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.

60s Popeye: Oil’s Well That Ends Well, and how is that not Oyl’s Well?

We’re back on Paramount Cartoon Studios territory here. Oil’s Well That Ends Well, from 1961, is credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer for the story and Seymour Kneitel for direction.

My favorite old-time-radio podcast last week ran an episode of The Saint, starring the beloved Vincent Price as Leslie Charteris’s beloved-I’m-told rogue adventurer. It was some stuff about a silver mine that the assayer was very clear was worthless. Well, turns out, it’s worthless if you don’t count the cinnabar (mercury) deposits. Was the assayer in on the scheme? Or was he somehow unaware that cinnabar was a thing also mined? The plot’s wrapping-up here’s-why-stuff-happened scene never explained.

So this is a cartoon about Brutus selling Olive Oyl a fake oil well. Except the punch line is that it’s a gusher. Brutus told us the viewers that the oil field had been dry for fifty years. That seems like a big mistake for whoever owned the field to make. This can all probably be rationalized but it says something that I’m wondering about it. What it says is there were reasons they treated me like that in middle school. These are not reasonable responses to the cartoon.

The story’s all reasonable enough. Olive Oyl wins $10,000 on the Get Rich Quick show. Brutus, watching at home, needs a good honest swindle to get that money. This cartoon it feels like Brutus doesn’t know Olive Oyl, but then why does he bother shaving to put on the persona of Sumner J Farnsworth? But if he does know Olive Oyl why is there never a moment of shocked recognition? Well, there’s a nice joke where Brutus discards the shell game as “not too good” and armed robbery as “too dishonest”. He settles on oil stocks which he thought were worthless. Which leaves another nagging thought for me: did Brutus legitimately own the oil field? Or did he buy worthless stocks from someone else? Or did he just figure the time he’d spent making fake oil stocks was wasted but never got around to throwing them out?

At an oil field, an angry Popeye holds up a barrel labelled 'OIL' and the hand pump squeezing oil out of it. Olive Oyl looks shocked and horrified by this.
Well of course she’s offended. The barrel should read OYL, or at least OYL OIL.

Brutus rigs up some oil to spurt on command; salting mines is a respectable enough way to pull off this kind of scam. But Olive Oyl also says she can go pick out any oil well she wants. How’d she pick the right one? This isn’t a plot hole, though; it’s reasonable to suppose Brutus is nudging her to the one he’d prepared. Forcing (in the stage magician’s sense) a choice is a skill of the con artist. I’m intrigued that this is something that would be taken without question, by a naive enough viewer. Then doubted as implausibly by a more skeptical viewer. And then accepted as self-explanatory by a sophisticated enough viewer. There’s some lesson about how people engage with their stories in there.

Brutus runs his car over Popeye, twice. It’s a startling moment and I can’t say why. Maybe it lacks the absurdity of most Popeye-versus-Brutus violence.

After Popeye punches Brutus into the oil well it starts gushing again. Assuming Olive Oyl’s title is good and the oil doesn’t run out in ten minutes that’s great for her. She showers Popeye with a flurry of kisses drawn from the 1954 Fright to the Finish. Why have stock footage if you’re not using it?

While pitching Olive Oyl on the oil well Brutus talks about doubling, tripling, even quadripling he “mazuma”, a reminder of the 20th century’s many odd slang terms for money. Which comes back around to Jackson Beck, voice of Bluto/Brutus/etc. When the voice actor’s friend Alfred Bester wrote The Demolished Man he named one of the cops Jackson Beck. Part of the typographical chic of the novel was using, for example @ as shorthand for ‘at’, so ‘Sam Atkins’ was rendered as ‘Sam @kins’. When the story first appeared, Bester tried writing the name as $$son Beck, trusting that readers would connect $$ to “money” to “jack”. They did not. The spelling of Jackson was normalized in subsequent editions.

In Which I Am Once Again Dumbfounded

So I was reading Jonathan Green’s The Vulgar Tongue, about the history of slang so far as that can be worked out. And it got to a section about minstrel shows and blackface jokes and what slang we get from that. Surprisingly little, it turns out. Between a whole bunch of pages that left my jaw hanging open, speechless, was this bit from Charles Townsend’s circa-1891 guide for minstrel performers, along with tips like how to get blackface:

End Men should carefully avoid anything approaching vulgarity and no offensive personalities should be introduced. Avoid slang.

