In the twenties, the Fleischer brothers created Ko Ko, the Clown, who appeared in their popular Out of the Inkwell series. Later on they produced successful series of cartoons featuring Popeye and Superman. But the character probably most closely associated with the Fleischers was Betty Boop. Though Betty didn’t appear until the thirties, she seemed to be channeling the spirit of the twenties with her short dresses and bobbed hair. At times the cartoons she appeared in featured music performed by Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
Ha! Ha! Ha! begins, as many Fleischer cartoons do, with one of the Fleischer brothers at the drawing board. Max has just finished drawing Betty when quitting time arrives. Shortly after Max leaves for the day, Ko Ko pops out of the inkwell and starts wandering around on the desktop. Fleischer characters often interact with live action settings, and Ko Ko starts munching on a candy bar that Max has left behind. Almost immediately, he’s struck with a painful toothache, and Betty comes to his rescue. Jumping down off the drawing board, she picks up a pen and draws a dentist’s office, giving her all the tools she needs to pull Koko’s tooth, she thinks. After a brief, painful struggle, where pulling the tooth somehow looks more like dancing the tango, Ko Ko is still suffering terribly. Betty decides to give him some laughing gas, but unfortunately she’s a little careless. Soon the room is filled with a dense cloud of nitrous oxide.
This is where things really get interesting. One of the coolest things about the Fleischers’ world is that anything can, and does, happen. In this case, the clock on the wall suddenly has a face, and it begins to laugh. Then the same thing happens with a typewriter. But the effects of the drug aren’t just confined to the Fleischer studio. The gas spills out the window and into the streets below. Soon crowds of people are laughing hysterically, and even more inanimate objects come to startling life. A mailbox, a bridge, and a car are overcome with mirth, but it goes even farther. As the film nears its end we see an entire cemetery filled with tombstones, all of them bellowing with uncontrollable laughter.
Most animation studios produce cartoons with familiar stories based on familiar formulas, because they know their audience is looking for a safe high. The Fleischers didn’t play it safe. They really took advantage of the possibilities in animation by creating a universe where anything could happen, and the laws of nature didn’t apply. Their cartoons may take you into other dimensions, other realities. They may take you places you don’t even want to go. Much of their work has a wild, surreal quality, and some of it is truly creepy.
Unfortunately, they had to clean up their act in the mid-thirties when the Production Code took hold. The Fleischers continued to do excellent work, but without reaching the same crazy heights and scary depths. The character who suffered most was Betty Boop. In a way she seemed like the last hold-out from the jazz age, a cute, sexy girl looking to have fun. The Production Code put an end to all that. Forced to change her ways, Betty became a much less interesting character. She made her last cartoon in nineteen thirty nine.
You can watch Betty in Ha! Ha! Ha! by clicking on the link below.
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