Here’s a subject after my own heart. A chance to combine my day job with my night job. Despite the general chaos that the animated world lives in every day, once in a while most toons, except for the very, very good guys, have had a run-in with the law. (Even Mickey Mouse once served time on a chain gang!) Though we’ve not always been privileged to see the proceedings that sent them up, every so often Hollywood would give us a behind the scenes glimpse at how animated justice was administered. On rarer occasions we would even get a focus upon the hard working prosecutors or defense counsel who would strive for conviction or acquittal – though their tactics were rarely of the type Learned Hand might have approved. So, accept your appointment as an alternate juror, and sit back to pass verdict upon the trials (and tribulations) that have passed before the bench and camera, and see if you concur that justice was done.
As usual, it is difficult to know where to find an origin for courtroom antics from the days of silent animation. Perhaps the only verifiable member of the judiciary accounted for in early animation was the Bray Studios’ Judge Rummy, based off a comic strip by Ted Dorgan published between 1910 and 1922, a canine, regularly cavorting with booze and other women. Surviving examples of the cartoon series seem to never show the judge actually on the bench, but instead usually trying to avoid the wrath of a behemoth wife. These cartoons, while sometimes notably funny, fit the present trail in name only rather than in true subject matter.
The earliest actual trial I have discovered comes from the fledgling days of Max Fleischer’s break into sound cartoons without a bouncing ball. His newly minted “Talkartoons” series Introduces his first “talkie” star – Bimbo – in Hot Dog (Paramount, 3/29/30 – Dave Fleischer, dir.). Bimbo’s early model is all white – a style seeming to make him the direct descendant of Koko the Clown’s little dog Fitz – and this model, along with at least three or four other subsequent designs, would alternate and appear sporadically in subsequent cartoons, including Silly Scandals, Tree Saps, The Robot, and Hide and Seek. Bimbo in his first appearance is of course minus his girlfriend to be, Betty Boop – but still has a definite eye for the ladies, as he spends the first half of the cartoon rolling around in his little flivver trying to pick up babes off the street (sometimes literally so, with a passenger seat that protrudes from the car on a telephone-extender and scoops the hapless female right off of the sidewalk). Ultimately, as his would-be conquest escapes by transforming her feet into roller skates, Bimbo is pinched by the local constable, who pursues him right into the path of a police parade (a setup taking a direct leaf from Buster Keaton’s popular short, Cops (1922), which would be mimicked again in later cartoons such as Donald’s Officer Duck, and even Felix the Cat in the Joe Oriolo TV adaptation.) Prodded by the billy-club of the parade leader, Bimbo is marched to a courtroom. Up to this point, the film’s pace has been poky at best, spending more time trying to synchronize to overly-long music cues than in developing plot or gags. On arrival at the court, however, and upon the Judge’s provocative inquiry, “Well?”, the Fleischer boys prove that the few months they’ve been at learning the craft of sound cartoons haven’t gone entirely wasted.
Rather than typical Fleischer post-syncing (recording of track after production of the animation, usually in a desperate effort to match the tempo of animation already timed out in mechanical and unnatural fashion), we are treated to a masterful three minutes of well-planned and charted lip-sync and sound-cued musical nonsense, as Bimbo, at a loss for words, produces from nowhere a banjo, and serenades the judge and jury with a scat rendition of “St. Louis Blues” (one of the first instances of Fleischer animating to a pre-existing record – Eddie Peabody’s version of the song for Oriole from 1929). Animation is dead-on in synchronization to the pre-existing record, and must have taken a considerable degree of work for a crew unused to such tasks. The film no doubt provided a solid proving ground, paving the way for more ambitious projects to come in subsequent seasons, including additional record-scores and ultimately the retention of actual jazz bands to provide lively and hot accompaniment to underscore the animated-world antics, such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Notable in the trial concert are several minor highpoints. First, note a central tall character in the jury box. Though a few seasons ahead of his series debut, the thin lanky fellow looks for all the world to be a dead-ringer for Tom of Van Buren’s future series “Tom and Jerry” (tall and short humans – not a cat and mouse), but wearing a bushy toupee! Bimbo provides some interesting banjo techniques, including playing the instrument with his toes, and punctuating lines with high-note plucks of the judge’s long whiskers instead of his strings. The jury picks up the framework of the jury box and dances around the room with it (a gag whih would appear again in Betty Boop’s Trial, discussed below). Cigar and cigarette butts from a spittoon emerge and dance arm in arm around the brass rim. A portrait of the Goddess of Justice gets into the act, and shimmies her robe off to reveal her lacy panties. Perhaps the best laugh is a court stenographer, who is taking a verbatim record of the proceedings, typing Bimbo’s scat vocal onto paper: “Doo-ey a do do e-ya doodle-e doo doo-ey a doo.” Concluding the song, Bimbo declares in Eddie Peabody’s voice his signature coda. “That’s all!”, then mounts his banjo, riding its body like a unicycle out the door of the courtroom and off into the distance. Was this an escape, or a self-proclaimed acquittal? Iris out.
