JAMMIN’ AT THE LILY PAD: The Music Comes Full Circle With The “Bosko Trilogy”

by Kevin Wollenweber

Foreword from Rachel

After more than a year, Kevin and I are making a long-overdue return to the MGM incarnation of our favorite character, Bosko–more specifically, the final three cartoons in the series, which we’ve come to refer to as the “Bosko Trilogy.”

Made toward the end of Hugh and Rudy’s tenure as independent producers, the Trilogy stands as a bittersweet foreshadowing of what they might have done had they continued as such. In few other cartoons do a modern, jazzy sensibility and Disney-like innocence come together so well.

These deceptively similar cartoons appeal on enough levels to inspire a book in themselves; a mere review seems inadequate, but that’s what we’re going to attempt to do. Were we to indulge ourselves, we could talk about these cartoons among ourselves forever, as heretofore-unnoticed details crop up with every viewing, but we’ve kept our dear readers waiting long enough. In today’s essay, Kevin’s offers his perspective on the Trilogy in general, with emphasis on the first cartoon in the series, L’il Ol’ Bosko and the Pirates. Mine will follow in a subsequent post.

We’ve told the story so many times, here and there in our ramblings on this blog, about Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising leaving their old boss, Walt Disney, for what they hoped would be far greener and more successful pastures, forming their own animation company and getting distributed by Warner Brothers, and then MGM. Those earliest years, experimenting with their own musical series of cartoons, the Looney Tunes and then the Happy Harmonies, spawned cute little wide-eyed and talented characters like Foxy (at Warner Brothers) and their most successful creation, Bosko, that “talk-ink” kid.

I never knew the character’s actual age when the series started at Warner Brothers, but he always seemed to me to be, aside from a kind of more likable clone of Mickey Mouse at Disney, a very young character, full of all the traits of the perpetual child, full of imagination and enthusiasm.

As the character slowly evolved, he took on many tasks and wore many hats, from woodsman to champion boxer to knight in shining armor to somewhat frightened soldier fighting his country’s war. When Hugh and Rudy left Warner Brothers over creative differences, they moved to have their cartoons distributed by MGM which was going to allow them larger budgets and, although the Hays Code had kicked in, more creative freedoms to expand their designs of characters.

Bosko was the only character of that LOONEY TUNES period to travel with them to distribution at MGM. In fact, the first Bosko cartoon to be created at the new home, Bosko’s Parlor Pranks, was a kind of overview of where the character had been for the first three years or so. We could pick out so many bits of reused animation, a nagging shortcut during any of the Harman/Ising series, but we also noticed that he was beginning to look more human with more identifying detail as new and bigger budgets allowed.

He was once again, technically, a young country boy, a dark-skinned stereotype but a rural one, but the MIckey Mouse comparison still remained because the main characters in the first few cartoons were Bosko, his girlfriend, Honey and their hapless dog, Bruno. The HAPPY HARMONIES series, however, only lasted for three-and-a-quarter years or so, again due to creative differences-Harman and Ising wanted a lot of financial backing for these experiments, but MGM wasn’t willing to allow them the large figures they had been allotted thus far, as the movie company was starting their own in-house studio with some of the animators that were working under the Harmon/Ising team.

Yet, with the close of the HAPPY HARMONIES series, Bosko was seeing his final days and, while these occurred without his girlfriend, Honey, or dog, Bruno, we note that Bosko is again a very musical little character, a definite child now voiced by a little boy, and with a very fertile imagination with the same group of jazz-playing amphibious caricatures of entertainers of the period for all three cartoons. The animation in these cartoons is so wonderful to watch.

Right away, we see shades of the imagined childhood years of the Talk-Ink Kid, dancing along a road and tapping out beats in competition to an early morning woodpecker before he hops on a small block of wood that becomes his makeshift raft. He encounters the wreck of a ship that turns out to suddenly take it’s original form again and become the first of three Bosko “adventures” of sorts. But, like the earliest musical LOONEY TUNES or MERRIE MELODIES, this Bosko is never leaving music out of the mix, and even those forces that are going to be Bosko’s dangerous foes are musical ones.

But in order to continue this story, I have to backtrack just a little, to 1935 and the creation of a wonderful animated musical revue of sorts produced and directed by Hugh Harman apart from his reconfigurations of the Bosko character-a film called “THE OLD MILL POND”.

This film is a very tuneful cartoonization of all-black live stage performances of the period, where jazz legends and showpeople get up and perform their numbers during the hot evening hours. Cartoon license reinvented them as musical frogs that leap off their lily pads and onto a nicely lit stage to swing out with songs like “I Heard” and “Tiger Rag” which, in this cartoon, comes with a bit of comic banter in which one of the musicians disguises himself as a tiger to scare one of the other performers, a Stepin Fetchit caricature, and chase him around the stage as the “house” band performs the famous jazz/pop classic.

