Reposted: The Eighth Talkartoon: Barnacle Bill; and Betty Boop gets a name (it’s not Betty)


Anyone interested in the history of theatrical short cartoons knows how messy Bugs Bunny’s creation was. There’s several plausible “first” Bugs Bunny cartoons, including several black-and-white forerunners with rabbits who … don’t look or don’t act quite right, but not in any way that clearly distinguishes them from Early Bugs. It should not surprise that Betty Boop had a similar confusing early history. Still, as I hadn’t watched the early Betty Boop cartoons in production order before, I was taken by surprise by how she wasn’t quite herself in her second cartoon.


If the Fleischer Studios cartoons have any reputation in the current pop culture it’s “those black-and-white cartoons the animators must have been on drugs when they drew”. They always say this about stuff packed with weirdness and whimsy and more nonsense than is needed. It seems to reflect some need to make alien the mindset that does stuff purely for fun, as though intense play were unfit for the dignity of modern life. And like most reputations it’s overblown. Most of their cartoons are straightforward things with little fillips of weirdness because they had the time to fill.

So here’s one of the cartoons that isn’t an exception. It’s eight minutes of almost nothing but weirdness. This cartoon, originally released the 30th of August, 1930, was animated by Seymour Kneitel and Rudy Zamora, along with — Wikipedia says, anyway — Grim Natwick. And it’s kind of a weird one.

This is listed as a Betty Boop cartoon. It was on the eight-VHS Betty Boop collection I watched so often in the 90s. I imagine anyone with a clear idea who Betty Boop was would list this as one of her cartoons, even though she’s still in that dog-based model abandoned not soon enough. But the cartoon gives her a name, clearly and obviously, in Bimbo’s notebook: she’s Nancy Lee. Apparently “Betty Boop” is a rewrite, the way Tom Cat started out as Jasper. Huh.

Or it’s a character. The cartoon has a — well, plot seems like the wrong word. But it’s doing something. It’s playing out the folk/drinking song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. A cleaned-up version was a hit song of 1928 and again 1930. Bimbo, acting consistently with the screwball nature I talked about in Dizzy Dishes, sneaks off his ship. And then gets into character, I suppose, as Barnacle Bill. Perhaps Betty’s just playing the character of Nancy Lee here. It seems a little weird, but in 1935 the Fleischer studios would pretty much remake this as a Popeye cartoon, Beware of Barnacle Bill. And in that one Bluto is certainly “playing” Barnacle Bill.

But that’s plenty of fussing about Betty Boop’s “original” name. There is a lot going on in this cartoon. Nearly every moment is a weird visual gag. I wonder if this is a side effect of tying so much of the cartoon to the song. There’s not a lot to do visually if you stick to the lyrics of any version of the song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. One person sings four lines, and the other person sings four lines. If you’re going to make it visually interesting you have to pack in weirdness. So sure, Bimbo knocks on the door with his tail. Or he leaps into the sofa as though it were a pool of water. Or Betty/Nancy’s chairs sneak out of the room and a sofa takes their place. The front door shrinks in horror and hides when Barnacle Bimbo threatens to tear it open. The apartment door swallows him into the room.

Put aside, though, how packed it is with throwaway visual gags. Did you notice the camera angles here? There are all sorts of weird perspective shots. Some of them make sense, shooting Bimbo from far above when he’s talking to Betty on the second floor, or Betty from below when she’s talking to Bimbo down below. Being above Bimbo when he’s walking up or down stairs makes sense. But, for example, the opening scene doesn’t need the boat to be charging at the camera to read cleanly, even to allow the boat (and bird) to sing. They chose to start from a weird perspective. It’s easy to imagine these scenes being framed in boring ways.

Does the short have an ending? Yes, it does, and then it blows right past it. Coming to the end of a round of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” is the sensible stopping point. Finding that Bimbo’s been hitting on Gus Gorilla’s girlfriend (I suppose?) makes great internal logic. It makes Bimbo out to be a bit of a jerk, but a screwball character tends to be a jerk anyway. And puffing yourself up as Barnacle Bill is choosing to embrace the jerkiness. When they redid this as Beware of Barnacle Bill they cast Bluto as Barnacle Bill, wisely realizing that as the only moral person in his universe Popeye couldn’t take that role. Also I wonder if this doesn’t justify Bimbo fearing Gus Gorilla in Dizzy Dishes. Surely the cartoons were in production simultaneously, at least at some point. Maybe the logic of who did what to who got mixed up. Or, yeah, maybe it’s just that the big hulking character is always the villain and the scrawny little guy is the protagonist.

