But before I get started I just wanted to clear up some old business. It seems that, way back yonder when I wrote my post on cinematic Popeyes, I managed to write the entire thing without once mentioning Jack Mercer! The man who voiced Popeye for decades was, by all accounts, a really sweet guy who understood the responsibility he held as ambassador to a character beloved by children. His gentle and somewhat urbane personality reflected more and more in the Popeye cartoons as the decades wore on. I still feel that Segar is the last word on Popeye’s personality, and Fleischers’ likewise on Popeye's animated version, but there’s no denying the impact Mercer had on generations of kids discovering Popeye - including me! Okay, now on with the show...
I’m not entirely sure when the term ‘rubber hose’ came into use to describe the rubbery animation of the early 1930’s. I don’t think it was used at the time the cartoons were made. The oft cited (but somewhat false) narrative is that Mickey Mouse was the sole reason for why cartoons looked the way they did. There’s a lot of truth to that. However, inkblot, gloved and pie-eyed characters existed before Mickey. Established studios like Fables and Fleischer, for instance, exerted at least as powerful an influence on the look of cartoons of the period. Nowadays ‘rubber hose’ is used as a generic catch-all to describe a few specific signifiers. Pie-cut eyes? Floppy shoes? Three-fingered gloves? Double-bounce cycle? It’s rubber-hose.
It always seemed strange to me that a period with diverse approaches should get crunched into such a specific list. Then I considered another common catch-all related to the content. Not something so much in the literature as a quirk in how I hear people casually discuss old cartoons: as really dirty. Were they linked? Consider that the pre-code era of filmaking is often touted as loaded with sexual content that was crushed out by the code. Yet, none contained the sort of hard-R material that’s relatively common today. Pre-code cartoon plot lines (such as they were) or isolated gags were merely suggestive. There’s no indication that, in the years before the code was enforced, the cartoons (or films in general) were racing towards explicit material. So how did merely racy cartoons begin to be interpreted as pornographic? It seems to me that it starts with one specific artist.
Betty Boop in 'Red Hot Mamma' (1934). This is about as racy as it ever got in the Betty Boop series. A little chauvinist I guess (Willard Bowsky directed) but far from pornographic.