Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Old Man of the Mountain (1933) - Betty Boop and Cab Calloway

The Old Man of the Mountain
Betty Boop meets The Old Man of the Mountain

As a blast from the past, here's a terrific print of the 1933 Betty Boop animated short from Max Fleischer, "The Old Man Of the Mountain."

That's Cab Calloway with Betty Boop. If you're wondering how they got his dance moves down so well, it's because they did a marvelous job of rotoscoping him (rotoscoping being essentially tracing a film of him).

The plot is that adventurous, innocent and provocative tourist Betty Boop is intrigued by this Old Man of the Mountain everybody has been talking about. Too late, she realizes her mistake and loses her dress. Hmmmmm.

Calloway also appeared in the Betty Boop cartoon shorts "Minnie the Moocher" (1932) and "Snow White" (1933), which many consider somewhat superior to this video, "The Old Man of the Mountain." However, this short has its own unique charm and also features some great live-action footage of Cab Calloway in a blinding white suit, so it is well worth anyone's time.

Hey, let's give some credit to animators Bernard Wolf and Thomas Johnson, too.

The Old Man of the Mountain
Betty Boop really struts it big time in this short!
Max Fleischer had connections inside Paramount and its Famous Music division (yes, that was its actual name). Apparently, everybody had a great time creating these shorts. If your knee-jerk reaction is that Calloway was being exploited and demeaned with stereotypes, well, that's one way to look at it. Those were different times, to be sure. Remember that Calloway's talents (and the fellows in his orchestra) would be lost to us without this "demeaning" short. It was a huge honor at that time to appear in a production like this, especially during the Depression. Those paychecks for stuff like this had to be handy for anybody.

This works if you are willing to see this as a way of honoring the man's talents.

Calloway himself sure didn't look at this in any kind of a negative way. He loved these awesome shorts.

Lou Fleischer recalled to animation historian Ray Pointer:
“When Cab saw (himself in cartoon form), he screamed in laughter and stretched himself out of the floor! Some months later I met Cab Calloway and asked, ‘Did our cartoon help or hurt your show when it went on the road?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? We had your cartoon shown the week before we arrived at every theater and on its account none of the house could accommodate the crowds that came. Are you kidding?’”
One thing is for sure, this is a terrific tune that still swings today. And if your only familiarity with Cab Calloway is as he was when he was 80 years old, the live-action portion of this short could come as a real shock.

Oh, and this short is completely suggestive. The Hays Code didn't go into effect into the following year, though this does have a tag that says it passed the necessary censors - somehow.

The Old Man of the Mountain
This sequence is hysterical when you get the joke.
From the youtube page:

"The Old Man of The Mountain" is a non-stop Cab from beginning to end. He appears first as an owl, singing the title song. The words have been changed for the cartoon, in which the Old Man is a villain. In the original song, the Old Man is a benevolent character. Next, we see Cab as the Old Man himself, rotoscoped and singing, "You Gotta Hi-De-Hi," followed by "The Scat Song."

The cartoon begins with live footage of Cab and his Orchestra playing around with the tune of Minnie the Moocher while Cab scats mildly and grins at the camera. Whereas Cab may have been caught by surprise when they used live footage of him in the earlier cartoon, "Minnie the Moocher", this time he is ready. He and his band are in dress white uniforms, Cab's hair is slicked back, and he pays attention to the camera. (The drummer, Leroy Maxey, is still playing with his drumsticks, though!)

Of the three cartoons starring Cab Calloway, this one has the least interesting and least surreal plot, and the animation is the crudest. Never-the-less, the very early live footage of Cab is a treasure, and this cartoon showcases his music from beginning to end, featuring three of his songs. He does some of his most remarkable ever scat singing in this version of The Scat Song.

In all of the Fleisher cartoons, Cab's characters are set in caves with menacing and ominous background illustrations: skeletons, skulls, ghosts, leering faces, and gambling, alcohol and drug paraphernalia. People have claimed that the Fleischers were unaware of the drug references in Cab's songs (for example, "kicking the gong around" meaning "smoking opium"), but the imagery in the animations suggests otherwise.


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