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Friday, May 16, 2008

Toons In Swing Time: Part One

Reet! Lookit Little SALLY SWING (1938)

A Betty Boop Cartoon Featuring Sally Swing
Release Date: Oct. 14, 1938
Animators: Willard Bowsky, Gordon Sheehan
In Short: Betty Boop passes the musical torch to a new generation

Animation blogging can be a thankless job--especially if, like Kevin and me, you don't get paid for it.

Yet once in a while comes that unexpected discovery, that priceless artifact that makes it all worthwhile--often in the place we least expect. The find that makes us gape in astonishment as we wonder aloud, "Why hadn't I noticed this before?" I can think of no better way to describe our newest addition, an "orphan toon" in the truest sense.

In the early '30s, no one did cartoon music quite like the Fleischer studio. Rejecting the public-domain tunes, pseudo-classical pieces and merry little jingles common to Disney and other studios of the day, Fleischer cartoons were jazzy, brassy, contemporary, and brimming with sexual energy.

And no single Fleischer character embodied those traits more completely than their greatest original creation, Betty Boop. Sex and vitality were her reasons for being, and jazz was her language. Until, that is, moral crusaders did the one thing her endless lecherous pursuers couldn't--they took her "boop-boop-a-doop" away.

Betty survived the 1934 Hays Office crackdown, but she was never quite the same. Whereas she once sang such risque little numbers as "You'll Be Surprised", she was now relegated to syrupy little ditties like "Be Human", "Little Pal," and "We'll Have A Bushel Of Fun." Creeping Disney-itis had set in--as if Mae West had suddenly been possessed by the soul of a kindergarten teacher.

By 1938, she was clearly marking time, becoming the almost-incidental star of her own pictures. The Fleischers, once at the forefront of the animated-music scene with sound tracks courtesy of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, were in danger of losing their position as musical innovators to up-and-comers like Warner's and MGM. Swing was now the music of the day, and needed its own spokesperson. The Fleischers, eager to move with the times, made a valiant attempt to provide one in the person of "Sally Swing."

Yes, I know--"Sally WHO?" Not many people know of Sally, and small wonder: she was to appear in only one cartoon--but what a cartoon. It may have had Betty Boop's name on it, but this was Sally's show from the moment she stepped onscreen. Read on and you'll quickly discover why.

Go To Concluding Thoughts

"You should be cleaning up!"

We open with a patented Fleischer long tracking shot through the ivy-covered halls of a university. It appears to be a rather staid institution, with signs throughout the science hall proclaiming "SCIENCE IS GOLDEN." But once we enter the double doors of the examination room of this center for higher learning, we find this is no typical college, for our own Betty Boop sits behind a desk with two students, deep in thought. Are they pondering how to split the atom? Not exactly....

"Shall we try an acrobat?" Betty asks. The two students murmur "No, no..."

"Maybe a dancer??" The students again respond in the negative.

"A song? That's it--let's try a song!" Betty says. The students enthusiastically agree--"I think you got something there, Betty!"--and one of them rushes immediately to a piano in the corner, pounding out a hot swing melody. As Betty moves to the rhythm, the other student joins in with his own brand of "singing," bellowing out "Good Night, Ladies." The sound, however, is closer to that of a moose with a toothache than anything resembling swing.

Betty growls in frustration and pulls a lever, activating a mechanism that can only exist in a Fleischer cartoon (or maybe a "Jetsons" episode): the floor underneath the tone-deaf frat boy starts moving, propelling him toward the exit.

Cut to a shot of a disheveled--but still pretty--cleaning woman, on her knees scrubbing the hallway outside. She's in a black dress with a patched apron, her stringy blonde hair pulled into a bun. Anyone who knows the "Cinderella" story will suspect this is our heroine...but more about her shortly. (Our cleaning lady, not Cinderella...)

As she scrubs, we can hear the muffled complaints of Betty and our ejected frat boy from inside: "You're fired!" "Yeah? Well, I quit!" Bumping into the girl (which sends her head right into a bucket of soapy water) the student goes "Humph!" Before he can stride contemptuously past her, he steps on her bar of soap, sending him skidding off-screen to a deafening crash. (Those were the best sounds he'd produced so far). We don't see his reaction, but we see the girl's: she cringes with her arms over her face as our unlucky student collides with God knows what. The girl chuckles to herself.

