Saturday, May 20, 2006

IS MY PALM READ (1933)

A friend at work, as a reaction to my declaration that I might be attending the Animation Archive's Columbia Krazy Kat exhibition of films this very afternoon, asked me a very honest and telling question: "Aren't cartoons from the 1930's boring?"

By this, I took his meaning to convey that he believed all films from that period would just have to be a snoozefest, and I first said "Ah! I see that you have not been reading my blog!" or else he would already know my answer to that one. I answered in the negative, of course, and then he followed up with, "But aren't those films in black and white?" I told him that like films of all decades and types, that many were and many weren't, that color had been used in varying degrees and permutations nearly since the beginning of film, and that I enjoy (or don't) films from all decades, including silent movies. This answer stunned him.

Of course, since I can't shut up about these things when asked, I launched into a lengthy exposition of exactly what I love about older animation and why I am fascinated with them, and all on the company clock. Naturally, my boss wandered past while I was flailing my arms and jumping about excitedly and pointing my finger to prove my point numerous times. The problem, though, is that my points will never be proven, mainly because the people to whom I profess my love of older movies, animation, comics, books, and just swell stuff in general will rarely if ever take the opportunity to discover for themselves the sublime pleasures awaiting them with just a simple Netflix queueing or trip to the library. And just why do some people assume that if something isn't made in the last 20 years, then it has to be boring or unworthy of attention?

Part of this can be discovered when casting a glance at some people who obsess on Betty Boop. The girl has maintained a fairly high profile over the last 75 years or so, even though she has relatively few onscreen appearances since her heyday in the 1930's. Her merchandising is constant and omnipresent in pop-cultural gift and comic shops throughout the world, and I have met many a person (not all girls) who have Betty Boop items in their homes. The common factor in all this Boop idolatry? The bulk of them have barely ever seen a classic Boop cartoon, if at all. I don't find this odd; perhaps they simply saw her gear in the store, thought she was cute or embodied characteristics of their own personalities (her "hottie on a motorcycle" stuff seems to be uniquely popular, for all the times I have run into it), and purchased her mousepads, refrigerator magnets or dolls as a result.

But, would these modern consumers watch one of her cartoons and find it boring? Until I can form a case study, I can only answer for myself: I find her films, even the later ones that even I find somewhat rote and formulaic, fascinating. Case in point: Is My Palm Read from 1933. On a dark and eerie night, we find ourselves outside a building with a huge neon sign. It reads "Prof. Bimbo Reveals Past - Present - Future" and just below this glowing script, two flashing images catch our eye: a phrenologist's map of the human head and a palmist's guide to the lines of the hand. The images keep flashing faster and faster until the hand's thumb moves over to touch the nose of the head, and gives one could possibly the filmmakers' true feelings to all of this pseudoscientific hooey. Inside the shop, we find Bimbo and Koko the Clown bowing in obeisance to the shadow of a witch on a background curtain. The shop is outfitted with Oriental rugs and jars, with incense burning out of the holes in the tops of the jars.

A cat sits by the window with its tail poking through a hole in the wall. Through the window, we see a smartly dressed Betty Boop, who strides up and yanks on the cat's tail twice, causing the cat to act as a yowling doorbell (though there is no apparent door). Koko peers through the peephole (always an appropriate term where Betty is concerned) but he can't see anything. He moves the hole a few times about the wall until he gets it at the right spot to view their beauteous visitor. As she awaits entrance into the parlor, Betty pulls out a lipstick. When she turns it, the lip gloss inside turns out to be the beret of a small buggy painter, who produces a pallet of paints and applies a fresh coat to Betty's lips. Koko closes the peephole, ducks his head through his legs backwards, and tells Bimbo, who is dressing in a swami outfit for the occasion, that "It's Betty Boop!" Koko pulls on a bellcord, and outside the shop, a scroll unwinds which shows the inside of an elevator. Betty, who is dressed more like a high-class lady than she ever did in her long career, daintily steps into the magical box of the scroll, and the doors close and give the impression that it is moving upward. But inside the parlor, the cat merely opens a door in the wall which is cut perfectly to the shape of Betty Boop, wide-brimmed hat and all, and the boys both speak-sing "Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi!" when she enters. The cat turns out the light, and the backlit Betty's shapely torso and legs are revealed though she is wearing a long dress. The boys conclude their admiration by saying in tandem, "Ho-dee-ho!" and then the lights go back on.

