Archive for Fleischer Bros

Bosko Does Not Believe in Tears

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2012 by dcairns

Bosko, star of early Looney Tunes, underwent a mysterious transformation. Here’s Bosko in his best-known form —

I take him to be a little monkey, don’t you? Everybody else is an animal, and he has those cute ears. Surely he’s a chimp or monkey. Of course, there’s also the obvious fact that he’s a thinly disguised rip-off of Mickey Mouse, shorn of the nose-dot and vast, black spherical ears (people assume they’re discs, but they never vary their appearance whatever way MM faces). He even has a Pluto-like dog, Bruno, and a girlfriend who looks just like Bosko in drag, called Honey.

And there’s also the suspicion that he’s a minstrel-like caricature of an African-American. In fact, from 1929, here’s Bosko’s first talkie —

Different voice, and very obviously an Amos ‘n’ Andy style ethnic caricature. But that side of the character recedes as he adopts the eunuchoid falsetto of Disney’s famous mouse. Cartoonist Rudolf Ising denied that Bosko was of any ethnic type, characterizing him as “an inkspot type thing,” but the view of Hugh Harman, who actually dreamed Bosko up, is apparently not recorded.

Then Bosko is acquired by MGM, when Harman & Ising (Harman-Ising well together!) switched studios, and he goes into Technicolor, becoming a little more sugary in the process.

The bratty kid dresses in Mickey Mouse’s red shorts, and the animation is a bit more three-dimensional, the comedy more domestic and less surreal/grotesque. The MGM effect creeping in.

Then this happens —

Bosko has become fully human, or almost, and he’s certainly African-American now. Curiously, the caricature isn’t particularly offensive (to me, anyway, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for everybody). I wonder how audiences reacted to his transformation? At any rate, the character was quickly retired. The more realistic Bosko became, the less fun his adventures seemed. The final phase, though technically the most elegant, is the least pleasurable to watch.

Bosko’s strange evolutionary leap from inkspot/minstrel/monkey to “real boy” is paralleled over at the Fleischer studio by Betty Boop’s transition from poodle to flapper, which is arguably as insulting in its implications. Very oddly, even after her floppy ears had turned into earrings, and her muzzle modified into the low, chinless mouth we know and lust for, Betty continued to go out with Bimbo, a dog. The implications of which are best left unexplored.


The Sunday Intertitle: Walt on the wild side

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2012 by dcairns

A hungry cat suffers PANGS OF HUNGER, helpfully identified by a gloved hand, in Disney’s THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN.

Been looking at early Disney — pre-SILLY SYMPHONY stuff when he was drawing and animating for himself, not just producing.

He was rubbish! But, from tiny, crappy acorns…

My theory is that animating taught Walt the basics, and he became aware of all the stuff that was too hard, or too much trouble, to do. Later, he could pay other animators and force them to do all that stuff. This was the secret of Walt’s genius, in a way — he knew what was difficult, and he wanted it done. John Kricfalusi, of Ren & Stimpy fame, makes the point that this was Disney’s weakness as well as his strength — just because something is hard to do, doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Walt also had a fairly basic sense of humour, it seems to me. If in doubt, go for the arse: spank it or impale it with a swordfish’s sword… since most of his toons are pretty anodyne in other respects, this concentration on violence to the buttocks has attracted comment.

But very early Hollywood (and New York, and Kansas City) cartooning is fascinating more for its strangeness than its hilarity, at least to me. Interestingly, though Disney led the way in sound cartoons, he preserved more of a concentration on the visual than his rivals — or the musical and visual. Disney shorts, even much later ones, tend to concentrate either on accompanying existing music, or on vigorous (but uncontroversial, safe) slapstick. Warners toons use dialogue to set up slightly more complicated scenarios, and finesse the characters throughout by their verbal asides to the audience. In this, they do seem to be partaking of some of the attitude (aggressive, proletarian) of the Warners live action features.

Even at the Fleischer studios, their soundies, though just as musical as Disney’s, tend to relate to songs rather than instrumentals, and use the lyrics to suggest situations and gags. Disney, though the least naturally gifted at knockabout action, concentrated on it more — which again was perhaps his instinct to excel at what seemed toughest.

Of the silents, many of the Laugh-O-Grams are pretty lame, but the ALICE films have some merit, not least because of the way they blend live action and (basic) animation, in a fairly brazen emulation of the Fleischer OUT OF THE INKWELL series. They also throw up regular distressing/surreal images of the kind you don’t want to see revived on Saturday Mornings anytime soon —

Here’ Alice’s gang (because they rip off OUR GANG as well as OUT OF THE INKWELL) forms a secret society, the KKK. Note that the member second from the left is a dog. Also, you can’t tell from the image, but one of them is African-American. (“SHOCK CORRIDOR!” declared Fiona when I told her about this.) So it’s a nice, inclusive KKK.

I guess this makes the point that to kids, something that’s evil and inhuman might just seem a game, something to have fun with. I don’t think it’s meant to make any point at all — Disney probably thought of himself as apolitical, which of course translates as “right wing but too dumb to know it.” When Leni Riefenstahl came to town in the thirties, he was the only studio boss who’d entertain her. (He also palled around with Eisenstein, to be fair.)

For Disney’s raison d’etre, of course, you have to look to the early features, which truly are awesome achievements of their kind. In between, we have the Silly Symphonies, which don’t strike me as very appealing at all… but I’m going to have another look.


Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , on May 13, 2009 by dcairns

On my recent New York jaunt, Guy Budziak kindly presented me with a collected set of Fleischer POPEYE cartoons, stuffed with extras. Since we’re teen-sitting this week, I thought I’d experiment upon Louis, our young charge, to see whether 1930s animation still pleases the youth of today. 

Turns out it does, and it also pleases me. Elzie Segar’s newspaper strip goes through a set of funhouse-mirror distortions to emerge from the Fleischer inkwell, with characters internally reshaped internally even when their exteriors remain the same — if I were a purist I’d be offended. I love the Segar strip, but I can still enjoy the gene-splice of Popeye characters with Betty Boop’s universe: a surreal nightmare-scape obeying strange rules of its own. Everything is alive, and therefore transmutable into something else —


“He’s hijacked a whale!” exclaimed Louis.

Popeye steers his cetacean ride into harbour, and it converts into a nifty staircase to get him onto the pier.


“That whale is Popeye’s bitch!”