NEEDLE DROP NOTES
June 11, 2017 posted by

Hi-De-Ho: Cab Calloway and Cartoons – Part 1

In the early 1930’s, a plethora of African-American entertainers burst upon the scene like something out of Jupiter’s worst headache.

• Some had paid their dues in segregated vaudeville circuits.

• Some had come out of regional theatrical presentations, and regional radio.

• Some had played regular gigs a dance halls, large and small.

• Some had made it to the Broadway stage, starring in revues that showed off their talents.

• Many of them seemed to burst forth, just at this time, into the consciousness of the wider (and white-er) general public. And no story seemed more like overnight success than that of Cab Calloway.

In the summer of 1930, this twenty-two-year-old scion of a middle-class Baltimore family was retained to “front” an orchestra that had been trading and recording as “The Missourians”. The band was very good at generating considerable heat (as demonstrated by a dozen selections cut for Victor during that time). But they needed someone to “sell’ them to audiences, whether in a dance-hall, on a theater stage, or on radio broadcasts.

Calloway proved to be the man for the job–and how!

By the next March, Calloway had replaced the mighty Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club–Harlem’s primary venue for those visitors from mid-town Manhattan who wanted a sample of “wild Harlem night-life”. He had taken over Ellington’s radio slots in live broadcasts from the Cotton Club. And he had scored a Brunswick recording contract.

And one of his songs would soon be on everybody’s lips. “Minnie the Moocher’ was a tale of Harlem low-life. Its seling point was a “chorus” in which those members of the orchestra who could carry a tune would echo Cab’s scat vocal effects—exemplified by his “Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi!”

So, it didn’t take long before the motion picture industry sat up and took notice.

Enter Max Fleischer.

Fleischer had just started adding live-action performances to his “Screen Song” shorts, and was leaning towards using folks who were making their name on radio–the mass medium of the moment.

Calloway had the personality–but definitely! And his band was improving all the time.

As most of us know, Calloway did three shorts for Max Fleischer. He also got plugged into a couple of Paramount features during this time: The Big Broadcast (1932) and International House (1933)

I won’t need to go into the plots of these shorts. They are familiar–old friends–to many animation buffs. And, if one is not familiar with them, I’ve embed them below for you to see, study and enjoy.

Minnie The Moocher does, of course, feature the title song. We get to see Cab moving effortlessly in front of his orchestra at the beginning of the short–and we get to see him rotoscoped as a ghost walrus (!) in the body of the song.

The Old Man Of The Mountain not only features the title song, but “You’ve Got To Hi-De-Hi (To Get Along With Me)”, in which Cab gets to duet with Mae Questel’s characterization of Betty Boop’ and also “The Scat Song”, which finishes of the short.

Wouldn’t it have been marvelous to be a fly on the wall at the recording session, to see Cab and Mae going at it together–especially with the exchange that immediately precedes another rotoscoped “moonwalk”?

Snow White is dominated by another Calloway staple,”St.. James Infirmary Blues”, and more rotoscoping–even though we don’t see the band “in the flesh” here.

It would be nice to say that these cartoons received universal approbation in their day, from both critics and exhibitors. But that is not the case.

During parts of the early 1930’s “Motion Picture Herald”, a weekly trade publication, had a regular feature called “What The Picture Did For Me”. This allowed owners and managers of salll-town theaters a chance to let it be known how features–and how shorts!–did with their audiences.

In the October 14, 1933 issue, a manager from Harison, Arkanass described The Old Man Of The Mountain as “a good cartoon”.

But the next week, a theater-owner from Menard, Texas, had this to say about the same cartoon:

“After being an enthusiast on these Screen Songs, it was an awful let-down to have to show this reel. It seems to me that there is but little excuse to take a cartoon that is primarily the one thing in the show the kids really like and make it a vulgar, smutty blare of noise and gags without humor.”

It makes sense that this kind of “pan” would get aired in those pages. Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Martin Quigley was an active lay Catholic, and was always crusading for “clean” movies. It is my understanding that he may have been one of those behind the establishment of the Legion of Decency–an organization that wanted to “clean up” the movies.

Indeed, here was talk of he Legion of Decency trying to convince Catholic prelates to declare it a sin to go to any movie–which would have exacerbated a Depression that was already hurting the movie industry, as it was hurting all other industries at the time.

Next Week: Cab gets the treatment… from everybody else.

11 Comments

  • The risqué baby gag at 3:15 of the pre-code “Mountain” makes me laugh every time.