And yet after this perfectly good ending the short goes on. We get a chase, and a nice ridiculous one. I guess it gets the short up to eight minutes, if that’s what they were going for. It does end with delightful weirdness. But it’s also the sort of strangeness-for-strangeness’s-sake that gets these cartoons their reputation. … Well, all right. A lot of these cartoons are really weird.

There’s some suspicious-looking mice at about 0:53 and 1:25 in the short, all scenes before Bimbo gets off the ship. It’s hard to pick a best blink-and-you-miss-it gag — there’s a lot to feast on — but I’ll nominate the ship walking into harbor and having sneakers on. It’s another odd little touch in a short that’s overflowing with them.

The Eighth Talkartoon: Barnacle Bill; and Betty Boop gets a name (it’s not Betty)


If the Fleischer Studios cartoons have any reputation in the current pop culture it’s “those black-and-white cartoons the animators must have been on drugs when they drew”. They always say this about stuff packed with weirdness and whimsy and more nonsense than is needed. It seems to reflect some need to make alien the mindset that does stuff purely for fun, as though intense play were unfit for the dignity of modern life. And like most reputations it’s overblown. Most of their cartoons are straightforward things with little fillips of weirdness because they had the time to fill.

So here’s one of the cartoons that isn’t an exception. It’s eight minutes of almost nothing but weirdness. This cartoon, originally released the 30th of August, 1930, was animated by Seymour Kneitel and Rudy Zamora, along with — Wikipedia says, anyway — Grim Natwick. And it’s kind of a weird one.

This is listed as a Betty Boop cartoon. It was on the eight-VHS Betty Boop collection I watched so often in the 90s. I imagine anyone with a clear idea who Betty Boop was would list this as one of her cartoons, even though she’s still in that dog-based model abandoned not soon enough. But the cartoon gives her a name, clearly and obviously, in Bimbo’s notebook: she’s Nancy Lee. Apparently “Betty Boop” is a rewrite, the way Tom Cat started out as Jasper. Huh.

Or it’s a character. The cartoon has a — well, plot seems like the wrong word. But it’s doing something. It’s playing out the folk/drinking song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. A cleaned-up version was a hit song of 1928 and again 1930. Bimbo, acting consistently with the screwball nature I talked about in Dizzy Dishes, sneaks off his ship. And then gets into character, I suppose, as Barnacle Bill. Perhaps Betty’s just playing the character of Nancy Lee here. It seems a little weird, but in 1935 the Fleischer studios would pretty much remake this as a Popeye cartoon, Beware of Barnacle Bill. And in that one Bluto is certainly “playing” Barnacle Bill.

But that’s plenty of fussing about Betty Boop’s “original” name. There is a lot going on in this cartoon. Nearly every moment is a weird visual gag. I wonder if this is a side effect of tying so much of the cartoon to the song. There’s not a lot to do visually if you stick to the lyrics of any version of the song “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. One person sings four lines, and the other person sings four lines. If you’re going to make it visually interesting you have to pack in weirdness. So sure, Bimbo knocks on the door with his tail. Or he leaps into the sofa as though it were a pool of water. Or Betty/Nancy’s chairs sneak out of the room and a sofa takes their place. The front door shrinks in horror and hides when Barnacle Bimbo threatens to tear it open. The apartment door swallows him into the room.

Put aside, though, how packed it is with throwaway visual gags. Did you notice the camera angles here? There are all sorts of weird perspective shots. Some of them make sense, shooting Bimbo from far above when he’s talking to Betty on the second floor, or Betty from below when she’s talking to Bimbo down below. Being above Bimbo when he’s walking up or down stairs makes sense. But, for example, the opening scene doesn’t need the boat to be charging at the camera to read cleanly, even to allow the boat (and bird) to sing. They chose to start from a weird perspective. It’s easy to imagine these scenes being framed in boring ways.