These “swing” cartoons, as I’ll call them, churn themselves up into a nonstop frenzy that usually has the musicians trashing their own instruments when the rhythmn gets too hot and fast and throwing themselves back into the cooling waters, leaving the scene once again quiet to greet the dewy morning. The second of these cartoons is an even more elaborate revue, Swing Wedding, with the same troupe of jazzy frogs and entertainment and jazz caricatures, performing the story of the wedding of Smokey Joe (the Stepin Fetchit caricature) and a slinky but no-nonsense Minnie the Moocher.

Enter the cool rival, “the man who can swing” (the Cab Calloway caricature) and the contest is on, once an at first reluctant Smokey Joe persuades himself that he will get married and speeds up from an uncertain shuffle to a rocket blast of energy that gets him there in literally a flash of light, just as an impatient Minnie is about to walk down that aisle with the intruder.

The climactic moment is the swing out session that pits the two rivals for Minnie’s affections against each other, turning into the usual wild and loud party that ends up with the frogs giddily forgetting why they congregated there in the first place and tumbling back into that pond, with the master of ceremonies, the Louis Armstrong caricature peering out at the audience as he cools off in the water, whispering the famous last words, “swing…swing” as the iris closes.

Ah, but we’re talking about Bosko, right? So now, the year 1937 is moving by rather fast, and it seems like the most elaborate year of visual splendor for Hugh Harman, especially, as he creates some stunning musical toons, also, with his typically 1930’s wide-eyed innocent characters, but the distributor (MGM) has decided that the very expensive HAPPY HARMONIES will not continue and the two head animators would not see their dream of even attempting feature films, if indeed the HAPPY HARMONIES were leading up to that.

So it seems to this reviewer that Harmon wanted to take Bosko out on a high note, with three somewhat similarly-themed cartoons that we BOSKO fans lovingly call “the Bosko Trilogy”, in which Bosko’s task, dictated by his “Mammy”, is to take a bag of freshly baked cookies to his Grandma’s house.

Being the little bundle of mischief that we know Bosko is, he never quite makes it to Grandma’s and, to spark things up quite a bit, he uses his vivid imagination as he struggles along the marshes and surrounding foliage, to dredge up adventures, re-acquainting us with those jazzy frogs that were nicely introduced in the preceeding two song-filled cartoons.

The caricatures get a bit muddier now that they are merely Bosko’s imagined foes after this bag of cookies. There is an exclusive production number played throughout all three of these cartoons, the “Grandma’s Cookies” song that, as the cartoon progresses, is played faster and faster until the frogs basically end up destroying themselves and Bosko’s nightmare/daydream, abruptly bringing him back to reality.

My favorite of these is the first of the three cartoons, a nicely paced toon called L’il Ol’ Bosko and the Pirates. Each of these elaborate and gorgeous-looking cartoons opens with a brown-skinned hand, slowly opening a beautiful, hard cover storybook with the name of the cartoon on its front, and this starts the story rolling. As I said, Bosko is now voiced by a black child, reminding this reviewer of any of the OUR GANG kids of color like a very young Matthew “Stymie” Beard, and his Mom is instructing him to take “this bag of cookies to your Grandma’s”, warning him to “get along” and don’t dawdle. Bosko is already in high spirits and talk/singin’ a song:

Straight to Grandma’s here I go

To bring de cookies to her front door.

The hen went to cackle, the cock went to crow.

Straight to Grandma’s here I go!

He dances through the rhythms of nature, before leaping onto his raft and becoming curious around the wreck of a ship, the obvious start up for his first “adventure”. But we know this isn’t an adventure a la the action adventure cartoons that we’d be inundated with three decades later. These are adventures that only 1930’s cartoon characters could have: neatly choreographed, full of then- popular cartoonizations of famous entertainment icons, especially entertainer Lincoln Theodore Perry–the man who called himself Stepin Fetchit–who, by this time, was so popular that just about every cartoon studio of the first golden age of talking pictures contained his exaggerated characterization (in two dimensional form) of the “laziest man in the world”.

Cartoon exaggerations of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway (both of whom actually took part in animated cartoons on the East Coast at Max Fleischer Studios a la their highly successful BETTY BOOP series) and other partially identifiable personalities like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller were also represented but, sadly, not fully realized.

Yet, the “stride” piano style of “Fats” Waller can be heard throughout all of the cartoons mentioned herein. One wonders whether future cartoons of this type might have been another place for such musicians to find a creative resource and outlet.

