Sunday, January 29, 2006


Having been born, raised and railroaded in Alaska for most of my life, I have seen more than my share of melodramas. Sometimes, Alaska seems to be the place where the form has gone to die. Don't get me wrong: this is not a bad thing. Alaska is a very unique place with a very unique past, and the melodramatic form is very well suited to both the history and the mythological past of Alaska, and sometimes it seems as if half the tourist traps in the state have picked up on this fact, offering up scant but sometimes enjoyable theatrical dinner thrills with villains being hissed heartily by the patrons as whatever salmon-bedecked monstrosity the establishment specializes in is served to them atop a State of Alaska placemat. While I have never myself performed in one of these shows (outside of a sixth grade production where I played one of a number of rescuing-at-the-last-minute mounties), a great many of my very close friends and even my brother have had the opportunity to tread the boards in one of these dated revues, and I have borne witness to a great many of the shows in turn. This includes viewing many of the annual melodramas put on for Anchorage's enormously, uh, ever-present Fur Rendezvous (the best endorsement that I can ever give the event is, "Well... it's there."), seemingly the only state-sponsored month-long party devoted to propping up an outmoded and idiotic industry. (Unless, of course, somewhere there exists in Texas the "Oil's Well Annual Exposition of Gas-Guzzling Morons Sponsored by Hummer".)

Even though much of Hollywood's early product and scripted cliches were derived almost directly from melodramas, anything from Mary Pickford silents to B-westerns, the form was simultaneously made fun of constantly by screen comedians and, in the case of the Betty Boop vehicle She Wronged Him Right, the producers of cartoon shorts. There is a different tack taken in this film, however, and it's a brilliant idea, if not carried off exactly in brilliant fashion.

After the strains of "Frankie and Johnny" are heard over the opening credits, a title card appears on the screen, cajoling the audience to boo and hiss the villain in the appropriate moments. We then see the street outside the Tanktown Theatre (presumably in Tanktown) where Miss Betty Boop is appearing in a production of She Wronged Him Right, which just from the title alone sounds as if it were a melodrama. The mostly mammalian and nonhuman crowd awaits the curtain to open, and while they do, a sign appears asking them to please refrain from sticking their chewing gum beneath the seats. The curtain then raises to reveal Betty Boop pacing and fretting about her inability to pay the rent, and while she continues this worrying, her pacing is matched by both a cat and a mouse. She reads aloud a note from the villain of the show, Heeza Ratt, demanding the amount owed --- OR ELSE!

This is all seen from the point of view of the theatrical audience, with the action framed by the stage and the front row of seats. The film, except for instances where closeups are used (such as showing the villain's note), is seen mostly from this perspective, and any time the scene changes, a hook will appear and move the scrolling set, or else a set of gears will crank, and the same thing will occur. Thus, as the action pans left, the set scrolls accordingly, and Betty's farm appears, with a horse, cow, goat and pig all pacing in the same fashion as the occupants of the house. The set continues scrolling and Heeza Ratt appears with a villainy "Nwar-har-har!" snarl, the audiences hisses loudly, and he briefly turns into a giant rat before the audience's eyes. He bursts into Betty's farmhouse depending his due, and the poor put-upon girl searches first her garter, and then, turning her back to the audience, checks her bosom for hidden reserves of cash, but there is nothing. She breaks into "No More Money in My Purse", and the line in the first chorus, "Let's put out the light, and go to sleep!" is changed to "Let's put out the rat, and go to sleep!" in the second. Heeza makes his intentions on Betty very clear, but she spurns him and wishes for the intervention of someone named "Fearless Fred".

The scene switches to where a heroic lumberjack, Fearless Fred of the Fearless Fred Lumber Co. (who resembles a puffed-chested version of Tony Curtis), is chopping down a large tree on stage. A bear attacks him, and he wrestles the bear behind the tree and emerges wearing its skin. At the sound of Betty's desperate cries for help, Fred rushes to her rescue, and when the mouse says "Not THE Fearless Fred!", Fred counters, along with Betty and Heeza, "Yes! THE Fearless Fred!" The villain is hit in the face with a tomato for overacting, and yells, "Curses!" No matter Fred's heroic prowess, however, the villainous Ratt subdues and ties up Fred, and then has him dragged off by a mule. Fearless Fred manages to free himself by finding a knife, pulling a hand out of his bonds, placing the knife in his teeth, putting his hand back within the knotted ropes, and then cutting those ropes with the teeth-held knife. Fred then makes off after the villain.

In the closing act of the show, a gigantic Houdini-worthy tank has been placed on the stage, and water begins filling the thing rapidly as Heeza ties Betty up to be drowned by the rushing torrent, though she seems more concerned with ruining her outfit as she frantically tries to wring the water from her hemline. Heeza delightedly watches her plight from a rowboat that rises as the tank fills. Fearless Fred arrives just in the nick of time and does battle with Ratt. The battle is furious, with Heeza briefly turning into an octopus as they struggle beneath the water, but Fred is helped out when a deus ex machina-style lightning bolt held by a hand is cranked in from offstage and jabs the villain from behind. This shatters the tank's front glass and the water blasts out towards the audience. The villain is brought to justice, Betty's life and virtue are saved, and all's well that ends well, even as the water continues to be piped at the crowd. The actor playing the villain is hit with more tomatoes and a chorus of boos, and then Betty and Fred take the spotlight. The audience applauds wildly, but they are shown to be nothing but pairs of hands raised up and clapping above the water that has completely engulfed the theatre. End of picture.

The irony of all this is that many of the elements of the melodramatic form parodies in this film were also used, in different fashion but used nonetheless, in some of Betty's early pictures. A great variety of crude, vile creatures lusted after and attacked the girl from film to film, and there was usually some heroic circumstance that saved her from degradation and/or outright rape in these stories. But here, the tone is that the producers are well aware that the stage story could easily be a plot for a normal Betty Boop cartoon, but they have combined this story with a love letter to the theatre as well. All told, it is a fun, light entertainment, though a little flatter than usual; not one of Betty's best, but also not a later Pudgy cartoon, either.

And I'm not sure, but that might have been one of my friends in the bear costume...

She Wronged Him Right (Max Fleischer, 1934) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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