Does the short have an ending? Yes, it does, and then it blows right past it. Coming to the end of a round of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” is the sensible stopping point. Finding that Bimbo’s been hitting on Gus Gorilla’s girlfriend (I suppose?) makes great internal logic. It makes Bimbo out to be a bit of a jerk, but a screwball character tends to be a jerk anyway. And puffing yourself up as Barnacle Bill is choosing to embrace the jerkiness. When they redid this as Beware of Barnacle Bill they cast Bluto as Barnacle Bill, wisely realizing that as the only moral person in his universe Popeye couldn’t take that role. Also I wonder if this doesn’t justify Bimbo fearing Gus Gorilla in Dizzy Dishes. Surely the cartoons were in production simultaneously, at least at some point. Maybe the logic of who did what to who got mixed up. Or, yeah, maybe it’s just that the big hulking character is always the villain and the scrawny little guy is the protagonist.

And yet after this perfectly good ending the short goes on. We get a chase, and a nice ridiculous one. I guess it gets the short up to eight minutes, if that’s what they were going for. It does end with delightful weirdness. But it’s also the sort of strangeness-for-strangeness’s-sake that gets these cartoons their reputation. … Well, all right. A lot of these cartoons are really weird.

There’s some suspicious-looking mice at about 0:53 and 1:25 in the short, all scenes before Bimbo gets off the ship. It’s hard to pick a best blink-and-you-miss-it gag — there’s a lot to feast on — but I’ll nominate the ship walking into harbor and having sneakers on. It’s another odd little touch in a short that’s overflowing with them.

Betty Boop: Bimbo’s Express


I admit I’m feeling a little lazy today, so I’m going to watch a cartoon instead. This cartoon was originally released the 22nd of August, 1931, as part of the Fleischer studios Talkartoon line. It’s from early in Betty Boop’s career, when the studio still thought that maybe Bimbo was a character people would like to come see, what with him existing and probably having some distinct personal traits or something.

So a thing about the Fleischer cartoons you maybe knew, or that you worked out when you think about the story structure. They didn’t really write out plots before they started animation. Especially in the earlier days they’d pick a theme and then stuff some scenes around it. In the best cartoons this produces a raucous, jazzy feeling as you see no end of surprising riffs on jokes. In the worst you realize nothing is going anywhere.

This is a middle one. It doesn’t start out promising, what with spending a minute of screen time just getting Bimbo and his moving company to Betty Boop’s house. Someone making a cartoon on this theme today would establish the moving company in about ten seconds of screen time, and that if they wanted to make sure everyone in back got it. In trade for all the time spent getting to the start of the story is little bits of silliness: the horses’s goofy pace, or the tiny cat emitting a tiny “mew” every time he’s squished by the gorilla(?). Every little “mew” tickled me.

When the action proper does get started, it’s solid stuff. It’s all a bunch of scenes of Bimbo and company moving stuff in more complicated ways than they need to. None of the jokes are very deep, granted, or really character-driven. But there’s a good number of them, and none demand too much time or attention, and there’s usually some cute little fillip along the way, such as the horse flipping the egg on the stove.

Another symptom of the plotlessness of the affair: there’s no climax. I expect a cartoon of this vintage, especially a Betty Boop cartoon, to end with at least some scene of peril that she escapes or gets rescued from. It’s easy to imagine a virtual avalanche of objects being moved threatening to crush Betty, or the moving van to go tumbling down the street. None of that there. It’s just under six minutes of jokes about how can you take stuff out of one place (and not even put it in the new!). Curious affair, overall.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index dropped five points in trading amidst accusations that Lisa was pocketing some of the good-looking points and keeping them for her own nefarious purposes. She insists the purposes are not nefarious, but didn’t like the suggestion they were for scandalous purposes either.

207

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Boop’s Life Guard


Previously listed as a first Betty Boop:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Boop: Dizzy Dishes


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


While there’s one more “first” Betty Boop to include, the above review of first appearances — of her character design, of the short-lived revision in the late 30s, of her character as someone named Betty Boop, of her as protagonist — brings me to the final of the really compelling “first Betty Boop cartoons”. This would be Dizzy Dishes, the 1930 short that’s credited as the original appearance of Betty Boop.

