Betty Boop and Saint James Infirmary
While Betty Boop is a familiar face to all, most people haven’t actually seen the original Feischer Studios cartoons or have only seen the later ones. Before the Hays Code cleaned up Hollywood (and American animation subsequently became directed at children), Betty lived in a world filled with drugs, death, and sexuality few realize was ever animated.
In contrast to their cheif competitors (Disney), the Fleischers created an edgy world for Betty, Bimbo, and Koko, and this affected even their music choices. Where Uncle Walt played it safe in Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Betty and Bimbo cartoons included soundtracks supplied by jazz artists. I’ve been an animation fan for years now, and I recall a great deal of joy when I re-discovered these old cartoons and these cameos of jazz greats. Where Disney has a “timeless” quality that serves mostly to make it feel generic and manufactured, the old Betty cartoons reveal the excitement with which their creators approached the times and this new art of animation.
The Betty version of Snow White (1933) is one of the best. It not only includes a performance of “Saint James Infirmary” by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, but also features a rotoscoped Calloway dancing (as a ghost) during the big musical number.
More of these posts will follow, but if you’re impatient, YouTube has a great number of these cartoons waiting for you to find them.