Bimbo crosses his arms and bids Betty to "Walk this way!" She crosses her arms just like him, puts on a stern scowl, and follows him to a crystal ball, where she parks herself on a comfortable floor cushion. Bimbo utters some hocus-pocus mumbo-jumbo, and concentrating on the ball, declares "We will reveal the naked truth of your baby days!" The picture in the crystal ball goes hazy and then opens on the image of, quite literally, a naked little baby Betty cavorting in a washbasin. She tries to wash herself, but the soap slips from her grasp, and she tips the basin over. She is left bawling in the nude on the floor, but a kindly coatrack tips a towel over her naked bottom, and then tips its regards with a hat in her direction, and then Betty closes the sequence with a toddler version of "Boop-boop-bee-doo!" The ball goes hazy again, and Bimbo says, "I see you now on a steamer bound for a foreign land!" The image of an ocean liner bounced about by massive tropical waves comes into view, and the lead smokestack holds up an umbrella to fight against the pouring rain. Fists of water rise up and punch the ship fore and aft, and then finally grab the craft and shake all of the passengers out into the open sea. The smokestack kindly blows a pair of smokerings and then tosses them over the survivors like life preservers. The survivors, save one, float away as the ship is pulled under the waves, leaving poor Betty Boop soaking wet and floating all alone in the middle of the ocean. Luckily, she is on a real life preserver, and there is a desert island not far away.

The tide crashes the shore, and its clawing hands try desperately to gain purchase on the island's sands, but are inevitably pulled back to sea, though doomed to repeat the sad action throughout infinity. That is, until Betty Boop washes ashore, and the left hand of the tide is compelled to pat her soothingly on her upended bottom. "Hey!", she cries. "Keep your hands to you!" Betty, clad in her traditional extra-mini flapper dress and high garter, rises from the beach and sets off to search the island. At her cries of "Hello!" and "Boop-boop-bee-doo" she receives only faint echoes of her squeaky voice, but when she asks "Is anybody here?", she receives a loud and bellowing "NO!" She steps behind what she believes to be a large boulder to change out of her wet things, laying them across the rock to dry; but the rock turns out to be a large tortoise, and it wanders off, leaving Betty standing in her rather revealing undergarments. She runs away and hides behind a bush for cover from our eyes. She reaches up for a flowering plant, realizes she is being watched, blushes, and excuses herself. She pulls the plant down, affixes the flower to her hair and fashions a hula skirt from some of the leaves, and steps out. (She apparently has no problem wearing her bra as a bikini. Neither do we.) Betty starts to sing a modified version of Irving Berlin's All by Myself as a large smiling caterpillar approaches:

"All by myself in the morning
All by myself all the night
I'm all alone, not a single soul is near
No one else is here
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!"

While she sings, a large frog hops in to check her out, and in a nearby grass shack, three leering and lascivious ghosts eye her greedily. The shack itself comes to life as she starts to sing another verse, and with palm tree hands, it grabs poor Betty and stuffs her hungrily into the shack's mouth/door. Betty stands in the center of the shack, scared and shivering, fearing for the worst. First, a ghost pops out of the walls to frighten her even more; then, as she opens the door to escape, another ghosts blocks her way; and when she eyes the window, a spider rudely weaves a grid of silk bars across its expanse. Betty is trapped, but she finds a piece of driftwood and scrawls the word "Help" on it. She holds it to the window, but another ghost grabs the makeshift sign and throws it in the fire. Luckily for the girl, the fire is more than happy to oblige in aiding her, and when the sign burns, her message comes out written in the smoke that emits from the shack. Riding along the beach on a preposterously thin steed is Bimbo, decked out as a sailor and searching, of course, for Betty. He spies the call for help, and rides to the shack, whereupon he enters it and starts brawling with the ghosts. We cannot see the melee, but it is fierce enough for the palm trees to act as fists and pound the outside of the cabin in savage defense.

Soon, Bimbo pulls Betty out of the shack, and they run to the beach with a plethora of ghosts in tow. He has a boat parked on the sands, and it is powered by a squirrel with a paddlewheel. He feeds it a nut to get it started, and then holds another nut in front of it to get the squirrel running at top speed. The scene shifts back to the fortune parlor, and Betty swoons dreamily at the adventure, declaring "My hero!" Bimbo stands up, removes his beard and swami outfit, and Betty cries "Bimbo!" He replies, "Betty!", but then a ghost crawls out of the table, knocking the crystal ball aside, and yells "Bunko!" Then the ghost and a dozen more pour out of the hole in the table and chase after the loving couple. Suddenly, and without transfering device, they are all back on the island. First, Bimbo fires a palm tree's fulfillment of coconuts at the spectres; then he waylays them briefly by snapping another palm tree's top at them after he and Betty climb up it to the top of a cliff. Finally, Bimbo and Betty crawl through a log but hang off a cliff-set tree on the other end. As each ghost crawls out, Bimbo kicks them down and out of the chase as the film irises out in the middle of the action.

