NEEDLE DROP NOTES
September 27, 2022 posted by James Parten

Color Classics 1939-41: The New Wears Off

By 1939, almost everybody in the industry was producing some color cartoons as a part of their annual manifest (though MGM had briefly gone through their Sepia Tone phase). Even parsimonious Paul Terry had begun some color offerings. The Fleischers, now in their new home in Miami, tried to make stars out of the relatively colorless donkeys Hunky and Spunky. They would eventually expand color treatment to their new “Gabby” series based on the Gulliver’s Travels character, to a couple of two-reelers not featuring Popeye, and to their prestigious “Superman” series, as well as employ color for their two feature productions. Thus, the “new” might have worn off the color product of the Fleischer studios by the end of the 1930’s, with exhibitors likely realizing the Color Classics were now no great shake as opposed to other studio’s offerings.

Small Fry (4/21/39) – No, this cartoon does not deal with the last French Fry in the bag. It is a semi-sequel to “Educated Fish”. School has just let out for the day, and teacher Miss Pickerel writes a letter to the mother of “Junior” (the former Tommy Cod), inquiring at his absence from school – “Was it hooky, or did he get hooked?” It was hooky, as Junior has been hanging around the local pool parlor, a rather disreputable place needing repair. Junior is having trouble propelling a cue ball, and is derided by a “big fry”, who sinks him in a side pocket. A notice is posted on the wall regarding a meeting of the Big Fry club that night, and Junior asks to become a member. The suggestion meets with unanimous laughter, but one of the Big Fries, with a wink to the others, suggests Junior come for a tryout tonight. Junior’s mother meanwhile is worried after receiving Miss Pickerel’s note, and chastises her young son musically when he returns home. Junior sneaks out again anyway, and the Big Fries have some sport with Junior, placing him in an initiation chamber of horrors, full of denizens of the deep. Junior receives enough of a scare to rush home and, as in the prior film, promise to be good, Songs: The Alphabet Song” is sung at the schoolhouse. “Small Fry” was composed by Hoagy Carmichael for the Bing Crosby picture “Sing You Sinners”, introduced by Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray, and a young Donald O’Connor. Crosby would pair up with Johnny Mercer for a recorded version on Decca, capturing much of the lively spirit of the film. Bunny Berigan covered it for Victor, and Mildred Bailey for Vocalion. It would be revived with different lyrics in a sketch for the Dean Martin show between Dean and his son Dino. Hoagy himself would finally get to record it for Little Golden Records on the album, “Hoagy Carmichael’s Havin’ a Party” and on companion single.


The Fresh Vegetable Mystery (9/29/39) – An all-vegetable cast carries out the plot of a story of kidnaping and police brutality, all within the confines of a kitchen. Lots of ethnic stereotypes abound, including a police squad consisting of Irish-brogue “Paddy’s Potatoes”, and a rogue’s gallery of suspects given painful versions of the “third degree”. The real culprit, however, is a mysterious hooded figure with metal tongs for hands – manipulated by a pack of mice within the costume. The mice are eventually rounded up by the Potatoes in a large rodent trap, and bicker among themselves like movie’s “little tough guys”, the Dead End Kids, over which of them caused their downfall. Songs: “The Wearing of the Green”, a standard part of the Irish repertoire, dating back to a 1798 rebellion against the British. John McCormack recorded it most prominently for Victor. J.W. Myers performed a much earlier version for Victor. Bass singer William F. Hooley would also record it for Victor. Gerald Griffin recorded it for Okeh Bunny Berigan would later swing it for Victor. Judy Garland would perform it on Decca (embed below). Other Irish artists would regularly include it in their repertoire, as well as inclusion of the song in an instrumental medley, “Irish Suite”, by Leroy Anderson on Decca and a similar oft-performed medley by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, “Irish Night at the Pops”, for RCA Victor. A soul-stirring version was recorded by Peggy Lee, likely for Capitol. Also reappearing in the film, “Emmett’s Lullaby”, and “Pizzicato Mysterioso”.


Little Lambkin (2/2/40) – A little boy who is just barely able to walk is left in a fenced-off part of the yard, where he enjoys watermelon with some of his forest friends, a squirrel and a raccoon. Mommy comes along to take him to a new home in the city – where he doesn’t want to live. The new abode is one of those “house of tomorrow” affairs so common in late 30’s animation, and in the continuing theme of the then-current New York World’s Fair. Junior seeks revenge for his uprooting by crossing the wires of the various inventions, turning the whole household upside-down. When Papa gets home, the light fixtures squirt water, the refrigerator is an oven, and the water taps produce ice cubes. Next destination – old home sweet home, and a reunion with the boy’s forest friends for more watermelon. Songs: “Home Sweet Home”.


Ants in the Plants (5/15/40) – An ant village is being warned by their queen of the predatory nature of an anteater. Said beast comes along, and winds up with his snout caught in a pipe outlet intended for a gas light, with the queen ordering the administration of pepper, salt, mustard, and vinegar through the tube, inflaming the anteater’s snout to a glowing red. The anteater counters by producing an eye-dropper to provide the suction to suck the ants out of their lair, and prepares to enjoy the sustenance of an ant sandwich, until the colony is rescued by an elite “sewer side squad”, who gives the anteater the needle with small bayonets, until the anteater yells “Uncle”. Songs: an original, “We’ll Make Him Yell Uncle”, making good use of sped-up voices for the queen and her soldier ants. Whoever performs as the queen is not likely to have been Margie Hines, who was not generally known to be much of a singer.


