The House that Fleischer Built: The Cartoons that Made Cuphead

Walker Jesse has a look back at the cartoons that made Cuphead.

Cuphead is a game of unprecedented success, with development beginning in 2010 and continuing to the point where the creators had to remortgage their home to finish the project, where it was then met with unanimous praise on release.

While Cuphead is one of the most fluid and rewarding experience’s we’ve seen in a long time from a sheer gameplay aspect, the visuals are what will truly never be forgotten, and where these visuals primordial rumblings began are in strange old cartoons.

Adopted in 1930, the Hays Code was a set of morality based regulations that prevented films and cartoons from being overtly strange and to make a long story short, specifically were created to make the motion picture industry family friendly. While the Hays Code did do its intended job when it started to become widely enforced in 1934, the wheels had already been set in motion with plenty of cartoons created before its implementation, ranging from surreal to sinister. While the general influence of pre-Hays Code work is evident in Cuphead, there are a few cartoons that specifically come to mind from this era that shine a brighter light on the indie darling.

Plane Crazy (1928)

The 36 Chambers of old cartoons, Plane Crazy marks the first appearance of Mickey Mouse and a clear ground zero. Created by legendary animator Ub Iwerks (who animated the entire short in two weeks at the rate of 700 drawings a day), Plane Crazy features Mickey’s ill-fated attempt to fly a makeshift airplane created from car parts.

While this is one of the more tame cartoons, you can see where things begin. The dangerous premise, the giant cow udders that appear in the majority of the cartoon and the increasingly impossible scenarios that the flight takes, show marked degrees of strangeness when compared to the early releases from the same studio of Steamboat Willy. An interesting aspect of Plane Crazy, in particular, is the use of POV view from the plane’s perspective at one point as though you’re right on the nose of the aircraft.

Swing You Sinners! (1930)

The most notable cartoon when it comes to Cuphead and for good reason, the creator, Fleischer Studios, has been called a “magnetic north” for Cuphead by half the brother development team of the game, Chad Moldenhauser.
Swing You Sinners! is a particularly dark turn after something like Plane Crazy, featuring the lead character Bimbo the Dog attempting to steal a chicken in the dead of night. After he’s chased away by a cop, Bimbo stumbles into a graveyard where ghosts begin to creep out of the woodwork with murderous intent. Bimbo begs for his life, but the spectres won’t let him off the hook, mercilessly taunting him as they close in on the poor dog.

This cartoon is especially thought of highly by the Moldenhauser’s, to the point where the boss monster Cagney Carnation from Cuphead mimics a specific hand motion a ghost makes in the short. Swing You Sinners! is unadulterated surrealism, where once Bimbo wanders into the graveyard he’s sent down a nightmarish rabbit hole of disturbing imagery that I’d rather you see than read about. It personifies the feeling of taking the long way home alone after a hectic night out with friends and all sorts of bizarre thoughts just crop up out of nowhere.

Bimbo’s Initiation (1931)

I’ll end things with a combination of the former. Bimbo’s Initiation takes the more lighthearted attitude and impressive visuals of Plane Crazy and mixes it with the surrealist darkness of Swing You Sinners! to create another masterpiece from Fleischer.

Featuring Bimbo as our tragic protagonist yet again, he falls down a manhole (which is locked by a Mickey Mouse looking figure) into a room full of shadowy creatures wearing candles on their heads, all chanting at Bimbo “Wanna be a member wanna be a member?” Bimbo refuses, and is thus subjected to a series of Rube Goldberg-esque machines that are all attempting to take his life. Axes chop and knives prod as Bimbo attempts a daring escape from this underground lair of horrors.

Bimbo’s Initiation has a tongue in cheek feel that’s juxtaposed with a Swing You Sinners! blackness, and the scene where Bimbo rides down a giant Mario 64 style slide into a hallway of falling axes looks like something straight out of a video game.

Cuphead is a brilliant game, but it has its origins firmly rooted in the unfortunately forgotten eccentricities of classic American cartoons. The game opens up a world that feels instantly familiar, but a little spooky and incredibly bizarre. It’s this combination of strangeness and delight that makes the world so enticing, and the aforementioned cartoons can give you a further peek into that universe.

If you’re interested in more cartoons from this era, old Mickey Mouse from the 30’s is almost always a safe bet, particularly Mad Doctor and Haunted Mansion. You can also never go wrong with the Silly Symphonies series, and Fleischer Studios own Snow White is an absolute masterwork.

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