Today, my friend T and I took the afternoon to head down to The Film Forum for their Paramount Before The Code series, and what better way to beat the summer heat than with a little bit of music and some good old fashioned Betty Boop cartoons? Anyone else go? (That’s right indieWIRE Shorts Blog, I’m calling you out!)
Before There Was A Britney Spears, There Was Betty Boop…
The first half of the bill was a selection of several short subject musicals (and one comedy routine) that featured some really stilted performances, but many that were utterly compelling. Highlights:
Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho
In this short subject, a railway porter wakes Calloway and his band on a overnight train from Chicago to New York so they can rehearse a new song for their upcoming show at the Cotton Club. Upon arriving, the porter wonders how he can keep his wife happy while he is away; Calloway suggests buying a radio so she can hear the music at the Cotton Club and won’t need to step out on the town. The Porter leaves on business, his wife goes to the club anyway, and Calloway seduces her and ends up at her place. Ok, I have seen The Cotton Club and am familiar with Calloway from his performance in The Blues Brothers as well as the influence of his Hi-De-Ho song in cartoons, but seeing the man perform on film at the peak of his powers was a revelation; He was punk rock before there was a punk rock! I was reminded of the Kid Creole and The Coconuts performance in Downtown 81; I had no idea his influence was so profound. No wonder they packed them in at The Cotton Club! That hair-do alone, flapping as Calloway head-banged and danced; classic.
Ethel Merman in Be Like Me
This short, made in 1933 (I think), was set in a courtroom straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with the judge asking Merman to “plead her case” from perhaps 80 feet above her head. Merman then turns to the camera and delivers two songs; one sounding like an old 1890’s ballad about losing her lover and, when freed, and the other about going to visit the “darkies” in old Dixie where they sing “the ol’ Ethiopian Rhapsody.” Yeesh. This was one of the strangest shorts in the whole package; the camera never moving as Merman delivered two wildly different songs in her huge belting voice to some person standing three feet to the right of the lens with this bizarre German Expressionist court room set.
Burns and Allen in 100% Service
A silly short set in a hotel lobby, with George Burns and Gracie Allen doing a comedy routine, but memorable for its fresh looseness, a very dirty joke (a proposed game of “Honeymoon Bridge” includes 10 men and a horse) and the obvious chemistry of the two stars. The vaudevillian aspect of the humor was charming, but most of the jokes were based on the classic “misunderstanding of what was just said” groaners;
Burns: “I said that when you do your impression of him you look like a vampire”
Allen: “Really, I didn’t even know he liked baseball…”
Burns: “I said Vampire not umpire, but never mind, I understand you can do card tricks?”
This bizarre little short was the final one in the program, and it featured the nimble footed and gargantuan lyricist Mack Gordon and his partner, the diminutive composer Harry Revel, as they tried to compose a song called College Rhythm for a Polish starlet named Lyda Roberti. (Apparently, College Rhythm was made into a feature? Yikes!) Gordon dances the rhumba (‘Keep going Revel, I’ve got rhumbatism’), lays on top of the piano while composing, cracks a classic one-liner (‘You’re tired? It’s only 4am! You’ve gone all Hollywood on me, Revel! Back in New York we’d be calling Walter Winchell and hitting the nightclubs right now”); all of this with cigar in hand and clearly weighing in excess of 300 pounds. This guy was all New York City, and it was funny to see someone so larger-than-life so blatantly comfortable as a jewish guy from Brooklyn stuck working in goy L.A. A strange, charming VH1 Behind the Music-style (well, for 1934) look at the composers at work on a really bad song for a clearly under-qualified Marlene Dietrich knock off. Ah, old Hollywood!
A totally static camera was the main problem with most of these ‘musical’ shorts; you can see why big, splashy musicals made such an impression. Holy shit, people can move? Who knew? Even Ginger Rogers, known forever for her dancing partnership with Fred Astaire, delivered two songs about loving her boss seated firmly behind a desk. Then, when the camera cuts to her dream sequence and we get 20 chorus girls, they all stand still and take dictation. These were basically the first music videos, and it shows. Look into the camera, hold still, and sing it live while we record. Some of these shorts make 1980’s dross like Night Ranger’s Sentimental Street video look like Eisenstein. (Ok, stretching there, but I just saw that crap video on VH1 Classics and it almost made me glad MTV switched to bullshit reality TV. Almost.)
Also, the ol’ timey racism wore out its welcome in a hurry. Cary Grant’s anti-Chinese sailor in Singapore Sue gets his comeuppance not once, but twice; After trying to pick up the beautiful Sue (Anna Chang) in a Singapore Nightclub by listing food items as a pick-up line (to the tune of ‘Hey baby, you wanna go make some Chop Suey?’), she cracks back that she was born in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and speaks perfect English, and eventually squirts water from a gag flower in his face and takes to the arms of her lover (Joe Wong), who delivers the film’s punch line in perfect English. We’re a long way from the uplift of Harold and Kumar in this one, folks.
After a quick break, it was time for the cartoons, and I got a heavy dose of the one and only Betty Boop. I am a better man for it. I loved these Fleischer cartoons! As a child, I dismissed these cartoons for completing the dreaded triple threat of bad cartoons:
Strike 1–They were in black and white
Strike 2— My Dad liked them and would watch them on the old PBS series Matinee At the Bijou
Strike 3— They did not feature any sort of crime fighting team or super hero.
So, it was really nice to see them again as an adult on the big screen and understand all of the sexual and political overtones. Not only that, but the surreal environments and response to industrialization and urban life were right on the money. So much fun! Watching the shorts, it is easy to see how Betty Boop captured the imagination of so many people; ultra-feminine but utterly independent, she constantly gets what she wants and has a lot of fun getting it. The highlights of this show were the audience response to the Popeye cartoons (this audience was HOT for Popeye!), Betty’s interview with a newspaper reporter (a ‘best of’ of her earlier shorts), and Betty Boop For President which promised chocolate for everyone (you listening, John Kerry?). Strangest of all was a short where Betty was kidnapped by African cannibals in full-on racist caricature, one of whom turns into a giant head which then becomes the head of Louis Armstrong, singing the titular I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You at his youthful peak; The performance is great, but damn, it gets tiring seeing those old stereotypes. Regardless, when I got home, I looked up more about Betty on-line and had NO CLUE that she had been so co-opted by commercial interests. The Betty Boop you see today, as biker babe, psychedelic girl, goth-queen, Coca-Cola sales person, Bobble head, clock, coffee mug; she’s an icon ala Mickey Mouse. Apparently, I need to get out of the house (or on eBay) more often. I like the Classic Betty the best, the freewheeling flapper, not some modernized retread. Oh Betty, it breaks my heart how you’ve changed!
And so, another day at the movies. I’m putting more Betty Boop at the top of the good ol’ Netflix queue. My goal? To be less culturally stupid. Wish me luck!