If you find that boring, then you are a lost cause. I find it tremendous fun, and love the rampant though innocent naughtiness at large in the film (Bimbo, though he is her boyfriend, can't help himself but ogle her when she enters the room, and is more than willing to share her shadowed gorgeousness with his pal Koko). Boop's fully-dressed self at the beginning contrasts nicely with the barely clothed ingenue pursued by dog and ghoul alike throughout the latter half of the film. The Fleischers' swipes at the occult business are also timely and fun, there is a gentle mocking of melodramatic stereotypes, and like most of the early Fleischer Boops, true surrealism figured heavily in the scene and tone jumps in each film. I wish there were more of the song before the ghosts take over, but this is a minor quibble. But I would never consider this film, a film from the 1930's, to be "boring". Rest assured, there are many films from that decade, as in any, that are worthy of your turning over on the couch and finding a better time in taking a nap, but this, and the other Boops are not those type of films. Again, I am beside myself how anyone could look at this film and not be captured by its spirit and breathless imagination and style.

But, most Americans don't want style and imagination: they seemingly just want to watch what every other American wants to watch. Several times in the last few weeks, I have noticed numerous talking heads on various news programs discussing the "America's" obsession with American Idol. They bring on guests to explain the latest controversies, and while I do not watch the show at all, I somehow know the names and faces of these idiots from my originally self-educating but seemingly worthless effort to follow the happenings in the world, but instead of hard news and facts, I only get Idol product placements and breathless name-dropping from the would-be "journalists" who populate these moronic pundit-fests. Even on a show I like, such as Countdown with Keith Olbermann, whose host claims to despise and not "get" Idol at all, still follows the corporate carrot-on-a-stick and teases with an upcoming Idol update, though sneeringly, throughout his show until the last six minutes of his program. People, you can have your Idol; just leave me the crap out of it. You see, the problem I am having with the "media experts" that are consulted by the heads on these shows, are their claims that you are missing out on a connection with the rest of America if you don't watch American Idol.

Connect with America? Me? America has been wrong about nearly everything about which it is purportedly united: our idiot President and his trumped-up war; the Super Bowl obsession; gangsta rap; Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies; SUV's and Hummers; karaoke; giant-ass weddings and large families; ridiculous corporate-derived holidays; Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals; and the bulk of items on any Top 20 sales chart in any publication. And America is dead wrong about American Idol, and I will have none of it. I have spent eons trying to seek out commonality with my fellow Americans, itching to meet new and interesting people and share knowledge and stories. I have midwesterner's blood running through my veins, and like my dad, who can start a conversation with anyone at the drop of a hat, I do enjoy talking to people when I meet them... until they get stupid.

So, when is America going to make an attempt to connect to me? Why should I do all the heavy lifting in the relationship? When is America going to drop by my place and share a bowl of popcorn with me over a handful of Betty Boops and Bugs Bunnys, follow it up with a Val Lewton or Kurosawa flick, and then down some non-cardboard pizza while listening to some Zappa, Nick Cave or Robyn Hitchcock and/or reading some old Spirit or Pogo comics? A note to those who have spent years assuming that I am a weird guy: I am weird by dint of personality, but my personal interests are not that out there. You see, there are plenty of people who like what I do, and I am not the devil. [Editor's note: There is no devil.] Once in a while, America's interests do cross with mine, and then we all like The White Stripes for about fifteen minutes, albeit, for different reasons. But, this happens very rarely. The crap shows stay on television, and the Fireflys of the world get cancelled to be replaced by a show about car obsession. Overall, there is nothing special or unique about my likes, obsessions and interests... it's just that America doesn't like them.

On second thought, I wouldn't want America dropping by my place. They wouldn't wipe their feet at the door (or even take their shoes off, and half of them, you wouldn't want them to); they would complain about the lack of piss-thin beer in the fridge; and they would take up most of the couch (and that would be just one of them doing that; where would I fit the rest?) The main problem is that we wouldn't be able to hear any of the movies or music because most of them would be talking and gossiping over the action, and those that weren't would be obsessing over their self-deluded beliefs that they could be the next American Idol. A good portion of them would not hesitate to prove their shrill "talents" right in my living room, and after I Van-Goghed both of my ears off, I would have to show America the door.

America, go home. You are not wanted here. I declare your interests to be far worse than boring. They are idiotic. You have gotten the society you deserve. Enjoy your American idolatry, and call me when the show has run its course. Hopefully, it will be many, many years before I hear from you, and your collective brain will have rotted from the pap and pop you have been viewing and hearing.

I'm going to watch another cartoon from the '30's...

Is My Palm Read (Max Fleischer Studios, 1933) Director: Dave Fleischer
Animators: William Henning and David Tendlar
Cel Bloc Rating: 8

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