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.