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Friday, October 27, 2006

"Dem Cookies, Dem Cookies": The "Bosko Trilogy" (Introduction)

In 1937, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising's three-year association with MGM was coming to an end. For the moment.

They'd always had a sort of "love-hate" relationship with the studio. On the one hand, MGM considered the "Happy Harmonies" a vast improvement over the output of Ub Iwerks, whose Flip The Frog and Willie Whopper never quite connected with audiences. On the other, they grew increasingly distressed over the ever-rising budgets and increasing running times. Some Harman-Ising cartoons had run as long as nine minutes (Maltin in Of Mice and Magic says eleven, so I'll defer to the master on that point). In 1937, MGM opted not to renew Harman and Ising's contract, deciding instead to open their own studio and produce cartoons at considerably lower cost.

But Harman and Ising still had a few cartoons to go before their contract was up, and filled it by producing three Bosko cartoons which on the surface seemed virtually identical: BOSKO AND THE PIRATES, BOSKO AND THE CANNIBALS and BOSKO IN BAGHDAD. For the sake of convenience I'll refer to them as the "Bosko Trilogy" or the "Jazz Frogs Trilogy" (for those with a particularly cynical bent of mind, one could probably call them the "Contractural Obligation Trilogy.")

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Kevin says this about the "Contractural Obligation" comment:

In actuality, I know so little about the careers of Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising that I don't know for sure whether they really had done these last three similar cartoons as a way to get out of their contractual obligation, or whether there really *WAS* a contractual obligation. I just assumed this as well since I know that musicians sign a contract to produce a certain number of albums on the company label.

Well, I admit I was trying to be funny with that comment, Kevin. I made my assumption from what Barrier says in his book, Hollywood Cartoons. He says Harman and Ising's contract with MGM was terminated in mid-1937, and according to Maltin, MGM's own studio under Fred Quimby was established by August of that year. Harman and Ising's Bosko cartoons were the last released before they and MGM parted ways, and appeared well into 1938, long after MGM's own studio had been set up. It seemed only logical, given the seeming rushed nature of the cartoons and the time they were released, that they were done to fulfill the contract. But as Bugs Bunny says, "I could be wrong, y'know..." Rachel.

For these cartoons, Bosko received yet another overhaul: he became younger and more innocent, with a livelier imagination than ever before. This Bosko was a pint-sized Walter Mitty, who imagined himself in fantastic settings despite his "mammy"'s warnings not to "go lackadaisin'." A real child's voice was used to convey this new innocence--no longer just "Bosko", he was now "L'il Ol' Bosko." Honey, and even Bruno, were now gone (poor Honey--we hardly knew ye).

All three of these cartoons have the same basic plot: Bosko's "mammy" sends him off to his grandma's with a bagful of fresh-baked cookies--and a warning not to let his imagination run off with him. It inevitably does, and he inevitably encounters what Kevin and I have dubbed the "Jazz Frogs"--large humanized frogs who turn out to be quite familiar. There's a Bill Robinson caricature frog, a Louis Armstrong caricature, a froggy Cab Calloway, and a Fats Waller caricature (who never misses an opportunity to bellow his trademark line, "What's de matter wid him??") Depending on Bosko's fantasy of the moment, they could be pirates, cannibals, or even Arabs. In whatever guise, they have but one objective: to get "dem cookies."

The frogs had been seen before, in the 1937 SWING WEDDING. One has the sneaking suspicion they were recruited in these cartoons so Harman and Ising could do what they always did with abandon--reuse earlier animation.

To be fair, while the cartoons have the appearance of being "cheaters", each has distinctive highlights, endearing little bits of animation, that make each of them stand on their own. In BOSKO IN BAGHDAD, for instance, Bosko manages to furtively sample one of the delicious cookies while his mother has her back turned--a typically childlike, charming and very real moment. In BOSKO AND THE PIRATES, the "Jazz Frogs" are playing their number in such a frenzy that one frog appears to be "milking" his trumpet--an uncharacteristically screwy bit of business for a Harman-Ising cartoon.

Rather than review these cartoons in release order, I'd like to start with the last, and perhaps best, of the three: BOSKO IN BAGHDAD, from 1938. More, much more, to come...

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