76 Years of Chess Animation
In 1932 Max and David Fleischer created the first chess cartoon with the Betty Boop classic, “Chess-Nuts”. In the course of 6 minutes and 20 seconds we witness not only a fanciful chess game but also bowling, football, boxing, upskirt shots, bondage, implied bestiality and attempted rape. One wonders what the Fleischers would have been into if they had lived in the age of the internet.
The cartoon begins with two bespectacled gentlemen playing a live action chess game. Black is smoking a cigar. I have been unable to determine who these actors are, but I doubt they knew much about chess. The diagram below shows their position with White to play, his undefended bishop under attack by Black’s knight.
Even though White can take the under-defended f7 pawn with a threat to the queen, he hesitates. At this point the camera cuts briefly to a different angle, and if you watch carefully you will notice two inconsistencies in the chess game. If you would like to find them, you can view and download this cartoon for free from the internet archives by clicking here.
If you’d prefer for me to tell you what these inconsistencies are, I will do so at the end of this blog.
Returning to the action, Black’s cigar ash falls onto the Black queen, revealing that she is really Betty Boop. Her would-be rapist is the Black king, Old King Cole, and her animal lover is Bimbo, the White king. In a veiled tribute to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Old King Cole utters the words, “Hush, I am the King!” after his rape has been foiled in part by an anthropomorphic bed.
While “Chess-Nuts” actually has a plot, the next animation does not. You can view what is nonetheless an interesting and well-made animation of a true battle on the board by clicking here. I would enjoy seeing a real cartoon with a story to tell if it were made like this.
Not as creative, but still worth watching are some other brief animations on YouTube. Click here for a short game, here for a horse race by the four knights, and here for another game. More interesting and with sound is the animation here.
There is a cute and charming chess love story that you can view here. This video is professionally done and appears to have been recorded from a television broadcast, so you may want to view it now in case it gets removed for copyright violation.
There is also a 21-minute Fox Kids video from 1995 entitled “Life with Louie: the Masked Chess Boy”, but I have not seen this one to comment on it.
The best animated chess film is certainly the 1997 Pixar creation, “Geri’s Game”, written and directed by Jan Pinkava, and which won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. The Czech director’s roots are clearly evident as this dialogue-free 4 minute, 49 second short opens in a deserted and clearly European park with light and lively French music in the background. The elderly and frail Geri spreads out his chess set on a small park table, and makes his first move, 1. e4.
He then looks to his opponent. But there is no opponent, Geri is alone. Removing his glasses, he slowly stands up and makes his way to the other side of the board, sits and aggressively plays 1…e5. The game continues in this fashion with Geri alternately playing both White and Black. Although Black devastates White move after move, it is White who wins in a surprise ending.
You may view the trailer, purchase and download this film at the iTunes music store here. (You will need iTunes to use that link.) It is well worth the $1.99 as the animation and sound are first rate, not to mention the clever and humorous plot.
At the beginning of this blog I promised to tell you the two errors to be found in the chess game that opens the Betty Boop cartoon. When the camera angle makes its cut just before the cigar ash falls onto Betty’s head, the board position has changed from what it was when the scene opened. In the diagram above you will notice that the two Black knights are on c6 and d6, but when the scene cuts they are on e6 and f6. Even worse, the chess board has somehow rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise and a8 is a dark square, which is incorrect.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief jaunt through more than seven decades of chess animation. I wish I could be around for the next seven.