The arrival of sound in the late 1920s added a new dimension to animated films. Many of the early live-action “talkies” did virtually nothing but talk; however, the cartoon successfully combined the aural and visual without excessive dialogue. The animators most aware of this quality during the 1930s were Max and Dave Fleischer.
Produced for mainstream audiences, the early Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons were daring, somewhat experimental works. In many ways, Fleischer classics such as Minnie the Moocher (1932), Snow White (1933), I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932), I Heard (1933) and I Ain’t Got Nobody (1932) represent the first music videos with their ingenious fusion of animation and bluesy jazz. The shorts also helped promote the records and upcoming appearances of the guest performers.
Like some of the jazz artists, the Fleischer animators were gritty New Yorkers whose free-wheeling existence was reflected in their cartoons. If Disney, Warner and MGM maintained a sunny optimism in the early 1930s, Fleischer Studios took viewers on a wild ride through the Depression-era psyche.
The Fleischers’ cultural insulation was a significant factor in their best work. By embracing a world of sex, violence, hot jazz and bad times, the studio developed an absurdist vision of nonconformity that was unique in animation. The transition to sound only fueled the Fleischers’ playful anarchy. Until the Hays Office reared its head in 1934, there were no established rules for the East Coast animators to follow.
Perhaps the first Fleischer cartoon to seamlessly fuse its bizarre imagery with a Jazz Age bravura was Minnie the Moocher. The pairing of Betty Boop and Cab Calloway resulted in some of animation’s finest moments. In this striking display of music and movement, the rotoscoped Calloway emerges as a ghostly walrus who confronts Betty and her canine pal Bimbo in a darkened cave — singing the classic title song with its references to prostitution, cocaine addiction and venereal disease. The black-and-gray images are stunning as the Calloway walrus performs amid unusual backgrounds ranging from decayed fingers to jagged skulls.
In his 1994 book Cartoons, author Giannalberto Bendazzi singled out Minnie the Moocher as “a masterpiece of American animation” while its “visions and the allusions to danger and sex demonstrate the power of a totentanz, a dance of death.” The film also can be seen as a metaphor for the fears and uncertainties of the Depression.
Minnie the Moocher provided the framework for the dazzling Boop-Calloway masterpiece Snow White. A few historians have compared Snow White to the Salvador Dali-Luis Buñuel short Un Chien Andalou (1929) for its surreal, unconnected imagery — accompanied by Calloway’s downbeat song “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
The painted backgrounds in Snow White are dark and treacherous, particularly the “mystery cave” with its sleazy taverns and skeletal remains. As in Minnie the Moocher, Calloway’s movements are rotoscoped; however, this time around, he is a metamorphosed Ko-Ko the Clown who leads a funeral procession through the cave with Betty literally “on ice.” In the Calloway song, the ice coffin is equated to a “long white table” in the morgue as Ko-Ko/Calloway mourns the loss of his “baby.” During the song, the evil queen transforms Ko-Ko/Calloway into an elongated ghost who visualizes the “St. James” lyrics by morphing into a “$20 gold piece” and “a shot of booze.”
In both Calloway-Boop cartoons, the animated songs evoke grim atmosphere with a plethora of throwaway gags. The Fleischers’ stream of cartoon consciousness appears limitless. Rich in detail, Minnie the Moocher and Snow White demand repeated viewings.
Featuring Louis Armstrong in one of his first film appearances, I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You swings in the best sense of the word — not only in terms of Armstrong’s music, but also in the Fleischers’ visual style. In this fast-paced Betty Boop cartoon, every aspect is in rhythmic motion: trees, volcanoes, footprints, porcupine needles, and cannibals who transform themselves into bushes.
When Betty, Bimbo and Ko-Ko are captured by the cannibals, the latter two escape — only to be pursued by a live-action Armstrong. In fact, Ko-Ko runs so fast that his clown suit must catch up with him. Armstrong continues to chase Ko-Ko while crooning the title song, which focuses on adultery and includes the suggestive lyric “You gave my wife a bottle of Coca-Cola so you could play on her Victrola.” Welcome to Fleischer World.
Unlike previous Boop rhapsodies, the jaunty tone of I Heard evolves into a darkly surreal climax. Accompanied by Don Redman and His Orchestra (who introduce the cartoon in a rare film appearance), Betty delivers an infectious rendition of “How’m I Doin’?” as the workers at the “Never Mine” enjoy a hearty lunch in her tavern. The Fleischers provide a steady flow of gags to match the rhythm of Redman’s music.
After the steam whistle finishes its lunch, Betty and the coal miners discover gossip and baseball-playing ghosts down below. One ghost hits a bomb to Betty and Bimbo — resulting in a back-and-forth escapade that leads to a mine explosion. In the bizarre closing shot, the ghosts fall into ready-made graves opened by Bimbo, who literally gets the last laugh in his final screen appearance. Betty’s amorous co-star became a casualty of the repressive Production Code, which brought down the curtain on the “Boop-oop-a-doop” jazz extravaganzas.
Largely unavailable on home video (though resurrected on YouTube), the Fleischer Screen Song cartoons of the 1930s utilized wrap-around animation to showcase a musical performer in live action, along with the famous Bouncing Ball to lead the chorus. In some instances, the overall short truly benefited from the strength of its guest artist.
I Ain’t Got Nobody, one of the finest Screen Song efforts, marked the film debut of the Mills Brothers, who are introduced as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The off-the-wall “premise” centers on a hypnotic lion who has the ability to make inanimate objects (except for a grumpy statue) sing the Mills Brothers’ hit “Tiger Rag.” In a classic display of Fleischer animation, the entire living room harmonizes in unison — followed by a lion rug scat-singing in Mills fashion.
This inventive use of music complemented the Fleischers’ distinctive surrealism, which mirrored the Depression era better than any animation studio. If Disney’s early work revealed a rural midwestern quality, the Fleischer landscape was a black-and-white urban jungle — an ideal environment for artists such as Calloway, Armstrong, Redman and the Mills Brothers. The Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons remain valuable cinematic records of the musical talents who accompanied Max and Dave Fleischer in their symphony of visual madness.