The Talkartoons Ranked
The Fleischer Studios were almost unparalleled in animation fidelity, gag-writing, and Pre-Code raunchiness in the early years of the sound era cartoon. Led by brothers Max and Dave, the studio would come to be best known for Betty Boop and Popeye. But the Fleischers had already made a name for themselves in the silent era with their Out of the Inkwell series starring Koko the Clown; I’ve written about those cartoons before. Indeed, at this time, not even Disney (still in their formative years) could match the fluidity the Fleischers brought to the burgeoning animation industry. When sound came around, their studio, in partnership with Paramount, were poised for success. In fact, the Fleischer Studios’ Song Car-Tunes series was already experimenting with sound from 1924 to 1926. These hybrid cartoons/karaoke “bouncing ball” tunes (the Fleischers actually invented the concept) were originally silent and relied on in-house organists to play along. But the final 19 of the 36 Song Car-Tunes did in fact use the early Phonofilm process, indicating the Fleischers’ ability to anticipate the coming sound revolution.
Still, it wasn’t until three years after Song Car-Tunes ended that they were able to re-enter talkies, along with the entire Hollywood industry. Screen Songs, the spiritual successor series to Song Car-Tunes, began in 1929 and ran until 1938, and was brought back from 1945 to 1951. THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK was released on February 5, 1929, heralding the Fleischers’ entrance into the cemented sound paradigm. And then, on October 26, 1929, they released NOAH’S LARK, the first in the Talkartoons series that would spawn Betty Boop and revive the characters of Koko and Bimbo, the latter in a more developed form than the clown’s sidekick dog. In the three years from 1929 to 1932, 42 Talkartoons came out of the Fleischer Studios, before it came to an end to make room for Betty Boop’s own self-titled series, Popeye, and the continuation of Screen Songs. But along the way, the Fleischers created some of the best cartoons of their day, and indeed perhaps of all time. The surreal and at times adult tones of many of the Talkartoons cemented the Fleischers’ reputation for offbeat yet brilliantly animated and illustrated cartoons, at a time when Disney was improving but was not able to match their insanity. Ranked here are 38 of the 42 Talkartoons; while not lost, the shorts MARRIAGE WOWS (1930), ACCORDION JOE (1930), and ACE OF SPADES (1931) are held in archives and are not readily available, while IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE SAUCE TREE (1931) is indeed no longer surviving.
All of the Talkartoons’ credited director is Dave Fleischer, although he was more of a producer than what you might consider an animation director to do.
#38 — SKY SCRAPING (1930)
The Talkartoons would primarily be defined by Bimbo in a starring role, but at first, they were one-offs that didn’t have a central recurring character. And even when a mostly recognizable dog character kept popping up, albeit in a few different forms, he wasn’t quite named until this cartoon, SKY SCRAPING. Unfortunately, it is also the worst Talkartoon. There are a handful of shorts in the series that simply don’t ignite the imagination like the rest of them. Perhaps it’s somewhat due to the unreliable print quality to be found for the earliest cartoons of the series, but it’s also probably because the Fleischer Studios would improve things considerably in short order. Even by this time, I feel like some of the construction gags had been seen before, and while SKY SCRAPING is relatively sprightly, it’s not very funny or exceptional.
#37 — NOAH’S LARK (1929)
The first entry in the Talkartoons series narrowly escapes the bottom spot. That’s partly because of its novelty factor, but it’s also because there are enough goofy animal-related gags to keep it interesting. However, the animation fidelity and designs had taken a step back from the height of the later Out of the Inkwell shorts, something the early Talkartoons have in common. It’s like it took the Fleischers a year or so to catch up to the eye-popping moments they were producing in the silent era when they had to factor in for sound. Even still, it’s not like NOAH’S LARK looks bad; it just feels more intent on making an impression with sound than its visuals.
