Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Heard

Today I thought I might try and write a few words one of the best ever Betty Boop cartoons: I Heard. The cartoon, which was directed by Willard Bowsky and had as it's footage champion (as indicated by the second animation credit) Myron Waldman, probably doesn't need championing. If you are visiting here I'm sure you've seen it. However, it's a film so rich with visual imagery I felt it was worth posting just to showcase some of those images. In terms of hard information I'm afraid I don't have much to offer but what I can I will provide here. Beyond that I can only offer my personal observations. I hope you will agree.

Sadly, not much seems to be known about Willard Bowsky - at least that is available to the public. I can't find a 'Tintype" (biography) on him in any of my copies of the Animated News. Probably the best bio I have read so far on the man, short as it is, can be read here. Culhane, in his autobiography, painted him as something of a sycophant (which should be taken with a measure of salt) but it seems he was known as the office 'he-man' and for having a conservative outlook. One possible glimpse into his character could be below: a biography of storyman Joe Stultz that Bowsky wrote for the Animated News.

(click to enlarge)

Waldman we do know a bit about - being one of the longest lived Fleischer animators. In brief: he began his career at The Fleischers' in 1930 first as an opaquer, then as an inker and finally as an inbetweener before moving into animation first with Kneitel's group and then with Bowsky's. These were the days when a person could work their way up in the animation business! Later, of course, Waldman would be promoted to 'head animator' (with a group of his own) at the studio. That group consisted variously of Waldman, Ed Nolan, Hicks Lokey, Lillian Friedman, Herman Cohen, Frank Endres and Ted Vosk and were sometimes dubbed 'Waldman's Wascals'!

Don Redman is not so well known to jazz history today but, in his day, was one of the busiest arrangers working in the business. He played with Fletcher Henderson's band, began arranging for McKinney's Cotton Pickers and later arranged for many top big bands including Count Basie and Jimmy Dorsey. During the 50's he settled in as Pearl Bailey's musical arranger. He died in New York on November 30, 1964. Duke Ellington said of him: " Don Redman was one of the really great people, a guy everyone loved. He was a great writer and arranger, a forerunner whose ideas have been copied and have re-appeared in various guises right down the line". 'Chant of the Weed', the song which opens the film, was recorded for the Brunswick label on Sept. 9 1931 and was a favorite of composer Hoagy Carmichael. 'I Heard' was waxed (shellacked?) again for Brunswick on October 15, 1931. 'How'm I Doin? (Hey Hey) followed a few months later on February 26, 1932.

A class act: Don Redman & His Orchestra (click to supersize!)

The tendency to think of jazz and animation as inhabiting hermetically separate worlds belies the fact that, outside of Harlem, Times Square (where Fleischer Studios was located) was practically the epicenter of jazz worldwide. Many jazz clubs could be found mere blocks from the studio (such as Roseland and The Hollywood Inn) while the second floor of the Studebaker building at 1600 B'way (four floors below Fleischer's) had it's own jazz club: The Silver Slipper. Formerly The Cinderella Ballroom, it was here that jazz pioneer Bix Beiderbecke had debuted with The Wolverines in 1924. So, the air being thick with the stuff it was inevitable that jazz and animated cartoons should meet!

Don Redman & His Orchestra dispense some good advice:
Try Getting A Good Night's Sleep (Brunswick, 1932)

People, animals and sentient objects are all slave to Don's music in 'I Heard' and all work together to operate the mine. No exposition necessary.

Like a lot of Fleischer cartoons of this era, this is a fun-house world of secret doors, chambers and surprise devices.

The characters work to the music for each other. Not a bad lesson actually.

And everyone's invited - even the vermin!

Wow, what a fantastic face! 'I Heard' is full of 'em.

Fleischer cartoons often work with tempo progressively building. Here it is explicated by the rush to return to work. Music, background, layout, animation and even sound effects all mesh in this single scene in a way I don't think I've ever seen in another cartoon - even from the Fleischers! It's astonishing.

There's still time for a dirty joke however.

A great Betty pose and another secret door. This cartoon is so chock full of stuff which exists strictly to surprise and delight. As pure a sense of showmanship as you could ever hope to find.

I love the weird animation on Bimbo in this scene. Look at those creepy eyes! The three note musical motif here seems almost lifted from 'King Kong'!

A lot of early 30's cartoons delve into the notion of submersion or descent into weird dark worlds. 'Magic Mummy' come to mind. However, the difference is in the tempo. 'I Heard' puts the viewer in the driver's seat here and yanks them through and down like a roller coaster dropping from a high peak. The sense of danger is there and the rule of gravity applies and yet the rope grabbing hold of itself is there to remind us we are not in the world of reality.

and a ghost lighting a cigar with the lit fuse of a bomb? Just about as cool as you can get!

