So here in this repeat performance we get to the one Talkartoon people who aren’t into black-and-white animation might have heard of. It’s really good. Funny, well-paced, weird, with snappy music and amazing technical skill. The only reason not to use it to convince someone of the worth of black-and-white cartoons is they might expect everything will be like this. And this comes right after the high point of The Herring Murder Case. The studio was having a great season. This cartoon has an edge over The Herring Murder Case and Swing You Sinners! by avoiding obvious ethnic or racial jokes.
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?