My Old Kentucky Homesite

Happy Boopday (Or Maybe Not)

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/19/2010

There will be no earworms here at the Homesite this Saturday, because today is the anniversary of Max Fleischer’s birth.
[Update 4:50 a.m.: Actually, that’s a lie. I misread my source. His birthday was July 19, not June. But, hey, it was late when I wrote this, and what are a couple of letters between friends? Anyway, I like to get my cards out early to be sure they’ll arrive in time. So, sue me. But enjoy this tribute first; don’t let all my Googling go to waste. FYI: The information in the rest of the post, to the best of my knowledge, is correct.]

Max was a genius at animation. He and his brother Dave started the Fleischer Studios in 1921. Among their successes were the “Out of the Inkwell” series and the “Song Car-Tunes,” which invited audiences to “follow the bouncing ball” as they sang along. The Fleischers also created the Popeye series and made adventure cartoons starring Superman.

But the Fleischer shorts that I love best are the ones that scared me shitless when I was a very little boy, and left me fascinated, both visually and auditorily, when I was a little older. They were wildly surrealistic, really wacko. Some of them featured popular jazz artists of the 1930s, both in live action and as “voice-overs.” These psycho-sexual extravaganzas appealed to me on a level I didn’t even recognize. Their “star” was Betty Boop.

In honor of Fleischer’s birthday [next month!], I present you with some of his eeriest, most wonderful work.

First, three cartoons that helped launch Cab Calloway’s career. He not only sings and conducts his band, but — because Max had invented the rotoscope, which recorded live action for animators to trace over —he dances, too.

Minnie the Moocher

Snow White (including “St. James Infirmary”)

The Old Man of the Mountain

The Fleischers also got a great performance out of Louis Armstrong.

I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You

In this last cartoon, Don Redman sings and conducts two numbers, “How’m I Doin’?” and the title song.

I Heard

Even given the flawed YouTube incarnations, I still find those cartoons pleasurably creepy.

23 Responses to “Happy Boopday (Or Maybe Not)”

  1. These are awesome. I didn’t get to see these as a kid, but I was similarly mesmerized and strangely disturbed by the Popeye cartoons. Those cycled animations (frames of animation reused for repeated motions like walking) or still frames with flailing, rubbery arms wigged me out. The earlier ones especially, in b&w, were really strange. My favorite probably was Goonland.

    The rotoscoping is an interesting thing. There’s a lot of exaggeration in these, and I think there needs to be some departure from reality when employing such a resource. I immediately think of Bakshi’s Fire & Ice (and here’s a funny montage from it and a documentary on the process) and his LOTR. LOTR in parts was far worse, with silhouetted scenes that looked exactly like live action footage. It’s just off-putting in animation.

    Of course these days we have motion capture, where we’re not just tracing over photos but actually capturing actors’ movements and applying them to characters (it’s not quite that simple and animators have to do considerable work to make it work and clean it up). Beowulf is the modern version of Bakshi, and again we have commercial failure. Most people, although amazed at the effect, just found the whole thing off-putting. Cameron here explains why, and how he overcame this with Avatar. The secret is what he calls “the uncanny valley”, where as you copy humans, there’s a valley where appeal drops the closer you get to copying until you virtually do, and then appeal is restored. Bakshi couldn’t cross the valley, and neither could Zemeckis, but Cameron did.

    So you go stylized or you go for broke, otherwise you die in the valley.

  2. Philly:
    Here’s my simplistic analysis of some highlights in the history of rotoscoping/motion capture.

    The Fleischers used it for its humorous weirdness. There’s something hilarious — and I’m sure it was even much funnier to audiences in 1932 — about, say, watching a walrus dance and sing in perfect imitation of Cab Calloway.
    Aesthetic: Make cartoon characters even funnier by imposing real-life on them.

    The Bakshi usage is rooted in the illustrated fantasy aesthetic of the 70s and 80s: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to make Frazetta’s over-the-top illustrations come to life?” The answer for me was “no.” In fact, I wondered “Why is this thing animated?”
    Aesthetic: Add lifelike movement and heightened beauty to a popular print form of story-telling.

    Twenty-five years later, I felt pretty much the same way about Beowulf, which — I must confess — I’ve only seen on 2D TV.
    Aesthetic: Hey, let’s see if we can get this fantasy shit to work in 3D and make a lot of money.

    But the animation impetus in Avatar is different again. Cameron was not interested in having his 3D jump off the screen to enter the viewer’s world. Instead, he used 3D to suck the viewer into the the film’s world.
    Aesthetic: Create a new reality.

  3. the chaplain said

    I never saw Betty Boop cartoons as a kid, but I was aware of the character, which had become a pop cultural icon. I love the Louis Armstrong clip. He still had his chops when they recorded that.