"I guess I'll have to audition some more people," Betty says, heading out the door. She goes out into the waiting area, hands on hips: I wonder if I can find some here to lead a swing band..." Little does she know that "someone" is closer than she thinks.

"How about you, can you swing it?" she asks to someone just off camera left.

The fellow, a fat, balding gentleman seated on a bench, points to himself and says, "Who, me??" He produces a duck from his pocket, which quacks "Ya wanna buy a duck?" (Which, as any fan of '30s pop culture should know, was comedian Joe Penner's catchphrase). When Betty turns them down, the duck quacks its displeasure in the manner of a better-known cartoon duck, who shall remain nameless.

The camera pans left to a gawky-looking ventriloquist with a dummy (or maybe that's one large dummy and one smaller one, in this case). "How about you??" Betty asks from off-camera. "My father's a dummy and I'm a chip off the old block," the dummy says as the ventriloquist's adam's apple moves up and down. Yeesh. I knew there was a reason I hate ventriloquist acts...

"No, that won't do..." Betty says. The simpleton of a ventriloquist can only respond, "Huh?" She means you stink, idiot...

Above and right: With "competition" like this, how can Sally lose?

Cut to Betty, who thinks for a moment. She asks, "Can you boys lead a band?" The camera cuts again to two vaudevillians in identical derby hats and suits. They identify themselves as "Riley" and "Kelly" before launching into a Russian "kicking dance". They conclude their act with a nasally, "Good evening, friends....

Betty dejectedly shakes her head, hands on hips again. "No, no, no!! I'm sorry, I need someone who can lead a swing band for the dance tonight!" Betty turns and starts to head back to her office. We cut to the interior, as we see her pacing while muttering, "Oh, what a predicament...what can I do for the jitterbugs tonight?...this is their big night and they expect great things...oh, can't I concentrate....isn't there someone I can get to swing??"

As soon as she finishes saying this, we hear the solution to her problem from just outside the door--a girl scat singing. The camera pans to her silhouette in the window--from our perspective, she looks as if she's "conducting" an unseen orchestra. Betty peers over the transom of her office door to discover...yes, it's our mystery cleaning lady, scatting as she dusts the doorframe. Cut back to Betty's office--Betty cries out in astonishment, opens the door and pulls the girl inside.

"Come in here! What have you been doing scrubbing? You should be cleaning up!" Betty exclaims, pulling the stunned girl over to the desk so quickly, she can barely keep up. "Oh, hurry, hurry. come here!" Betty says as she picks up the phone. "Let me speak to the president of the class...hello, Prez? This is Betty--I've got just the girl to lead our swing band at the dance tonight...yes, yes..." While Betty's talking, the girl dances along to some internal melody.

The scene dissolves to the two of them in the ballroom, as Betty continues speaking: "I know you're going to love this little swingster and singer of songs--introducing for your enjoyment, the lovely, delightful and talented Sally Swing!"

Sally Swing before....and after

"Delightful" is just the word--Sally's been transformed. In the transition from office to ballroom, we can see the change unfold--she goes from her former dowdy self, swinging a feather duster in the air, to a raving beauty holding a conductor's baton. She now sports coiffed hair and a new outfit: a small, brimless hat perched on her blonde head, tight blouse, and a skirt that reaches to about mid-thigh, along with the requisite bobby sox and saddle shoes. She's far more realistically rendered than Betty, in every way possible (for one thing, she has a neck). One anonymous poster on this cartoon's YouTube page noted a strong resemblance to the Fleischers' version of Lois Lane--she's a little more cartoony than that, but not by much.

Betty gives her a bit of competition, though--her own seemingly conservative floor-length gown turns out to be translucent. The light shines through to reveal her famous legs. It's a detail I must admit I missed when first viewing this cartoon--she hadn't quite lost her sexiness after all. But the moment, sadly, is all too brief.

