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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: November 25, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown, Louis Armstrong
There’s much to say for it: the short is one of the wonderful pre-code swing cartoons, featuring no less than the great Louis Armstrong, who appears here in person, not only in the introduction, but also as a floating head, in a remarkable blending of animation and live action.
Unfortunately, ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ is also one of those ignorant cartoons featuring severe caricatures of black people, in their most cliche form: cannibals. Even worse, in this cartoon a direct connection is made between the backward caricatures and the black performers, as one of the cannibals grows into Louis Armstrong’s singing head, and his drummer (probably Tubby Hall) is likened to another big-lipped cannibal. Thus this cartoon is as entertaining as it is offensive.
There’s not much of a story: Betty, Bimbo and Koko are on a safari in dark Africa. There they encounter a tribe of hungry cannibals, who kidnap Betty. Then we cut to Bimbo and Koko on their aimless search for Betty. Soon they’re followed by a cannibal who morphs into a giant floating native head, which turns into that of Louis Armstrong singing the title song. Bimbo and Koko manage to rescue Betty with help of a porcupine. The last shot is for Louis Armstrong and his band. The complete cartoon is rather nonsensical, but Armstrong’s hot jazz make it a great ride, if an uncomfortable one.
Watch ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 2, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ opens with Betty driving a tilt car into a town to sell a potion called Jippo, which is advertised as”flattens feet, makes young men old, removes teeth – grows tonsils, and stops breathing”.
Betty gets assistance from Koko and Bimbo to sell the product. First Koko performs some surreal acrobatic stunts, to no avail. Then Betty herself appears to sing a song, and the selling starts. The potion as some wondrous effects on the audience, e.g. a very thin man grows fat in an instant, and an old man turns into a large baby, while a baby turns into a tiny old man.
When Bimbo drinks Jippo himself, he starts the song ‘Nobody’s Sweetheart’, which contains a lot of scatting by members of the audience. To this jazzy sequence the imagery simply explodes with mind-blowing, surreal scenes. This fantastic string of events ends when a baby drinks Jippo, turning into a faithful caricature of Fredric March as Mr. Hyde from the 1931 horror film ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’.
As is often the case with the Fleischer films from the early 1930s, ‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ has a very weak and rather improvised story line, but this drawback is luckily compensated by original imagery, peppy music, and simply a lot of fun.
Watch ‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 11, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Cab Calloway
In fact, the cartoon opens with a live action shot of Calloway showing some of his extraordinary dance moves in front of his orchestra. We then cut to a home setting with Betty Boop and her parents, which are apparently of German Jewish descent. Her father scorns her, his jabbering head suddenly changing into a cylinder phonograph. Betty flees crying to her room, and decides to leave home, and she rings Bimbo to come along. This sequence is accompanied by the 1929 hit song ‘Mean to Me’.
The couple flees to the countryside, which quickly becomes very scary, so they hide inside a cave, where the theme song starts. Inside the cave they encounter a walrus-shaped ghost (a rotoscoped Cab Calloway) giving an almost complete rendering of ‘Minnie the Moocher’. During the song we watch images of e.g. skeletons drinking and some prisoner ghosts getting the electric chair. In the end, the ghosts chase the couple back home to the tune of ‘Tiger Rag’.
‘Minnie the Moocher’ makes little sense, and is not as good as the later ‘Snow White’, which also stars Calloway. However, Calloway’s performance is so intoxicating, and the Fleischers’ sense of humor so mesmerizing, it remains a joy to watch the cartoon throughout.
‘Minnie the Moocher’ was the first of handful Fleischer cartoons featuring popular jazz stars, the others being ‘Snow White’ and ‘The Old Man of the Mountain’ from 1933, also featuring Calloway, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re dead you Rascal You” (1932) featuring Louis Armstrong, and ‘I Heard‘ (1933) featuring Don Redman and his Orchestra.
Watch ‘Minnie the Moocher’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Talkartoon No. 33
To the previous Talkartoon: The Robot
To the next Talkartoon: S.O.S.
