscape. He isn’t quite simply minding his business. If he’s going fishing, it’s fair that the fish respond. Even in Swing You Sinners Bimbo did something to earn his torments. But it supports my idea that the animators knew they had a reliable story here. The good part of these Bimbo-in-surreal-landscape cartoons is they give lots of space for weird gags, and the Fleischer Studios were really into weird gags. The bad part is that it wipes out Bimbo as a character. If he’s too screwy a character then he’s not inconvenienced by being in a screwy setting. A strong character in a crazy setting can work, because Duck Amuck, but Bimbo’s no 50s Daffy. He’s not got enough to do to stand up to the setting.

Also this isn’t so wild and surreal a cartoon, really. It starts off promising: Bimbo trying to fish, having a few little weird incidents, and then getting pulled undersea by a giant fish/whale who’d asked for help putting the hook in his mouth. He gets a shave from a lobster barber, and then … is … the King of the undersea world suddenly? Some more songs and then he leads his people to their death. It’s a punch line reminiscent of the grimness of The Cow’s Husband although after many fewer gags.

It’s weird that what we see underwater is a barber and then a throne room. My understanding is that in the silent era shorts were plotted by giving a lead animator the theme and letting them do what seems amusing. I’m not sure how much that was still going on in this era; making the cartoon match with a soundtrack loosens how much the people drawing it can improvise. Bimbo puttering around a town where everything’s normal but it’s done by sea creatures makes sense as a cartoon. Bimbo finding himself somehow king of a weird place makes sense as a cartoon. Shifting between them without obvious reason doesn’t make sense, and in the bad ways. I wonder if one scene was animated by Bowsky and the other by Bonfiglio/Goodson. I also wonder if some connective tissue was lost, or just never animated. The short comes in at 5:52. The last couple weeks have been just over six minutes, and, for example, The Cow’s Husband is seven and a half minutes long. Even ten seconds can be a lot of plot.

There is a lot of music. After the lack of any really featured cartoon last week there’s an abundance now. Anchors Aweigh, My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean with some good bits of a whale and the Sun fighting it out, a bit of doggerel that I guess you’d call We’re Going Over To Maggie’s (which I can’t find information about, so I guess it’s original to the short? Or a now-forgotten folk song, maybe), what I guess is an original piece about We Are The King’s Bodyguards. The last has a riff that sounds to me like Merrily We Roll Along, which was a then-very-new song. (And isn’t it weird to think that song was ever new?)

There’s no mice. Where would they even fit in? (Easily: just put a couple in the boat.) There is a really solid body-horror gag as a pair of fish swim ahead of their own bodies, so their faces and skeletons can eat tiny turtles about 4:25. (Yes, their skeletons swim ahead with their faces. It’s a little hard to make out with the contrast as it is here. Watch as they emerge from their bodies and as their bodies catch up.) The sun trying to bite at the whale/giant fish is a nice touch of weirdness. And I would rate as a blink-and-you-miss-it joke how Bimbo’s lighter doesn’t work when he’s in the boat (he has to do a nicely complicated bit of lighting a candle), but works perfectly when he’s underwater.

I can’t call this a good cartoon. It’s an amiable one, and I’m not sure that We’re Going Over To Maggie’s isn’t going to become part of the soundtrack of my puttering-around-in-life. But there isn’t a story, just a string of set-pieces. And the set-pieces are all nice enough, but not all that exciting or funny or weird. There’s some stronger ones coming.