NEEDLE DROP NOTES
October 31, 2016 posted by James Parten

“Betty Boop’s Penthouse” (1933) – and “Frat”

There’s been some discussion of late about a composition called “Frat”, which was written around 1910 by John F. Barth, and shows up in a number of Warner Bros. cartoons over a long period of time.

frat-sheet-music

The song is known to various collectors under various titles. Some call it “Three Cheers for Father”, after the lyric that had been set for A Bear For Punishment (1951). To others, it’s known as “Horses Don’t Bet On People“, from a 1945 lyric that was featured by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra. This use may have inspired its use in Early To Bet (1951)– whenever the Gambling Bug bites the unfortunate pussy cat, this is heard on the soundtrack. To others, it is the Eddie Peabody-styled banjo solo from Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943).

Carl Stalling had been an accompanist for silent pictures in a small-city theater. This produced a skill-set that gave him an uncanny idea of finding the right old song for the purpose. And he was known for using old songs in his scores–along with recent songs from Warners’ movies.


As I said, Stalling was fond of using old songs in his cartoons, including (but not limited to), “It Looks Like A Big Night Tonight”,”Cheyenne”, “Be My Little Baby Bumblebee” and others that are probably yet to be discerned. These would be mixed with songs that Warner Bros. owned through the publishing companies they had bought during the heady days of early talking pictures. And there would be other acquisitions — which explains the use of many themes from Raymond Scott compositions that are scattered through like chocolate chips in a toll-house cookie.

Painting-cloudsIndeed, a raison d’etre of the entire “Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies” series was to promote songs from Warners’ films by using them again. This would go on right through to nearly the end of the series. I remember one of the very late WB cartoons, Fiesta Fiasco (1967), that gives Bill Lava’s little combo a chance to throw in “Painting The Clouds With Sunshine” — which was nearly a stretch back of forty years by that time (the last, and only other time that ditty was used was in a cartoon was in the first Looney Tune, Sinkin’ In The Bathtub)!

Scott Bradley at M-G-M and Sammy Timberg at Fleischer had a repository of songs to fall back upon, as both of their major-studio sugar daddies had bought music publishing houses themselves.

On the other hand, Universal, Columbia and RKO did not own music publishers–so they would have to get rights to songs that they might use. Fox may have owned publishers, as there are certainly songs associated with their musical pictures. But Philip Scheib mostly worked under the strictures of cheapskate Paul Terry, and usually had to write his own stuff, or use stuff that was in the public domain.

And then there was Disney, who had to set up their own publishers, especially after “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became a national earache in the fall of 1933.

There are connections between cartoons and records, going back to various British covers of “Felix Kept On Walking” back in 1923.


Betty-boop-penthouse-600

Which brings us to Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933), a cartoon that does not get run as much or as often as other shorts in the series. And there’s a good reason why.

Some of the humor in this cartoon has not stood the test of time. Gags–including the climactic one–that were acceptable in 1933 have become “politically incorrect” in 2016.

s-l300There’s one blackface “Mammy!” gag here–but the “pansy” gags would not go over in today’s social climate.

That being said, this cartoon–like so many of Betty’s shorts–is eminently musical. From the one-shot new lyric to “Mimi” heard over the opening titles, through the adaptation of the standard “Penthouse Serenade” (also known as “When We’re Alone”), there’s so much of the period music that fans find charming–even to this day.

And, it turns out–there’s another “needle-drop”, taking up a goodly part of the cartoon’s soundtrack.

I’d like to think that some–if not all–of the Fleischer Studio employees had gone to see “King Kong”. It was one of the chief topics of conversation at the time.

When this laboratory-constructed Kong (the inadvertent product of a cat playing around the retorts and Bunsen burners), somebody thought of one of the slow, moody near-swing recordings that were coming out. That record was “Heat Waves'” by Baron Lee and the Blue Rhythm Band.

Baron Lee was primarily a dancer–he is not known to have sung or played anything. But he was good at “fronting” what was, in effect, the third-string orchestra of the Irving Mills stable.

Third-string it may have been–but that’s only in comparison to the elegance of Duke Ellington, and the sheer personality of Cab Calloway. (Those were Irving Mills’ first- and second-string units, mind you.)