Pure cartoon bliss - what more can be said?

The end titles as they should be...

'I Heard' was released toward the end of a banner year for Fleischer Studios. Some of the other titles released earlier that year were among the studio's best ever including: 'Betty Boop's Penthouse', 'Aloha Oe', 'Boo Boo Theme Song', 'The Old Man of the Mountain' and others. If Fleischer Studio history were divided into epochs 'I Heard' would fall almost at the end of the first epoch of sound. Soon, Betty would have to make way for the second epoch which would see the studio branch into color films and Popeye's ascent to super stardom. That I will save for a later post...


J Lee said...

Culhane wasn't very complimentary of Bowsky overall, but he did say Willard was the studio's resident jazz expert, and did the best job with the Fleischers' jazz themed musical cartoons, with "Minnie the Moocher" the best-known of the group ("Sally Swing" from 1938 really isn't jazz, and it's well outside both the first epoch of the studio and the pre-Code period that was Betty's high point. But it still showed Bowsky knew how to build the pace of a musical cartoon even in a more scripted and structured format).

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

You are right, he complimented Bowsky but in a kinda back-handed way. He said: "According to the standards of the studio, Willard drew very well and had a great appreciation for contemporary music so he was given sound tracks like 'Minnie The Moocher' and 'Stick Out Your Can Here Comes The Garbage Man'". Later on the same page (pg.47) Culhane writes: "While Bowsky couldn't really draw well enough to compete with the West Coast films, he did make some of the better jazz cartoons in the studio because he loved the music".

I agree, 'Sally Swing' is easy to pass over as it falls into the period when Betty was at her most sanitized (and the music is pretty uninspiring) but, in terms of animation, timing, layout, background and design, the cartoon is well worth a look.

Thanks for the links!

:: smo :: said...

wow! i thought i'd seen a lot of fleischer cartoons but somehow i've never seen this one...and it's awesome!

definitely one of the more jam packed cartoons i've seen. and i'm still a little blown away by the fact that they managed to bring in ghosts but somehow work it into the story of the miners; with the bomb at the end re-killing the ghosts and mining tons of coal! i feel like any time i see ghosts in a fleischer cartoon, it's going to end with the characters just running away, maybe hiding, maybe doing a little dance at the end after disembowling a dragon, but the way they worked all the elements in here fits really nice!

thanks so much, as always, for bringing this fantastic stuff to my attention!

Shawn Dickinson said...

Wow, I've never seen that one before! It's now my favorite. Pure cartoon genius!!!

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

Wow, I thought everyone had seen this one! Blogger video is no way to see it though. It's really worth tracking it down on DVD. Unfortunately that means 'gray market' discs (ebay) which I can't account for. I suspect most are transferred from the Republic Laser Disc or VHS tapes released in the 90's. If you have the player, those VHS and LD sets come up for auction too fairly often.

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Betty Boop the Queen of surrealism, well mostly in her earlier cartoons anyway ;)

in this cartoon at a certian point you can hear the music from mysterious mose, and it can be sounded like, Dun Dun Dun Dun Dun Dun!

Betty Boop performs a fast song called How am i Doin! and adds some diffrent scat lyrics its really great to watch.

then everyone gossips on the telephone? and later you get to see ghosts, i think everyone likes a good ghost story.

i think at one point you can see bimbo and betty throwing a bomb.

also that can be heard in Bimbos initation, when Betty opens the door and says

Come inside Big Boy!
(in her baby brooklyn accent)

Speaking of sally swing, i think she was mainly a one off cartoon becuse she was voiced by Rose Marie, who in her childhood was known as Baby Rose marie, also not to mention they had nearly finished the betty boop series.

its a shame mae questel quit from 1938. i loved her vocals, i dont mind margie hines...... but she the singing department....

she brings scat lyrics like hacha! and so on, its kinda like the swing era!

but in Buzzy boop which was released before Sally swing, you can hear Buzzy whistle a few of the scat lyrics.

i really do this this was a really surreal cartoon.

but other surreal cartoons overtake this, in the betty boop series.

its like they have minnie the moocher, and a few others.

sometimes some are unnoticed, like take umm.... The Herring Murder Case from (1931)

that was really surreal..... with Gus the gorilla going on a rampage..... minus Betty Boop wasnt involved in that cartoon so it lacked, and bimbo had the star role. but the herrings wife did perform a little tune in a boopish style. most likley ann rothschild in the earlier cartoons from 1931 - 1933.

Anonymous said...

thx u very much, i learn a lot

Belle Dee said...

I had never seen this one before either!
Not long after I watched this here on your awesome blog, I got a chance to see this on a big/small screen at a local cinema event. Every Thursday, they are doing free horror movie screenings, and occasionally, they show an accompanying cartoon. This was one that was shown. And it was great!!