Bimbo’s Initiation and the weird history of fraternal orders

Bimbo’s Initiation is a cartoon from the Fleischer studio, released in 1931. Bimbo accidentally falls down a manhole into an underground lair where a group of masked characters invite him to join their “mystic order.” Even though he declines, they then put him through a series of frightening experiences to initiate him in. It might appear they are an evil cult, but really it was a representation of “fraternal orders” that were popular at the time.

For those who don’t know, fraternal orders were/are men’s clubs, where guys could get away from home and act like “real men” for a while.   According to movies and cartoons acting like real men involved wearing funny hats, drinking lots of alcohol, making sacred pledges, using secret handshakes, and going to conventions to do the same things with brothers from other lodges.  It’s full of opportunities for men to make themselves look foolish, and so it was a popular theme for live action film and cartoons. It’s been done by Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, The Flintstones, Spongebob Squarepants, and more. I have put some examples towards the end of this post. The story lines in these old shows are often built around the wives disapproval of the men attending the conventions.  HERE is a list of famous fictional fraternities.

It is a big subject, so I am going to focus on the initiation ceremonies involved in joining these clubs. There are still initiations and hazing in pledging to fraternities and sports teams on campus.  Sometimes we hear about them in the news when the stunts go tragically wrong. Personally, I went through an initiation event in the US Navy when my ship crossed the equator. I am officially a “shellback.”

We have one great resource to understand what these old initiations were like when Bimbo’s Initiation was produced. An entire business grew from supplying these clubs with costumes, props, and bizarre devices for running meetings and initiating the new members.  Many of these involved electric shocks, firecrackers, and the whacking of butts.  Great grandpa and his pals sure had a weird sense of humor.  Check out some of these pages from the Demoulin Brothers catalog.   This 160 page version of the catalog is from 1930, the year before Bimbo’s Initiation was released. As scary as they look, you can imagine how they could inspire some physical comedy.

Yes, they had a human centipede.

I swear this next one looks like water boarding.

Here are a few animated examples. First, here is Bimbo’s Initiation.

The Simpsons had The Stonecutters lodge:

Spongebob had an episode dedicated to the concept of lodge initiations.

Sub-verbal Characters – Updated

See update below.

I’m not sure if there is a proper word for these characters, so I’m calling them “sub-verbal” which means any character who speaks in gibberish.  The Tasmanian Devil is probably the most well known cartoon character to sound this way.  He was occasionally able to get out some English, but is generally known for his animal sounds.

Another of the great sub-verbal characters is the Muppet, “Swedish Chef”.  Throughout his faux-swedish, he would pepper in some understandable English.   I believe he now works as a writer for Ikea catalogs.

But one sub-verbal character that is on his way to being forgotten is “White Fang” from the Soupy Sales show.  White Fang and Black Tooth were both supposed to be dogs, but all you see are their “arms” which reach into the scene.  White Fang is very argumentative, and very entertaining.

And this gem featuring Alice Cooper.

UPDATE: I have recently learned term “grammelot” which wikipedia describes so:

Grammelot is a term for a style of language in satirical theatre, a gibberish with macaronic and onomatopoeic elements, used in association with pantomime and mimicry.
The format dates back to the 16th century Commedia dell’arte, and some claim Grammelot to be a specific universal language (akin to Lingua franca) devised to give performers safety from censorship and appeal whatever the dialect of the audience.

(Macaronic, btw, refers to text spoken or written using a mixture of languages)

Here is the video that introduced me to grammelot.

Here are selections of the Three Stooges:

Buster Keaton: Symmetry of Laughter

Writer and filmmaker Vince Di Meglio edited together this instructive selection of clips from Buster Keaton films to show how he used symmetrical composition. In his description, he writes:

After watching twenty-nine Buster Keaton films, I was struck by his use of symmetry and center framing. This is an attempt to capture that. Before Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson made it famous for modern audiences, there was Buster Keaton.

Best bad fight scene

I found this on boingboing.net. This fight scene is probably the worst ever, but it becomes great in the process. A lot of good comedy comes from just “playing it straight”, like you believe in what you are doing. This fight scene is more fun than those found in low budget spoofs of martial arts, such as “Kung Pow: Legend of the Fist” because they aren’t trying to make you laugh. Real foolishness is innocent of itself. Make your characters take what they are doing seriously, regardless of how dumb it is.

Shokkiri: Sumo Comedy

Shokkiri wrestlers

I love all kinds of physical comedy. My personal dream is to produce a TV show where I travel around the world and feature funny performances based on local culture. I just added Japan to the list when I learned about shokkiri or comedic sumo wrestling.

Sumo is a centuries-old sport with deep traditions. It follows strictly defined rituals and has many rules. The more seriously someone takes themselves, the more attractive they are for being made fun of. Sumo is no different. Shokkiri was created over a century ago as a way to demonstrate sumo techniques and to show all the illegal moves. It has since evolved into a comic art form. Breaking the rules is of course one of the oldest comedy techniques. A shokkiri performance is created by lower-ranking wrestlers. It isn’t performed at official tournaments but at exhibitions and retirement ceremonies.

If you are ever tasked with creating a comedic sumo wrestling event, here is your reference. First, I am amazed that a sumo wrestling can do a “pancake” position, as shown in the poster frame of this first movie.

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