Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jazz and Dancing Walruses: Making Sense of a Surreal Fleshier Cartoon

Cab Calloway and his animated counterpart.

Who Was Minnie the Moocher?

"Minnie the Moocher" is a famous jazz style song first recorded in 1931 by Cab Calloway. The song has been covered by numerous other performers over the years and appeared in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers. It is most famous for its use of various scat lyrics and verses which the audience repeats back to the performer. As with two other Cab Calloway songs, "St. James Infirmary Blues" and "The Old Man on the Mountain," "Minnie the Moocher" was adapted into a Pre-Hays Code Betty Boop cartoon by the Fleisher Brothers. In these cartoons Calloway provides both the vocals and dance steps via rotoscoping.

The song portion of the cartoon occurs when Betty runs away from home with her boyfriend, Bimbo (an anthropomorphic black dog), after arguing with her parents. Betty and Bimbo quickly become scared of walking alone in the dark and enter a nearby cave. As they walk inside, they are suddenly confronted by a large ghost walrus voiced by Cab Calloway. The walrus, accompanied by menagerie of spirits and bizarre imagery, suddenly breaks into song:

Why a ghost walrus? What did I just watch?

Making sense of the meaning of Cab Calloway’s lyrics and this short’s imagery may seem perplexing at first, as "Minnie the Moocher’s" unusual and often disturbing visuals were heavily influenced by the surrealism movement that began in the early 1920s in Europe. By 1932, when this cartoon was made, artists such as Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Marcel Duchamp had achieved international recognition. Surrealistic art focuses on visualizing the subconscious and has no clear, manifest meanings. However, hidden (latent) meanings can potentially be uncovered by trying to interpret how the abstract images interact with each other and invoke feelings.

The surrealism is so strong in this cartoon, that it even frightens its own protagonists!

Using this approach, one could argue that "Minnie the Moocher" is essentially about the dangers of engaging in reckless behavior driven by selfish desires. Although a commonly overlooked fact today, jazz music was considered 'edgy' when it first became popular in the earlier half of the 20th century. This was not only due to the music’s various drug and sexual references, but also due to the fact that it lacked a traditional, structured musical arrangement in favor of improvisation. Many members of older generations saw jazz as immoral. They associated jazz with the wild behaviors of the 1920s, as it often played in speakeasies. (Also some people had racist assumptions about jazz due to its African American origins.)

Calloway with his band at the Cotton Club.

The Song's Lyrics & Meaning

The woman in the song, Minnie, is described as a 'red hot hoochie coocher.' The hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative belly dance that originated in the late 1800s. Despite of her unscrupulous occupation, Minnie is described as being kind, having 'a heart as big as a whale.' Minnie sees the man Smokey, who is likely one of her customers, as a way out of her lower class lifestyle. Minnie imagines becoming rich and owning various status symbols including 'a home built of gold and steel' and 'a diamond car with platinum wheels.' 

Unfortunately, Smokey is a drug addict. He is described as being ‘kokey,’ meaning that he takes cocaine. Smokey also passed his bad habits onto Minnie when he ‘showed her how to kick the gong around’, which means he introduced her to opium. Minnie’s dreams of wealth are nothing more than a hallucination brought on by drugs. They will never come to fruition. (A later version of “Minnie the Moocher” includes extra verses where Minnie attempts to bail Smokey out of jail but is dumped and where Minnie meets a religious man but is unable to give up her ways. It concludes with Minnie being sent to mental asylum where she later dies.)

Betty Boop does not appear to partake in any drugs in this cartoon, but she does find herself in a dark, dream-like world while listening to Cab Calloway’s song. While Betty did not deal with any of the problems Minnie ran into, it is implied that bad behavior grows over time, starting with a single selfish act. Even if the act seems small or incidental, it can still lead to trouble. (The character of Betty Boop was built upon the popular flapper and virgin personas, being both ‘sexy’ and ‘innocent.’) The walrus and the other ghosts, be they imagined or not, chase Betty and Bimbo back home in order to make them avoid making mistakes like Minnie and Smokey did. The drunk skeletons are a visual warning of overindulgence. This was a relevant concern at the time, as this cartoon was released right at the tail end of the Prohibition. The ghost prisoners who get electrocuted stand for the ultimate consequence of breaking an important law: death. The ghost cat nursing the kittens represents how unappreciative and selfish children can be when they suck their parents’ wealth and resources dry. 

Of course, understanding the meaning behind these images doesn't make them any less unsettling.

“Minnie the Moocher” is not only one of Cab Calloway’s most famous songs, it is also one of the Fleisher Brother’s most memorable cartoons. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and the cartoon version ranked number 20 in the 1994 book, The Fifty Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals. Like many other early Fleisher productions, “Minnie the Moocher” was the opposite of most of Disney’s output. It was made for an older audience, had several drug references, innuendos, and a stranger, less linear storyline. However, “Minnie the Moocher” also warns its audience not to indulge in too many tempting vices, or else their lifetime goals and ambitions will come crashing down.