Psychedelic film criticism for the woefully unprepared

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.

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. The Boops are on youtube! That's so sick!

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 artistically happening place, and the Fleischers clearly had a yen for it, like many young folks at the time--especially downtown intellectuals and pre-beat bohemians--the trip uptown to Harlem as a sacredly profane initiation rite, akin to mystery initiation rituals of ancient Greece, usually undertaken late at night after other 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). This awe comes through at the Mystery Cave, where 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 rigueur.. and the Fleischer brothers, two very hip Jewish cartoonists, captured that sense of danger, bringing it down to their midtown animation studio in the form of recorded Cab Calloway Orchestra performances for rotoscoping.

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, 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 in 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), all affirmed life 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 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? Wake up!  (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. This is just awesome!
    Thank you!!!!


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