31 Days of spooky, day 22:Two songs by Cab Calloway

Every day until Halloween, we'll post a spooky song to celebrate the annual thinning of the veil between this world and the next.
Cab Calloway
Cab Calloway / Fox Photos/GettyImages

Hold on... the story behind Cab Calloway's "Minnie The Moocher" and "St James Infirmary Blues" is a wild ride.

There's a huge overlap between surrealism and horror, obviously because it's unsettling when we don't know what's going on. The Betty Boop cartoons Minnie the Moocher, and Snow White, from 1932 and 1933 respectively were not intended to be horror. Spooky sure, but kid-friendly; but the weirdness of the cartoons elevates them to horror to a modern audience.

There are a million places this story could start, but let's start with the invention of the rotoscope. The rotoscope projects live-action footage onto tracing paper so that animators can draw each frame, creating animations that move like real actors. It was invented by Max Fleischer, who tested it out with footage of his brother Dave dancing in a clown costume. When animated, Dave Fleischer's Koko the Clown went on to be a character in Betty Boop cartoons.

Who else's movements would be good for demonstrating the rotoscope? Cab Calloway was a superstar jazz bandleader with hypnotic dance moves, sort of like a slow-motion moonwalk. Fleischer Studios chose to animate Calloway as a walrus ghost (or ghost walrus, maybe) for a Betty Boop cartoon that is truly one of the most bizarre things ever put to film.

Cab Calloway plus Betty Boop equals abject horror

Betty Boop is being yelled at by her parents for not eating her hasenpfeffer and calls up her boyfriend to run away from home (don't think so hard about Betty Boop looking like a grown-up, but acting like a child.) Her boyfriend is a dog named Bimbo, by the way. Betty and Bimbo find themselves in a cave where Cab Calloway's ghost walrus sings a song about a cocaine overdose, with inebriated skeletons, ghosts electrocuting themselves, and the aforementioned eyeless kittens.

Minnie The Moocher's 1933 follow-up Snow-White is even weirder, but at least the musical number makes sense. With Betty encased in a casket-shaped block of ice, Koko the Clown, now played by Calloway, is transformed into a ghost, and sings "St James Infirmary Blues, a song about a guy visiting his lover in the morgue, and fantasising about his own death.

The moral of the story is that the further back in time you look, the weirder things get.

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