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


In The Shade Of The Old Apple Sauce misses out on my eye by virtue of being a lost cartoon. So here we move on to Mask-A-Raid. It’s a catchy cartoon, centered on a song that’s pretty fun if you cut out the racist verses. The Fleischers did that, but did also leave some stereotype images in the cartoon. I discussed that in my original essay, reprinted below.


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.

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.

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