Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What I Bought

Okay, so tomorrow, two weeks later, same difference. I bought a collection of Betty Boop cartoons, 23 of 'em. I'm a fan of old film, an even bigger fan of animation, and the 2-disc set only cost $5.99, so it was a great little prize for me.

The cartoons themselves run the gamut from very early Talkartoons, before Betty got her own series (the earliest is "Minnie the Moocher" from 1932, featuring Cab Calloway), all the way to the very end, when Betty had been toned down to avoid censorship ("Musical Mountaineers" from 1939 is the latest one). In between is a fascinating variety, from raunchy, broad ethnic humor and free-form, almost hallucinatory plots, to bland gags executed with mediocre animation.

Fleischer Studios had once been considered Disney's greatest rival. Watching this collection, you can see why people thought that, and also why they fell so short of what Disney accomplished. There are moments of brilliance here. Several cartoons feature the Fleischers' turntable 3D backgrounds, an amazing process that predated Disney's multiplane camera and that should have been exploited to better effect. In essence, they built a miniature set and mounted the animation cels in front of it, so that when a character walks, you can see elements of the background moving in perspective. It may not look so amazing now, when computer animated backgrounds can do so much more, but for the time, the illusion was incredible, and totally beyond anything anyone else was doing.

Another ahead-of-its-time moment comes in "The Old Man of the Mountain." This was another cartoon featuring Cab Calloway, and it seems as if Calloway's orchestra played the entire soundtrack, because the music has a swing totaly unlike any other 30's cartoon. It's really ahead of its time. If only the storyline were better, this culd have been one of the best of the series.

Unfortunately, flashes of brilliance don't make a studio great. Watching this collection, you can also tell just how haphazard and random the Fleischer's methods were, which is why they could never have held their own against Disney, even if Paramount hadn't pulled the plug and forced the brothers out.

Two other thing I just have to mention: I finally, after having read about it many years ago, got to see the moment when Louis Armstrong delivers the line, "You gave my wife a bottle of Coca-Cola so you could play on her vagola," and probably the raunchiest gag I've seen in a Betty Boop cartoon comes in "Chess Nuts," when a thrown vase breaks a couple of holes in the wall. Through one of the holes, you see two mice sleeping together in a bed. The crash of the vase wakes one of the mice, who sits up, looks around in terror, then runs from the bed throug the wall and into another "room" behind the second hole, where he climbs into bed with another mouse! What other studio could give you cheating husbands in an ostensibly "children's" cartoon? Only Fleischer, man, only Fleischer.

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