#36 — THE COW’S HUSBAND (1931)
The most impressive thing about THE COW’S HUSBAND is its use of rotoscoping for a bull’s dance. Max Fleischer had invented rotoscoping, in which animation is achieved by tracing over the footage of a live action figure, in 1915 and the earliest Out of the Inkwell shorts relied on it extensively for the movement of Koko the Clown. By the end of that series, it wasn’t the focal point, but it would be reintegrated for cartoons like this, and much more noticeably, towards the end of the Talkartoons series’ life. But besides this novelty, THE COW’S HUSBAND, starring a more elongated Bimbo in between his initial and final squatter forms, isn’t able to deliver a consistently entertaining experience.
#35 — RADIO RIOT (1930)
RADIO RIOT was only the third Talkartoon, preceding the appearance of Bimbo. It parodied and dealt with a subject of quite a few cartoons at this time: the popularity of radio and its stars. Grounding these gags in the hijinks of woodland and domestic creatures almost makes it akin to one of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, but as has been noted by historians and critics, the Fleischers, as New York Jews, had a decidedly urban flavor to their tone and settings, as opposed to the bucolic idealism of Disney. In any event, that makes RADIO RIOT a little more frantic than a Silly Symphony, but its treatment of dancing animals definitely feels akin to them, an emulation or inspiration rather than the ahead-of-their-time visioning the Fleischer Studios usually practiced.
#34 — GRAND UPROAR (1930)
Although he was still unnamed, GRAND UPROAR sees Bimbo in a stage production. The funny business in the seats and balconies accentuate for the cartoon’s sense of lampooning the theatah, beyond what’s going on in the performances. Still, it never all congeals into something riotously funny or visually imaginative, making it a minor Talkartoon.
#33 — FIRE BUGS (1930)
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Talkartoons were mean, but at times they did play with a cynicism or irony that went beyond the family-friendly expectations you might have of “old cartoons.” FIRE BUGS plays with that a little bit in its fast-paced story of a burning building, but as with a number of these other early Talkartoons, it’s never rendered with quite the fidelity I would come to expect from the series.
#32 — HOT DOG (1930)
HOT DOG, the fourth Talkartoon, was also Bimbo’s first appearance in the series. However, he was still unnamed, and although I mentioned a connection between this dog and the sidekick of Koko from Out of the Inkwell, you’d be hard pressed to see it in this cartoon. Bimbo is a taller, leaner character than he would come to be in conjunction with Betty Boop, and indeed, he would vacillate in appearance even then. Bimbo’s run-in with the law after an encounter with a woman is strange (a forerunner of what I call the “Fleischer horniness” that I’ll describe in more detail soon enough), and too much of the subsequent action is centered on his playing of a guitar in the courtroom; a concession, I’m sure, to the still pretty fresh novelty of the sound cartoon. But HOT DOG isn’t without its laughs and it’s significant in its introduction of Bimbo to the Talkartoons.
#31 — TEACHER’S PEST (1931)
TEACHER’S PEST was another sidestep in the design of Bimbo, but by this time, Betty (still unnamed and in dog form) was appearing in the Talkartoons and her brief appearance here is interesting. But much of the rest of the cartoon recycles some schoolroom gags that were commonplace at the time.
#30 — TREE SAPS (1931)
TREE SAPS’ most enduring image, to me, is Bimbo (now a lumberjack) leading his huge colleague (if you want to call him that) around to get into forestry-based gags. A concluding tornado also elevates things into true eccentric Fleischer territory, but much of TREE SAPS leading up to that finish is a bit too rote.
#29 — HIDE AND SEEK (1932)
HIDE AND SEEK is a true anomaly in the Talkartoons series. By the time of its release, Bimbo and Betty were firmly established in the designs they were known for and the animation quality of the series was par excellence. But this apparent hold-over from earlier production regresses Bimbo into a rougher squat design and sees him interacting with a generic flapper-esque character that is decidedly not Betty Boop. So as the third-to-last entry in the series, this cartoon is certainly a disappointment. HIDE AND SEEK is not without bizarro images (an anthropomorphized mountain, especially), but it is closed with a stereotype-heavy bit of business in China. The Fleischers were not above using racist caricatures in their cartoons, but their frequency was less than I would say it was for Mickey Mouse or the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies series at the time.