She’s not named, although come to it nobody in the cartoon really is. She’s also not the protagonist; she comes in at about two minutes forty seconds in, and spends a minute on-screen, as the waiter-protagonist gets distracted from his mission of delivering spot gags set in a cabaret. She sings, with the protagonist — usually identified as Bimbo, and I suppose that’s as good a name as any — taking some or all of her “boop-oop-a-doop” refrain from “I Have To Have You”.

Plot and characterization are not the primary focus of an early-30s Fleischer cartoon, which is why we never really get a clear answer why Bimbo is so reluctant about delivering the roast duck to the demanding customer, who looks to me like Disney’s Pegleg Pete, with a couple early hints of Bluto worked in. The Internet Movie Database claims the character is Gus Gorilla, which is believable enough, and that he’s voiced by William Costello, who would be the first animated voice of Popeye. Delivering six minutes or so worth of gags are the focus and that’s done fairly well with an opening string of demanding customers and Bimbo’s attempts to keep up (watch how he handles a demand to make two bowls of stew).

I hate to say it, but Betty Boop’s appearance slows the proceedings down, though they do recover their odd and occasionally nightmare-fuelish bent (the roast duck lays an egg! And it hatches!) soon enough. Soon enough Gus Gorilla loses his patience, and goes after Bimbo, and I am kind of on Gus’s side here. It all ends, as any great early-30s cartoon will, with a resolution that makes you go, “wait, what?”

Betty Boop: Sally Swing


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


When Betty Boop first appeared here character design was, frankly, hideous. She was some sort of humanoid dog and the canine ears and such just did not flatter her. Within a couple cartoons she had taken on human form and, with only minor variations, the character model she’d stick with through nearly a decade of cartoons and then seventy or so years of licensed merchandise.

But she did have a character redesign after all, good for a handful of her final cartoons in 1938-39. Sally Swing, released the 14th of October, 1938, was the first of these. She isn’t radically changed. Her head shrinks and she gets somewhat taller, moving a slight bit away from the rubber-hose animal style of her origins in dim, distant 1930 and approaching, though not reaching, the soft-but-realistic bodies that the non-comic characters in the Fleischer Studios’ Gulliver’s Travels or the Superman cartoons would take on.

As the title might suggest, though, Betty isn’t quite the star of this cartoon. The storyline suggests this is meant to be an introduction to the new character of Sally Swing, who looks to be an attempt to do for bobby-soxers what Betty did for flappers. After an appealing introduction to the University and Betty Boop’s Examination Room, the story settles on Betty trying to find a suitable leader for a swing dance and what do you know but the hall’s washer-woman — voiced, a Betty Boop Wiki claims, by Rose Marie (the claim sounds plausible to me) and resembling, Rachel Newstead’s review at Orphan Toons shares, the Lois Lane the Fleischers would animate in a few years — is Sally Swing, perfect for the part.

And so the cartoon dissolves into several minutes of Sally Swing leading the band, and spot gags of the kind that feature most in musical cartoons like this: the band not quite falling apart into chaos, onlookers being swept wholly up in the music, sourpusses having no choice but to get in on the fun. It’s a fun cartoon, and pretty appealing. It’s curious to me that Sally Swing didn’t get an appearance in another cartoon, though. She certainly seems able to support the kind of plotless music-feature cartoon that this is an example of. On the other hand, there’s also not much about this that Betty Boop couldn’t do, if she dressed the part.

So I’m left wondering: why bother redesigning Betty Boop in a cartoon that seems meant to introduce a successor? Was it just so she’d look less awkward standing next to the 1938-design cartoon mistress? Having introduced a plausible successor, why not use her in other cartoons? Even if Sally Swing proved to not be as popular as Betty Boop, wouldn’t it take more than a “backdoor pilot” cartoon of this kind to tell? Or did she, on screen, disappoint in some way not obvious now? Or was she just lost in the trouble and trauma — a move to Miami, and the attempt to make full-length animated movies — of the studio at the time? There’s something missing in Sally Swing’s story.