Another early but brief peek inside a courtroom occurred in an early installmet of the Scrappy series, The Dog Snatcher (Charles Mintz/Columbia, 10/19/31 – Dick Huemer, dir.). The dog catcher has finally succeeded in catching Yippy without a license. But this municipality has a more ornate book of procedures than most communities, who might have just thrown the hapless pip into that chamber on the other side of the “one-way door”. Instead, Yippy is hauled into night court. The dog catcher, in the manner of an arresting officer, announces the charge – “No license, Judge.” Banging his gavel, and without taking a word of counter-testimony (well, why not? Yoppy can’t speak, anyway), the Judge calls out, “Gentlemen of the jury. Guilty or not guilty?” The jurors (in an early use of the less costly “six-pack” half size juror panel) sit at their posts, all sound asleep, not having heard a word. A large pivoting bar is mounted on the wall above them, to which is attached a set of six mallets. With a rotation of the bar, the mallets are brought down to conk each of the jurors soundly on the head. Faster than you could produce a knee-jerk reaction with a doctor’s hammer, the jurors simultaneously utter a reflexive and emphatic verdict: “Guilty!” (Heaven help a defense counsel on a night like this.) Justice is swift, as Yippy is booked (issued a prisoner’s number by way of an ink stamp on his butt, a decimal point added by paintbrish), and cast into a prison cell in a dog version of the ‘Big House”. Of course, Scrappy busts him loose by the end of the film – but not before they take a turn into a darkened room, and when the lights are lit, find themselves sitting in an electric chair! (I’m telling you, this community does its dog catching with all the trimmings.)
Scrappy gets a chance in the courtroom himself in The Great Bird Mystery (Charles Mintz/Columbia -10/24/32, Dick Huemer, dir.). A very strange cartoon, with no effort to explain the motivations of its principal villaun. Scrappy, Oopie, and Yippy work hard at building a birdhouse. A small black bird carries in a bundle on his back all his worldly belongings, and lands on the roof of the structure, asking Scrappy, “Now?” “No, not now”, replies Scrappy as the work on the project continues. The bird settles down at the base of a tree to wait his turn. For no reason whatsoever except to have fun, a larger black bird (who you can tell is a villain only becaise he wears a tall silk hat) ties a string around the bird’s leg, then around the tree trunk. When Scrappy calls “Ready”, every bird in the area makes a beeline for the birdhouse, but the little bird is left at the post trying to undo the knot around his leg. Breaking free, he flies as fast as he can, getting a jump on the other birds – until the villain comes along again, severing the rope holding the little bird’s belongings together. Everything tumbles to Earth, and it take the bird so long to carry anything to the birdhouse that the structure is already bursting to capacity before he arrives. The bird weeps, while the villain appears and for sheer fun jeers him with a raspberry. The little bird throws a pebble at the villain, knocking off his top hat. The villain responds by producing a small bow and arrow, taking a shot at the little bird. The shot misses, and lodges in a tree trunk. The little bird takes hold of the arrow, then charges at the villain – only to hand him the arrow instead of hitting him with it, as if to say ‘you dropped this”. The villain tackles the little bird to the ground, holding the arrow menacingly in one hand as if about to plunge it into the little bird’s heart, when Scrappy, Yippy, and Oopie appear. To cover his deeds, the villain bends the arrow shaft to form a notch where he can rest, and places himself upon the arrow, giving the illusion he has been shot. “Who killed Cock Robin?” shouts Scrappy, finding the incriminating bow near the little bird. They drag the bird to court, carrying the arrow with the villain still upon it as evidence.