"Hit it Sally!" Betty says before exiting to camera left. "Hit it" Sally does, launching into her theme number:

"Ooooh, bring along that jam, and lookit little Sally Swing,
<sax, trombone and trumpet riffs as Sally points to band members in succession>

Oh Sally, Oh Sally, oh swing,
You wanna mosey around with Mozart..."

As she sings, the camera cuts to a medium shot as she moves her hips back and forth in time to the music, "trucking" all the while (moving her finger back and forth in the air in time to the music, for those not "hep to the jive"). She gives a wink to the camera on the words, "He wrote a symphony so hot.." She's a red-hot mama, belting out the number with an energy even Betty in her prime never managed--as Sally says in song, "I want my music and my biscuits hot..."

The camera cuts briefly to a rather sour-looking professor in gown and mortarboard, who looks none too pleased with Miss Sally; we them move to a shot from the audience's POV (and slightly to the back of her) as she continues singing and strutting across the stage:

"When I'm in that groove, I wanna lead a band and sing.." <cut to a drummer who's so enthusiastic, he hits himself in the head with his own sticks>
"Oh dilly, oh dally, oh Sally, oh Sally, oh swing it, swing it..."

Crouching down while raising her arms in the air, she and the musical notes ascend higher simultaneously...she concludes her number to thunderous applause. The camera cuts quickly to Betty cheering her on. Everybody loves little Sally--except, that is, for the sourpuss professor. He sits with arms folded, still scowling.

Cut to Sally again, who reprises her number at a faster tempo...this time, we get three quick "bird's eye view" cuts of the various band members as they accompany her. The Fleischers were at their best when it came to unusual camera angles.

Cut again to a trumpet player, who takes the mortarboard off the head of a marble bust and uses it as a "mute." Then again to a clarinet player whose playing is so "hot" his instrument literally spews flames. (Somewhat reminiscent of little Bosko in BOSKO AND THE PIRATES--his "hot" dancing burns the entire ship). He extinguishes the flaming clarinet in a nearby vase.

Sally, meanwhile, scats and trucks on over to the piano player, who dances with her on stage. She repeats the opening line of her song a third time as the camera cuts to a bespectacled fellow who accompanies her in "one-man band" fashion: trumpet in one hand, trombone in another, moving the slide with his feet. The scene shifts to a fellow on fiddle and one on tuba...the tuba player's playing is so energetic he blows the toupee off the fiddle player's head. We cut yet again, this time to a short little fellow who's keeping time with his nose...he gets up and plays a riff on flute. As Sally repeats the line "Oh dilly, oh dally, oh Sally, oh Sally, oh swing!" the fellow runs over and plucks on a bass fiddle twice his size.

Sally continues to dance and scat as the scene cuts to a bit of dialogue between an elderly woman and a waiter. "Waiter, my soup is cold!" she says. "I like it HOT!" she adds as she too gets in the groove.

Meanwhile, Sally's dancing is really getting frenetic. Too much so for the old professor, who has clearly had enough. "STOP! Students, do you hear me? Stop--I can't stand it! Stop!!" He prepares to storm the stage, but Sally is unaware of any of this: dancing left, then right, then going into a "pecking" move (moving the head back and forth, like a rooster). Meanwhile, we see the killjoy professor rushing toward the stage, bellowing "Stop--I'm the principal here--stop! This is entirely against my principles!" (The voice sounds like it belongs to Jack Mercer, and this seems like a typical Mercer ad-libbed pun).

"I'm going to have you in jail!" the professor bellows as he climbs on stage. "Listen, young lady..." But Sally isn't listening--she just keeps dancing. "You're going to get yourself in an awful jam...oh jam and jive, jam and jive.." Before long, the professor too is "in the groove." The music and Sally have won him over. He turns to putty as she tickles his chin.

The scenes changes to a low shot of Sally, in silhouette, from behind facing the audience. It looks as if the camera is nearly between Sally's legs. Remember what I said about the Fleischers and camera angles? Cut to our now "with it" professor, who scats "ya-de-a-de-ah, yeah, man!"

