“Folks, now here’s a story ’bout Minnie the Moocher … she was a red-hot hoochie-coocher …”
With her somewhat inauspicious debut in 1930’s Dizzy Dishes, Betty Boop became the most unlikely of stars. Initially drawn as a canine companion to the Fleischer Studios’ recurring dog figure Bimbo, Betty gained a life–and a popularity–all her own, prompting a redesign of the character as a human girl: flirty, cute, and musical to boot.
That musicality would play a big part in the Betty Boop cartoon series–unsurprisingly, considering that quintessential flapper Betty functions as a pretty effective symbol of the remnants of the Jazz Age. Indeed, the soundtracks for these animated shorts, which drew largely from popular music of the day, highlight a number of songs and talented musicians from the early 1930s, chief among them Louis Armstrong (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You, 1932) and Cab Calloway.
In fact, Calloway appeared–both in the flesh and in animated form–in a total of three Betty Boop shorts. He sang “St. James Infirmary Blues” in 1933’s Snow White, and later that same year lent the titular tune to The Old Man of the Mountain. But it was his first cameo with Ms. Boop that remains perhaps the most memorable: Minnie the Moocher, released in 1932.
The Fleischers have five cartoons ranked on 1994’s list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time, three of which feature Betty Boop. Minnie comes in at #20, right behind their version of Snow White. At first glance, you might wonder why it was ranked so highly. After all, there’s not much to the storyline of this cartoon: Betty refuses to eat her dinner, infuriating her (painfully) stereotypical Jewish parents. She decides to run away from home, with Bimbo in tow. But they soon find themselves in a dark, scary forest populated by all manner of spooky creatures–including a spectral walrus (voiced by Calloway) who sings the title song as a type of cautionary tale to the petrified runaways, causing them to turn tail and flee back home.
Simple, yes, but Minnie is not designed to tell a story so much as to highlight the music that drives the cartoon. And this, it does exceedingly well. Betty, in her own inimitable way, trills about her troubles to set up her plight (“But I know what I’ll do, by and by/I’ll eat some worms and then I’ll die,” she whines in a chorus of “They Always Pick on Me”). But the strongest element of the short–its biggest draw, period–is Calloway’s performance of the title song: brimming with angst and fervor, sly and bombastic in equal measure. The ghostly, warbling walrus is not only voiced by Calloway, but also boasts his exact movements, all through the magic of the Fleischers’ rotoscoping technique (which traced over Calloway’s live-action performance in order to craft his animated doppelganger). Add in a cast of creatively-composed, creepy-crawly supporting characters to provide the backing vocals, and the end result is a veritable feast of music and animation, blended seamlessly into one wild and seriously appealing cartoon.
The song “Minnie the Moocher” was a smash hit upon its release, eventually selling a million copies and becoming one of Calloway’s most well-known and beloved tunes. The same-named cartoon features the shorter version of the song (ending before the verses in which Minnie ends up in jail and dies in an insane asylum) while retaining the signature “call and response”-style scatting between verses, a popular bit of improvisation which led to Calloway being christened the “Hi-De-Ho Man” (for his part, Calloway fully embraced the nickname, performing a song of the same title and even starring–with his orchestra–in a 1947 musical called Hi De Ho).
Minnie is also notable for featuring the first-known live-action footage of Calloway and his orchestra, shown in the opening scenes of the cartoon as the bandleader slides sinuously across the stage to the tune of “Prohibition Blues.” Incidentally, this move, which Calloway labeled “The Buzz,” is a sort of precursor to the “moonwalk,” which was immortalized by Michael Jackson more than fifty years later. It’s undeniably fascinating to see the smooth, slithering origins of that pop culture behemoth here.
Minnie was a definite product of its time; its almost psychedelic oddness, paired with the risqué material of Calloway’s song (after all, “Minnie” itself is about a woman who falls in with a cokehead, and subsequently learns to “kick the gong around”–i.e., smoke opium), is textbook pre-Code material–as were so many other Betty Boop shorts from the period. But these early 30s cartoons marked a relatively short heyday for the jazzier, racier side of Ms. Boop. When the Production Code dictated that the suggestive nature of the cartoons be toned (way) down, Betty’s signature sexy “boop oop a doop” virtually disappeared from the series, replaced with demure banality until the series mercifully petered out in 1939.
Minnie the Moocher was restored and released on Blu-ray last year through Olive Films, in the Betty Boop Essential Collection: Volume Three. Though the four recent Blu-ray Boop collections admittedly leave something to be desired in the way of special features and general organization, you won’t find better-looking (and better-sounding!) copies of these cartoons anywhere, and we recommend them wholeheartedly.