Jewish Horror Films: Minnie the Moocher (1932)

I don't know when I first saw a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. It's possible I first saw one of their Popeye the Sailor cartoons, or their take on Superman, or something else. I spent a few summers in the Catskills with my grandfather when I was a boy, and he could not receive broadcast television and so had an early form of cable television. Almost everything that played on his television was very old and strange, including old Buster Crabbe serials, an Abbot and Costello cartoon series, and silent films.

I sometimes felt like if I followed the cable back to its source, it would turn out to be coming out of the grave of a television programmer from 1955, but, considering the fact that everybody in my grandfather's bungalow community was geriatric, this was probably brilliant programming for them.

I think this is where I saw "Minnie the Moocher," and it's the first Fleischer film to have really stuck with me, because it's so deranged. There are a couple of other films by the same studio that are similar, one based around Cab Calloway singing "St. James Infirmary" and one based around Louis Armstrong singing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You," and both are likewise mad, but I'm including "Minnie the Moocher" in this collection because it actually is a horror movie, if one that is only seven minutes long.

I will very briefly summarize the cartoon, as much as I am able. The main character is Betty Boop, the cartoon flapper that was one of the Fleischers' signature characters. She flees home after a protracted intro where her parents torment her, but, outside, with a dog name Bimbo (who, we are given to understand, is her boyfriend), she is beset by a singing walrus, whose voice is Cab Calloway's and whose movements were rotoscoped from Calloway's actual dancing. The walrus is soon joined by all manner of horrors, including ghosts, witches, and skeletons that dance about. Terrified, Betty returns home.

But this description cannot hope to convey the weirdness of the cartoon. The Fleischer's house style was stylized in a way that now looks primitive, and their characters exist in an extraordinarily lively and plastic universe, in which inanimate objects become animate and vice versa. This happens constantly and for no seeming reason -- a splash of ink will hoist itself up and run back to its inkwell, and a wooden statue will spring to life to comfort a weeping Betty. All of these moments are meant as visual gags, but, even before the skeletons started dancing, to my childhood eyes it all seemed perfectly nightmarish.

It also all seemed somehow essentially Jewish. Let me do a little inventory of how so:

1. The Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, were Jews; they were from an immigrant family from Kraków, although they were raised in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Despite the fact that their work seems primitive, as I said, Max was an exceptionally well-trained draftsman, having studied under the celebrated illustrator and educator George Bridgman. Dave, in the meanwhile, worked early as an usher for a vaudeville theater, and both brothers were raised, for a while, near Coney Island. The brothers were extraordinarily influenced by their urban, New York, immigrant Jewish upbringing, and their movies often reflected this, both in aesthetic choices (once you know the Coney island influence, the amusement park's graphics are the obvious source of their film's primitivism)  and content. The brothers made films that were urban, deliberately surreal, expressionistic, and sometimes astonishingly adult. The films were also very Jewish -- in this one, we meet Betty Boop's parents, and they are strongly accented Jewish scolds.

2. In one significant way, Betty Boop reads as a Jewish character. Although Boop was inspired by two iconic jazz age women, Clara Bow and Helen Kane, she was primarily voiced by Mae Questel, the Bronx-born daughter of Orthodox Jews who later went on to play a series of roles in live action films, almost always playing an old Jewish woman. Additionally, the Fleischers placed Betty in a world that constantly tips its hat toward its Jewish content -- it's astonishing how often "Kosher" signs, written in Hebrew, show up. In one cartoon, Betty is met on a tropical island by natives who cry out "Sholem Aleikhem!", apparently recognizing her as a landsman.  In a later cartoon, when Betty dreams of herself as a mermaid, she is met by a fish with sidelocks who speaks Yiddish.

3. Cab Calloway was not Jewish, but, if we were to play Lenny Bruce's "Jewish or Goyish" game, where he identified things by whether they seemed Jewish or not, Cab Calloway is Jewish. His operatic, swinging, minor chord jazz borrows from Jewish cantoral singing -- raised in Baltimore, which was then an immigrant port town, Calloway had long exposure to Jews, and in his autobiography claims that he even attended synagogues as boy. There was often a Yiddish inflection in Calloway's songs, sometimes overtly, such as his songs  “Utt-da-zay," based on a Jewish folk song, and “Abi Gezunt," which mixed Yiddish with jive talk.

Additionally, Calloway had a long, close relationship with his manager, Irving Mills, a Jew who was either from Odessa or Mahattan's Lower east Side, depending on who you ask. Mills cowrote at least one song with Calloway: None other than "Minnie the Moocher."

Calloway, and "Minnie the Moocher," have a long and almost subterranean reach in films by Jewish filmmakers. Calloway appeared as a sophisticated gambler in Normal Jewison's "The Cincinnati Kid," and later played the Blues Brother's mentor in the film based on the characters, directed by John Landis and featuring a showcase performance of "Minnie the Moocher."

But the song's, and the Fleischer film's, biggest influence seems to be on Jewish brothers Danny and Richard Elfman. I will detail the film they made together, "Forbidden Zone," in another essay, but suffice it to say the film seems to be an effort to make a feature-length version of everything upsetting about the Fleischer Brothers' cartoons, and leans heavily on the music of Calloway, including a performance of "Minnie."

As Elfman has gone on to be a film composer, the Calloway inspiration just keeps coming up, often in scenes that seem the most Fleischer-like: the dancing bones in "The Corpse Bride," which I have already written about, and the Oogie Boogie sequence in "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

And I get it, man. The Fleischer Brother's "Minnie the Moocher" climbs into you and sort of sticks there. Many years ago I wrote a short play called "BoyElroy," which consisted of a series of monologues inspired by cartoon characters. The play was first produced as a midnight show at the Blue Barn theater in Omaha in 1999 and then again at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham in 2007, and looks like it might be done again in Las Vegas next year.

Going back and rereading the monologues, there is one called "Betty," and it starts like this:

I left home
with only a note
to explain.
The note read,
You don’t treat
me so sweet.

This is literally cribbed from "Minnie the Moocher." It's the note Betty leaves her Jewish immigrant parents when running away. I didn't remember this fact until I rewatched the Fleischer cartoon a few days ago while preparing to write this essay, but perhaps I should not have been surprised. That little seven-minute short is like a virus, crawling inside Jewish artists and later exploding outward as some new piece of art.

And now you know about it, and you, too, have been infected.