Here is something a little bit creepy for Halloween. In 1933, when Fleischer Studios decided to base one of their animated shorts on the Snow White story, they of course cast their most famous creation – Betty Boop – in the lead role, and backed her up with their other stock characters, Ko-ko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog. The whole film is excellent, but for me, it reaches its greatest mastery just after four minutes in when Ko-Ko the Clown performs St James Infirmary Blues. If Ko-Ko seems to be channelling Cab Calloway during his performance this is hardly surprising. It is indeed Mr Calloway’s voice that you are hearing. As for the idiosyncratic dance moves: here, director Dave Fleischer has made use of the rotoscope, a device invented and patented by his brother Max. The rotoscope projected frames from live-action film footage onto a transparent screen, and this enabled animators to trace real animal and human figures and, frame-by-frame, build up a sequence in which those figures move smoothly and naturally. This technique, originally devised in order to improve on the jerky motion in early cartoons, here enables the animated Ko-Ko to impersonate Cab Calloway with eerie precision.
But that’s the least of the pleasures. From the grotesque faces in the backdrop, to the weird manipulation of the central figure, this sequence is wonderfully inventive and imbued with a gleeful, macabre humour.
The choice of St James Infirmary Blues, was a smart one. There is something chilling about this minor key blues melody and its peculiar morbid lyrics. A great deal has been written about this song which was, it seems, derived from an 18th Century English folk ballad called, among other things, The Unfortunate Rake. In its blues form the song has been recorded countless times. A particular favourite of mine is a performance by Earl “Fatha” Hines with his trio. Fatha’s Faustian fingers raise a grotesque skeletal dance and, as a bonus, there is a rare chance to hear Hines sing.
(By the way, there’s a history of the Fleischer Brothers and their pioneering animation studios here – http://www.fleischerstudios.com/history.php )