The Bosko cartoons were as musical and entertaining as the earliest LOONEY TUNES title, Sinkin’ In The Bathtub, in which everything that Bosko does lends itself nicely to the title tune, played again and again and pulling us along with its charm. While we rather like the older Bosko, this new humanized Bosko reaches a peak in these cartoons merely because he is a fully realized little human boy, a reference, as previously outlined, perhaps to the kid comedies of the age like the afore-mentioned OUR GANG comedies from Hal Roach, also being distributed by MGM.

If the team of Harman and Ising were not going to be dropped by MGM, one wonders just where they would have taken Bosko from there. Would his girlfriend, Honey, return and, perhaps, the two be further influenced by the also very popular Busby Berkeley musicals of the day? These are questions that keep my mind reelin’ as I watch these beautifully animated bits of swingtime dreamland.

There would be two other cartoons to make up this “trilogy”, a second, titled Bosko and the Cannibals, in which Bosko’s trip to Grandma’s takes him through the woods that turns into “a cannibal’s island” (where the tribe threatens to eat him if he doesn’t relinquish his cookies) and the third, Bosko In Baghdad, takes him to “li’l ol’ Baghdad” to meet with the Sultan who, of course, will give him all the riches and food and drink he might crave after his long, long journey (through the night sky on a magic carpet powered by, what else, that swingin’ trumpet) with Bosko having to hand over nothing in payment except that little bag of cookies he nervously and defiantly clutches to his chest.

Man, these cookies sure must be, as Bosko’s Mammy exclaims in the third cartoon, “presumptious” to such a degree that these jazzy figments are so ravenous for them! Ah, but remember, folks, these three cartoons are the daydreams of a little boy, a child at play, when all is said and done!

These subsequent cartoons are equally stunning, marred only by the muck and mire of stereotyping or, as I said, half-realizing the true essence of each caricatured performer, something that was prevalent in the day with cartoons at all studios being somewhat influenced or even inspired by minstrel shows and exaggerating certain easily identifiable traits of the vaudeville banter beyond what the actual performers would have done at the time, but somehow the music remains infectious.

In this case, my only real negative criticism is that it would have helped this series if the actual performers were able to help write the plots of the cartoons and perform their segments. Imagine, if you will, what such a cartoon musical might be today, as homage to the old hoofers and jazz greats of a bygone age. There would be more banter, a la Swing Wedding or Old Mill Pond.

But so much time is wasted with similar situations as Bosko is cornered by the frogs who want nothing more from him than his coveted bag of cookies or he would be in danger of being drowned, boiled alive or force-fed castor oil, the third situation being the most inventive of the three, harkening back, as Rachel and I have said before, to the Fleischer cartoons that incorporated jazz music in surreal, almost hallucinogenic surroundings.

Watching and re-watching these three crazed cartoons not only makes you wonder where the duo would have taken Bosko, it also makes you wish that they would have done their homework, as did the Fleischers, and learn more about all facets of black and tan musicals, even allowing the musicians to co-produce the jests and rhymes and songs. The cartoons are time capsules that could be misunderstood and, therefore, unsettling to some, but they really ought to be acknowledged for what could have been.

And, perhaps someday, collectors and film fans will be treated to all the actual performances captured (some believed to be lost forever) on celluloid, as few as they are, that feature musical moments that are caricatured here, so the full history could be told, and cartoons like this will no longer be “orphans” but would, instead, be blueprints for cartoonizations of jazz from the imagination of a little boy out to wander on a sunny afternoon .

Gone but not entirely forgotten…and for all the right reasons, the earliest Bosko will be given his long-awaited due on LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION, VOL. 6, but the fate of the MGM reconfiguration of the character, including the “Trilogy” is still in limbo. I gladly and gleefully write about them here to inform and, hopefully, enlighten and, as Leonard Maltin is always saying in the disclaimers, “not to sweep the cartoons under the rug” as talented musicians of color had taken part in these films.

Where would Bosko have gone? We’ll never know, but the elaborate and stunning animation on these films tells us that, if the HAPPY HARMONIES series were allowed to continue and bring us more musical fun, Li’l Ol’ Bosko would not have totally been misunderstood. Perhaps, the true personality and fun of the character was better featured in his second MGM cartoon, Hey Hey Fever, a toon whose full review will wait for another day, but in short, he is a very positive figure trying to pull the inhabitants of Mother Goose Land out of the Depression by showing them that they could grow their own food with their own hands, paws and tools on the farm. Now, this particular Bosko is the true throwback to the days of LOONEY TUNES, when Bosko could be a motivator. I’d like to think it was possible that Bosko could have achieved this positive image again, but, as 1937 was rushing by, times were changing and new ways of looking at the animated cartoon were ominously around the corner and already finding the wide-eyed innocent characters of the 1930’s nothing more than corn and hokum. So maybe Bosko had only three more cartoons in him, but all three are interesting and worth a look.


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