Snubbed By a Snob (7/18/40) – A thoroughbred horse chastises her foal for consorting with a mere donkey (Spunky). The foal decides to turn up his nose at the friendship per Mama’s wishes, but falls into a perilous situation when he overindulges on apples, then cannot jump out of an enclosure including a mad bull. Spunky comes to the rescue, and the thoroughbred and foal see the error of their ways. Hunky and Spunky thus become their new stablemates. Songs: “Keep a-Goin”, the series theme; “Down South” written by Middleton, recorded in the 1920’s by the Eveready Hour Group on Victor, and Harry Reser’s Banjo Boys on Victor; “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”, written around 1840, became part of the standard repertoire for any British or American basso. Recorded by J.W. Myers for Victor Monarch, Gus Reed for Edison 2 minute cylinder, Wilfred Glenn for Victor acoustic and electrical, and in England by Peter Dawson for HMV, and Malcolm McEachern for Columbia.


You Can’t Shoe a Horse-Fly (8/23/40) – Hunky and Spinky are back in the wild, trying to get some rest in the shade. Spunky is being bothered by a horsefly (voiced by Pinto Colvig). Eventually, Hunky swats the horse-fly with her tail, putting the fly and several of his kind into a ready-made grave. An original title song by Sammy Timberg provides the musical score, sung by Colvig.


Vitamin Hay (8/22/41) – Nearly one year to the day from the release of the preceding title, the last Color Classic would also feature Hunky and Spunky. This production was no doubt eclipsed by competing color projects of the Fleischers as listed above, and probably went largely unnoticed by distributors. Spunky, like any red-blooded kid, has an aversion to anything “good for him”. A dispenser of “Vitamin Hay” above Spunky’s feed bin declares it to be good for baby horses, mules, and donkeys – but its taste is something else altogether. Though Hunky tries to mix it with a sugar cube as a lure, Spunky merely blows the hay away and mainlines the sugar. Spunky goes out, still hungry, and sees a neighborhood goat biting pieces off a tin lizzie. Spunky tries the same with the bulb-horn of the flivver – but swallows it whole, and honks every time he hiccups. This attracts the attention of a female goose, which in turns attracts the attention of her gander, who tosses Spunky all over the place, causing him to cough up the bulb horn. After this experience, Spunky’s old feed never looked so good. Songs: “Emmett’s Lullaby”, an original melody called “Them Thar’ Hills” (which we will later encounter in its original appearance in a Betty Boop film), “Chicken Reel”, and “Love in Bloom” (below, it’s introduction in the 1934 Paramount feature She Loves Me Not – with Bing Crosby and Kitty Carlisle).

Next Post: Betty Boop 1936-37.

9 Comments

  • “Blah beemba dooder deeder baaaaaaw! Bum boodle boo, beem beeder blaaaaaah!” That’s the best thing in any of the Hunky and Spunky cartoons. By far. Not that that’s saying much.

    The only reason Fleischer extended H&S into a whole subseries within the Color Classics is that the first one was nominated for an Academy Award, and they were hoping for lightning to strike twice. It didn’t. “Ants in the Plants”, on the other hand, is the best of the late Color Classics and one of my favourites in the whole series. It’s on a par with the average Silly Symphony of 1934, and I mean that as a compliment.

    That’s a great movie clip of “Small Fry”; makes me wish they had used the unexpurgated version of the song in the cartoon. Too bad they didn’t give Fred MacMurray a saxophone solo.

    And so we bid farewell to the Color Classics, and to Hunky and Spunky. On your way, donkeys, and keep a-goin’.

    • These color Fleischers wanna be everybody except Fleischer…that’s the problem. And I can’t think of any cartoons worse looking than the Mintzes that aren’t these ones.

  • ANTS IN THE PLANTS and SMALL FRY are two of my favorite Color Classics. The main title music in THE FRESH VEGETABLE MYSTERY is taken from a deleted song from GULLIVER’S TRAVELS called “Pussyfootin’ Around.” It was going to be sung by the three spies.

  • Famous Studios actually made better use of Spunky. “Okey Dokey Donkey” (1957) is rather charming, and Spunky no longer has that big head or screechy, grating voice. Hunky presumably was put out to pasture, and good enough for her, too. How that first Hunky and Spunky cartoon got an Oscar nomination defies comprehension. You’d think that all those Disney artists’ defecting to Miami, perhaps hoping Fleischer 2.0 would give be the next big thing, would have resulted in more appealing character design along with marginally smoother animation. But the donkeys, the anteater in “Ants in the Plants,” and those doll-like female characters border on the repulsive. Having watched “Arctic Giant” recently, however, I admit the prehistoric monster is actually quite cute (you almost expect it to have a silly Pinto Colvig voice), even though it’s supposed to be scary. The animators have trouble moving the other characters’ heads in perspective. As I keep saying, for how much those Superman cartoons cost, they should have been much better.

    • The wartime Noveltoon “Yankee Doodle Donkey” was also a big improvement over Spunky’s earlier Color Classics.

    • Much better? I thought the Superman cartoons were good enough as is. The only thing that would made the shorts better is if they did one featuring Lex Luthor. Though, the series got a dip in quality when Famous took over.

      • Luthor was not a big villain in Superman lore around this time. I love superheroes (especially DC) almost as much as I love GACs!

  • When the heck did this happen?

  • Considering the strain the animators and artists were at Fleischer’s – especially when trying to finish up MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN as well (not to mention the pressure from Paramount to get the films out quickly) – i think the Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons were – and are – terrific! From the impressions I’ve gotten when talking to Dave Tendlar and Gordon Sheehan, it’s a wonder the cartoons and features were as good as they were!

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