At the courthouse, a billy goat judge listens to the testimony through an ear horn. A 12 juror panel of owls questions “Whoo”, as Oopie points an incriminating finger at the little bird, saying “He did it”. The little bird pleads his case in mournful birdsong. But the wailing melody merely puts the judge, jury, gallery, and even the statue of Justice, to sleep. Still astride the arrow shaft, the villain can’t restrain an evil chuckle, and is noticed by the little bird. Pulling back the arrow shaft to use it like a launching spring, the little bird launches the villain straight into the judge’s ear horn, from the small end of which pops the villain, yelling to the judge, “It’s a lie”, then emerging minus his feathers, making an embarrassing retreat up the aisle and out of the courtroom. “Not guilty” find the owls, and an apologetic Scrappy and Oopie congratulate the bird on his dramatic victory.
Groucho Marx presiding over a military tribunal? It happened in The Brave Tin Soldier (Ub Iwerks, Comi-Color, 4/7/34), a reworking Iwerks-style of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a one-legged toy soldier. When the amorous King of Toyland lays eyes on the lovely ballerina doll that has befriended the soldier, his command to the soldier is brief and to the point – “Scram!” He then, in his best impersonation of a typical lecherous viper pursuing Betty Boop, begins planting advaning kisses up and down the arm, and leg, of the ballerina. That’s all the soldier can stand, as he places a matchstick inside the muzzle of his toy rifle, and fores. The matchstick flies across the room, igniting the fuse of a skyrocket. The rocket scores a direct hit on the King’s posterior, giving the girl a chance to escape, and knocking the King into the air, causing him to come down hard directly onto the points of his crown, to painful effect. This insurrection cannot go unredressed. At bayonet point, the little soldier is marched to a courtroom by a squad of soldiers. (There is an odd issue of uniforms here. The King issued order to the soldier as if he were a member of the King’s army. Yet the soldier is clad in red, while all other soldiers who appear from this point on in the film are clad in blue, as if to distinguish bad guys from good guys. Two uniforms for the same army?)
The court is presided over by a judge who at first doesn’t seem to be there. However, it is because his judge’s bench is actually the cubicle of a jack-in-the-box, with the judge (a caricature of Groucho) only popping out at opportune times to make rulings. The soldier faces trial before a jury without the aid of a defense counsel. The King also doubles himself as prosecutor. “Guilty or not guilty?”, the King inquires. “No”, replies the soldier. Out pops Groucho, his face extending forward into the camera, ruling, “Objection sustained,”. The King presents his evidence, by turning his fanny toward the camera to reveal the seat of his pants torn out where the crown perforated it, declaring to the soldier, “You’re guilty.” “No”, responds the soldier again. (These are the soldier’s only lines of dialogue in the entire film – some vocabulary!) Out pops Groucho again. “Objection overruled,” The King, with a one-track mind, again insists, “You are guilty.” Groucho intercedes: “Give him a fair trial – and then we’ll shoot him!” No such formality from the King. As the ballerina pleads on her knees to “Spare him”, the King counters with a sentencing request to “Execute him”, which call is quickly taken up by both bailiff and jury. In classic military manner, the soldier is placed before a firing squad. A Captain of the guard offer to tie a blindfold around his eyes, but the proud soldier refuses it – then blows his nose in the piece of linen before handing it back to the Captain. Following the original storyline, the ballerina, whose pleas for mercy to the soldier go unheeded by the King, takes her place at the soldier’s side, and in a rare case of onscreen murder in a kiddie cartoon, both are shot, tumbling into a fireplace and melting together into the shape of a heart. But every cartoon from the early 30’s had to have a Disneyesque happy ending engrafted onto it – so the smoke from the fireplace carries the souls of our hero and heroine to Toy Heaven (presided over by a wheeled St. Peter doll), where the smoke solidifes into the soldier and ballerina again – with an added twist. The last wisps of smoke remain at the stub where the one-legged soldier’s missing limb had been broken off – and materialize into the leg he lost at the beginning of the cartoon. For the first time, the soldier dances and clicks his heels together, and he and the ballerina dance arm in arm into a world of happy deceased toys, while St. Peter puts a toy cat out for the night before closing the gates.