A booker who got this band, instead of the Ellington or Calloway groups, got a good orchestra, which could play anything put in front of it, and could get the dancers to doing their thing–whether it was on a dance-floor or in a chorus line.

“Heat Waves” (not to be confused with Irving Berlin’s 1933 tune “Heat Wave”), is set at a slow tempo, but it’s not a romantic piece–not by a long shot! And it fits the Fleischer animation of the looming monster like a well-tailored glove.

Once Betty squirts the monster with whatever shes using in her Flit gun, we go from the Blue Rhythm Band an hot Harlem rhythm to the studio orchestra, and Mendelsohn’s “Spring Song–which was already being used as a musical cue for effeminacy, if not outright homosexuality.

(Hat-tip to Andrew Gilmore)

11 Comments

  • “Gold Diggers of Broadway” was WB’s biggest hit of 1929, and would be WB’s biggest hit, I think, clear until the time of “Sergeant York,” but for various reasons only a few of the reels of this film survive today, though the entire Vitaphone soundtrack survives. It was never reissued by WB, and only gets a brief nod in the trailer for “Gold Diggers of 1937” (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDH_HbAAZEM at about 0:20). I’ve always thought this was a reason why the two biggest song hits from that movie are rarely, if ever used by Stalling — “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Painting the Clouds With Sunshine.” I can think of one major usage in a Pepe le Pew cartoon, and that’s about it. Doubly surprising when you consider the raucous “Mechanical Man” would have fit in many cartoons, as would have “Go to Bed.”

  • i just adore that you sometimes focus on tunes that we all KNOW….but not historically!!! As one who plays pianny… EYE thank you!!!

  • It really is amazing the wide variety of songs Carl Stalling used. We had public domain songs, classical pieces, silent theater cues (see anything by Zamecnik), the “new” songs that were debuting in musicals at the time that WB wanted to promote, and even some big band/jazz pieces.

    A few months ago in my research, I came across yet another piece that Stalling used a couple times. It’s “America Speaks” by Benjamin A. Machan, and plays in “Catty Cornered” and “Stupor Duck”. Really incredible how, even years after cartoon music research has been a thing, we’re still identifying cues that he used.

  • I remember that Frat also appeared in Notes to You starring Porky Pig in the scene where Porky was aroused for his sleep by a annoying Alley cat “conducting” a brass band over the radio. Also in the remake, Back Alley Uproar starring Elmer Fudd and Sylvester, where after Sylvester sung Elmer to sleep (a takeoff on Brahm’s Lullabye), and afterwards he aroused Elmer from his sound sleep by playing the first few bars of Frat ala One Man Band – and off key too!

  • To me, what made the Fleischer (primarily the BETTY BOOP) cartoons stand out is the ways in which hot jazz was used throughout any given series. I think that is possibly why I can hear early swing jazz arrangements and think of visual chaos. It wasn’t only the Fleischer Studio that used such music in this way, but they were the best at it, with images speeding up or flipping around dizzily on the screen, without missing a beat. MGM tried with the BOSKO series, and some early Warner Brothers cartoons, before and after Hugh and Rudy, but the Fleischers topped them all. The use of jazz in older cartoons is part of the reason why I like even the most nonsensical cartoon of the 1930’s, especially the first half of the decade. You would also hear tunes like “Frat” around sports antics in cartoons. Thre is a FLIP THE FROG cartoon that also has a tune similar to “Frat” playing as the band welcomes the sports participants into the stadium.

  • Re the Fleischers’ distinctive use of music, I think that may have been a factor of their being based in Manhattan with ready access to Tin Pan Alley song-pluggers, Broadway shows, and all those jazz clubs featuring the top talent of the day.

    I showed “Betty Boop’s Penthouse” at a science fiction convention a couple of years ago and got a great reaction. People said it was like a precursor of “The Big Bang Theory:” Two science nerds perving over the the sexy girl across the way.

  • Certainly looks like the monster’s dance at the end is rotoscoped.

  • Daniel Goldmark’s hunt through Warners cartoon cue sheets shows “Frat” used 37 times, first by Norman Spencer in “Along Flirtation Walk.”

  • Wasn’t “Frat” used in “Duck Amuck” (“Oh brother! I’m a buzz boy!”)?

    • Nic: No, that song was “Captain of the Clouds”.

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