Betty Boop: The Cab Calloway Cartoons (1932-1933)

Snow-White (1933)

From 1932 to 1933, jazz musician, songwriter, and bandleader Cab Calloway was featured in three pre-Code Betty Boop cartoons as a singer and dancer: Minnie the Moocher (1932), Snow-White (1933), and The Old Man of the Mountain (1933). While Calloway was not the only jazz musician to be featured in Fleischer Studios’ Betty Boop cartoons (Louis Armstrong notably appeared in I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You [1932]), his contributions to both the jazz and the animation worlds through his work with the Fleischers was impressive, especially because of the cartoons’ groundbreaking use of rotoscope technology to graph Calloway’s signature dance movements onto the bodies of his cartoon avatars. Of the three cartoons, Snow-White in particular reaches dizzying heights of complexity and coolness, but all three short films are important artifacts of jazz history and are particularly notable for their contributions to the shaping and styling of jazz celebrity in the popular imagination.

Minnie the Moocher (1932). 8 minutes. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Starring Cab Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra, Mae Questel, and Billy Murray. Animated by Willard Bowsky, Ralph Somerville, and Bernard Wolf.

Watching the opening of Minnie the Moocher, we might be tempted to think it is an ordinary early Betty Boop cartoon (that is, insofar as any early and pre-Code Betty Boop cartoon can be ordinary). Betty and her parents are shown sitting around the dinner table in a domestic scene, where Betty refuses to eat Hasenpfeffer mush for dinner and is scolded. There is some standard cartoon magic when her father turns into a phonograph as he lectures her, and again shortly afterwards when she runs off to the staircase and sings a self-pitying song that the anthropomorphic banister chimes in on. We also see regular Betty Boop cartoon characters: a miniature version of Betty’s friend Koko the clown is briefly pictured emerging from an inkwell as Betty writes a farewell letter to her parents, and Betty climbs out of a window to meet another frequent companion, the dog-like Bimbo, and runs away with him.

Everything changes when Betty and Bimbo arrive at a far-off spooky cave, where the cartoon transforms into something unique and truly special. While sheltering in the cave, Betty and Bimbo spy an upright ghostly walrus (a rotoscoped Cab Calloway) who sings and dances to Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher” with Betty and Bimbo trembling to one side. “Minnie the Moocher,” with its tales of jazz-era excess, might seem like an odd match for a ghoulish cave scene that eventually offers us ghosts, skeletons, and giant skulls in addition to the humanoid walrus, but consider how delightfully unsavory the song’s lyrics are even without the cartoon’s creepy-crawly treatment. In her most innocuous moments, Minnie the Moocher counts her million-dollars’ worth of nickels and dimes with Midas-like greed and lives the good life, even though her wealth is rooted in miniscule coins and her lavish lifestyle seems vaguely doomed by virtue of the song’s minor key tones and funereal-sounding conclusion. More insidiously, she hangs around with a cocaine-using (“cokey”) boyfriend who introduces her to opium in a tidy euphemism:

She messed around with a bloke named Smokey;
She loved him though he was cokey.
He took her down to Chinatown,
And he showed her how to kick the gong around.

A performance of the song’s sequel, “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” in The Big Broadcast (1932) actually features a live-action Calloway miming the snorting of cocaine as he sings.

The edgy imagery of “Minnie the Moocher” is enhanced once it is grafted onto the cartoon’s setting. The lyrics, with their explicit and euphemistic references to drug use, may grow out of the nightclub scene, but they are also right at home in the walrus’s cave as well, which is after all a hidden place beneath the earth that is host to cartoonishly intemperate music fans who live among the shapes and shadows of the night. The nocturnal pastimes of the club underworld—excessive and flashy spending, boozing, and getting high—are mapped onto the dead creatures that populate the cave landscape as they drink , sing, and sway. As Minnie’s story is narrated to us from the jazz-club and haunted-house context of the nighttime cave environment, her story becomes perhaps more absurd and exaggerated than it already is. But weirdly, it has the potential to resonate as vaguely cautionary at the same time: a tale of the afterlife that awaits the long-partying and indulgent specters of the jazzland night.

In order to be solidly more cautionary, however, the cartoon would have to be a lot less fun. The cave dwellers of Minnie the Moocher may seek to frighten and unnerve Betty and Bimbo with supernatural displays as they sing in a minor key, but our likely inclination is to chuckle at first when we see that the ghoul at the cartoon’s center and its glorified bandleader from beyond the grave is not one of the many skeletons or tadpole-like spirits that we see but a walrus. It quickly becomes clear that he is more than cuddly and cute but still not an ideal critic of his lyrical subject; he may not be a glamorous creature dripping in diamonds like Minnie, but in spite of his furry belly, tusks, and whiskers, he moves with such fascinating style that we can imagine him holding his own with Minnie’s human associates.