‘Minnie the Moocher’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date: June 28, 1932
The farmer (a goat) asks her if she can get the farm on its feet. And indeed she can, because as soon as she starts singing ‘Some of These Days’, the farm animals start working, and the hens are laying eggs by the dozen, anticipating similar gags in the Warner Bros. cartoon ‘The Swooner Crooner’ (1944).
These scenes are accompanied by Gene Rodemich’s peppy jazz music, showing that he was one of the best cartoon composers of the era. Unfortunately, the embryonic story is soon abandoned, and we witness a donkey, a sheep, a dog and a cow perform a barbershop quartet song.
With ‘The Farmerette’ the Van Beuren studio apparently tried to copy Max Fleischer’s success with Betty Boop. The kitten sings with a voice very similar to that of Betty, and her main feature is her sexiness. Sadly, the cartoon is troubled by erratic animation and poor staging, so typical for the Van Beuren studio, and the kitten never approaches Betty Boop’s charm.
Watch ‘The farmerette’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Farmerette’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: October 31, 1931
Stars: Piggy, Fluffy
With Foxy gone, Harman and Ising conceived a new star, Piggy, who, like Foxy is exactly Mickey Mouse (including the trousers), but now in Pig form. As with his predecessor, the plagiarism is most visible in Piggy’s girlfriend Fluffy, who is as Minnie as Piggy is Mickey.
Piggy was even more short-lived than Foxy, lasting only two cartoons, of which this is the first. In it we watch Piggy and Fluffy visiting a theater. At a certain point Piggy hits the stage to perform ‘Silver Threads Among The Gold’, a 1873 hit song that by 1931 had become synonymous with old-fashionedness. No wonder he’s booed away. At that point three drunkards burst into the title song. Piggy gets drunk, too, and leaves the theater and his girlfriend.
Outside he provides his car with some booze, a story idea borrowed from ‘Traffic Troubles‘ (Mickey Mouse) and ‘The New Car’ (Flip the Frog) from earlier that year. Unlike the earlier two films, though, this leads to a wonderfully drunken scene, in which the whole background becomes wobbly. This is one of the most memorable scenes of all early Warner Bros. cartoons, making ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’a must-see, despite the rather mediocre scenes preceding it. Moreover, the cartoon features some particularly hot jazz music, provided by Gus Arnheim’s Brunswick Recording Orchestra.
Watch ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: August 7, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Pluto?
Something has happened however, for now Mickey and the gang are not performing for their own fun or at the barnyard, but they are giving a concert in a large theater. It thus predates similar concert cartoons like ‘The Band Concert (1935), Bugs Bunny’s ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946), and Tom & Jerry’s ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947), introducing several piano and conductor gags.
This is one of those rare Disney cartoons in which the music performed can be unmistakably identified as jazz (in the earlier ‘The Jazz Fool’ this is not the case, despite the cartoon’s name). In fact, the cartoon is one great rendering of the St. Louis Blues (and not ‘Blue Rhythm’, a composition also popular in 1931, and recorded by Fletcher Henderson and Mills Blue Rhythm Band).
W.C. Handy’s classic song is first performed by Mickey on the piano, borrowing some tricks from Chico Marx. Then it is sung by Minnie, followed by some scatting by the both of them. Then Mickey and Minnie leave the stage, the curtain opens to reveal a big band, to which Mickey returns to conduct. And finally the blues is performed by Mickey on the clarinet, imitating bandleader Ted Lewis, complete with the entertainer’s typical top hat.
Minnie’s blues singing resembles contemporary female vaudeville blues singers (e.g. Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Levey and Victoria Spivey) and the pig trumpeter performs in the growling jungle style of Bubber Miley, who was a trumpeter in Duke Ellington’s band. Mickey shows to be an all round entertainer, performing as a stride pianist, a scat singer, a conductor and a clarinetist. Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, on the other hand, are clearly a percussionist and flutist, respectively, roles they would also have in ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935), the greatest of Mickey’s concert cartoons. Also featured in Mickey’s band is a dog who may or may not be Pluto, and who plays the trombone, disturbing Mickey while doing so.