#28 — THE ROBOT (1932)
This is the point in this list where I feel that the Talkartoons kick into a different gear. Now, obviously #28 is not anywhere near the upper echelon of the series, but starting here, the consistency of each individual short is improved. What speaks to THE ROBOT’s strength is its ability to stand in the latter part of the series as a hold-over from production, by which I mean Bimbo appears primitive and his girlfriend is once again a generic figure, not Betty. But the way he uses a transforming “suit of armor,” as it were, in a boxing match is visually clever and plays out with satisfying, if simpler, animation.
#27 — ADMISSION FREE (1932)
As the penultimate Talkartoon, ADMISSION FREE really should be better. It has all the hallmarks of some of the best in the series, from the refined and definite designs of Betty and Bimbo, including the re-introduction of Koko. On its face, it visually looks fine. But the progression of gags through a penny arcade never impress fully, although some of the Fleischer horniness can be detected. Perhaps I should explain further. A standout quality of the Talkartoons and indeed later Fleischer cartoons as well was the wink at an adult audience. Of course, nothing ever becomes totally Code-breaking, but there has been much study of Betty Boop’s initial design and what that signifies. So ADMISSION FREE has a little bit of that in Bimbo’s infatuation with Betty, but besides, it plays out a bit too conventionally for this era of the Talkartoons.
#26 — THE DANCING FOOL (1932)
The same may be said for THE DANCING FOOL. Although it is a full-fledged Bimbo, Betty, and Koko cartoon, too much of it is centered on dances that recall Silly Symphony sequences. However, these dances are much more intense and there is of course some garter slipping on Betty’s end. It doesn’t travel enough ground for my taste, but THE DANCING FOOL is certainly a mild entertainment.
#25 — SWIM OR SINK (1932)
SWIM OR SINK is one of the more overtly sexual Talkartoons. After being picked up by a pirate ship in a storm, Betty, Bimbo, and Koko contend with a captain who leers and paws at Boop to no end…well, until a giant fish swallows all the bad guys. It’s bizarre and frenetic like the best of the Talkartoons, but SWIM OR SINK doesn’t reach the same heights of bizarreness or freneticism as those that follow on this list.
#24 — THE BETTY BOOP LIMITED (1932)
In spite of its name, THE BETTY BOOP LIMITED is in fact the last short of the Talkartoons series and not part of the official “Betty Boop” series. Regardless, by this time, it was clear that the Talkartoons were more about Betty than they were about Bimbo, but the dog and Koko the Clown are still worthwhile sidekicks to the character elevating the Fleischers’ star. Some rotoscoping comes through Koko amid a series of performances from Betty’s troupe on a train. THE BETTY BOOP LIMITED is beautifully animated, a formally impressive send-off to the Talkartoons series, but it ends up in a middling place because of its focus on somewhat played out dance sequences.
#23 — BIMBO’S EXPRESS (1931)
The mise-en-scene, if you will, of BIMBO’S EXPRESS illustrates what I wrote earlier about the Fleischers’ urbanity. The ramshackle home in which Betty Boop lives is full of cracks in the wall and patches on the furniture. Bimbo comes over to help her move down the street, not before her bare legs reflect in his eyes and he chaotically breaks down things throughout the house. BIMBO’S EXPRESS is fully of expressive bits of animation and clever gags; while it’s not a top-tier Talkartoon, it’s good fun.
#22 — A HUNTING WE WILL GO (1932)
A HUNTING WE WILL GO was one of the last few Talkartoons and relied, as most of them did, on the Betty-Bimbo-Koko trifecta. The facial animation is so strong, amid the “rubber-hose” movements involved in running at and from a moose, lions, leopards, and bears. The way Bimbo and Koko trip all over themselves to impress Betty is hilarious and the closing gag is surprising. A HUNTING WE WILL GO doesn’t go quite surreal enough as the best Talkartoons did, but it’s a competent cartoon.