Betty Boop’s Trial (Fleischer/Paramount, Betty Boop, 6/15/34 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Myron Waldman/Hicks Lokey, anim.), doesn’t follow a lot of court procedure, but provides a lot of music instead. Setup for the charges has officer Fearless Fred spying Betty driving by in a fancy 1930’s car, and following after her on his motorcycle to make an on-duty pass (“I’d like to know ya!”). Considering him “fresh”, Betty turns him a cold shoulder, and increases speed. As Fred speeds up, Betty speeds even faster. Soon, her car starts running out of control, crashing through and uprooting a line of trees that come down behind her on Fred’s head. The eagle on a badge on Fred’s hat whistles for Betty to pull over, and Fred yells for her to stop. Betty’s exhaust pipe responds by blowing smoke in Fred’s face, turning him into a politically incorrect stereotype, who responds in basso voice mimicking catch phrase from Andrew Brown of the “Amos ‘n” Andy” radio show, “I’se regusted!” Boop’s car finally spins out in a muddy puddle, and Fred makes an arrest. He demands to see her license, which Betty displays on her shapely limb as a little license plate attached to her garter. Fred takes her on his banged-up motorcycle to “tell it to the judge”.
At the courthouse, a goofy buck-toothed Bailiff mans a lever on the side of the judge’s bench to rotate a little panel on the top of the podium, which opens like an old auto rumble seat to reveal the judge in his chair (who seems to live inside the podium waiting for release). The judge is a little bearded old-timer, with a voice predicting Betty’s soon-to-be relative Grampy, (who would become a series regular a season or two later). He reacts upon seeing Betty: “Ho de ho and Hey de hay! Look what the boys have brought my way. What did you do? Are you here to stay? What do you say, kid? What do you say?” Betty musically pleads not to be made to take the stand in front of the jury, because she’s committed no crime. The judge pretends to take notes on the case – but is really writing on his pad, “Blue eyes – Nice form. Cute legs & miscellaneous.” Fred charges her with resisting an officer. Not knowing precisely what to say, Boop gives testimony in swing to the tune of “The Scat Song” – a number which had previously appeared in the series as a finale for Cab Calloway (who introduced the tune) in Fleischer’s “The Old Man of the Mountain” (1933).
The entire rest of the trial is choreographed to this piece, as the judge struggles to understand Boop’s scatting (periodically falling back into his judge’s podium and needing release by the Bailiff, at one point signaling the Bailiff for help by spelling “S O S” with the protruding whiskers of his beard). Even Fred falls under the spell of the scatting, and testifies in rhythm how he never felt this way, and just had to meet her. Betty begins to be won over by his boyish admiration. The judge turns the matter over to the jury (all men). Betty aims a wink and a well-turned leg at them. The jury, en masse, take a flying leap into the jury room, and right back out again, finding “Not guilty”. Betty rewards them with 12 blown kisses, little lipstick marks flying through the air and landing on their foreheads. She also blows a kiss to the judge, who breaks into an uncontrollable fit of dancing (similar to Grampy’s “blurred feet” dance step in cartoons to come), and one to Fred as well. The jurors also break into dancing, while the judge calls for order. “Respect the arm of the law”, he shouts. “Here’s the arm”, says Fred, wrapping his around Boop. Boop joins Fred on his motorcycle, and they both take off for another joyride. The jurors are still out of control, and as the judge bangs his gavel again, his seat again flips and traps him in the podium. From nowhere, two mice emerge from his desk, grab the small strand of whiskers still protruding from the judge’s chair-hatch, and stretch and braid them until the whiskers spell the words, “Court adjourned.”