  • These are among my favorite musical shorts and, together, these amount to one reason why I like most 1930’s cartoons from most of the major studios. it was Fleischer and Warner Brothers who most mirrored musical elements that were enjoyed by many. the only other way to get a taste of the music that was popular through film was to sample the “swing” short subjects which were basically live performances from the jazz or crooner talents of the period, and these are enjoyable as well. Great stuff!

  • Not only was the musical choice of Cab Calloway for Fleischer, but also the MGM and Warners cartoons, good for that generation, but I credit them for expanding my musical tastes from ’60s pop into Swing, Jazz, and Classical music when I was a kid! I think that the Suits making decisions not to keep these in circulation is a shame. Yeah, “it’s not their music,” but ’30s and ’40s music is not “mine” but I’m thankful that these cartoons were there for me.

  • These cartoons changed my life, I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing Cab Calloway and his orchestra at the beginning of Minnie the Moocher

  • Always thought Calloway got the better treatment in those cartoons than Louis Armstrong. Seeing his floating head chasing after Ko-Ko before turning into a sterotypical native head is a bit disconcerting to me in that cartoon. But by contrast, I loved Don Redman’s appearance in “I Heard”, including the intro with the band performing in front of those cartoon cutouts while performing their theme song “Chant Of The Weed”.

  • I always wonder how much of the instrumental music Cab’s band supplied. The sound track to Old Man in the Mountain kicks in and doesn’t let up until the very end. Snow White has so many subtle jokes in its underscoring that i doubt that Cab’s band was involved beyond the St James song (I always chuckle at “Here Lies Love” accompanying the funeral procession.)

  • “The Old Man of the Mountain” is both my favorite Betty Boop short and my favorite Cab Calloway cut. But to those only familiar with the cartoon, the lyrics of the song were slightly altered for the short to make the Old Man a little more of a threat to Betty. Cab sang it, so he must have been OK with it, but the altered lyric changes the entire song’s meaning.

  • I’ve been a Cab Calloway fan for years, thanks to these cartoons. Having heard numerous recordings of the featured songs as performed by Calloway at different times, I’ve noticed that the versions in these cartoons seem to be unique. I have been unable to find any other recording of Calloway performing “St. James Infirmary Blues” as he does in SNOW WHITE. In every one I’ve heard, the lines about “crap-shootin’ pallbearers,” “have a chorus-girl sing me a song” and “red-hot jazz band” are missing. Has anyone else been able to find the “Fleischer version” of this song elsewhere?

  • Thanks for a wonderful post James !

    Here is a link to an original print of “Old Man of the Mountain” with British Censor certificate. It’s in dreadful shape though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncvaEDOnIUU I thought it was worth mentioning as it has the band behind the Paramount logo closing which James ended his post with a still of.

    Always loved these shorts. Sitting here now I can remember the first time I saw them and the enormous excitement it was to actually see them for the first time. As was seeing Cab in The Blues Brothers performing Minnie the Moocher, Just Wonderful. This was well before the days when you could just type something into YouTube and wallah it would appear. Then you had to check the schedule for films that they had allotted too much time for and they would play a classic cartoon or more to fill in the extra time. There’s a fun live action short “Cab Calloway’s Hi De Ho” (1934) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7at9X_ympQ&t=1s Cab made where he performs fantastically “The Lady With the Fan” film has a great closing gag too

    Don Redman was great in “I Heard” I love his gentle talking singing style and I’m wild over the band he led in the 1920’s McKinney’s Cotton Pickers Amazing records I added another one to my collection just the other month which Don does a great vocal on. His composition (with John Nesbitt) of Miss Hannah on a Victor Scroll. Great Stuff Indeed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfgFLWtCXbA

  • The video clip of “Minnie the Moocher” presented here is the altered U M and M version with the altered credits. Somewhere in the land of YouTube there is a video print of “Moocher” uncut with the original front-and-end Paramount titles. I have seen this print. But please beware of the hand-colored-in-Korea version that is also out there. It does no justice to the Fleischers’ original vision.

    • Agreed whole heatedly! And the quote from the Texas exhibitor seems to have used “Screen Song” liberally since THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN was a Betty Boop cartoon. I’d wonder what the sentiments were about the third, and possibly best of the three, SNOW WHITE. It was deemed worthy of entry into the National Archives as a representation of the best of American Culture.

      I’m glad to see the original “end” with Cab Calloway and orchestra surface after all these years.

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