#21 — MINDING THE BABY (1931)
The first cartoon to officially brand Betty with the surname Boop (although she was still a dog), MINDING THE BABY was one of the Talkartoons that cemented in my mind the Fleischers’ unconventional approach to what is widely considered children’s entertainment (although that wasn’t always the case). While I don’t think the shorts are necessarily threatening, there is a kind of menace to a number of the Talkartoons brought on by their chaotic pace and psychosexual undertones. Bimbo’s infatuation with Betty takes on a more desperate tone while he’s supposed to be sitting his baby brother (the age of these characters fluctuates all over the place, by the way). It makes for strange viewing. MINDING THE BABY is not one of the most intriguing Talkartoon in an analytical way nor is it the most immediately funny, but it definitely provides food for thought in regards to Depression-era entertainment as well as goofy gags.
#20 — SILLY SCANDALS (1931)
For whatever reason, the performance-heavy SILLY SCANDALS doesn’t rankle the way a similar structure does for other Talkartoons. The dancing animals trope introduced by the Silly Symphonies was mostly sufficiently twisted by the Fleischers elsewhere, but it’s in SILLY SCANDALS (an obvious play on that Disney series) that they really pulled out the outrageous stops. Bimbo’s obsession with the singing Betty, so-named for the first time, turns into hypnotism by the following act and makes for some bizarre traversal from seat to stage by the dog. Bimbo is still in his lean and tall form, and some truly impressive escalation of the Talkartoons’ animation style was just around the corner, but SILLY SCANDALS is strangely impressive.
#19 — THE MALE MAN (1931)
While we’re technically at the literal middle of this list, THE MALE MAN doesn’t necessarily feel like a middling Talkartoon. It’s true that its fidelity isn’t quite up to snuff with some before or after it, but I’m a sucker for cartoons of this era that involve a character entering a haunted house. It doesn’t nearly match the nightmarishness of the earlier SWING YOU SINNERS! or the upcoming BIMBO’S INITIATION, but THE MALE MAN is not without its dizzying moments of comedic terror.
#18 — THE BUM BANDIT (1931)
This Western-themed Talkartoon calls to mind the fact that the Fleischers’ didn’t quite enter the exotic, trope-y settings for their series as many times as others did. By that, I mean that, for example as was done with Mickey Mouse, this studio didn’t necessarily put Bimbo into various time periods or strange locales, opting mostly for urban looks and jobs (a mailman in THE MALE MAN, a mover in BIMBO’S EXPRESS). In any event, THE BUM BANDIT did in fact go to a different place, and it mostly succeeds. In a reversal of their archetypes, Bimbo is a robber and Betty is his even more intimidating wife, who actually just smacks and drags around Bimbo after he unintentionally tries to rob her. She even sings while doing it! THE BUM BANDIT isn’t the most exciting Talkartoon for most of its runtime, but its conclusion is definitely worth the watch and elevates it into the status of one of the most memorable installments of the series.
#17 — ANY RAGS? (1932)
Returning to the mundane gigs for Bimbo: in ANY RAGS? he is a garbage man. And a poor one. He keeps stripping things away that are in fact not trash, which leads him up to Betty’s window. Using all these faux-throwaway items, he sells them for parts. But along the way, Bimbo is hilariously smacked around by the inhabitants of a cityscape. ANY RAGS? is a perfect example of the Fleischer meanness that can pop up, but far from being off-putting, it marks this cartoon and the studio at large as quite daring.
#16 — UP TO MARS (1930)
As with haunted house cartoons of this era, I’m also a sucker for space settings. I’m just always intrigued by my now-retro-futurist perspective, seeing the cartoonists of the day interpret the heavens and create funky creatures and sci fi equipment. UP TO MARS, which features the early shortened Bimbo, is a great example of this. It may not reach the smooth heights of later Talkartoons, but its portrayal of moon men and the anthropomorphized faces of the heavenly bodies are just too janky not to love and recommend UP TO MARS.