I understand, intellectually, that everything that ever touches race ever is deeply screwed up in all kinds of bizarre and stupid ways. But … “don’t use slang, you want to keep your minstrel show classy and inoffensive” is why I spend more and more of every day curled up in a ball in the corner of the room.

Remember This! Also: How To

Whenever I get asked about what future trends I see I first suppress that sense of indignation whoever it was took so long to ask. I’ve had my answer ready for ages and was getting worried nobody was ever going to ask. I’m as good a trendspotter as any of the people getting on the trendspotting bandwagon. It’s a terrible burden having a clear picture of society’s future.

One trend I see going on is there’s going to be ever-more stuff to try to remember. Pop culture alone is expanding so fast we’re barely able to keep it updated on TV Tropes, and every thing in pop culture carries with it extra burdens of information-like constructs: not only the thing itself, but also stuff about how it was made, and what it’s referring to, and how it’s not as good as this other thing someone else made, and how it is too and if it isn’t how come you don’t make it yourself, and then how this sets off a highly entertaining flame war, and whose fault it is, and whose fault it isn’t, and who’s writing the fairest accounting of how the flame war happens, and how they do not, and why they couldn’t possibly even if they tried.

If it’s done properly just understanding a sketch of an apple someone left on the coffee table can require collating more information than writing a book about the Thirty Years War would. And even if you can keep all that new stuff straight, you’re stuck remembering the old stuff too. If pressed and facing a busy day way too early in the morning could you remember the full name of Snoop Doggy Dogg? Undoubtedly, but then how would you be on remembering what humorist I grabbed that joke from? See? I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t recognize it either.

The second trend is that we’re always going to impress people by doing stuff without the tools that make it easy and painless. Nobody cares about a person who can cut a board in half by using a sharp, well-maintained saw blade, but show around someone who can cut a board in half without even having a board and you can get a paying crowd. So if you can remember stuff without the Internet gadgets that do the remembering for you then you’re going to win acclaim for your impressive abilities in the trivia-stuffed world of tomorrow after about 6:45 pm.

So the problem is how to do this, given that there’s too much stuff to remember and there’s really no learning it, because we don’t have the attention spans long enough anymore to even get a decent earworm stuck in our heads. And this is where mnemonic devices come in handy. The best of them combine two points into one so after learning one you feel like you know at least twice as many things as you actually do. For example, George Washington was born in 1732, and he weighed 173.2 pounds. Just from reading that I know it’s going to pop into your head at some perfectly inappropriate time in the trivia-stuffed world of tomorrow, like maybe at about 5:25 pm. The links don’t even have to make any kind of thematic sense: once you’ve heard that there are both 82 constellations in the sky and 82 counties in Ohio you will never be able to fully forget either point, even though you have no responsibility for the constellations in the sky and even though you’ll never need to know how many counties there are in Ohio unless you have a job setting out chairs for the Ohio County Commissioners Annual Lunch, and you could just count RSVPs for that.

The effectiveness of these mnemonic devices are all the more impressive when you consider George Washington was actually born in 1731, at least at the time. I don’t even know that he ever weighed 173.2, or maybe 173.1, pounds, although I guess it’s possible. I mean, he was a big guy, and had the money to eat well enough when he wasn’t bunking down for the winter with hundreds of starved Continental soldiers in upstate New Jersey, but I dunno what he weighed. I’m comfortable with something in the 173 range, but I wouldn’t rule out 178.9 or even 179.9. And as for the counties in the sky, oh, no, there’s nothing like 82 counties in Ohio. You could remember that easily by recalling that 86 is number slang for “something negative or otherwise disparaging or something or other”, and there aren’t 86 constellations in Ohio either. Memorable, isn’t it?

I had some idea about what to do with defective mnemonic devices but I forgot to write it down. Sorry. Maybe someone out there has an idea? Please write in before about 6:30.

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