  4. Fabulously psychedelic. I was always confused by Betty Boop’s supposed sex appeal, given her appearance as a chinless hydrocephalic. As well, I found her voice extremely annoying and the wavy motions disturbing. That was as a child. I was recently reintroduced to Betty Boop while being essentially forced to watch a few hours of Betty Boop cartoons at work (don’t ask). As an adult more knowledgeable about the temporal context, I can see some of the draw. Apart from that, the stuff is crazy and enjoyable, and it is nice to be able to see some the great talents of the first half of the last century operating in their prime. I think the blending of music and visual was ahead of its time. This was before the Silly Symphonies gave birth to Fantasia, one of my all-time favorite pieces of art. It is also apparent that, as with the works of Hal Roach, some films that appear wildly racist and sexist these days were remarkably progressive in their own time.

  5. Chappy:
    Yeah, in the early 30s, Armstrong was really at the top of his form. That’s when he made some of the greatest of his recordings: “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Lazy River,” “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” and “Stardust.” And, of course, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” The online Louis Armstrong Discography has this to say about the version I used in the post:

    A typically bizarre, nightmarish Betty Boop cartoon with cannibal Louis scaring the daylights out of the lead cartoon characters.

    The Fleischer cartoons are “crazy and enjoyable.” You’re definitely right about the changing perception of “racist”: Fleischer’s visualizations accompanying some of the great “Negro” bands could be seen today as reinforcing ethnic stereotypes; but in the 1930s, he was a progressive genius, promoting jazz artists to an audience that was called upon to enjoy the music on its own terms, regardless of the color of the viewers or the performers.

    I’d like to hear about your forced watching of Betty Boop cartoons at work. That sounds a lot better than being summoned to a seminar on search engine optimization.

  6. Sarge said

    I used to watch the UB Iwerks and Fliescher cartoons on the Saturday morning show when I was a kid.

    There was, I think, a Fleischer one that had two kids trying to get a pot of gold and they wind up in hell and escape on the back of a goose, somehow. And then the gold disappears.
    It was horrifying and, well, fascinating.

    And I loved Betty Boop.

    Do you remember Flip the Frog?

    Leonard Maltin says that those cartoons were really never meant for children.

  7. Sarge:
    I don’t remember seeing any Ub Iwerks cartoons on local New York City TV. That doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t broadcast; it just means that I didn’t watch them. By the way, wouldn’t Iwerks have been a great name for a Mac animation program?

    Leonard Maltin says that those cartoons were really never meant for children.
    On the other hand, I don’t think that the Fleischers assumed children would be excluded from the potential audience. Remember: there was no such silly thing, in those days, as adult cartoons.

    When the Hays people went to work in mid-1934, imprisoning Betty in their Christian-American morality, that wasn’t done specifically to “save the children.” But as the heroine became more and more domesticated, the cartoons slowly stopped appealing to maturer audiences, and the series was finally discontinued in 1939. (Even when I was a kid, I hated her “cute” little dog, Pudgy, and the annoyingly chipper old inventor, Grampy.)

  8. Sarge said

    Yeah, I didn’t care for Pudgy, either.
    I liked a lot of the Terrytoons, especially the music. You got a small, very well done symphony in each one. That is, the pre-WWII cartoons.

    Lantz had some very good ones, pre-WWII as well. One of my favorites was “The Slip-Horn King of Polaroo”, again with music that was really something else.

    I’ve noticed that when you see any of the old ones anymore, and you know them, there is a lot of very heavy editing. Both content and dialogue.

  9. BrentH said

    Thanks for posting those videos Larry. I haven’t had time to watch them all but the first one. Fantastic! The song “Minnie the Moocher” reminded me of the recent news that the vatican has now endorsed John Landis’ movie, “The Blues Brothers”.

    From Reuters:

    On the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, “L’Osservatore Romano,” the Vatican’s official newspaper, called the film a “Catholic classic” and said it should be recommended viewing for Catholics everywhere.
    But aside from a brief appearance from Kathleen Freeman as a wrist-slapping nun referred to as “The Penguin” and the brothers’ periodic claim that they were on a mission from God, spirituality does not play a significant role in the film.

    The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops originally rated the movie A-III, for adults only.

  10. Love that solid, inerrant, unchanging morality that religions like Christianity boast about in action.

    Btw, that might be the first time I ever heard of Cab Calloway. I’m not sure, but probably. Thank you, Blues Brothers.

  11. Sarge:
    I didn’t care much for Terrytoons except for the ones with Heckle and Jeckle, and (of course) Mighty Mouse. Who could resist a super-rodent that sang in an operatic tenor voice? Farmer Al Falfa bored me, as do all farmers to this day. I enjoyed Little Roquefort comic books (I pronounced his name Ruh-KWAW-fert, not yet having turned into the cheese snob that I am now), but I don’t recall being particularly impressed with his cartoons.

    The only Walter Lantz character I liked was Woody Woodpecker, who was kind of like Daffy Duck in disguise. I didn’t even know until I Googled the name “Sliphorn King of the Polaroo” that Universal distributed a Lantz series called “Swing Symphony Theatricals.” I’ll have to check out YouTube to see if any are available for viewing.