#15 — DIZZY DISHES (1930)
DIZZY DISHES represents the very first appearance of Betty Boop, albeit unnamed and in dog form. But the flapper-based design that would morph into one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time is recognizable here, even as Bimbo is in his lesser-known skinny iteration. His horny obsession with Betty is fully-formed in DIZZY DISHES, leading him to abandon his waiter duties at a nightclub to dance with a roast chicken and gain the singer’s favor. While the cartoon’s animation fidelity isn’t up to par with the insanity and beauty of the later Talkartoons, it does represent a smoother evolution from the few installments that came before it. Even within the full scope of the series, DIZZY DISHES stands as an outrageous bit of business that also offers up novelty value in its development of a famous character.
#14 — WISE FLIES (1930)
One of the early non-Bimbo Talkartoons, WISE FLIES falls into those early cartoons’ pattern of twisting the Silly Symphony style to the Fleischers’ bananas philosophy. A spider pursues a female fly in a predatory way that turns into a more amorous situation, but the bizarre path the story takes to get there is also full of expressive facial animation and fun plays with insect imagery. Once again, as an early Talkartoon, it’s not as smooth as those to come, but the Fleischers were never outright ugly and the strange designs and movements still lend a surreal-ity to the action of WISE FLIES.
#13 — TWENTY LEGS UNDER THE SEA (1931)
TWENTY LEGS UNDER THE SEA is a great example of the Fleischer Studios’ morbid humor. Bimbo (lean and ultimately mean) dances around and gets into all kinds of oceanic hijinks (getting an underwater haircut, for example) before dancing around with his fish subjects as their new king and leading them to his cannery. TWENTY LEGS UNDER THE SEA is dark but really energetic and fun, full of good gags twisting landlubber concepts and sights to fit the aesthetic of the seafloor.
#12 — BOOP-OOP-A-DOOP (1932)
BOOP-OOP-A-DOOP is one of the most outrageous Talkartoons. That’s because of the overt sexual harassment/assault that is perpetrated against Betty Boop in apparently comic fashion. The ringleader of a circus paws at and grabs onto the lion tamer/high wire artist iteration of Betty while Koko the Clown and Bimbo attempt to rescue her. It adds a really sinister air to the whole circus aesthetic, a style and setting that I’m always predisposed to love. But this situation never takes off into some intensely graphic depiction; it certainly stands in stark contrast to what is expected of animation from a more repressed time. But for whatever psychosexual reason the Fleischers imbued a different energy to Betty Boop than, say, Disney did to Mickey Mouse, BOOP-OOP-A-DOOP is also just a brilliantly illustrated and animated cartoon, full of impressive and creative sights.
#11 — CRAZY-TOWN (1932)
There’s almost a direct line to how chaotic a Talkartoon is and where it is on this list, although of course that is not the only criteria. Nevertheless, CRAZY-TOWN is indeed one of the best cartoons in the series and one of the most wild and surreal. Betty and Bimbo take a vacation and end up in a place that essentially always celebrates Opposite Day. The brilliance of CRAZY-TOWN is its transition from one ridiculous situation to another, until the spontaneity reaches a fever pitch. By that time, you may feel exhausted by the short’s frenetic pace, but if you’re anything like me, you also felt exhilarated by CRAZY-TOWN’s incredible imagination and tone.
#10 — JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1931)
As with haunted house, space, and circus themes, I’m a sucker for when cartoons of this era go into fantasy and medieval times. So JACK AND THE BEANSTALK kicks off the top ten of this Talkartoons list. Bimbo climbs up the titular vegetable to save Betty from the giant and the Fleischers render the thing to impressive scale. The giant really feels giant and Bimbo’s exploration of the cloud castle is exciting and funny. JACK AND THE BEANSTALK also operates at a pace that may whip you into a fever dream, but it’s one well worth stepping into.
#9 — MASK-A-RAID (1931)
MASK-A-RAID marks the first appearance of Betty Boop as a human, and befitting such a milestone, it’s also an incredible cartoon. In it, Betty strives to get away from a king (an old man character who pops up in various roles throughout the later Talkartoons and the Betty Boop series). Bimbo and the king fight over the woman in a way that raises again the question of the sexual politics of the Betty Boop character. In a way, it’s regressive, but in their apparent stream-of-consciousness and associative gag-writing of provocative situations for their surreal cartoons, the Fleischers also seem to come out of ahead of the mores of the time. In any event, MASK-A-RAID stands far ahead of much of the Talkartoons with its escalated rubber hose animation style and bizarro horniness.
