Friday, March 09, 2007

ANIMATION—Oddball Films Double Bill: "The Birth of Betty Boop (or My Life As a Dog)" and "Bad Bugs Bunny: The Dark Side Of Warner Brothers"

On Saturday, March 17, 2007, Stephen Parr of Oddball Films hosts a double bill of animation programming, beginning with "The Birth of Betty Boop (or My Life as a Dog)" at 8:00 p.m., followed by "Bad Bugs Bunny: The Dark Side Of Warner Brothers" at 10:00 p.m. Both programs will be moderated by cinema curator, collector and historian Dennis Nyback.

Betty Boop was a huge star in the early thirties with a nationally syndicated comic strip. By 1939, her popularity had waned and the production of her cartoons stopped. In the 1960s she was rediscovered by a new generation and became more popular than ever. She is one of the most famous and loved characters in American cartoon history and her official website lists over 1000 products licensed in her image. "The Birth of Betty Boop (or My Life as a Dog)" features her first cartoon appearances and showcases her cinematic evolution from "dog to woman".

One of the first cartoons Dennis Nyback bought for the Rosebud Movie Palace was "Bimbo's Initiation" made in 1931 by Max Fleischer. He still considers it the greatest cartoon ever made. Bimbo (a dog) descends through an open manhole cover into an existential nightmare land. When things look the worst for him, three shrouded figures appear and chant "Want to be a member, want to be a member?" Bimbo replies "NO!!!!" He then has to suffer more surrealistic torture. Finally one of the shrouded figures reveals herself to be BETTY BOOP!! Bimbo promptly says "YES!!!", and is soon dancing in front of a chorus line of Betty Boops.

In "Bimbo's Initiation", Betty Boop has ears like a dog. Intrigued by this, Nyback pursued other early Betty Boop cartoon appearances. By the time he was running the Pike Street Cinema, Nyback had collected enough of them to curate a feature length program "The Birth of Betty Boop (or My Life as a Dog)", which played at the Cinema Village in New York in 1996. Nyback took the program to Europe in 1998 and showed it at the Interfilm Film Festival in Berlin in 1999. The presiding question for Nyback was: Why did Betty Boop start out being a dog?

Before answering that question, a word must be said about the Fleischer method of making cartoons in the early sound era. The Fleischer Studio had no writers, just Max, Dave and Leonard Fleischer, and a bunch of animators. Leonard Fleischer was wild about jazz music. His job at the studio was to buy the latest hot jazz records and bring them to the studio where Max and Dave would then pick through them hoping to find inspiration for a cartoon. Once they found a title they liked, they would come up with a simple plot, a few gags, and then give the record to the animators and tell them to animate to the music. This methodology was oppository to most cartoon studios. Usually animators work from storyboards sent them by the story department, and the music for the soundtrack is added later. What made the Fleischer cartoons so surrealistic was their backwards system. They had no story department. Their animators would listen to jazz and come up with visual responses.

This system worked fine until the head of the New York musician's union found out about it. He 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. This was fine with the musicians union. As a result we can see Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman and other jazz greats of the early thirties in Fleischer cartoons. (This did not sit well with bigots, however. The appearance of black performers with white Betty Boop elicited threats from the Ku Klux Klan.)

In 1924, the Fleischers made the first sound cartoons ever, using the Lee DeForest Phonofilm System. They were called Song Car-tunes. They failed to achieve wide distribution and were junked. Four years later, when Disney made a hit out of a talking, singing Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat Willie", the Fleischers felt the time had come to return to the art form they had pioneered. They needed a new character. They came up with Bimbo the Dog, and starred him in a new line of sound cartoons called Talkartoons. The problem with Bimbo is the Fleischers had no idea what his persona should be. At first Bimbo was tall and skinny. He later was short and round. He appeared at times as all black. He also appeared as black with white spots, white with black spots, sometimes within the same cartoon. Obviously he was no threat to the fully realized Mickey Mouse. Instead of scrapping Bimbo, the Fleischers decided that what his cartoons needed was SEX!

So in "Dizzy Dishes" in 1930, where Bimbo appears as a waiter in a cafe, singing at the cafe was a very sexy female dog. This was the first appearance of the character who would become Betty Boop. Her singing is similar to her later style. Her look is similar, but heavier, with dog ears, and a more dog like face. The cartoon was marginally successful. The Fleischers produced twelve more Talkartoons before the (nameless) girl-dog again appeared in the Bimbo cartoon "Mysterious Mose". Here we see she has slimmed down, still has dog ears, and has a more square face. She plays a terrified character trying to sleep in a house that is haunted by Mysterious Mose (Bimbo). This was her last appearance in 1930, and apparently the Fleischers still didn't know the gold mine they were sitting on.

In early 1931, she appeared in cat form in the cartoon "Any Little Girl That's a Nice Little Girl." She still did not have a name. This was followed by another doggie appearance in "Silly Scandals". To show how little the Fleischers cared for the character, her next appearance was as a fish in the cartoon "The Herring Murder Case". This was followed by "Bimbo's Initiation" where she really only appears as a cameo. Shortly after that, Leonard Fleischer brought the record "Betty Coed" by crooner Rudy Vallee into the studio. Max and Dave thought it had a great title for a cartoon. Betty appears in it, still a dog. She finally has a name, though. She is Betty. The last name Boop will naturally follow, as it does in the song's refrain.

