Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Acid Shorts #1: Betty Boop in SNOW WHITE (1933)

In true reefer-smoking, laudanum-quaffing Paramount pre-code glory, everything in the 1933 Betty Boop short SNOW WHITE is alive and wriggling and--best of all--swathed in the groovy music of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. If you've ever wanted to see Cab peel of his skin and dance around like a ghost, scatting and hi-de-hoing into all sorts of pretzel medallion shapes (as above), this is it.

Betty was always great to "come down to" after a lysergic night on the town. Utterly bizarre, yet warmly comforting, all the trappings of a Saturday morning cartoon childhood were there coupled to racy 1930s jazz and "adult" Dali-esque symbolism. Even so,  the old Boop tapes we could find skipped the wilder stuff like SNOW WHITE and we had to search high and low. Lucky for all of us, now the Boops are on youtube!

Regular musical guests in the land of Betty, Cab Calloway and his orchestra were perfect foils to the squiggly shapes and (literally and figuratively) loopy adventures of the saucily under-garbed Betty, her dog Bimbo and the frighteningly balloon-like Koko the clown, with Cab's wild vowel extensions "WhooooaaaooH" finding perfect expression in Fleischer's expanding and contracting shapes. Accompanied by swirling phantasm chorus in the hell/underground/uptown jazz joint, the Mystery Cave, wherein Cab sings "Saint James Infirmary," with plenty of that dynamite "Hi de Ho", his lanky white tuxedo-ed frame rotoscoped into the figure of a twirling dancing ghost with improbably long legs,

As we now know, Harlem in the 1930s was a very cool and artistically happening place, and the hipsters in the white downtown spots all knew it --the intellectuals, long-hairs, bohemians, musicologists, anyone with a pulse, Harlem was a sacredly profane initiation rite to these white cats, akin to mystery initiation rituals of ancient Greece, usually undertaken late at night after downtown joints closed and the courage was up--for here art and life was far more vivid, with a mix of frenzy and precision that eluded white culture (hence the constant co-opting). Orson Welles did his Voodoo Macbeth and the Cotton Club music was so hot it made the rest of the city's orchestras seems to be in slurry comas. The Fleischer brothers, two very hip Jewish cartoonists, made the pilgrimage regularly and their culture shock-amped awe comes through SNOW WHITE at the Mystery Cave. Here life and death mix together in a ghoulish romp, with Boop encased in ice as a temple sacrifice while Cab and his bone orchestra whoops and struts and xylophones their ribs. Capturing the sense of giddy 'safe' cultural danger into a cartoon, bringing Cab and co. down to their midtown animation studio and recording and rotoscoping Cab's indelible saunter, the Fleischer's SNOW WHITE becomes one far-out pinnacle in pre-code cartoon jazz surrealism, taking the 'danger' exotica element of the white experience in black Harlem, and swings it all the way around so that there's no black or white anymore at all, the skins are long gooooaaoone.

say boy, hand me up another shot of that boooo-ooooze

Seen today, it behooves one to keep these historical details in mind, for they add to the cartoon's mythic and historical resonance. However, none of that is ultimately needed to dig the craziness for what it is. 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, squares might just think it a lot of imaginative kiddie nonsense, but the "awake" hep cats up on 110th Street or down in the Village could dig how far gone the Fleischers were, doing their thing and capturing like few others the way death's presence represented memento mori (to contrast frenzied life with), frozen beauties (all the better to contrast cozy warmth with), dancing ghosts (to contrast frozen living squares with), and 'race' artistry at its wildest and most infectious. Swirled together it all affirmed life in itself, beyond the sickly sentiment of 'sweet' music played in midtown or under Disney's 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 lily-white crooners (though sometimes there were those too) 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? Wake up, sleepy cats its four o-clock in the morning and your pupils are still big as Cab's ghost mouth in full "Ooooooo"! Just check them in the mirror and see, but then get the pre-code Boops up on your box and all is going to be all nice. Forever. To the boooones! (Find it on youtube here)


  1. This is fucking amazing. Great piece...and that just may be the best cartoon I've ever seen. I mean really...I'm blown away - I'd never seen it before. I think I'm going to watch it again right now.

  2. Still excellent a second time but sadly, nothing will ever match the sheer surprise of that initial viewing...unless perhaps I toke beforehand (though that could be a truly frightening experience.)

    Then again, the Calloway song was even better the second time around and not only is this one of the best cartoons I've ever seen - it's one of the best music videos too.

    Thanks again for this.

  3. Anonymous13 May, 2012

    This is just awesome!
    Thank you!!!!


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