Moreover, he clearly enjoys relating the tales of their excess through song and dance. His hips, shoulders, arms, and torso gyrate and glide in effortless twists and turns while he cuts through the air and the background passes by behind him in a smooth stream. As he contorts along the cave floor in between vignettes, the portly walrus seems impressively smooth and cool. This is because he has been drawn using the rotoscope process, which enabled animators to trace him directly over a film of Calloway dancing (an example of which is shown at the cartoon’s beginning), and Calloway’s dancing is funky, exquisite, and one of a kind.

The walrus is far too charming to lecture us about bad life decisions, and besides, Minnie the Moocher has a great deal invested in him as a kind of monarch of the unruly. In fact, the walrus becomes the kind of debonair outlaw king of the cave’s transgressors—whether they are characters in his song, or the ghostly figures who mouth along to his words as part of the numerous creepy vignettes we see. As the walrus slinks through the cave singing, we cut to a set of ghosts in a prison cell who are sent to the electric chair, skeletons drinking beer at a bar, and a ghoulish mother cat sucked dry by three emaciated kittens who subsequently bloat with her milk. These vignettes, which are cut to separately from the shots of the walrus, may seem at first to be the sort of random displays of freakish incidental behavior we might expect from a Betty Boop cartoon, but upon further scrutiny they unite to suggest that the walrus presides over a consistent menagerie of lawbreakers and renegades.

For example, the ghost prisoners cannot be contained within the bars of their cell (they easily pass through them) but eventually consent to be led by a jailer to the electric chair, where they are zapped yet not killed because they are already dead; once electrocuted, the stick their rumps in the air and wiggle their hands by the sides of their heads in a gesture of defiance. The skeletons at the bar swig beer out of ghostly mugs even though it is 1932 and Prohibition is still in place. The alcohol they consume appears to have a poisonous effect on them, turning their bones black and resulting in their collapse; but their ghosts emerge from the piles of bones and sing, apparently indestructible. Unlike the prisoners and beer-guzzlers, the ghoulish mother cat with hollow eye sockets is destroyed by what appear to be her hollow-eyed dead kittens, who fill themselves with her milk and reduce her to a shriveled-up (albeit singing) pile. As bandits, they manage to transform the tender act of suckling into an opportunity to destroy, and they emerge rotund and healthy-looking, although still with empty eyes, the triumphant exploiters of maternal gifts.

Laws of men, the punishing effects of liquor, and the hierarchy of parent-child relationships are all overturned through the cleverness of animated transformations, it is true, but also through the power of Calloway’s song. Because the singing of the walrus and his band is picked up and mouthed by the ghoulish agents we see in the vignettes, the walrus’s persona and performance are deeply bound to the macabre transgressors that appear throughout the cave sequence. The walrus presides over the vignettes like a master of ceremonies that the camera repeatedly cuts back to, but even he is presided over by another figure—Calloway. Because the characters are miming to the words of the walrus and his band, and the walrus is himself miming to Calloway’s famous voice, and because the walrus has been rotoscoped to move exactly as Calloway does in the opening live-action footage we have seen, the jazz singer himself becomes the playful, de facto commander of the wild, subversive displays that we see in this domain.

True, Minnie the Moocher allows us to feel comfortable, even safe, in the cave because of the presence of Betty and Bimbo. And it is also true that almost anything feels less edgy than Calloway’s live-action performance of “Kickin’ the Gong Around” in The Big Broadcast, where as I mentioned he pretends to snort cocaine on camera. But The Big Broadcast makes Calloway look like a weirdo dope fiend, whereas the Betty Boop cartoon makes him hip and powerful, the renegade overlord of the animated underground. Minnie the Moocher trades in a sort of desperado chic that the other Betty Boop and Cab Calloway cartoons will heavily draw from, but the 1932 cartoon is the best expression of this aspect of Calloway’s celebrity.

Snow-White (1933). 7 minutes. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Starring Cab Calloway and Mae Questel. Animated by Roland C. Crandall.

Minnie the Moocher opens with footage of the real-life Cab Calloway dancing to “St. James Infirmary Blues” in front of his band in 1932, but the Fleischer studio that produced Betty Boop cartoons would save the latter song for fuller treatment in Snow-White, an animated short from the following year. The 1933 cartoon (which pre-dates Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [1937] by four years) propels us into another cave of fright but this time under the guise of a fairy tale. Betty Boop appears in the role of Snow White, whose evil stepmother orders her to be killed by the recurring Betty Boop characters Koko and Bimbo. The two are merciful to their friend, but she falls into a river and is encased in a block of ice. The seven dwarfs carry her, presuming her dead, into a cave, where Koko, transformed into a ghost, mimes Calloway singing to “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

The song is delivered in the persona of a man whose lover is dead:

Folks, I’m going down to St. James Infirmary—
See my baby there,
She’s stretched out on a long white table,
She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.

