It’s peculiar to be re-introduced to something as an adult that you took for granted as a child. Hanging out with the girl I’m seeing (I haven’t developed more nuanced language than that yet. What am I? A word person?) and she mentioned The Fleischer Brothers. The Fleischer Brothers? I responded with the incredulous inflection you know so well from low quality sitcoms. She marched me over to the couch, loaded Youtube onto the TV and proceeded to educate me.
I’m sure everyone knows who they are, but the short of it is, The Fleischer Brothers were contemporaries/rivals of Walt Disney. Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope (which you likely recall from films such as Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and their stock went up. They did cartoons like Betty Boop, Bimbo, Popeye and Superman. The stuff is pretty fucking incredible, bizarre, surreal, violent and more than a little perverse. The imagination inherent to all of it is staggering and it reduces me to a state of melted, gooey wonderment to see it all play out. So many of the conventions of this early work in the medium are taken for granted these days. To put yourself in the head space of somebody seeing it for the first time, how would you not spontaneously combust?
Wait, you’re just taking my word for it. Here’s the 1931 cartoon Bimbo’s Initiation. It’s six and a half minutes of pure insanity. It’s also a glorious example of creativity oozing from every pore. Look at the way perspective shifts in some of those chase scenes. It’s so goddamn fluid. What about that endless anthropomorphism? The knife that grins like a shark, the flame that dances and cheekily trots back to its wick. How grim and dark is that? Running from peril into the face of more peril. That bratty depiction of Mickey Mouse being an asshole for no good reason. Just think, children would’ve watched this. AND ALL THE BUTTS. I could die and watch that on repeat for all eternity. It’d be a soothing release from the constant rotation of Smash Mouth’s All Star that’s currently on repeat in my head.
What about Popeye? Popeye the Sailor Man: Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves from 1937. Does anyone listen to the inane babble trickling out of Popeye’s mouth? Because it’s a twisted stream of consciousness with endless puns and clichés rolling off the tongue. In short, he and I speak exactly the same way. The thoughtfulness that goes into all the movement is amazing. Forgetting physical limitations in favour of the charms of the fantastic makes it a riot right from the start. Turning collapsed compatriots into tank treads? Popeye’s pipe being turned into a proxy blowtorch? Wimpy’s chain trick to access delicious chicken even while incapacitated? The dumb tally joke when Popeye gets bum rushed by groups of five. I don’t want to pulled into the trap of speaking in gratuitous idolatry but, well, it’s hard not to feel a little in awe.
As a kid this stuff was fun. No doubt. As an adult though? Considering everything that would’ve gone into a production like this is straight up stunning. I want to pour over hours of content and take in all of these influential landmarks. It’s one thing to love where we are, it’s quite another to appreciate how we got here.