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...