Behold a Surreal 1933 Animation of Snow White, Featuring Cab Calloway & Betty Boop: It’s Ranked as the 19th Greatest Cartoon of All Time

Of the three col­lab­o­ra­tions jazz singer Cab Cal­loway made with cute car­toon leg­end Bet­ty Boop, this 1933 Dave Fleis­ch­er-direct­ed “Snow White” is prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful. It cer­tain­ly is the most strange—more hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry than the first in the series “Min­nie the Moocher”, and less slap­stick-dri­ven than “The Old Man of the Moun­tain.” It is a sin­gu­lar mar­vel and right­ly deserves being deemed “cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant” by the Unit­ed States Library of Con­gress and select­ed for preser­va­tion in the Nation­al Film Reg­istry in 1994. It was also vot­ed #19 of the 50 Great­est Car­toons of all time in a poll of lead­ing ani­ma­tors.

When she made her debut in 1930, Bet­ty Boop would have been rec­og­niz­able to audi­ences as the embod­i­ment of the flap­per and the sex­u­al free­dom of the Jazz Age that was cur­rent­ly in free-fall after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Only a few years before her pre­miere, Boop would have been the mas­cot of the age; now she was a bit­ter­sweet reminder of a time that had already passed. With a cham­pagne bub­ble of a voice, kiss curls, dar­ing hem­line, plung­ing neck­line, and the ever present garter belt, she was a car­toon char­ac­ter def­i­nite­ly not designed for kids. That her best films are col­lab­o­ra­tions with Cab Cal­loway attest to that. Cal­loway would make sure his Bet­ty Boop car­toons would screen in a city a week or two before he would play a gig. His “advance woman” as he called her helped sell more tick­ets.

Accom­pa­ny­ing her in this film are the Fleischer’s orig­i­nal char­ac­ter Koko the Clown and Bim­bo the Pup, which for this film are sort of emp­ty ves­sels: they pro­tect Bet­ty, they get knocked out, and Koko gets inhab­it­ed by the spir­it of Cab Cal­loway, who then turns into a ghost, all legs and head, no tor­so. (The ghost is ani­mat­ed through roto­scop­ing over Cal­loway’s own film footage.) The Queen, whose talk­ing mir­ror changes his mind over “the fairest in the land” once see­ing Bet­ty Boop, sen­tences her to death, and then chas­es her through the under­world before turn­ing into a drag­on. At the end, Boop and her gang turn the drag­on inside out like a sock, a gross gag not seen again (I’m going to guess) until one of the Simp­sons’ Hal­loween Spe­cials.

In the mid­dle of all this boun­cy, sur­re­al may­hem is Calloway’s ghost singing “St. James Infir­mary Blues,” a mourn­ful tale of a dead girl­friend and the singers plans for the funer­al. The ori­gin of the song is shroud­ed in mys­tery, pos­si­bly a folk bal­lad by way of New Orleans jazz. What­ev­er the source, Koko/Cab sings it to the now frozen and entombed Bet­ty Boop, with the sev­en dwarves as pall­bear­ers. Koko/Cab turns into a num­ber of objects dur­ing his dance, includ­ing a bot­tle of booze and a coin on a chain.

This Snow White does in fact take place dur­ing win­ter and writer Anne Blake­ley makes the case that the flap­per, the snow, the ice, the pas­sage through the under­world, and Calloway’s song allude to a fall from grace, inno­cence to expe­ri­ence, through drug abuse—in par­tic­u­lar the very snowy cocaine. (I mean, could be! But the film is so odd as to refute any defin­i­tive read­ing.)

The ani­ma­tion was designed and com­plet­ed by one man: Roland Cran­dall, pos­si­bly as a reward from Fleis­ch­er for not leav­ing for the sun­ny west coast and the more prof­itable Dis­ney. Cran­dall worked half a year on the project and that’s real­ly what gives it its one of a kind nature. Every ele­ment, whether ani­mat­ed or in the back­ground, has been lov­ing­ly ren­dered. Fore­ground and back­ground fight for your atten­tion, and when the film fin­ish­es, you want to start all over again to see what you missed.

Last­ly, let’s praise the vibe of this film, which places its “star” on ice for half the film, and seems none the worse for it. “Snow White”—four years before Disney’s fea­ture version—is a hypno­gog­ic vision, a half-remem­bered day­dream that takes place while the radio is turned down imper­cep­ti­bly low.

The ani­ma­tion will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2020.

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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