Betty Boop: Mysterious Mose


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:

So for this week’s entry in the list of First Betty Boop cartoons I wondered: what’s the first one in which she’s the protagonist? Betty Boop appeared in a good number of Talkartoons in 1930 and 1931, although initially just as an attractive female presence. It would take time for her to take over from Bimbo, Koko the Clown, and a host of nonentities. But what about the first one where she’s the protagonist?

Well, that’s hard to pin down, not least because Fleischer Studios cartoons of the era were not excessively burdened with plots. Boop-Oop-A-Doop seems like a strong candidate for the first cartoon in which she’s the protagonist, what with it being set at the Betty Boop Circus, but she’s really only important for a couple of scenes as a lion-tamer and performer, and then ends up in the damsel-in-distress role, waiting off-screen to be rescued by Koko this time.

But I’m drawn to an earlier cartoon, released the 27th of December, 1930 — Betty’s inaugural year — even though it’s mostly a showcase for what Wikipedia claims is Harry Reser and his orchestra of many names’s performance of the title song. It’s also a showcase for the famed Fleischer Studios surreal, dream-logic, borderline-nightmare world of mutation and transmogrification: after a charmingly spooky opening scene Mysterious Mose himself appears on screen, leaving Betty with not much to do but watch, baffled, as everything changes into everything else, and back again, at least until the music runs out. Admittedly, Betty doesn’t get much to do, but it’s all stuff she does because it makes sense for her at the time, and she doesn’t spend time sitting around waiting for someone else to rescue her. That’s something.

Betty Boop: Mask-A-Raid


Recently in Betty Boop cartoons:

Since last week I showcased another first Betty Boop cartoon, I thought to change things up a little bit by showing the first Betty Boop cartoon. That is, in this one — Mask-A-Raid, originally released the 7th of November, 1931 — Betty Boop basically achieves her final canonical, human, design. There’d still be another cartoon released with her having dog ears (Jack and the Beanstalk), and the character would be tinkered with a couple of times before her retirement in 1939, putting aside scenes that play pretty loose with her model sheets, but for the most part, this is finally unmistakably Betty Boop.

Betty still isn’t the star of the cartoon, really; to the extent any character is, it’s Bimbo again, although arguably the whole thing is a showcase for “Where Do You Work-A John?”, a 1926 song (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mortimer Weinberg and Charley Marks) sufficiently catchy it can take a moment to remember that oh yeah, Italian people were good for really heavy ethnic jokes back then. That’s all right; by the time that really sinks in, the story’s moved on to masquerade masks coming to life and reminding you that, oh yeah, Chinese people were good for really heavy ethnic jokes back then too.

The cartoon seems to be using the plot they use whenever the Fleischers couldn’t think of a plot to use — a couple minutes of unconnected jokes at a setting, then the Big Bad kidnaps Betty, and the male lead chases down the Big Bad and humiliates him — but diverts from that by having Betty declare she’ll go with either Bimbo or the King, based on who wins a sword fight. And that gives an excuse to have a bunch of pretty funny fight scenes before coming to a musical ending with a curious “That’s All” closing.

The Big Cartoon Databases suggests that the musicians may be Harry Reser’s Six Jumping Jacks, one of the names for prolific banjo-player and bandleader Harry Reser. I can’t find information on banjo/jazz web sites that would confirm this, and I haven’t got an ear discerning enough to be able to tell from YouTube videos of Harry Reser bands to say whether that’s credible. Reser’s band was apparently most often known as the Clicquot Club Eskimos, named for the mascot of the Clicquot Club ginger ale company, which reminds us that, oh yeah, that’s another group of people good for really heavy ethnic jokes back then.

Betty Boop: Silly Scandals


Since last week I showcased the first Betty Boop cartoon, I thought to change things up a little bit by this week showing the first Betty Boop cartoon. This reminds us of the need to have a clear conceptual theory of what constitutes a Betty Boop cartoon. The character began as an unnamed dog-human critter, but reappeared in Fleischer Studios Talkartoons, with her design gradually becoming more human, the character gaining some personality. In this cartoon, Silly Scandals, she gains a name — at least, she gets to be called Betty — and she’s almost completely made the transition to extremely slender, wide-headed human. She’s still got dog ears; those wouldn’t last much longer.