    I have to confess that I wasn’t a big fan of the Blues Brothers. I didn’t even know that they performed “Minnie the Moocher.” Their version isn’t bad. But I prefer this recording by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Still, Cab Calloway’s original is in a whole different league than either of those.

    Your comment about the Vatican prompts me to mention something that many atheist bloggers don’t often focus on. Throughout history, religious wackos have been intent on controlling not only science, but the arts as well.

  12. Philly:
    Love that solid, inerrant, unchanging morality that religions like Christianity boast about in action.

    Yup. If “we” decide it’s OK, it’s OK. Clearly, the Vatican was delighted to see Catholicism — wrist-slapping nun and all — mentioned in a movie that didn’t have pederasty as its theme.

  13. BrentH said

    My friends and I loved “The Blues Brothers”. The movie came out when I was in catholic high school. The endorsement by L’Osservatore Romano kind of ruins it now. Anytime the pompous bishops rated a movie as “O” – morally offensive, it just made us want to see it more. Movie rating systems really function as “coolness” ratings in reverse to teenagers.

  14. I think that’s the point. It’s a form of collusion. They label the movies as offensive, and that gives them something to rant about and rally support (and donations) to fight the evil. The movie producers bank on that to get you to go see the movie (and collect your money). The better the movie does, the more the church rants and therefore needs more money because the evil is winning. The more they rant, the more people want to see the movie and possibly support it by seeing it again or getting friends to go. It’s a perpetual motion machine of money.

  15. Brent & Philly:
    Ah, yes, the Vatican-Hollywood connection. Hollywood makes a mildly off-color or tamely blasphemous movie, then colludes with the Vatican to give the film a bad rating. Voila! The film makes much more money from those eager to see it merely because of its naughtiness, and the Church makes much more money from those who have to pay off their sin of seeing the movie. Everybody wins — except the gullible religious teenager who’s now doubly broke.

  16. BrentH said

    You’re right. I want my money back! I was paying to be naughty (an important commodity when you’re a teenager). Now the vatican declares a mildly blasphemous movie to be a “Catholic Classic”. I feel old.

  17. Brent:
    I want my money back!
    Add that to your bill for all the wasted hours learning the catechism.

  18. Sarge said

    There was a Walter Lantz cartoon that I remember seeing several times, I can’t remember the name of it, but it had no dialog.

    Musical instruments wash ashore on a south ses island, and various natives and forms of lofe try to puzzle them out. A crab scuttles back and forth on a piano keyboard.

    What you hear is a marvelous jazz piano in perfect sync with the cartoon.

    From what I read, they really didn’t know what to do with the cartoon as they really had no musical or vocal background for some reason, but some of the staff ate lunch at a local bar and knew of the pianist who was quite good. They talked him into coming to the studio to see if he could do anything with this cartoon, and he wayched it several times and noodled a bit on a piano.
    Then he told them to start rolling the film and the the recording tape when he gave the nod, and don’r stop no matter what.
    He gat a vamp going, gave the nod, and did it in one take, all improvised.
    The cartoon was released, was a big hit, and the “upstairs” boys decided to do another one.
    Then they found out the pianist had died two weeks after he had made the recording, and there never was another one.

    I liked some of the Gandy Goose carttons from Terry, and yes, Mighty Mouse.”Here I come to save the day”! We meet Oil Can Harry, Svengali’s Cat and hear Ben Bolt being ever so sweetly sung while “Trilby” goes down the saw mill.

    I also liked Betty Boop in Little Red Riding Hood. The voice of the wolf was the guy who did Bluto.

    Thanks for bringing back some good memories, Larry, my pain meds are doing their periodic uphill fight, and I needed this.

  19. Sarge:
    Well now you’ve made me feel very good about doing this post, initial date fuck-up and all.

    Your unknown Walter Lantz cartoon is called “Jungle Jive”. The pianist is Bob Zurke, who died shortly after this was made.

  20. the chaplain said

    “Jungle Jive” is brilliant. I’d never seen it before tonight. I’m going to have to get more familiar with those old classic cartoons. My sons and I love both Fantasia films. I lost count of how many times my youngest son watched the original Fantasia from start to finish, without a break, beginning at about age 2.

  21. Chappy:
    There’s a full-length parody/homage to Fantasia by Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto. It’s called Allegro non Troppo. Rather than using pretentious, pedantic narration leading from one musical segment to another, Bozzetto directed some really stupid (but occasionally hilarious) live-action orchestra-themed slapstick between the animated sections. One such scene ends with somebody throwing a Coke bottle; it segues directly into this take-off of Disney’s evolutionary The Rite of Spring. (Unfortunately, the video quality is not very good, and the ending is chopped off. But it should give you a good idea of the original film, which I highly recommend.)

  22. Wendy Geringer said

    Larry Wallberg…..Is that you?

  23. Wendy:
    Doesn’t it sound like me?

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