Thursday 24 November 2011

Swing You Sinners!

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems there were reels and reels of cartoons out of New York in the early ‘30s involving characters caught in nightmarish or out-of-control situations. One of the best is ‘Swing You Sinners’ (1930).

The Fleischer studio was, far and away, the tops of the three major cartoon operations in New York. At their best, the Fleischer cartoons are fun and extremely warped (though you can say the same thing for Terry and Van Beuren, too). ‘Sinners’ benefits from a never-ending flow of things on the screen. Something is always morphing into something else. Things suddenly sprout a mouth, arms and legs and behave like humans.

A really interesting effect happens at the beginning of ‘Sinners.’ Bimbo gets into a fight with a chicken. To emphasize the violence, the background drawing is rotated clockwise behind the animation. Look where the chicken coop is in the top drawing.

And, yes, Bimbo and the chicken have exchanged heads. Some of the gags are so casual and so much is going on, you miss them the first time. That’s just one good reason to watch the Fleischer cartoons over and over.

Ted Sears (later a Disney writer) and Willard Bowsky (who died in France during World War Two) are the credited animators in this.

It’s a shame the Fleischer cartoons got watered down as the ‘30s wore on but there was a time when a point could be made they were more entertaining than the cheery animated antics that came out of the West Coast.


  1. Bowsky was the studio's undisputed king of menacing and/or nightmarish images, even though as Shamus Culhane noted in his autobiography, he and the others were just thrown into animating when this cartoon was made and Ted Sears was the de facto director on "Sinners".

    Bowsky reveled in his ability to scare the bejeezus out of the kids in the theater audience. He was also the one who handled the first use of the "mystery cave" in "Minnie the Moocher" while sending Betty to hell in "Red Hot Moma", and you can fast forward all the way to 1939 and see his bizarre touches in "Small Fry" and "Wotta Nightmare". Dave Tendlar kind of followed in his footsteps after he left Willard's unit, but if there's an unnerving piece of animation you remember from the Fleischer cartoon, odds are well better than 50-50 that the Bowsky crew animated it.

  2. I suspect, though, J.L. that Dave Fleischer would have worked some of that kind of stuff into the story.

  3. Dave was definitely a major part of any Fleischer cartoon until just before the studio's demise. The swapping heads gag in "Sinners" definitely seems like something Dave would either think up or completely support.

    But if you go through the cartoons over the years, the different head animators each had their own strengths -- if you wanted a cartoon that would make the audience a tad uneasy, Bowsky (and later Tendlar) were your choices -- the did menace along with powerful (and often misogynistic) characters best, and make the audience 'feel' the cartoon the most. Seymour Kneitel and Tom Johnson were the best ones for straight comedy cartoons, while if you wanted something 'cute' that would appeal to the ladies in the theater (and later make millions of dollars in Pudgy merchandise marketing), Myron Waldman was the one you went to.

    Like the Warners' studio, the different viewpoints were what made the studio so great, because even with Dave Fleischer overseeing everything, a Bowsky Betty Boop, Screen Song or Popeye cartoon was going to be different than one helmed by Kneitel, Johnson or Waldman, even though the later efforts to mimic Disney blanded some of those differences out.