The Trapeze Artist (Charles Mintz/Columbia, Krazy Kat, 9/1/34 – Art Davis, dir., Sid Marcus, story), is built around an extended rendition of the nostalgic novelty hit, “The Man On the Flying Trapeze” (as was a Popeye cartoon a short time later). The criminal charges arise from an incident at the circus, where the title trapeze man is drawing all the heart throbs of the ladies, including Krazy’s girlfriend Kitty. In an unusual seating arrangement for a big top, Krazy and Kitty appear to have a balcony box, where the trapeze swing comes perilously close to the paying customers. The trapeze man takes full advantage of the situation, tickling Kitty under the chin as he approaches on each swing – then finally lifting Kitty out of the box entirely, to accompany him above the crowd. In an odd and very deliberate continuity error, the trapeze man, who was previously facing Krazy, somehow reverses position on the trapeze seat, so that his large posterior nearly knocks Krazy out of his seat on each subsequent swing. Seeing that huge rear end in his face again and again gives Krazy an idea. Krazy grabs at a patch in the performer’s pants, opening a small hole to his fur. On the next two swings, Krazy uses a piece if chalk to draw an X on the exposed area. Then, he takes a long hat pin from Kitty’s bonnet remaining near her seat, and lines it up appropriately for the swinger’s next approach. Ouch!! But the deed doesn’t go unrecognized, and Krazy is arrested, taken by police to a courthouse next door on assault charges.
Neither prosecutor nor public defender assist in the presentation of the case before the judge, so it’s up ti Krazy to plead his own case. The judge is not immediately prone to show mercy, addressing Krazy in the voice of Joe Penner with one of his catch-phrases: “Oh, you nasty man!” Krazy chooses the most traditional of defenses – the sob story – engaging in a three-verse rendition of the song referenced above, to tell how he was “betrayed by a maid in her teens” over the cad circus performer. The tactic works, as the judge draws his face closer to Krazy in a showing of sympathy – so close, that an emphatic turn by Krazy in giving his testimony places the judge’s glasses and toupee on Krazy’s face. In the jury box (only four jurors this time?), two smaller jurors imitate the trapeze act being described, seated upon the intertwined white beards of the other two jurors. A curious shot behind the judge’s bench shows that the judge, hidden from the waist down from view by the court, is not wearing trousers, and is having his pants pressed and ironed by a tailor while he presides. In the visitor’s gallery, a large pig weeps at the story, exhaling upon each bawl so that his pants open a gap at the waistline to catch the flood of tears, then splashing the teardrops out upon the guy in front of him on every inhale. Despite his sympathy, the judge falls asleep at one point, and Krazy (in a tactic definitely not recommended) brings him to so Krazy can finish the story by hitting the judge on the head with a mallet. A cross-gender gag which would never pass following the tightening of the production code has a line of the original song (regarding the trapeze man making the girl assume a “masculine name” to work on the trapeze while he remains idle) delivered by a cross-dressing female in men’s attire, ending with the standard utterance for any “gay” gag in an early cartoon – “Whooooo!”
Meanwhile, back at the circus, the trapeze man starts stealing kisses from Kitty. Kitty, in fickle fashion, responds with a resounding slap across the performer’s face, knocking him from the trapeze onto a net, which bounces him through the canvas tent and straight through the roof of the court next door. Confronting Krazy in the courthouse (who greets him with the taunt, “You big sissy”), a chase begins up and down the aisles, while the judge pounds his gavel and calls for order, to no avail. The trapeze man swings at Krazy with one of the boards that broke off as he fell through the roof, as they run round and round the statue of lady Justice. The statue comes to life, loosening the handle of her sword and blowing into it like a traffic whistle, each blow calling for a reverse in direction of the chase, as Krazy briefly takes hold of the board and chases the trapeze man, then back in the other direction on the next whistle blow. Krazy spots a large pot-bellied stove providing heating for the court. He opens the grating, and scoops out with a small shovel a load of glowing coals. Holding the coals before him as a weapon, he forces the trapeze man into retreat. But Krazy trips on a fold in the carpeting of the aisle (In a court, wouldn’t you think the carpets would be nailed down, to avoid exposure to accident liability?), and the coals fly off of Krazy’s shovel, landing on the end of the board carried by his opponent. Now the tables turn, and the trapeze man pursues Krazy, holding the board full of coals over Krazy’s tail, and dropping them one by one to sear Krazy’s fur. A third coal causes Krazy to leap in the air and trip again, right in the path of the trapeze man. The performer goes flying, crashing headfirst into the judge’s bench, where he is trapped. Meanwhile, the coals fly in an opposite direction (interesting defiance of the laws of momentum), and Krazy catches them again with his shovel. He is about to dump them into the trapeze man’s tights, when he realizes he can make more of the opportunity. Discarding the coals he’s got, he returns to the pot bellied stove, obtaining a much bigger shovel, and loads up on the entire remaining coals left in the oven. His rival receives a major posterior “hotfoot”, running headlong out the courthouse door, carrying both judge and judge’s bench stull stuck upon his head. Then who appears at the door but repentent Kitty, who happily reunites with Krazy. The film ends as the visitor’s gallery serenades the happy couple to the closing bars of the song, as they swing back and forth in trapeze fashion from the chandelier of the courtroom.
