I devoted a post to this classic Fleischer cartoon years back, but that was years back. Video technology has already gotten better. Screencapping has gotten easier. My writing has improved.
More importantly, there are those of you who may have quite possibly not actually seen "Swing, You Sinners," undeniably the spookiest cartoon ever put to film in the history of mankind. Don't believe me? Watch it right here. Right now. I DARE you not to get spookinated straight to the bone.
Never, not never, has one piece of animation crammed so many wildly different and inventive phantasms together - possibly not even any episode of The Real Ghostbusters, even if it had to have come damn close, and we're going to give some of the spookiest of all a fresh review.
Almost the first supernatural manifestation we ever see, this toothy mouth forms from a keyhole just to swallow the key and disappear, locking Bimbo the dog in the graveyard in the most threatening way anyone could ever possibly be locked in a graveyard.
WHY aren't tombstones turned into ghosts more often? I've seen it in video games, I've seen it on neopets, I've done it more than a few times myself, but I can't say I have any Halloween items taking advantage of how ghost-shaped a tombstone already is. Once Bimbo enters the graveyard, all the stones start swaying and humming to an ominous dirge, easily one of the top two or three worst things that could happen upon entering a graveyard, after the gate eating a damn key at you.
It looks a lot like Bimbo just pissed himself here, which would be very understandable, but no, a ghost merely manifests as a block of ice around his feet, then melts into a puddle and slithers away...revealing its dozen eyes. A multi-eyed puddle is one of those designs that you see a whole lot in newer horror art, but it's a little more alien and inhuman than they usually went in cartoons like this. It's a detail you can so easily miss, too.
Another ghostly mouth? It almost looks anatomically identical to the keyhole swallower; maybe it's the same exact ghost, one that just manifests mouths on inanimate surfaces? The ground yawning open into a hungry maw is easily the third worst thing that can happen in a graveyard. What a gleefully sadistic gesture. These ghosts are big on their symbolism.
One spirit just can't be bothered to join in the musical number, manifesting a form from the soil of its own grave only to yawn and roll over. Adorable, yet also one of the most unsettling images in the film.
Backed by a chorus of sheet ghosts, another grave pops out of the ground - the entire grave, just a big block of soil - and forms a human face. That's a visual I've never seen anywhere before this cartoon, or anywhere since. This should be required viewing for everybody who designs Halloween props and decorations for a living. With a yearly refresher.
The "For Rent" Skeleton
Even better than the mouth gag, this skeleton so cheerfully pops up to tack a "for rent" sign on an open grave. Get it, yet? It's funny because dead people are going to kill you.
I guess when you're a haunted tree, you have to take whatever entertainment opportunities come your way, like a chance to...uh...carress a guy's ass with one of your branches. It looks so proud of itself for it, too.
You're first guess is that this is a bat, but it only has a head with no body, and it has lepidopteran antennae. What the hell IS it? It's huge, whatever it is, and it appears just to remind Bimbo in song that he used to steal chickens. Bimbo swears he doesn't do that anymore, even though he was literally doing that twenty seconds ago. Sometimes, Bimbo, it probably pays to just tell the truth to a giant flying head.
Also, those whistling, waving trees in this scene are positively nightmarish.
This inky black, female spirit forms from Bimbo's shadow to admonish him for "chasing girls," which definitely sounds like a more serious crime than stealing chickens or gambling, though it's as bad as the accusations ever get. We don't know if Bimbo ever did anything other than the chasing, and he probably didn't, given the weakness of the other crimes we're informed of. Is just being kind of an asshole and a petty thief really enough for the underworld's entire mob to sing you a song and drag you to hell?
This pile of hay just briefly comes to life and menaces Bimbo with a pitchfork for about two seconds, but what a memorable, lovable two seconds those are. The idea that anything could be a ghost is one explored with much more enthusiasm in Japan to this day, while Western fare has sort of forgotten the charm of haunted furniture and living garbage.
Haunted Potato Sack
See? How cool is it for a bag of potatoes to dance around and sing about your impending demise? Come on, it's cool! It's super cool!!!! You have no taste in ghosts!! No, YOU'RE arguing with an imaginary person before anybody even reads YOUR article!
The scythe is probably my favorite object ghost in the whole thing, looking more like like some creepy blade-faced bird than anything else, and its ghostly occupant apparently makes all that wood and metal as sinuous as a snake. All on is own this would be a wickedly cool monster. In fact, I'm gonna make that happen. Some day.
THE SCATTIN' CHICKEN
This is easily one of the best moments in the entire song. This giant, possessed chicken gets madly into its scat routine, which I will remind you, modern internet user, refers to a style of singing and not to a pornographic act, thanks. The chicken's solo is catchy as hell, and its deranged facial expressions are both hilarious and pretty damn frightening. I mean, you'd probably be soiling yourself if you saw this, no matter how hot the beats.
