The cast of Dave Fleischer’s 1932 cartoon, Minnie the Moocher, above, are a far cry from the candy-colored ponies and simpering dragons populating today’s cartoon universe.
There’s not much of a narrative, and the closest thing to a moral is an unspoken “don’t be cokey.”
The lyrics to bandleader Cab Calloway’s crossover hit were ample excuse to send a rebellious Betty Boop and her anthropomorphized pal, Bimbo, on a trippy jaunt through the underworld.
While there’s no evidence of Betty or Bimbo hitting the pipe, one wonders what the animators were smoking to come up with such an imaginative palette of ghouls.
The ghosts are prisoners sporting chain gang stripes.
A witch with an outsized head prefigures Miyazaki’s commanding old ladies.
A blank-socketed mama cat, leached dry by her equally eyeless kittens, conjures the sort of nightmare vision that appealed to Hieronymus Bosch.
The most benign presence is a phantasmagoric walrus, modeled on a rotoscoped Calloway. The Hi De Ho Man cut a far svelter presence in the flesh, as evidenced by the live action sequence that introduces the cartoon.
Betty’s home sweet home offers nearly as weird a landscape as the one she and Bimbo flee at film’s end.
Its many inorganic inhabitants would have felt right at home in PeeWee’s Playhouse, as would a self-sacrificing flowering plant, who succumbs to a sample of the hasenpfeffer Betty’s immigrant mother unsuccessfully urges on her. As for Betty’s father, Fleischer struck a blow for teenagers everywhere by having his head morph into a gramophone on which a broken record (or rather, cylinder) plays.
Minnie the Moocher was voted the 20th greatest cartoon of all time, in a 1994 survey of 1,ooo animation professionals. We hope you enjoy it now, as the animators did then, and audiences did way back in 1932.
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She’ll be appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
The next year Cab Calloway and the Fleischers teamed up again to make “Snow White,” featuring Calloway singing “St James Infirmary.” More plot in this one and If anything, the images are wilder. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlLHZruDCAA