On Cartoons

YouTube – Cab Calloway St. James Infirmary by Fleischer

My senior year in high school I signed up for a cinematography class (one of the benefits of growing up in Los Angeles) in order to fulfill a graduation requirement for a fine arts elective (another benefit of going to school in a Liberal state). To make a long story short, due to a clerical error, I ended up in an animation class. Now, I’ve never been a particularly good drawer, cartoonist, or painter; so it was with quite a bit of trepidation that I decided not to switch out of the class. The real deciding factor was the fact that one of my best friends had signed up for the class with me, and I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry. That, and it had a reputation as an easy class, which would allow me to keep my commitment to focus my senior year on friends, football, and fun.

So, there I was on the first day, forced to confront the horrendous disconnect between the copiously-detailed visions in my head and my left hand’s ability to translate them into an image on a sketch pad. I have always been a man of words, even though I spent a good portion of my teenage years running from it. The pictures in my mind are just as vivid as any of Picasso’s or Renoir’s, but my medium is the written word, using adjectives, verbs, nouns, and all the others to paint the perfect portrait. My drawings on the other hand were all childish.

But as nervous as I was, the first day proved that most of the rest of my fellow students had the same approximate level of cartoonist ability as I did. To make matters even better, our teacher was a cartoonist-turned-English teacher who looked as if he had just come back from catching some early morning waves. His long blond hair and laid-back attitude put me at ease.

Anyway, in order to showcase different styles of animation and to educate us on the history of animation, he would pull old cartoons from the vaults and play them for us. These were the true golden standards of cartooning, from back in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, when great men like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng made them.

One of the cartoons he showed one day was the parent of the clip pasted above. It’s from an old Betty Boop reel and features caricatured Cab Calloway singing the Saint James Infirmary Blues. I was captivated from the moment I laid eyes on the screen. Cab’s haunting voice paired with the surreal imagery thrilled me. It inspired me, the tune playing endlessly in my head for the rest of the day.

Since that day, I’ve searched the whole wide world over trying to find the cartoon as it is a personal favorite of mine. Having stumbled across it this evening, I have been in a wash of nostalgia, reminiscing about my high school days.

“But how did you fare in the class?” You, my beloved reader, might ask. Well, I can tell you quite plainly that hours of hard work and¬†diligence honed my drawing abilities. Also, the cartoon cemented Cab Calloway’s version of the Saint James Infirmary Blues on my favorites list in iTunes. So in the end, it all came up spades.