Review-synopsis by Rachel Newstead
L’il Ol’Bosko and the Pirates
Release Date: May 1, 1937
Director: Hugh Harman
In short: Little Bosko’s imagination runs wild, conjuring up a boatload of musical pirate frogs who show him–and us–just what “wild” means…
There is, I admit, an undeniable advantage to watching cartoons in the internet age.
When I was a child, TV programmers ruled. Cartoons came on when the programmers wanted, however often they wanted–and could be yanked off the air just as arbitrarily, for weeks or even months. Or for that matter, forever.
On the one hand, it made cartoon-watching an event, something to be eagerly anticipated. And yet…
I never knew when a favorite cartoon would reappear. Were I to miss it, I’d have to wait until it came up again in the rotation, however long that may be. Consequently, it could take years of repeat viewing to catch all the subtleties, the inside jokes, the individual “fingerprints” of each animator’s style.
Now, armed with DVDs, YouTube and the ability to instantly view nearly anything I desire, as many times as I desire, that same process can take days or even hours.
“L’il Ol’ Bosko and the Pirates” was not one of those cartoons I was fortunate enough to see in my childhood–it and cartoons like it had pretty much faded from TV by the time my interest in animation reached full flower–but the rule still applies.
I first had the privilege of viewing a copy some two years ago. Then, as too often happens, I misplaced it, and much of its wonderful detail faded from my mind.
When finally able to see it again–and again and again–about a week ago, what I found was a revelation.
The Bosko Trilogy (as Kevin and I have come to call it) are so nearly identical as to seem exact copies to the more jaded, less discriminating viewer. Indeed, that’s what I thought at first–those of you who read my earlier writings on this series might remember my attempt to be funny with my “Contractual Obligation Trilogy” remark. I’ve regretted that ever since.
L’il Ol’ Bosko and the Pirates, in fact, is no more a “copy” of the other two cartoons than Chuck Jones’ Bugs/Daffy/Elmer trilogy (Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit Fire and Duck, Rabbit, Duck!) are copies of one another. As with Jones’ films, each stands on its own, with elements that mark it as unique; each has its strengths–and its weaknesses. The purpose of this review, then, is not to discuss its similarities to the others, but the ways in which it stands out–and why those subtle differences make it the best of the three.
“Straight to Grandma’s, here I go!”…but don’t bet on it
The cartoon opens as we’ll soon be accustomed to seeing in the Bosko Trilogy, with a revamped (for the second time in four years) “L’il Ol’ Bosko” receiving instructions from his “mammy” to go “straight to Grandma’s” with a bag of fresh-baked cookies. But Bosko, like most little kids, is disinclined to go “straight to” anywhere without taking a detour through his imagination. And Bosko’s is a bit more… active than most.
His musical promise to go “Straight To Grandma’s” is all too quickly broken within the first few seconds, when he encounters a woodpecker busily tapping at a tree.
Not content to let that go unchallenged, Bosko decides to show he can tap as well as the best of them. Hopping on a hollow log, he tap-dances out a rhythm of his own, matching the woodpecker tap for tap. But as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s the little things that makes this endearing, as when Bosko gives his feathered opponent a cocky nod of the head as if to say, “Beat THAT!” The “duel” is delightful (and my favorite scene). Little Bosko proves to be an even better dancer than his early-30s Schlesinger counterpart–and this scene only hints at what’s coming.
The woodpecker, however, “wins” the match when an over-energetic dance move causes Bosko to fall off the log. He resumes his journey for the moment only to be distracted again by a bucket floating in a nearby river.
To little Bosko’s mind, this is an invitation to adventure. Hopping into his little “boat”, he notices a bottle float by in front of him–it becomes a spyglass, while the wrecked boat he spots among the rushes and weeds transforms into the terror and delight of little boys everywhere: a pirate ship, looming huge in the distance.
Naturally, Bosko gets a bit closer than he would have liked, thanks to a cannonball fired by the pirate captain (a large frog with a Louis Armstrong-like voice, called “Fog Horn” in these cartoons.) The wave created by the cannonball sends Bosko’s little craft high in the air, and before Bosko knows it, the pirate captain snags him with his sword and deposits him on deck. Does he want to shanghai our little friend? Hang him from the highest yardarm?
Nothing as bloodthirsty as that, it turns out. He wants what’s in Bosko’s bag.
“Yeah, yeah, whatcha got there, boy, whatcha got there?” the captain says. “I’m going to my Grandma’s!” Bosko yells back, still dangling in midair.
“You wouldn’t happen to have no cookies in that there bag, would you now?” the captain says. When Bosko raises his objections, the captain blusters, “You talk about you got cookies! You got dis, and you got dat! And you got cookies, and your grandma’s waitin’ for ’em! WELL, WE AIN’T GOT NO COOKIES!”
“You can’t have dese cookies–dese my grandma’s cookies!” Bosko protests. When he turns around he sees the pirate crew, who just happened to overhear the magic word, “cookies.” Soon it’s all over the ship. Frogs from every corner–up in the crow’s nest, up a rope ladder, even hiding inside a cannon–yell “Cookies?!” in succession.
From here the pirate captain launches into the now-familiar (to us) “Grandma’s Cookies” number. A group of four pirate crew sing along in impressive four-part harmony.
The pirate captain becomes a bit more menacing, seeming to fill the scene as he advances toward Bosko. “Now, now, now, you wouldn’t let a l’il ol pirate, who never did anybody any harm or nothin’, go hungry when you got those cookies, now would ya now?”
Bosko runs toward a stairway, where he encounters a Bill Robinson frog, and both do a version of the staircase dance that Robinson did with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935)–this, at least to my eyes, is a tribute to the great “Bojangles” rather than a mockery, despite the Robinson frog’s ungainly imitation of his human counterpart’s dance steps. Though the consummate performer in Bosko appears to be enjoying the dance, he eyes the Robinson frog a bit skeptically. The dance, unfortunately, is cut short by the ever-looming figure of the pirate captain.
A little more insistent this time, the captain says,”Yeah yeah yeah…now look here! Is you gonna give us dose cookies, or is you ain’t?” Bosko answers merely by tapping in defiance, chest stuck out.
“Then you gonna walk the plank!”, The captain exclaims. “Swing out, now!” From here we get the
backward countdown tap-dance sequence seen in the other two entries in the trilogy, but it’s probably done best here. (Listeners of the Orphan Toons Podcast might recognize this as the leadoff to the opening title of our program.) Bosko’s little routine is graceful beyond his supposed years, and in complex syncopated rhythm–Harman and his animators, it seems, did do their homework by studying black tap-dancers of the period, even if the flat-footed hoofing of their froggy Bill Robinson didn’t exactly reflect that.
So impressed with Bosko’s routine is the crew that they forget why they had him on the plank in the first place–the motley assemblage jumps up and down, cheering and applauding. Our Bosko has won them over, to the chagrin of the captain.
“Heave the anchor/Hoist the sail/Ring the bell and kick the pail…” the captain shouts as his frustration and the energy of the “Grandma’s Cookies” song increases.
The band of pirates becomes a literal “band,” complete with a pirate Cab Calloway frog, another fixture from the other two films, as well as Swing Wedding and The Old Mill Pond. The Calloway frog is so overcome with ecstasy at the thought of the cookies (it might be even considered sexual in a less innocent medium) he “shoots” himself–though this being a child’s imagination, it’s with a pop-gun pistol–and falls backward into the hold.
Now it’s Bosko’s turn to go wild, doing a frenzied tap dance as he conducts this impromptu orchestra, interrupted every so often by a frog drummer who’s a little overenthusiastic, continuing to drum after Bosko has stopped. In one scene, Bosko in a gesture of frustration, stomps off in a corner to wait it out. If the “woodpecker” sequence weren’t sufficient proof that Harman could do personality animation as well as his old mentor Disney, this is.
In what could be considered either musical ecstasy or insanity, one frog musician plucks his bass upside down, finally bringing it down in splinters on his head. This prompts a Fats Waller frog to utter his trademark line, “What’s de matta wid him?” He launches into an extended dialogue as he plays his piano riff, of which the only intelligible dialogue is “Dose cookies, dose cookies, I love dem, I love dem…”
Bosko’s dancing keeps up with the general level of chaos–he starts skidding, running, jumping and doing cartwheels from one end of the ship to the other. Their playing seems to churn up the very waves, as the ship pitches back and forth with every trumpet note.
The pirate captain screams: “Ooww…those cookies!” Caught up in the rhythm and his single-minded desire, he knocks the heads of two of his crew together in rhythm to the music.
As the excitement reaches its crescendo, we see–among other things–one cross-eyed goof of a fellow sawing off the spar on which he’s sitting. The captain, meanwhile, has dived through the deck into the hold below. The goofball frog who’d been sawing off the spar in the earlier scene hops into the crow’s nest, which drops down to the ground and gets knocked back up in the air, something like those “test your strength” carnival games. He says something as he enters the crow’s nest, but as with the cartoon Waller’s lines, neither Kevin nor I could make out what. Kevin has his ideas, but that will have to wait for another time.
Bosko’s dancing, meanwhile, is so fast and furious his feet literally glow red-hot, setting the deck on fire underneath him. He falls through into a barrel of gunpowder, with predictable results. The pirate captain, who had fallen into the other barrel earlier, shouts “Oooh, those cookies!” just before the inevitable explosion.
It sends Bosko far up into the air and back into his little bucket. The last we see of the pirates is the captain, who repeats the line of the Fats Waller frog–“Dose cookies, dose cookies, I love dem, I love dem… ” The ship, now not quite so menacing, morphs back into the little boat it really is. Bosko reaches shore and goes on his way, singing the “Straight To Grandma’s” song, kicking off what (at the time) appeared to be the beginning of a revitalized Bosko series. If only that were so.
When first writing about this trilogy a year ago, I would have been reluctant to compare any cartoon in it to those of the Fleischer studio, except perhaps negatively. While there’s still a lot he could have learned from Max and Dave, in some ways, Harman seems to have captured the dark, hallucinatory quality of Fleischer’s cartoons.
In several scenes, as the pirate captain advances toward Bosko, his sheer bulk fills the screen–looking at it I can only think of Fleischer’s The Old Man Of The Mountain (which, incidentally, featured the voice and dance moves of the real Cab Calloway). When Betty Boop first encounters The Old Man, he advances toward her with a hungry expression, appearing to swell to three times her size before he fills the frame entirely. His motives weren’t quite as innocent as the pirate’s, I’ll admit, but from the perspective of a small child such as Bosko, the pirate’s seeming inflation in size was no less terrifying.
Everything about this cartoon seems bigger than life, as would be expected in a child’s worst nightmares. The pirate ship isn’t simply large, it’s enormous; the music isn’t merely chaotic, but literally explosive.
Bosko’s dancing is literally “hot”, to the point that it sets the deck ablaze. It is very much the manner in which a child perceives the outside world–incomprehensible and somewhat dangerous, a world in which everything seems gigantic and out of the child’s control. Yet once the nightmare passes, everything becomes familiar and normal once again.
If this cartoon suffers, it’s in the portrayal of the black performers caricatured here, a defect that would carry over to the other cartoons in the trilogy. The Fats Waller caricature and “Fog Horn”, the Louis Armstrong stand-in, are almost interchangeable, shortchanging both performers. No two musicians could be more different: Waller in particular had a vast range of facial expressions and one-liners in his comic reservoir, aided by a mellow baritone in stark contrast to Armstrong’s raspy bass. All of this Harman either overlooks or ignores.
Harman’s version of Cab Calloway, in contrast to the fiery yet urbane individual captured on film by the Fleischers, appears almost psychotic, with little of the finesse of cartoons like Minnie The Moocher. Calloway’s high notes could be piercing, his scat-singing could be rapid-fire, but he did not scream indiscriminately like a madman. As Chuck Jones often said, to satirize something, you must know what you satirize.
As I said in the beginning, repeated viewing can reveal things never noticed before; one scene in Pirates had me puzzled, and may well remain a mystery. At one point as the Fats Waller frog plays his piano, he assumes a pose I’d seen in at least one other cartoon. It would be easy to dismiss this as evidence of Harman’s sometimes irritating reuse of animation–if the other cartoon hadn’t come from Leon Schlesinger.
In September in the Rain (released a year before Harman’s cartoon) the Fats Waller caricature–here portrayed as a Gold Dust Twin–lounges casually on one elbow with his feet in the air as he plays. His counterpart in Bosko and the Pirates assumes a near-identical pose, only reversed.
It could not be an instance of re-used animation, as Harman had, of course, vacated Schlesinger’s years before, but the two poses are similar enough to warrant considerable speculation. Animators in the Golden Age were known to blatantly copy one another’s gags–perhaps I’d stumbled onto yet another example. Perhaps it was a characteristic of Waller’s, captured by two different cartoonists.
Or perhaps I, too, am letting my imagination run away with me.