Dr. Toon: A Living Timeline
I went on to the earliest films featuring Felix the Cat. To my surprise, Bessie said that she had never seen Felix before, but when I began to show her the later films made after 1921 or so (when Felix began to look less like a dog and more like a cat), she made a definite identification of the character and recalled seeing at least a couple of silent Felix cartoons at the Swan. She then told me that she remembered Felix best from the Trans-Lux version made in the 1950's under Joe Oriolo because "The kids used to put it on TV. He looked like he did in this (1920s DVD short) except that they made him in color."
Bessie could not identify or recall Van Buren's version of Tom and Jerry, but thought that "they are a silly kind of funny." Bessie was next shown some of the Walt Disney Alice comedies and mistook Julius the Cat for Felix. She had, however, not seen them in the theaters. What really delighted Bessie, though, was a DVD filled with Betty Boop cartoons. "Oh, that's Betty Boop!" she exclaimed, with a giggle. "She was always so cute, but some people thought that she was a little bit naughty. I liked her when she used to sing with that funny voice." I had to run five Betty Boop cartoons before Bessie agreed to move on to the next set of DVDs.
It turned out that Bessie was an exuberant Popeye fan, and recalled seeing many of his black-and-white Fleischer cartoons at theaters along with newsreels and promotions. She remembered that there were Popeye fan clubs for kids that came to the movies and that the members used to cheer loudly for Popeye whenever his cartoons started. It seems that, given Bessie's familiarity with Fleischer cartoons, that Paramount (the Fleischer's distributor) may have had block booking arrangements with certain Midwestern theaters.
After several great Popeye cartoons (I Wanna Be a Lifeguard), I paused to ask Bessie Irene just why it was she enjoyed animated cartoons so much for so long. Bessie thought about it for a moment and then said, "Well, it was part of the movies. Back then everybody used to go, and they laughed whenever the cartoons came on. I think they used to laugh the most at Bugs Bunny. The war was a sad time, and I think they liked to have fun. It was good for them." I asked again why the films were special to her, and she replied, "I liked seeing the kids laugh. You know, they had Popeye clubs back then and the kids loved him so much. Him and Mickey Mouse, too. But Popeye and Betty Boop were just funny."
Here one must account for the vagaries of long-term, expressive memory. Still, there was no mistaking the delight on Bessie's face as Popeye and friends made their black-and-white way across the screen. Since it was obvious that quite a few Fleischer cartoons were coming through Terre Haute in the 1930s and 1940s, I began running Max and Dave's Superman cartoons for Bessie Irene. Here the recognition was dramatic and instantaneous. She remembered several of them without difficulty. "They always looked more like the movies than the cartoons, I think that's why these kind of stand out to me. People used to like them; I think I remember that they clapped a lot after one of them. I thought that they were good!"