The professor joins Sally in her dance, matching her move-for-move in a scene that must have been rotoscoped--unusual for this era, as this technique was used less often by this time. Betty emerges from the left of the screen and dances with them, as the cartoon reaches its rollicking conclusion. A cap and gown fall on Sally from above as we iris out. She's moved to the head of the class.


This cartoon seems to have come from out of nowhere--it's an anomaly for the Fleischer studio, circa 1938, and definitely an anomaly for a Betty Boop cartoon of the time. We're treated to one last bit of the old--Betty, if only for a moment, reverts to her former sexy self--while being bombarded with the wild, flashy new. The late thirties were a time of transition for the Fleischers--their animation began to lose the "rough edges" that characterized it earlier in the decade, the very thing that had made it so much fun. Here, however, the studio makes that newfound polish work for them, and this can be seen most clearly in the design and animation of Sally. Her movements are fluid, bouncy, caricatured without being overly "cartoony"--an animated dynamo. The animators had learned a bit in learning how to draw--and animate--a female figure, and use their knowledge to full advantage here, making Sally do things Betty could never have done. Betty at her best was still a product of the "rubber hose" era, and by comparison could appear rather stiff. (It's especially evident when one sees the two characters side-by-side in this cartoon). Sally showed just how far the Fleischers had come--and gave a hint of where they were about to go (namely, the SUPERMAN series).

I have to admit my preconceptions of late-thirties Betty Boop cartoons colored my opinion of this at first. I remarked to Kevin in an e-mail how Betty had become "matronly"--indeed, a newspaper article of the time agreed, likening Miss Boop to the "grandma that sits on the end of the sofa during a date." I think the Fleischers knew this, and strove to give the folks a reminder of just what she--and her cartoons--had been. The music and action here are lively enough to fit in well with any entry from six to eight years before.

Sally proved to be a worthy successor, making one wonder what a series of cartoons featuring her would have been like. Possibly much like BETTY CO-ED--the cartoon from 1931 that gave Betty Boop her name--in which she was the red-hot mama that drove the boys crazy. One could easily see Sally picking up where Betty left off. Sadly, the torch had been passed, only to be extinguished.

She's such a charming little character, one can forgive the cornball Cinderella-like storyline (I'd have made her a mousy bookworm, myself). It takes some time for her to make her entrance, but once she does, look out.

The Fleischers clearly hadn't yet lost their touch, either visually or musically. Unlike some Harman-Ising entries, the mayhem created by the "hot" music seems just barely under control. Harman-Ising cartoons dealing with swing usually ended in total destruction, as with SWING WEDDING or BOSKO AND THE PIRATES. The Fleischers knew better, having befriended and worked closely with jazz figures in the past, and knew that world far better than midwesterners Hugh and Rudy.

This, by rights, should have been Betty's swan song. Had the series ended here, it would have gone out on a high note--in more ways than one. However, the studio seemed to have forgotten everything they had done right, for Betty would limp along for another year in such undistinguished fare as MUSICAL MOUNTAINEERS, and her final cartoon, YIP YIP YIPPEE. A cartoon studio, as with anything else, should know to quit when ahead.

Betty deserved better. And so, for that matter, did Sally.

Labels: Betty Boop, review-synopsis, orphan toon



ramapith said...

Hey, guys!

After seeing Sally Swing's modern-day reappearance on Stephen DeStefano's blog, I did some looking for more on her and bumped into this page.
What a great review (and Sally is a great character, too... pity no more shorts with her ended up being made).

Don't wanna mosey around with Mozart,
He wrote a symphony; so what?
Don't want to beat it out with Beethoven;
I want my music and my biscuits hot...

So we're no longer rhyming "hot" with itself, and the lyrics more accurately show Sally's tastes.

Rachel Newstead said...


Thank you. That certainly makes more sense than what I wrote. In my reviews, I often have to work from some rather muddy sound tracks, and can't always pick out certain words. Kevin, whose ears are *much* sharper than mine, unfortunately had never seen (or heard) this cartoon, so he wasn't able to catch that little goof before it went into print...

I'll certainly make a note of it over at our new blog at http://orphantoons.wordpress.com. Check us out over there--I think you'll like what we've done to the place. =)