Blue Rhythm is a great cartoon, from the opening scene, in which Mickey casts a huge shadow on the curtains to the grand finale in which the excited performance makes the stage collapse. This cartoon may have few gags, it is a delightful ode to music, and to jazz in particular.
Watch ‘Blue Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Blue Rhythm’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 24, 1930
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
We watch a thief (probably Bimbo, but his appearance in the early Talkartoons is so inconsistent, one can’t be sure). The thief tries to steal a chicken, but runs into a cop. The thief then flees into a graveyard, where he has a particularly nightmarish experience. First the gate locks itself, then turns into a stone wall, and then the graves start to sing…
Soon all kinds of inanimate objects start to haunt him. And although the soundtrack is very jazzy, ‘Swing You Sinners!’ remains a bad trip throughout. At one time the walls close into him, at another a ghost promises him to give him a ‘permanent shave’.
The animation is extremely rubbery, and even insane. For example, when we watch a chicken do some scatting, both the chicken and the background are very wobbly, to a hallucinating effect. In the end we watch countless ghosts marching, followed by even more ghostly images when the thief starts to descend into hell. The cartoon ends with a giant skull swallowing the thief, a surprisingly grim ending for a cartoon with such swinging music*.
In any case ‘Swing You Sinners!’ is a testimony of the sheer creativity, which was the Max Fleischer Studio in the early 1930s, and should be placed among the greatest cartoons of all time.
Watch ‘Swing You Sinners!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Talkartoon No. 10
To the previous Talkartoon: Barnacle Bill
To the next Talkartoon: Grand Uproar
‘Swing You Sinners’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
*It may be interesting to note that this is one of the earliest mentions of swing, predating for example Duke Ellington’s song ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ by two years, and being miles ahead of the swing craze of the second half of the 1930s.
Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: March 4, 1942
It turns out to be the wolf, who will be hanged for harassing the three little pigs. The wolf pleads unguilty, however, and tells us “what really happened”. In his own story the wolf is a classical music teacher, loving peace and quiet (the most ridiculous illustration of this is the image of the wolf crocheting a bath tube out of a sheep). He’s visited by the three little pigs who play hot jazz, bullying the wolf, wrecking his instruments, and finally his house.
It’s a bit odd to associate such intoxicating jazz with random violence à la Clockwork Orange, but the result is an entertaining cartoon, although it is clearly tributary to the 1941 Warner Bros. cartoon ‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’, which features a very similar story idea. Interestingly enough the director of that cartoon, Friz Freleng, would later also direct a cartoon about a wolf and three little pigs playing hot jazz, in ‘The Three Little Bops‘ (1957).
Watch ‘The Hams That Couldn’t Be Cured’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: September 1, 1941
Based on the 1941 hit song by the Andrews sisters, ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company “B”‘ tells the story of a black trumpeter who gets drafted and has to blow the reveille, which he does in a swinging style, introducing the song.
The song itself is accompanied by various gags on blacks in the army. Even the Andrews Sisters themselves make a cameo, although they do not sing. Typical of the era, the blacks are pretty stereotyped, with huge lips, grammatically incorrect speech, and allusions to gambling. Two of them even die during the cartoon: one black after playing xylophone on some shells, while the other gets eaten by an alligator. So I can understand if some people find it hard to watch this cartoon today. Even so, the cartoon is less offensive than ‘Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat’ from six months earlier, from which the cartoon reuses some animation.
Indeed, the overall mood of the cartoon is cheerful and rather innocent, emphasizing the swinging mood. In fact, thanks to the catchy song and some flexible animation ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company “B”‘ is one of the great jazz cartoons. It’s also one of the most enjoyable army cartoons of the era, of which it is probably the first. It’s at least the first American cartoon on conscription, which had come in effect in September 1940, as a reaction on the war in Europe. The cartoon thus predates cartoons like the Pluto short ‘The Army Mascot‘, ‘Donald Gets Drafted‘ featuring Donald Duck, and the Woody Woodpecker cartoon ‘Ace in the Hole’ (all from 1942).
