As dear a place in my heart as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and all of the rest hold, I’ve always found returning to their adventures to be something of a mixed bag. Lots of the shorts are filled with beautiful animation, but they’re a snore to get through. I have had much better luck in returning to surreal world of Fleischer’s Betty Boop or the anarchy of the Looney Tunes.
Snow-White may just be the weirdest, wildest, best of the Betty Boop shorts. From the first frame to the last, inanimate objects spring to life, Betty Boop’s giggly sweet sexuality is on display, Bimbo and Koko the Clown are on-hand to aide her, and everything is just gloriously strange. Granted, it holds little to no resemblance to the actual fairy tale. It merely uses it as a springboard and loose connective tissue for a series of musical numbers, sight gags, and inventive visuals.
Sure, the wicked queen’s design is a bit obvious, revealing her witchy nature before she transforms and being no one’s definition of fairest in the land, but this is a minor fault. Her use of the magic mirror to transform into a witch is a smart and economical bit of narrative propulsion. It’s also a great piece of animation. It’s followed immediately by the cartoon’s greatest segment, Koko the Clown singing “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
This sequence, which a level of surreal and deeply odd that’s impressive even for a cartoon that’s already trafficked in it heavily, is a masterpiece of Golden Age animation. Rotoscoped from Cab Calloway’s performance, who also gives voice to Koko, it sees him singing the song while descending into the coalmine, mourning over Boop frozen in a coffin of ice, and transformed into a strange creature by the witch/evil queen. After his transformation into some strange monstrous…thing, Koko begins to shape-shift regularly, and the animation begins to move even further away from reality, becoming rubbery and dream-like. If German Expressionists had made a cartoon sequence, I’m sure it would look something like this. What a wonderful bit of nonsense and Pre-Code smuggling of vice. Boop-Oop-A-Doop-Oop, indeed.
(Snow-White is in the public domain, and can be viewed in full here.)