Have eight minutes? Watch Minnie the Moocher and learn a truckload of awesome stuff!
There’s so much going on with this film, I hardly know where to begin. So, let’s just start with the basics, and technical stuff, and go from there. First, this is a traditional hand-drawn animated film by Fleischer Studios, released in 1932. If you’ve ever made a sticky-pad flip book, you know how this works. In this case, though, the animation is done on “cells” or sheets of clear plastic, and photographed over painted backgrounds that show through, with each photograph exposing one frame of the film.
A neat thing to notice (and it’s easier if you re-watch it with the sound muted) is that the studio uses cycles of repeated cell sequences to make some parts cheaper to animate. Look for repeated motions in the animation – either the animation is reused outright, or short bits of repeated motions that can be traced are simply copied to new cells. Examples include Betty and Bimbo running out of town (in the case of just reusing the same sequence of cells), and the cork in the jar on the table hopping onto the table and back in the very beginning (for just a part of the animation being traced to new cells). Once you know that animation frequently does this, you’ll know what to look for, and you’ll be able to spot this technique in lots of other animated movies and series. Used with finesse, it adds a sense of rhythm and pacing.
Another cool animation technique on display is rotoscoping. You don’t have to re-use or trace other animation cells, you can actually trace live action footage, too. This is especially useful for capturing complex movements that maybe your artists don’t have a mental reference for already. The famous dancing walrus ghost (what, surprised? watch the film, seriously, it’s worth it) is actually traced over live-action footage of Cab Calloway dancing. So, not only did Cab Calloway provide the walrus ghost vocals, he’s also the reference for the walrus ghost’s slick dance moves. Kind of like modern motion capture, but without the aid of computers, and entirely by hand.
About that walrus ghost. Did I mention the style of the film? It’s seriously creepy and weird. Since everything in an animated film is drawn by hand, if you can draw it, you can animate it, limited only by your skill and your imagination. Scary, grim, and with a tacked-on last-minute wholesome ending, Minnie the Moocher was for general audiences, not just kids. The song’s about Minnie, who gets drawn into a life of poverty, crime, and drug use because she falls in love with an addict. Ghosts get electrocuted, and skeletons drink themselves to death. The implication, of course, is that this is where teen runaway Betty’s life is headed, if she doesn’t go back home to her first-gen immigrant parents who have a hard time relating to their Americanized daughter and insist she eat her hasenpfeffer.
Content-wise this short film doesn’t pull any punches, despite the superficially cartoony style. Even the idea that a cartoon would be kid stuff is very recent. There’s a huge difference between early Betty Boop – where she’s a rebellious teen flapper – and later Betty Boop – where she becomes a much more demure housewife type. The reason for this is the Hays Code. Movies didn’t have ratings for different audiences based on content. Instead, the Hays Code dictated what was allowed to be in Hollywood movies and what wasn’t. This kind of industry-run censorship is actually pretty common, historically. (Note that although the Hays Code came out in 1930, it wasn’t really enforced until later. So, Minnie the Moocher gleefully ignores the code, even though it was technically produced under it in 1932.) Compare the slightly-later Comics Code, for another example.
That’s a lot of technical, heavy, historical stuff for a film that’s less than ten minutes long, and we’ve barely scratched the surface, too.