Still, she isn’t the star of this cartoon, released the 23rd of May, 1931. Bimbo is. He’s still the vaguely genial presence that every early-30s cartoon had, here, sneaking his way into a vaudeville show. What saves the cartoon from being too generic is that the famed Fleischer Studios strangeness is hard at work here. Any cartoon character — well, any silent cartoon character; the habit strangely faded away once sound came in and grey-washed art came into vogue — might morph into an umbrella to sneak around somewhere; it’s a rarer mind that has the sun hide behind a cloud and pull a drawstring to start the shower. And the final sequence, with a hypnotized Bimbo subject to a string of body-shaping manipulations, finds that boundary between “technically impressive” and “unwitting nightmare fuel” and charges right over like it’s trying to start a war. And then it gets dazzling. It’s an amazing production all around.

Color Classics: A Car-Tune Portrait


A Car-Tune Portrait, a Fleischer Color Classic cartoon from June of 1937, takes a bit to get going. It starts with several of the key players in an orchestra, and the conductor, being drawn in by realistic hands, in a gimmick familiar to how Koko the Clown and other characters would be instantiated in the start of an Out of the Inkwell cartoon. Even the orchestra stage is drawn in in this way. The result is the cartoon takes nearly 90 seconds to have any action happen, and that action is the conductor apologizing that cartoon animals have a reputation for being uncultured and ridiculous and so here is some proper music.

The music is, of course, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2, which you may better know as “Oh yeah, that classic piece they always play in cartoons.” I’m not sure just how this piece, of all the orchestral music out there, came to be the orchestral piece, although it’s a great choice for one. The music starts simple and builds to a frantic climax, one that almost begs to be matched to an action-packed finale. In this light, the slow build of the opening serves the pacing of the cartoon: the action at the end feels more frantic because of the sedate opening.

Walt Disney ran across Liszt’s comic potential in 1929, with the Mickey Mouse short The Opry House, which used it for a small segment of the whole. The Krazy Kat line of non-Krazy-Kat-like cartoons used it for 1931’s Bars and Stripes, which built most of the action, a war between Krazy and musical instruments, around the piece. A Car-Tune Portrait is still one of the earliest uses of the Hungarian Rhapsody, and interesting to me for being done before Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody in Rivets and William Hanna and Joe Barbera’s The Cat Concerto, which seem to have secured the composition’s place as one of the things that just sounds like a cartoon.

Betty Boop: Crazy Town


For today’s cartoon I’d like to offer something that’s just absurd: the Fleischer studios’ 1932 Betty Boop short Crazy Town. After the handsome opening credits — which include James Culhane, who’s famous in animation circles for doing the “Heigh-Ho” sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and writing (as Shamus Culhane) the classic textbook Animation From Script To Screen; and David Tendlar, who never achieved fame, but who animated for Fleischer Studios/Paramount Studios for decades and then went to Hanna-Barbera, so you’ve seen his work — Betty Boop and Bimbo take the trolley to Crazy Town, a place where pretty much any sight gag the animators could think of gets done. Many of them are simple reversals of expectation, birds that fly under water and fish that swim above, or barbers that make hair grow by cutting it, but that doesn’t infringe on the childish glee that comes from seeing the reversals. And then, of course, things keep getting stranger.

Betty Boop, MD


To continue the theme of a cartoon on a Saturday morning, I have here the 1932 Fleischer Studios cartoon Betty Boop, M.D.. Unlike last week’s A Hunting We Will Go this one isn’t able to structure its “big heap of jokes” into a way that feels quite natural: it looks much more like the animators thought of everything they could do based on Betty Boop, Bimbo, and Koko the Clown selling the snake-oil Jippo, and whatever was best made the cut.

But what it lacks in a narrative structure it makes up for in weirdness. Fleischer Brothers cartoons have a reputation for seeming deranged, with a reputation for psychedelic weirdness. That’s put to good effect here. A succession of characters drink some of the Jippo, and something weird happens, and the weirdness just keeps ratcheting up. Any cartoon studio might think of the joke where an old man drinks Jippo and becomes young, and an infant drinks it and becomes old; but it’s very black-and-white Fleischer to have the guy pouring the Jippo on his peg leg and … well, just see, and if your jaw doesn’t drop at least a couple times you aren’t paying attention to the cartoon. It’s a short which inspires the question, “Wait, what?”