Watch ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company “B”’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Abe Levitow
Release date: April 7, 1967
Stars: Tom & Jerry
The story, by Bob Ogle, is inspired, if not anything new (it’s in fact the reverse of the classic Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Saturday Evening Puss‘ from 1950): when Tom goes to sleep, Jerry rises to play drums with his hep-cat mice friends in the nightclub ‘Le Cellar Smoqué’.
This, of course, keeps Tom awake, and he desperately tries to get rid of the mice, only to succeed in bothering a large bulldog living in the same apartment block.
Unlike the other Tom & Jerry’s by Chuck Jones’s unit, this short has a lively jazzy score penned by a remarkably inspired Carl Brandt. In short, everything seems to come together for once in this cartoon, making this one of the best of the Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry’s.
Watch ‘Rock ‘n’ Rodent’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bill Justice
Release date: July 18, 1956
Taking the cartoon modern-style to the max, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ brings jazzy versions of two familiar addition songs: ‘The House That Jack Built’ and ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’.
This simple and unpretentious idea leads to one of Disney’s most daring cartoons. The first song only uses characters made out of words and throughout the picture startlingly modern backgrounds are used, which constantly change and which are totally abstract, giving no sense of space whatsoever. The animation, too, is mostly very limited, although some animation is reused from the ‘All the Cats Join In’-sequence from ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).
George Bruns’s score is strikingly modern for a Disney cartoon, using genuine bebop jazz. In comparison, Louis Prima’s dixieland jazz in ‘Jungle Book’ from eleven years later is much more old-fashioned.
In all, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ is a neglected little masterpiece, and Disney’s modest, but most daring contribution to the cartoon avant-garde.
Justice would direct four more specials: ‘A Cowboy Needs a Horse’ (1956), ‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ (1957), ‘Noah’s Ark’ (1959) and ‘A Symposium on Popular Songs’ (1962), all strikingly modern in design.
Watch ‘Jack and Old Mac’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Jack and Old Mac’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’
Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: January 19, 1950
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes, Meathead
When Mammy goes out, Tom invites his friends, Meathead, the red cat and the little cat, who we hadn’t seen together since ‘Baby Puss‘ (1943).
Together they play intoxicating hot jazz, which unfortunately keeps Jerry out of sleep. After several attempts to stop them, Jerry calls Mammy who rushes home to catch the cats red-handed. Unfortunately, she likes the same music…
‘Saturday Evening Puss’ is one of the better ‘Tom and Jerry’ shorts, due to the irresistible jazz soundtrack and great comedy from all the characters. Highlights of animation are those of Mammy preparing to go out and of Jerry’s head taking different shapes to corresponding jazz sounds. Seventeen years later, the tables would be turned in Abe Levitow’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Rodent‘ (1967), which is one of the best Tom & Jerry’s by Chuck Jones’s unit.
‘Saturday Evening Puss’ is noteworthy for being the only cartoon in which Mammy’s face can be seen, if only for a split-second when she rushes towards the camera. Unfortunately, this cartoon also exists in a censored version from the 1960s featuring a white girl instead of the familiar black maid.
Watch ‘Saturday Evening Puss’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: January 5, 1946
Stars: Daffy Duck
These cartoons, in which the book titles provide the gags, were mostly plotless, relying on puns and sight gags. ‘Book Revue’ is no exception, but it has the most swinging take on the formula one can wish for.
‘Book Revue’ contains caricatures of some famous (white) jazzmen of the era: Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. At a certain point Daffy Duck interrupts the swing music to sing ‘Carolina in the Morning’, dressed like Danny Kaye (with a blonde wig). Daffy even imitates the Russian accent Kaye sometimes would explore. Daffy immediately exchanges the song for some superb scat singing to warn Red Riding Hood for the Wolf. These two sequences form a highlight in Daffy’s career, and a real tour de force from voice actor Mel Blanc. The ‘story’, if there is any, involves Daffy being followed by the wolf from red riding hood.
