Long before Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck took over as the major breadwinners for the Warner Bros. cartoon division, long before even Porky Pig (the first major star in the Warner Bros. cartoon stable), another character paid most of the bills. His name was Bosko, and today he's little known except by cartoon historians.
Bosko resulted after creators Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising left Disney Studios, enticed by higher wages and promises of work on Oswald the Rabbit cartoons for Universal (who had recently stolen Oswald from Disney). Harman and Ising saw their good fortunes disappear when Universal instead gave the Oswald contract to Walter Lantz. Harman and Ising eventually began their own cartoon studio, hiring fellow Disney expatriate Friz Freleng as animator and creating Bosko as their main cartoon character.
Today, it's not altogether surprising that Bosko has faded from memory. Compared to subsequent Warner Bros. cartoon stars, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Bosko is a bit bland, but these early sound-era cartoons nonetheless have charm. They're also mischievous and they occasionally contain surprisingly bawdy humor (frequently of a barn-yard variety). For example, in "The Booze Hangs High" (1930), the cartoon opens with a dark screen. Suddenly it becomes clear why the screen was dark: a cow's rear was in front of the camera! As the opening credits end, the cow walks away from the camera and the barnyard characters start interacting. "Congo Jazz" (1930) features trees that bump and grind like strippers, including branches that swing like breasts.
For cartoon aficionados who love such moments of naughty cartoon humor, the Bosko cartoons contain many surprises. This is one of the main attractions of these cartoons, as evidenced by the title of two new DVDs from Bosko Video and Image Entertainment: Uncensored Bosko, Volume 1 and Volume 2. But it would be a mistake to think the only attraction of these Bosko cartoons is their occasional bawdy moments. These are frequently witty cartoons. They never consistently hit the same level of wit as even medium-level Bugs Bunny cartoons, but these cartoons definitely deserve greater recognition. In particular, you can witness the early work of one of Warner Bros.' greatest animators -- Friz Freleng. In general, his cartoons are a notch ahead of the others on these two DVDs.
While Bosko inhabits a world of funny animals, it's not immediately apparent exactly what Bosko is. In Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic, he reports a conversation between a porter and animator Jack Zander: "I know Mickey Mouse and Krazy Kat, and Oswald the Rabbit … but Bosko the what?" asked the porter. What indeed. The first Bosko cartoon, "Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid" (1929; a demo made to attract potential backers), made this issue clear as Bosko stepped forward and said, "Well, here I is and I sho' feels good." Then he does a soft shoe dance. It's guaranteed to make many modern audience members groan in disbelief at the broad African-American caricature. Fortunately, however, subsequent Bosko cartoons make his heritage difficult to decipher. He immediately loses his Deep South accent -- until the final moments of each cartoon when he reverts to a Southern, black accent for "That's all folks." (These words long pre-date Porky Pig's stuttering finale for the classic later period Warner Bros. cartoons.) Never does Bosko's heritage come into question. He merely inhabits a "funny animal" world -- almost never encountering other humans (except for his girlfriend Honey) -- so his status as a human becomes irrelevant. Instead, he becomes a nondescript "funny animal" himself.
"Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid" consists of very simple line drawings (with no shadings whatsoever), mixed with live-action footage of Rudolph Ising as he interacts with Bosko, similar to Fleisher's "Out of the Inkwell" series. Despite the rudimentary animation of this initial Bosko endeavor, producer Leon Schlesinger saw potential and convinced Warner Bros. to purchase the rights to a series of Bosko cartoons.
Warner Bros. executives saw the Bosko series as a showcase for songs from their feature films. Publishing fees for sheet music brought in hefty royalty checks for the studios back in the '30s, so Bosko paid his dues in his early cartoons by performing a variety of songs. "Sinkin' in the Bathtub" (1930), for example, features the following songs: "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Tip Toe Through the Tulips," "Turkey in the Straw," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," and finally "Singing in the Bathtub" (from the feature The Show of Shows). To include such a wide selection of songs, the Bosko cartoons rarely devoted much time to plot. Bosko merrily moves from scene to scene, making music as he goes: a horses' tail becomes a violin, the planks on a porch become a xylophone, lily pads become drums, a pitchfork becomes a guitar, and shower streams become a harp.
Meanwhile, the animation takes great leaps forwards in terms of quality from "Talk-Ink Kid." These are wonderfully drawn and animated cartoons with excellent backgrounds (although occasional cartoons, such as "Box Car Blues" (1930), contain rudimentary backgrounds). "Bosko Shipwrecked" (1931) features superb ocean waves that would have been the envy of any cartoon studio of the '30s. And "Bosko's Party" (1931) contains an amazingly effective rainstorm, complete with a multitude of raindrops splashing as they hit the ground.
Unfortunately, the Bosko cartoons don't always exhibit much imagination and innovations are rare. A standard joke features Bosko (or another character) smacking into a wall or floor and breaking into several miniature versions of himself, which run around for a few seconds before re-forming. This same joke gets repeated in several Bosko cartoons, but "Dumb Patrol" (1931) features a witty variation: a bomb blows an airplane into several smaller airplanes, which buzz around like flies. Bosko grabs an insecticide sprayer and gasses them -- before they can reunite. However, other Bosko cartoons lazily recycle jokes and animation. "Bosko and Bruno" (1930) ends with the same train wreck joke as "Box Car Blues": a runaway train smashes a cow against a tree, and therefore the cow becomes an accordion. And "Bosko and Honey" (1932; with animation by future Warner Bros. director Bob McKimson) reuses animation of Bosko's girlfriend Honey coming down from her second-story bedroom window by stepping on bubbles, first featured in "Sinkin' in the Bathtub." Even the name of Harman and Ising's cartoon series, the now revered "Looney Tunes," was a blatant rip-off of Disney's "Silly Symphonies" series.
Even with their limitations, these are frequently surprising and frisky cartoons. In "Bosko's Holiday" (1931), for example, Bosko whispers something (naughty?) in Honey's ear. She becomes indignant. As she turns her back and tilts up her nose, a little dog slips forward and licks her bottom. Now angry, Honey turns around and smacks Bosko (as if he would lick her bottom!). These cartoons could also be shockingly violent: in "Bosko's Store" (1931), a mischievous baby cat grabs a strand of barbed wire and pulls it between Bosko's legs -- making Bosko wince as his crotch is ripped to shreds.
After many battles with Leon Schlesinger over their tight budget constraints (which in part may explain the recycled jokes and animation prevalent in the Bosko cartoons), Harman and Ising left Warner Bros. and took Bosko with them. First landing at Van Beuren studios, they made two Cubby Bear shorts. But they quickly moved on to MGM, where they briefly restarted the Bosko series with two new cartoons (not included on these DVDs) in 1934 and 1935; however, MGM dropped Bosko in favor of their Happy Harmonies series. Hugh Harman tried to revive Bosko in 1937 (redesigning him now clearly as a little black boy). But this time MGM abandoned Bosko in order to concentrate on animating "Captain and the Kids."
Bosko Video's new Bosko DVDs contain the bulk of the Harman-Ising Warner Bros. Bosko cartoons. You'll find 27 of the total 39 Warner Bros. Boskos on these DVDs. While Bosko Video is to be commended for making these cartoons available again, their transfers frequently look cramped due to overmatting. But these are without a doubt the best looking Boskos available.
Uncensored Bosko, Volume 1 and Volume 2 are now available on DVD from Bosko Video (distribution by Image Entertainment). Suggested retail price: $24.99 each. For additional information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site. These cartoons are also available on VHS from Bosko Video.