#8 — THE HERRING MURDER CASE (1931)
THE HERRING MURDER CASE presents another Talkartoons milestone (I feel like I’ve noted a lot of them, as the series went all over the place in its development of its characters) in presenting Bimbo in his most familiar style and bringing Koko into the sound cartoon fold. In it, the Fleischers once again imparted animation anarchy that had been muted in some ways since the previous year’s SWING YOU SINNERS! It’s yet another example of the studio’s patented dark humor, as Bimbo investigates, well, the murder of a herring. The way it depicts the killing at the top of the cartoon is a brilliant and morbid parody of live action dramatic films in the genre, and Koko’s awakening from a live action inkpot to jump into the cartoon proper is a thrilling sight for this silent era nerd. These early moments set THE HERRING MURDER CASE apart in the Fleischers’ evolving ability to tell a compelling story, all while being hilarious.
#7 — DIZZY RED RIDING HOOD (1931)
This Talkartoons parody of Little Red Riding Hood, with Betty Boop in the role of the classic character, leads me to emphasize a few elements of the Fleischer style I haven’t pointed out yet. By this time, the studio was pulling ahead with an expressive facial animation approach that was leagues ahead of everyone else at the time, besides the squash-and-stretch hilarity of character movement and the surreal images and designs they created. But a further development was on display in DIZZY RED RIDING HOOD, with Expressionist backgrounds that impart a depth that go behind the flat planes of the silent cartoons and those of the early sound era. These formal elements make DIZZY RED RIDING HOOD more investing and memorable, although the ways Betty proceeds through the forest and Bimbo essentially kills and pretends to be the wolf provide their own share of nightmare fuel.
#6 — MYSTERIOUS MOSE (1930)
MYSTERIOUS MOSE is another one of those haunted house Talkartoons, albeit one nearly at the pinnacle of the kind. In it, (dog-)Betty comes awake to the strange singing of the title popular song. Like SWING YOU SINNERS! and MINNIE THE MOOCHER, this installment relies on the appearance of strange characters to provide an ever-increasing sense of nightmarish and comedic tension. Unlike those, however, MYSERIOUS MOSE isn’t quite able to pull off the otherworldly sights of those cartoons. However, that is in a way a quibble to explain its place in sixth, because otherwise, MYSTERIOUS MOSE is an electrifying bit of animation that is one of the best examples of why the Talkartoons should be so respected.
#5 — BARNACLE BILL (1930)
BARNACLE BILL also relies on a popular song for its plotting and action, but in this one, Bimbo attempts to woo Betty after coming home from sea. Of course, he does in a truly unhinged fashion. Betty, still dog-ified, is potentially at her “chestiest and leggiest.” Again, there’s something to be analyzed in the Fleischers’ treatment of sexuality, especially when Betty was not yet entirely human. Regardless, whether you get turned on by a 92 year old cartoon dog or not, BARNACLE BILL is clearly a risque short that winks at the adults in the room while throwing so much motion around that it would keep anyone’s eyes transfixed on the screen.
#4 — CHESS-NUTS (1932)
As one of the last few Talkartoons, CHESS-NUTS exhibits the strengths that the series had reached in terms of fidelity and beautiful chaos. The old man character returns and so does Bimbo’s opposition with him, as the dog attempts to beat the king for Betty’s favor. It all starts with an impressive live action/stop motion sequence that recalls the Fleischers’ silent Out of the Inkwell series. Koko also appears as one of Bimbo’s knights, and together, all of these characters run around a chess board. It’s a bit more bare than other Talkartoons in terms of background illustration due to its setting of a plain chess board, but CHESS-NUTS nevertheless presents a funny and brilliantly animated series of sequences, one of the best illustrations of the Talkartoons’ appeal.