Servant’s Entrance (Fox, 9/26/34) is a live-action comedy starring Janet Gaynor, in which she masquerades as a domestic, not knowing the first thing about the trade. However, the film features an elaborate black and white animated sequence, contributed by Walt Disney. (You could hardly expect the studio to farm the work to Paul Terry, having no experience at the time in combining animation with live action.) Featuring voice-over by regulars Billy Bletcher and Pinto Colvig, an egg serves as judge over a trial of Janet for misuse and abuse of kitchen utensils. The courtroom is Janet’s bedroom in a dream sequence, where she is tried for such offenses as using a fine kitchen fork to open a can of cheap sardines, busting its tine. Not much actually happens, as Janet pleads for leniency, and gets a suspended sentence. But the animation is elaborate and charming, with all dialogue set to music in an engaging score. It’s been written up on this website once before – but it’s worth seeing again.
Buddy’s Bug Hunt (Warner, Looney Tunes (Buddy), 6/6/35, Jack King, dir.) – Bug collector Buddy has captured and placed into display cases nearly every bug known to man. While examining a spider under a microscope, Buddy has an accidental (and highly convenient for the writers in light of its implausibility) mishap with a tank of ether, and knocks himself into a dream. In his nightmare, the spider breaks loose from the microscope slide, then releases several other spiders and a frog from their cases and bottles. The spiders throw a web over the prone buddy, while the first spider and frog mix knockout drops in a glass of water. As the other spiders place a funnel in Buddy’s mouth, the frog sucks up the knockout potion into his cheeks with a straw, then spits it out into Buddy’s funnel. Swallowing the potion, Buffy is reduced to bug size, and taken prisoner. Inside the cabinetry of an old radio, a court session is held, charging Buddy with various counts of cruelty to the insect world. The jury (a full contingent this time) is seated inside the compartments of a crate designed to hold one dozen eggs. The judge apears on the platform of a cuckoo clock. In rhyming dialogue, the trial commences, with three testifying witnesses – a grasshopper who had his leg grabbed off by the defendant and now is known as “Peg”, a butterfly orphaned when Buddy grabbed her parents off a leaf, and a Mae West stye “black widow”, who became that way when Buddy made off with her husband. The judge periodically bops Buddy on the head with his gavel, then calls for a verdict. “Your honor, we’ve done our duty. Our verdict we’ll now reveal. He is guilty, guilty, guilty, and we want to hear him squeal.” The judge’s sentence: “Give him the works. Buddy is tied upon a cigar lighter, hooked to an electric current from a battery. The current is turned to full blast, and flames shoot up where Buddy is sitting, the lighter toppling over and pinning Buddy down as the flames continue. However, this is a dream, and the heat Buddy is feeling actually comes from magnified sunlight through the glass of one of his display cases. Buddy awakens, dousing his pants with water. He then releases all his bugs and frogs, finally slamming the door on his bug museum clubhouse so hard it collapses the structure onto Buddy. Two frogs play see saw on one of the boards before him, as Buddy smiles for the iris out.
Enjoy a really lousy copy of the cartoon here.
Court will resume in session, same time next week.