Saturday, February 19, 2011

Minnie The Moocher

Before Disney annexed it to colonise the imagination of children forever more animation was a place of anarchic possibility. Take that troubling minx Betty Boop. Always cavorting half-dressed through life, Betty was the 1930s most unlikely sex symbol. Originally Bimbo the dog was the star with Betty only making cameo appearances, unnamed and not even really human. Before she was a woman, Betty was a dog, a cat and even a fish. It was evolution cartoon-style and the man responsible was Max Fleischer, the greatest rival to the early Disney empire, an audacious pioneer also responsible for the first Popeye and Superman cartoons.
As film archivist Dennis Nyback explains, Max and his brothers, Dave and Leonard, had a unique way of making their films, working backwards from music to drawings in exactly the opposite way most other animation outfits work. Jazz fan Leonard would bring in the latest hot records from black artists and the animators essentially improvised to the music. The results were often surreal and revelatory. Take Minnie The Moocher from 1932. It starts off with real footage of Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing the song, Calloway doing his super-cool (and much-imitated) dance moves. Dennis Nyback explains the reason for this live-action footage:

...the head of the New York musician’s union...didn’t like the use of records without paying royalties. Max invited him to the studio and made him a deal. He offered to have the musicians come to the studio and be paid for performing. He would then film and record them. The filmed images of the jazz performers would appear in a Fleischer cartoon based on their record, exposing them to wider audiences...As a result we can see Cab Calloway...and other jazz greats of the early thirties in Fleischer cartoons. (This did not sit well with bigots. The appearance of black performers with white Betty Boop elicited threats from the Ku Klux Klan.)
The film starts with Betty getting into a fight with her parents. Upset, she decides to run away. She calls Bimbo, they meet up and begin their escape. Soon though it gets dark and the strains of Minnie The Moocher begin. Frightened, they duck into a cave where a strange walrus creature appears and sings the song to them. This is clearly Calloway. The Fleischers used their own invention, rotoscope, to animate his movements by tracing frames of the live action film. (It was one of the many innovations they were responsible for. They also pioneered the use of synchronised sound three years before The Jazz Singer). What follows is a nightmare vision of skeletons, ghosts, dead-eyed cats and the scariest witch to ever fly towards a camera from out of nowhere. Even the Calloway-infused walrus is disturbing, with its weirdly distended and fleshy body. Soon a terrified Betty is running home to hide under her bed covers. As would any of us if confronted by this night of the dead. It's creepy enough as a cartoon. Hi-dee-hi-dee-ho indeed.

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