I remember when I saw my first Betty Boop cartoon. I was 18 years old and two friends and I were subjecting ourselves to what was billed as a three-day MGM 16-movie marathon at the University of South Florida. It started at 7 p.m. on a Friday and ended sometime on Sunday evening — with occasional breaks that lasted less than planned, because everything ran later than planned, especially when about 300 people decided to see A Day at the Races in a theater designed for about half that many. (No, I couldn’t do it now.) Interspersed with the features were these cartoons, and even though I’d seen some Fleischer films, I had never seen these — or anything like them. As one young lady in the audience eloquently put it part way through the Betty Boop Snow White, these were “far f—ing out.”
The Fleischer brothers — Max and Dave principally — might most easily be described as the Anti-Disneys. They made cartoons that were definitely for people who found Disney’s work too precious and saccharine — or at least they did till the Production Code clipped their ears in 1934. Their work was strange, slightly sinister, often grotesque and very sexualized. The best of it is among the best of all animation.
The documentary Cartoon Madness is an altogether too sober, ultimately rather bland look into the world of the Fleischers — perhaps in part because it was written by host Leonard Maltin. Having staunch Disney acolyte Maltin write a film on the Fleischers is kind of like asking C.S. Lewis to sing the praises of Islam. And it doesn’t help that the film takes a chronological approach, since the Fleischers peaked in 1930-33. While much after that is of note, it’s not the best of their work — something Maltin knows since he follows the rather gooey 1941 Raggedy Ann and Andy with a 1933 cartoon, Betty Boop’s May Party, to end the film.
No matter: You can’t make the best of the Fleischers’ work bland, and the inclusion, in their entirety, of Bimbo’s Initiation (perhaps the oddest film the brothers ever made) and Snow White (probably their best) makes this a good introduction to the Fleischers’ world.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke