The Surrealists could take lessons from these guys
I love Fleischer cartoons, whether it's Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman, or the series known as Screen Songs, i.e. those weird mini-musicals featuring live action performers, off the wall animation, and that ever popular Bouncing Ball. There's more surrealism in the average seven-minute Fleischer short than you'll find in half a dozen canvases by Salvador Dali. This particular Screen Song features 24 year-old Ethel Merman, crooning a bluesy number about a couple who attempt a trial separation. The premise of the song is a little surprising: the singer urges her ex-partner to Try Somebody Else while she also Tries Somebody Else, neither one of them really enjoying it, you understand, with the eventual result that they'll find their new partners so unsatisfying they will reunite in the end. Come to think of it, this sounds like the plot line of quite a few '30s screwball comedies.
The odd thing about the song is that while the singer catalogs all the "fun" she and her ex-lover are having, the melody sounds like a funeral dirge. Miss Merman sings it in a straightforward and uncharacteristically low-key fashion, but what makes the short interesting is the animation seen at the opening, before we hear the lyrics, and again at the finale. In typical Flesicher style these segments have almost nothing to do with the song we're hearing, except in an oblique and ironic way.
While Ethel sings about relationships, the animation depicts prison life. (Hmmm, could they be implying something?) A guard releases a lowlife cat from jail, and the ex-con immediately sets about to burglarize a house. He opens a combination lock on a safe that turns out to be a fridge, and finds leftovers such as a fish and a chicken shivering in the cold air within. (A few eggs are cheerfully ice-skating, however.) Things turn macabre when the cat attempts to eat the fish, and members of the fish's family, also in the fridge, piteously plead for his life. Unfortunately for the cat, at this point the homeowner -- Betty Boop herself, in a brief but effective cameo -- appears wielding a shotgun, and he is marched right back to prison.
At the finale, after Ethel and the Bouncing Ball have taught us the song lyrics, we return to prison for a fast-paced series of gags. At times the juxtaposition of image and word form funny subliminal combinations, as when we see a convict at hard labor, breaking enormous rocks, while Merman sings "Let's take our fun where we find it." The visuals culminate in a daring jailbreak, and a surprise wrap-up gag that is so bizarre and twisted it left me gasping. There's no mistaking the Fleischer Touch!
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