Betty Boop: A Hunting We Will Go


For this Saturday morning, I’d like to offer a cartoon, the 1932 Fleischer Brothers short A Hunting We Will Go. It’s part of the Betty Boop line of cartoons, although Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog are much more the protagonists of the cartoon. It’s got a setup that allows things to be relatively plotless — do a joke about Koko or Bimbo ineptly hunting an animal and get to the joke — but the story comes out stronger than the same cartoon in, say, 1927 would have.

Partly I think that’s because having two inept hunters means the blackout-joke nature flows better: as soon as Koko is done with his joke, the cartoon can jump to Bimbo just getting into his, and that there isn’t a segue doesn’t hurt. The cartoon also features a lot of what I consider a distinctive Fleischer cartoon trait, that of being playful in setting up gags, especially ones that seem to play on cartoon convention. I’m thinking particularly of a bit where a moose (or something) starts seasoning the grass he plans to eat. Considering that old cartoons, especially black-and-white ones, can be easily seen as being a bit stuffy and sluggish it’s great seeing them be playful.

Koko the Clown: Cartoon Factory


Today I’d like to call attention to the Koko the Clown cartoon Cartoon Factory, an installment in the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon series that starts with a surprising and unsettling bit of electrocution, and progresses from there to getting Koko a gadget which draws its own cartoons. This brings us to the never-not-unsettling scenario of drawing and erasing cartoon characters within a cartoon world, but, I guess happily, things go on to get a lot weirder and much more self-referential, in a short that’s again remarkable for inspiring, when you’re not amused by the cartoon itself, thoughts of wondering how they could do visual stunts like these.

The version at archive.org has a soundtrack put on, I believe in order to make it more suitable for 1950’s television, but the addition of music doesn’t hurt it any and the attempt to put dialogue in might be an extra comic beat of its own. The one I have embedded from YouTube (if it lasts) has a different soundtrack, a more ethereal one which I admit not liking as much, which isn’t to say I dislike it.

Out Of The Inkwell: The Tantalizing Fly


For today’s piece I offer the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon The Tantalizing Fly, a quite short (under four minutes!) bit from 1919 that includes the cartoonists’ typical sort of free-flowing strangeness and wonderfully mutable world, in which both Max Fleischer and his cartoon Koko the Clown can’t get to whatever they meant to do today as there’s a fly which won’t stop bothering them. It’s funny, yes; it’s also impressive to see that it’s done, since so much of it involves interactions between cartoon Koko and a real-looking fly. The cartoon also gets a bit recursive as Koko grabs hold of the pen and starts drawing on his own … well, it’s easier to see than to read about. Do enjoy, I hope.

Koko the Clown: Koko Bubbles


Today I’d like to offer a cartoon, the Max and Dave Fleischer short Koko Bubbles. This is one of the Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons, dating from 1922, and it shows a lot of what’s fascinating and weird about the cartoons of that era. For one I’ll never stop being amazed by the blend of live-action and animated footage, even if it is really obvious how it was done to our modern eyes; but that this is ninety years old just makes it more impressive.

The story is loose, by classic standards of cartoons; it’s hard not to think that in the day they wrote the cartoons just by throwing every joke they could think of on the pile and cutting whenever it was too long. Also, the Fleischers were (rightly) proud of their technical prowess, such as the rotoscoping that makes a lot of Koko’s bigger movements uncannily natural, and would show off what they could do even if it didn’t quite fit a storyline; and, it was at least a common convention to have the lead animator be seen. This time around at least he has some particular role besides starting and stopping the action.

This stream-of-consciousness plotting does make it more familiar, I suppose, to people who like the dadaist cartoons often aimed at young adults. It’s got some narrative thrust, though, in the form of this bubble-blowing contest between animator Max Fleischer and the cartoon Koko, and that’s enough to excuse the clown having his head pop or getting chased by a rampaging bubble monster or the like.