All of Betty Boop's other 1931 appearances are as a dog. After all, she is the carnal interest of Bimbo, and if she were human their romance would be illegal in most countries, and even too kinky for a Fleischer cartoon. In early 1932 she made her last appearance opposite Bimbo in "Any Rags." In her next cartoon, "Boop Oop A Doop", she appears as a full fledged human being.

Dennis Nyback's second animation program—"Bad Bugs Bunny: The Dark Side of Warner Brothers"—features rarely seen censored cartoons exploring sexism, racism and violence in animation. Nyback will appear live to put these cartoons into a historical perspective and discuss their hidden history and censorship by Warner Brothers.

These classic and never-to-be-seen by the public shorts span the 1930s and '40s showcasing a simpler time when stereotypes and satire prevailed in American popular culture. Many shorts also include the quirky, jazzy orchestration by the genius of offbeat sound scores, Carl Stalling.

Nyback first showed his "Bad Bugs Bunny" program at Seattle's Pike Street Cinema in 1993. He had been inspired to create it when he read in the Wall Street Journal that the Disney Company—acting on a complaint from one person—went through their entire archive of animation and removed all examples of smoking. The complaint had been lodged by an American mother who allowed her child to watch the Disney channel. She thought it was harmless until she saw an old Pecos Bill cartoon from the 1940's. In that cartoon Pecos Bill rolled and smoked a cigarette. Why would Disney react to one complaint? It had nothing to do with the individual who complained. That individual was merely a walking dollar sign. They assumed that many walking dollar signs would be offended and that would cost them money. They decided to censor their own historic output. In addition to looking for instances of smoking, the people assigned to the task were told to cut out anything they found that they thought would offend anyone. Nyback's objection to this was threefold. First, he felt that animation was art, and should not be capriciously censored. Secondly, he felt that the reaction in censoring the material had nothing to do with right or wrong, but was merely for money. Thirdly, he felt that these examples of the past were part of our history, and by altering them the Disney company was trying to erase the truth about the past.

Nyback chose Warner Brothers cartoons for the program for a couple of reasons. First, he had a lot more Warner's cartoons than Disney cartoons and, second, there was no way he wanted to get the Disney Company mad at him. He figured that—though Warner's might send him some threatening letters—Disney might actually send someone to kill him. Looking through his Warner Brothers cartoons, Nyback selected the ones that he thought were most offensive to modern audiences. To make it an equal opportunity offensive program, he then selected cartoons that offended the widest range of groups. In a nutshell, the program was reflective of U.S. history: full of racism, sexism and violence. All of these cartoons are no longer shown, many for over 20 years. Nyback selected examples of racial stereotypes including those of blacks, native Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Arabs and then rounded out the program with one good example of sexism, and one other example of violence.

With very little publicity, "Bad Bugs Bunny" sold out every show over a four day weekend at the Pike Street Cinema. Nyback then brought it back for a two week run that did nearly as well. He took the program to Europe in 1995 where it showed in over 20 cities. In 1996 he rented the program to a distributor in England who booked it into several British cities to uniformly large crowds. In 1997 he made the same arrangement with a booker in Australia with much of the same results. It was at a New York showing at the Cinema Village in 1997 that he finally heard from Warner Brothers. Of course it was not Warner Brothers, but Ted Turner's company that had bought Warner's. He spoke to them on several occasions, using every argument he could think of to let him show the program, including offering to pay them a percentage of the gate as a standard rental; but, their reply was NO. It was very important to them that NOBODY see these cartoons that they owned but had not produced. Nyback told them that they could drag him into court. He decided a court case would allow media coverage of how corporate censorship worked in a free society. At that point, they gave up on him.

Included within the "Bad Bugs Bunny" program is "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" (working title: "So White and de Sebben Dwarfs"), a Merrie Melodies animated cartoon directed by Bob Clampett, produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions, and released to theatres on January 16, 1943 by Warner Bros. Pictures and The Vitaphone Corporation.

"Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" is notable for being an all-black parody of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow-White, known to its audience from the popular 1937 Walt Disney animated feature. The stylistic portrayals of the characters, however, is an example of classic racist "darky" iconography, which was widely accepted in white American society at the time. As such, it is one of the most controversial cartoons in the classic Warner Bros. library, has been rarely seen on television, and has never been officially released on home video. However, it is often named as one of the best cartoons ever made, in part for its tremendously energetic and infectious African-American-inspired jazz and swing music, and is considered one of Clampett's masterpieces.

My thanks to Dennis Nyback for allowing me to liberally replicate his program notes. For those interested in downloading Betty Boop's cartoons, several can be found online.

Admission is $10.00 per program, RSVP Only to: or call the archive at 415-558-8117. Oddball Films is located at 275 Capp Street, off Mission between 17th and 18th Street. For full details on both programs visit the Oddball Films website.


slfisher said...

Some of the Betty Boop stuff is pretty racy, with sex and drug references in it.

The thing to remember about both Betty Boop and the old Bugs Bunny cartoons is that they were *not* made for kids.

In the 1980s or early 1990s I saw a presentation of homosexuality in early animation, probably at the Castro. Is it this same guy?

Anonymous said...

I always felt that Betty resembled Helen Kane more than a dog, lol. Excellent research and article, Michael. Thank you.

Remember this?

Betty: Work's been slow for me since the cartoons went to color. But, I still got it Eddie. . .

Eddie Valiant: Yeah, you still got it Betty.

Edmund Yeo said...

Hey, great post here, man! (Haven't been around for a while... again)

Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves can actually be viewed here. (ran a search after reading this)