The sight of her body prompts the singer to reflect on his own mortality:

When I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches,
Put on a box-back coat and a Stetson hat,
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat.

Then give me six crap-shooting pallbearers,
Let a chorus girl sing me a song,
Put a red hot jazz band at the top of my head
So we can raise “hallelujah” as we go along.

The mourner’s mind wanders over the details of his own funeral, including his burial attire and even the jazz band that he wants to play for his guests. Thoughts of death beget more thoughts of death, and the world is a never-ending cycle of sadness.

And yet there is so much joy both in Calloway’s performance and in the cartoon. Calloway’s vocals are wonderful, especially because of their surprising dynamics. His voice modulates from a comfortable mid-range to soaring high notes that emerge from the lyrics like a thunderstorm of grief. As Koko the clown (now in the form of a long-legged ghost) mimes to Calloway’s voice, his body stretches to reflect the range of the notes and even transforms into the lyrics at various points (for example, when Calloway sings about the twenty-dollar gold piece, Koko metamorphoses into the coin hanging from a watch chain). Accordingly, the hard-working Koko becomes the animated singer (a stand-in for Calloway), an abstraction of the acoustics, and an embodiment of the lyrics. As Koko engages in this creative play, he glides along with his swiveling hips in an inventive dance, his movements rotoscoped to Calloway’s as the walrus’s are in Minnie the Moocher.

The joy inherent in these moments mixes with the morbid content to produce a provocative rejection of death’s supremacy. Some of what we see during Koko’s dance is rather grim: for instance, as he moves along a kind of treadmill, we see behind him still scenes of oversized skeletons enjoying thrills, illegal activities, and their own demise—skeletons in cars, skeleton police, skeletons playing cards and dice, a skeleton band,  a skeleton bar, and skeletons drowning in long pants. And Koko’s own behavior as he dances while a ghost is flippant and macabre; in the cartoon’s edgiest moments, he gyrates his hips in front of a coffin and drops his trousers to flash the audience, then transforms into a grinning coin. But there is far less of an emphasis on how the morbid vignettes and Koko-as-taunting-ghost visibly frighten or upset the cave’s guests. That is because the characters, including the seven dwarfs, believe that they are at a funeral, albeit a freakish one, and so the sense in which what we see is a ghostly attack is somewhat reduced (unlike in Minnie the Moocher)—and yet the appropriateness of the macabre content does not diminish how sinister and bizarre what we see is. These mischievous images are playful but also powerful in the face of morbidity: Koko the ghost is a manifestation of death, but he slides along leering and jeering at death at the same time—likewise, we are mocked by death as the viewers that Koko sings to, and through him we mock death simultaneously.

As a part of this exuberant death display, Calloway’s vocals and rotoscoped dancing, combined with the lyrics of the song, manage to make mourning chic but also (and perhaps even more so) ornate, impossibly busy—full of life. The fact that Koko moves on a slow treadmill, transforming into one image after another to correspond to the “St. James Infirmary Blues” lyrics, with movement piled up on top of movement, makes his dance fluid and intricate. Our sense that there is a great deal to take in all at once visually is enhanced by the complexity of the compacted story that we see, carried out over the course of only a few minutes with panache and seeming effortlessness. Koko is essentially play-acting a funeral for Betty in a fairy-tale context that is itself playful, with modern-day characters masquerading as medieval fantasy figures. The overwhelming insistence on numerous conceptual elements in the lyrics, visuals, and narrative simultaneously—including morbidity, physical movement, intellectual movement, and debonair behavior, with the Betty Boop characters and the Snow White story grafted over the animation at the same time—makes for a barrage of ideas that take off and soar with Calloway’s vocals as Koko slides along the cave floor. In spite of its funereal overtones, Snow-White is teeming with an exuberant and creative life-force that transports us out of its mournful context and into the sublime.

Snow-White is an impressive example of how complicated and significant seemingly madcap animation could be. But in addition to its delicious complexity, and through its use of “St. James Infirmary Blues” and corresponding animation, Snow-White demonstrates on a broader level how the blues, and by extension jazz, take serious and mournful subjects and transform them into works of art that actually celebrate life and creativity while confronting the darkest aspects of the human experience. Calloway-as-Koko adopts the persona of a ghost at a funeral—a creepy, grinning figure from beyond the grave who beckons us towards morbidity with delight, much as the blues causes us to confront the heaviest human topics through the pleasure of its form. For this reason, the cartoon, through its use of Calloway, is an exquisite embodiment of the spirit of American blues as interpreted by jazz culture. As a visual representation of its musical form, Snow-White is not only a fine specimen of animation but an important articulation of twentieth-century popular music.

