Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Acid Shorts #1: Betty Boop in SNOW WHITE (1933)
In true pre-code, reefer-smoking, laudanum-quaffing glory, everything in SNOW WHITE is alive and wriggling and--best of all--swathed in the groovy music of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. Betty was always great to "come down to" after a night on the town, utterly alien and bizarre yet comforting -- all the trappings of a Saturday morning cartoon childhood were there, so why was everything so "adult"? We were without internet then, so had to figure it out all for ourselves. Now we know, and now we don't even have to go rummaging at the back of old video rental places to find them. They're on youtube!
Regular musical guests in the land of Betty, Cab Calloway and his orchestra were perfect foils to the squiggly giggles and (literally) loopy adventures of the saucily under-garbed Betty, her dog/pimp Bimbo and the frighteningly balloon-like Koko the clown. All of them run rampant through what's considered to be the best and most surreal of all Max Fleischers's pre-code Boops, SNOW WHITE, wherein Cab sings "Saint James Infirmary," with plenty of dynamite "Hi de Ho", his lanky white tuxedo-ed frame rotoscoped into the figure of a twirling dancing ghost with improbably long legs, accompanied by swirling phantasm chorus in the hell/underground/uptown jazz joint, "The Mystery Cave."
As anyone who ever took an African American culture course knows, Harlem in the 1930s was a very cool and artisitically happening place, and Max Fleischer clearly had a yen for it, seeing the trip uptown to Harlem as a sacredly profane initiation rite, akin to mystery initiation rituals of ancient Greece. Life and death mixed together in a ghoulish romp, with Boop encased in ice as a temple sacrifice. It all fits beautifully together to make SNOW WHITE one far-out pinnacle in pre-code cartoon surrealism. In those days the Harlem clubs were where one went to frolic without the peepers of the law on your ass, so miscegenation, reefer-toking, hops, homosexuality, the threat of violence was all in the air making excitement and giddiness de regeur... and the Fleischer brothers, two very hip Jewish cartoonists, captured that sense of danger the next day at their midtown animation studio.
Seen today, it behooves one to keep these details in mind, which adds to the cartoon's mythic and historical resonance, however none of that is ultimately needed to dig Betty. All you need bring with you is the realization that Miss B's magical universe is the perfect code cover for transgressions made under the ruling elite's very noses. Kids could watch it and just dig the slapstick, squaresville parents might just think it a lot of kiddie nonsense, but the "awake" hep cats up on 110th Street or down in the Village could dig how far gone Max Fleischer was, doing his thing in the heart of Manhattan, the Jewish intellectual Paramount-style east side answer to Disney's MGM-ishly dull west coast cutesy pie critters. Working all day with pen and ink / to win you with a wink / aint she cute / boop boop be doop / then trucking up to the Cotton Club to scope out new bands for the cartoon soundtracks, not lilly-white crooners but the real jumpin' jive swing of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong... that's kind of what it's all about, isn't it?