BY S.J. COLLINS
Halloween may be over, but who says the eerie, the spooky, and the outright weird must be seasonal? This compilation of vintage cartoons is all of those things and watchable all year round. Cartoons have not always been immediately associated with bright colors and light, child-friendly themes. In the early years of cinema, from the silent era and into the talkies, animated shorts were a constant accompaniment to feature films shown in cinemas.
During this time, animated shorts were a vehicle for whimsical musical entertainment, but at the same time, they were not always the twee flights of fancy that became the overwhelming norm when the Hays Code came into strict enforcement. In pre-Code Hollywood, the animated short was an opportunity for artists to let their strangest aesthetic whims come to life. The shorts produced by Max and Dave Fleischer are particularly distinguishable by their surreal aesthetics and distinct German Expressionist influence. The following four cartoons exemplify the Fleischers' signature brand of the bizarre, fitting fare for anyone with a taste for creepy, vintage curiosities.
Perhaps remembered more nowadays for the titular character's kittenish charms, early Betty Boop cartoons are marked by the macabre and a push against social boundaries. Two of the Betty Boop cartoons included here feature Cab Calloway both for his music and his distinctive dance style. In a country where segregation and Jim Crow laws were a part of daily life, disseminating the music and artistry of a Black musician was considered controversial by many.
Enforcement of the Hays Code began in earnest in 1934, and the Fleischers were forced to stop using Calloway's music and likeness in their animation. The artistry of the cartoons from that brief collaboration leave one wishing for an alternate history where Calloway and the Fleischers had continued working together to produce more of their joint style of strange, jazz-inflected beauty.
1) Snow-White (1933)
This short is the most macabre, the most surreal and the likeliest to slake one's thirst for the creeps. It took six months to complete this seven-minute cartoon, and the amount of details drawn into each frame mandate multiple viewings. Featuring the gloomy strut of Calloway's "St. James Infirmary Blues," footage of Calloway himself dancing was rotoscoped into the character of Koko the Clown as he undergoes a series of ghostly metamorphoses.
2) Minnie the Moocher (1932)
An oddly didactic fever dream, Betty Boop runs away from home with her boyfriend, Bimbo, and finds herself in a haunted cave watching a phantom walrus dance. Chock-full of ghouls, this short will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). The character of Oogie Boogie was heavily inspired by (i.e., almost exactly copied) from the Calloway-walrus character, as was the musical style and dance sequence. Burton's version is certainly fun, but the original Fleischer short is drenched in a nightmarish weirdness that just doesn't translate to his film's animation style.
The next two Fleischer cartoons feature Bimbo as the central character. An anthropomorphic dog and Betty Boop's sometimes-boyfriend, Bimbo was the featured protagonist of several Fleischer shorts before being relegated to a supporting role as Betty Boop herself became more popular. Like the later Calloway collaborations, the Bimbo cartoons feature a rich jazz soundtrack and ghostly atmosphere.
But rather than evoking a melancholic, creeping terror like in Snow-White and Minnie the Moocher, these earlier Fleischer cartoons are noticeably more violent and place Bimbo in a variety of perilous situations. Yet even with the extra violence, the Bimbo cartoons maintain a lighter mood than the Calloway-Betty Boop shorts, as physical danger is often translated to slapstick humor at Bimbo's expense.
3) Bimbo's Initiation (1931)
Bimbo falls down a manhole and finds himself at the mercy of an ominous cult with a penchant for creative torture methods. With burning candles on their heads and a variety of weaponry at their disposal, the cult would be frightening if it weren't for the relentlessly upbeat tunes used throughout the six-minute cartoon, and the good humor and pluck with which Bimbo takes his various licks. It is worth noting that Betty Boop herself does make an appearance and looks noticeably different from her later incarnations, as she, like Bimbo, was originally imagined as an anthropomorphic dog.
4) Swing, You Sinners! (1930)
This short finds the happy medium between the surreal phantasmagoria of the Calloway shorts and the cheerful violence of Bimbo's Initiation. Caught trying to steal a chicken, Bimbo flees into a cemetery, is walled in by sentient tombstones and is besieged by a variety of ghouls and goblins, who demand penance for his crime. The dialogue takes on a more sinister tone than that of the other cartoons; in one exchange, a ghoul asks Bimbo, "Where you want your body at?" Another responds, followed by a chorus of laughter, "There ain't going to be no body!" Unlike the previous three cartoons, Bimbo's fate is unclear, as he appears to be swallowed by a skull in the final frame. Fast-paced, with a snappy, swing-based soundtrack, this cartoon is chilling yet upbeat and entertaining.
S. J. Collins holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her primary areas of focus are Romanticism and the Gothic. She is the founding editor of Autumn Spoke, a nightside journal for academics. Currently working in the art world, she can be found writing poetry and critical essays when she's not in a gallery.