#3 — SWING YOU SINNERS! (1930)
SWING YOU SINNERS! is one of the greatest cartoons of all time. That’s the kind of territory we’re in here, at “only” #3 of the Talkartoons. This early pinnacle in the series wasn’t matched for some time, not before the chaos that would settle in by the middle of 1931. But at this time, an early Bimbo cartoon, the Fleischers established their brand of morbid, surreal humor in electric fashion. Bimbo is terrified by a series of ghostly figures singing the title song (see, that conceit comes up time and again) after ending up in a cemetery and any further summary is essentially useless. What is worth addressing in regards to SWING YOU SINNERS! is how the images the Fleischers do deploy are counter to not only contemporary perception of what “old cartoons” are in its strangeness, menace, and pace, but also what any of their industry peers were doing at the time. Regardless of its place in history, SWING YOU SINNERS! is a topsy-turvy cinematic experience that is sure to spin your head around.
#2 — BIMBO’S INITIATION (1931)
As you might intimate from my naming SWING YOU SINNERS! as one of the greatest cartoons of all time, this #2 and #1 also fall into that category. Indeed, all three of these cartoons are so close in outrageous quality that it was really hard to place them. But in the end, BIMBO’S INITIATION stands as the second best Talkartoons installment, although no aspect of its construction is second-rate. The cartoon follows the title character’s descent into a secret society, members of whom are dressed up in robes and hoods in a sewer hideout under a cityscape. Many have tried to find connections to or commentary on Walt Disney himself, the KKK, and other fraternal orders and secret societies. I’m not one to say any piece of art is apolitical, because all works of art are inherently political, but I would also caution anyone on finding a coherent message in BIMBO’S INITIATION. If it inspires such readings, it’s because it is one of the strongest examples of the Fleischers’ commitment to making things make as much and little sense as possible. There is a kind of logic you can glean after watching many of the Talkartoons, an associative stream of thought that brings gags into one another with domino-like weight. But to suss out where that domino line begins, where those thoughts originate, is a difficult task. Instead, give into the sights and sounds of BIMBO’S INITIATION, a freewheeling dive into dark humor almost unlike any other.
#1 — MINNIE THE MOOCHER (1932)
There’s hope for the children yet. My high school senior students (I teach as well as write these inane lists) last year were struck by the surreal nature of MINNIE THE MOOCHER, one such kid saying “it seems like whoever made this was on LSD.” It’s a perspective that’s been informed by our post-modern understanding of psychedelia and the creation of strange cartoons and artworks. But because MINNIE THE MOOCHER predates the creation of LSD (and I’d like to imagine the Fleischers were straight-laced Polish-American New York Jews whose minds were wild even in sobriety), it’s even more impressive that the cartoon turned out as incredible as it did. This is the apotheosis of the form the Fleischers had established with SWING YOU SINNERS!, MYSTERIOUS MOSE, and others; that of the bizarre imagery set to the menacing performance of a popular song. And with MINNIE THE MOOCHER, they outdid themselves with the inclusion of Cab Calloway, one of the most electric performers of his time, screaming over the surreal corners and creatures of a dark cave that Betty and Bimbo have stumbled into. Calloway himself also lends his rotoscoped form to a strange humanoid walrus character, a figure so out of place with the rest of the cave’s skeletal and ghostly aesthetic that it cements the cartoon’s unique lens. His dancing comes through as brilliantly in animation as it does in live action and lends a non sequitur turn from the terror of Betty and Bimbo. MINNIE THE MOOCHER, for all its “nightmare fuel” and strangeness, has become comfort food to me. It is a work of pure imagination, a testament to not only the world-creating and emotion-stirring potential of animation but also film in general. MINNIE THE MOOCHER is not only the best installment in the Fleischers’ innovative and extensively entertaining Talkartoons series, but it’s also one of the greatest cartoons of all time, a rebuttal to the already rigid traditions of the form and a surrender to the loopiest of instincts. The Fleischers and their animators, as the kids say, let their intrusive thoughts win.