The Old Man of the Mountain (1933). 7 minutes. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Starring Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Mae Questel, and Bonnie Poe. Animated by Bernard Wolf and Thomas Johnson.

So far, Calloway has been represented by a dancing walrus and Koko the clown’s lanky ghost, but in The Old Man of the Mountain, Calloway’s avatar is a burly, hugely oversized, elderly masher. Positioned as the proverbial old man of the mountain, he resides at the mountain’s peak and terrifies the denizens who live further down. When Betty sees her animal neighbors pack up and leave en masse and learns of the source of their fright, she resolves to make the trek up the mountain to meet the man face to face.

As the old man, Calloway is yet another cave-dwelling outlaw but is additionally distinguished here from his previous incarnations in the Betty Boop universe via his character’s perversion and lechery. It is implied that he has fathered multiple bastard children and that he is to be feared as a bringer of sexual danger and misery; a weeping mother descends from the mountain with a carriage carrying three crying babies who resemble miniature versions of the old man, and her presence attests to his sexual history. When Betty Boop encounters him, he leers wide-eyed at her, grabbing at her and pursuing her across the landscape. Dressed in a tattered and nearly revealing onesie, he demands sexual contact even when his female counterpart is unwilling (as Betty is). When he towers above her in the cave, Betty asks him what he is going to do, and his reply (“I’m gonna do the best I can”) is loaded with innuendo.

The suggestion that Calloway’s on-screen avatar is a sex maniac presiding over an erotic landscape is enhanced by other details in the cartoon: as Betty climbs the mountain, she encounters an amorous fish (who is chastised for his attention to Betty by his fish wife); a bear who strips down to his underwear to help Betty traverse a puddle; and an injured man who is healed and made insane by the sight of the attractive Betty. Betty is scantily clad throughout, and also appears in her underwear when the old man pulls off her dress. So the road up and down the mountain to and from the old man is paved with erotic vignettes. All of this combines to offer strong sexual content for a general audience cartoon that marks it as a relic of the pre-Code era.

One of the most interesting ways that the cartoon reflects its pre-Code nature is via the songs that Calloway as the old man performs: “You’ve Got to Ho-De-Ho” (an exchange with Betty) and later “The Scat Song.” With these songs, Calloway injects uniquely jazzy musical forms into the sultry context of the cartoon—“The Scat Song” consists mostly of scatting and is played over images of the old man pursuing Betty, and “You’ve Got to Ho-De-Ho” uses the nonsense language of “Minnie the Moocher” to express a kind of inarticulable sexual necessity. The fact that the old man’s dancing is rotoscoped to Calloway’s movements once again strengthens the association between the cartoon’s wildness and Calloway’s performance persona. The cartoon associates Calloway’s jazz with an edgy sexuality that is depicted as predatory and dangerous, and in pre-Code fashion mingles the implied sinister side of the character that we see on screen with the playfulness that Calloway as bandleader exudes.

Above all, the old man mythically exudes the qualities of jazz celebrity. Unlike the two previous cartoons, The Old Man of the Mountain is focused from beginning to end on him—he is the subject that the characters discuss, the stimulus that they respond to, and the object that Betty pursues and eventually flees from. As a result, the old man physically dominates the residents with his size and his reputation, enjoying massive celebrity both literally and figuratively in the mountain world. But while he engenders fear as a superhuman masher, he also hovers above the local community as a giant of creativity. Just as he has minted the crying babies in the mother’s carriage, so too does he produce musical progeny at the mountain’s peak when he sings and dances for Betty. The Old Man of the Mountain contains the two Calloway song performances I have mentioned, plus “The Old Man of the Mountain” (sung by Calloway as a kind owl to Betty while she watches the local critters flee the area), and accordingly the jazz context of the mountain environment is made especially prominent. Thus, as a kind of jazz musician, the old man is huge not just in terms of his physical size and reputation amongst the mountain dwellers, but also in terms of his creative output for a seven-minute cartoon. Whereas Minnie the Moocher plays up Calloway as jazz’s rebel king, and Snow-White uses Calloway’s performance to evoke the essence of a musical form, The Old Man of the Mountain figures Calloway as a great creator in both sexual and musical terms—a star and generative influencer with an epic reputation.

Perhaps it was too much. Suggestive cartoons like The Old Man of the Mountain were eventually tamed by the implementation of the Hays Code; the sexuality of the Betty Boop character in particular became significantly toned down, and the jazz content of the Fleischer cartoons diminished. But the Betty Boop and Cab Calloway cartoons reflect a period in animation when the full possibility of film to embrace jazz music and its wealth of creative possibilities was alive and thriving. The Code may have ended Fleischer’s exciting collaborations with figures such as Calloway, but we will always have the cool, renegade walrus; the dancing ghost who turns death on its head; and the old man who transforms the unsavory into musical and cartoon art.