What the hell are these supposed to be, other than ghosts in the shape of disembodied horse or donkey posteriors? I mean, maybe they're just nondescript bean-shaped monsters, but this is even taking place in a barn at this point, so I'm gonna go with donkey asses. The asses of asses. Assasses.
Wait...why is there a barn in a graveyard?
What kind of dance are these hat-wearing ghosts even supposed to be doing? What is this? We go from dancing ghostly butts to a ghostly butt dance. Are they trying to menace or proposition us.
How freaky is it to think of ghosts slumbering in your stairs? In ALL of your stairs, two at a time? Ghosts in stairs in pairs. That's so many ghosts. That's such a weird place for them to be.
This black-nosed ghost first transforms into a barber's pole, then steps out from behind it with a straight razor and attempts to decapitate Bimbo on the spot. Jesus. These spooks mean business. Steal a chicken, shoot some crapps, get shanked by an army of the dead.
The Entire Haunted Barn
Bimbo manages to escape the haunted barn, only for the whole thing to get up and chase him, another kind of "monster" we don't get treated to nearly enough. You'll notice the barn is very suddenly much, much smaller than it was when Bimbo entered, and especially smaller than it was on the inside.
"WHERE YOU WANT 'YO BODY SENT?"
This huge ghostly face emerges just to deliver this set-up, and every single frame of its animation is uniquely creepy. It has to be one of the most distressing-looking cartoon faces I've ever seen in motion. And you know, in the case, that it was fully intended that way.
"BODY?! AIN'T GONNA BE NO BODY!
Another huge head delivers the punchline, possibly not as horrifying as its friend, but pretty darn close, with rotten-looking teeth and filthy, wormy strands of hair!
We get just a brief glimpse of this long-limbed, reptilian specter strolling eagerly after its prey, definitely one of the most endearing critters present, which is saying quite a bit. It's also accompanied by a bunch of goofy bean-shaped goblins! They look so adorable on their way to murder a guy!
OCTOGHOST AND OCTODOG!
The very best non-scythe ghosts in the cartoon have got to be this googly-eyed octopus and his blobby sheet-ghost dog, both of them also definitely the most elaborate animated characters in the whole thing as well. Whether octoghost is actually the ghost of an octopus or a very octopus-shaped sheet ghost is hard to tell, but both possibilities are interesting, aren't they?
At first, you want to think these guys are just stylized skeletons, but we've seen skeletons already, and they didn't look like this. These seem more like just very long, thin figures with skull heads and boneless, noodly limbs, which would be drop-dead nightmarish in more life-like detail.
This ghoulish, giant face briefly appears in the nauseating void of hell to grin and take a snap at bimbo, its mouth stretching pretty wide in an attempt to swallow him whole. I can't help but be reminded of a deep sea fish. Both the human qualities and goofiness make this so much scarier to contemplate, I mean, really think of yourself floating in an endless, weightless void and this chalk-white, saucer-eyed witch face just shows up and flares its jaws open to engulf and digest you. I pretty much already made an entire cartoon on that premise myself.
Giant Knife Skeleton
In the final moments of Swing, You Sinners, Bimbo's head gets cut off by a gigantic, knife-wielding skeleton from off-screen while he writhes in hell. That is a thing that really happens to this cartoon dog in this musical short. Fleischer was hardcore.
The Giant Hell Skull
Maybe this is just the same skeleton who was waving a huge knife around earlier? Whatever it belongs to, the giant skull appears abruptly and rather jarringly to swallow up Bimbo with a scream, and then...that's it. That's the end of the cartoon, as you may have just witnessed for yourself. Hilarious.
Cartoons from this early period are pretty much guaranteed to be strange and fascinating, but Swing, You Sinners feels like it occupies a special place of its own. Every moment of it is still sincerely entertaining in almost exactly the way it was earnestly intended to be, except perhaps one rather unfortunate caricature of a Jewish man. Aaand...uh...maybe the fact that the whole cartoon is literally about a lynch mob in the 30's, and, uh...I didn't really think about that until writing this rather stream-of-consciousness and I guess the short feels a little soured, but as Bimbo's also been a protagonist in other cartoons, I'm not sure the connotations I'm getting at were intentional here.
Taken purely at face value, this is just a beautifully directed, wildly imaginative work of art with a snazzy tune that still holds up to this day, and by every right deserves to be a famous Halloween staple. It's public domain, so why can't we buy it on its own dollar store DVD's every fall? Where's my Haunted Scythe stuffed toy? Why dont' they play it on TV all October? I want to say The Nightmare Before Christmas is the ultimate Halloween special, but Swing is a lot shorter and easier to consume without a non-Halloween-holiday in sight. Ask me to rank everything I consider a Halloween special in order of Halloween Specialtude, and this goes straight to the top of the list, every single time.