The animation of Daffy is extremely flexible in this cartoon, especially when animated by Rod Scribner and Manny Gould, who really push the limits here. At one point Daffy even converts into one big eye – probably the most extreme deformation of a major cartoon star ever put to screen.
‘Book Revue’ makes no sense at all, but it is a cartoon full of sheer joy, and a crowning achievement of the book series.
Watch an excerpt from ‘Book Revue’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 1, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko The Clown
This short contains an excellent swinging jazz score by Don Redman and his orchestra, who are introduced in the beginning of the picture, playing in a zany cartoon decor. The music includes adapted versions of Don Redman’s hit songs ‘How am I doing?’ (1932) and ‘I Heard’ (1931).
‘I Heard’ was the last Fleischer cartoon to feature a great jazz score. Don Redman, and his predecessors Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, where soon replaced by Rubinoff and his orchestra playing light classical music in ‘Morning Noon and Night‘ and ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ (both late 1933). Even worse, the cartoon marked Bimbo’s last screen appearance. Being an animal he was no longer accepted as being Betty’s suitor in a Hays Code dominated Hollywood which shunned all eroticism and ‘unnatural sexual behavior’, including human-animal relationships.
After Bimbo, Betty would shortly date a human character named Fearless Freddie, but from 1935 on she remained a bachelor apparently with no interest in men whatsoever. In this cartoon, though, she’s still sexy, and she can briefly be seen in her underwear, after the elevator she and Bimbo had taken has crashed.
Thus, in many ways, one can regard ‘I Heard’ as the last of the classic Betty Boop cartoons. After this cartoon, the intoxicating mix of sex and surrealism was only seen once, in the compilation cartoon ‘Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame‘ (1934), a last tribute to Betty’s glory days.
Watch ‘I Heard’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘I Heard’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 13, 1937
This enjoyable gem depicts a Harlem-like nightclub for bugs, in which blackface grasshoppers perform hot jazz, led by a Cab Calloway-like bandleader. All bugs swing to it as soon as they enter the club.
After a remarkably erotic act played by a spider and a fly the cartoon climaxes in the jazz song ‘Truckin’, recorded by both the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Duke Ellington in 1935, and celebrating a dance style that was fashionable around ca. 1935-1938. The main feature of trucking is the shoulders which rise and fall as the dancers move towards each other while the fore finger points up and wiggles back and forth like a windshield wiper. At this point in the short even some astonishing effect animation joins in, delivering totally convincing glitter ball effects and beautiful descending fluffy flowers.
Both charming and entertaining, the whole mood of this delightful cartoon is one of sheer joy.
Watch ‘Woodland Café’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 66
To the previous Silly Symphony: More Kittens
To the next Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 5, 1935
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In ‘Music Land’ a young violin falls in love with a young saxophone, much to the disapproval of their parents, the queen of ‘The Land of Symphony’ and the king of ‘The Isle of Jazz, respectively, whose realms are separated by the ‘Sea of Discord’.
When the young saxophone is imprisoned, the feud between the two very different nations leads to a war, in which the two young lovers are almost killed… The whole story is told through music, even the characters ‘speak’ with the sounds of the instruments they are. The complete score, by Leigh Harline, is a delight to listen to.
This reading of ‘Romeo and Juliette’ is one of the most inspired of all Silly Symphonies. The very idea of musical instruments ‘speaking’ in their own sound is brilliant. But there is much more. For example, when the saxophone prince is locked up, he’s imprisoned in a metronome and when he writes a letter to his father (a caricature of bandleader Paul Whiteman, ‘the king of jazz’) he does this in staff-notation!
The complete design of the cartoon is delightful. The backgrounds are particularly beautiful, rendering a totally convincing fantasy world, in which the cartoon develops as if it were an age-old story. The concept of a battle between classical music and jazz was a topical one in the 1930s, when jazz was still regarded by many as devilish music and a threat to ‘high culture’. Nevertheless, during the second half of the 1930s jazz gradually became a respected genre, as exemplified by Benny Goodman’s concert in Carnegie Hall in 1938.
Watch ‘Music Land’ yourself and tell me what you think: