August 15, 2023 posted by James Parten

Famous Studios: Screen Songs/Kartunes 1950-52

The Screen Songs continued to hold their banner as high as could be mustered, enjoying a revival which spanned several years, and survived various excursions into experimental Polacolor to save on budget. By the time of this survey, most titles were returning to full Technicolor, though this may have only been window dressing as far as audience appeal was concerned. It remain a question how these films fared in their distribution and in audience reaction – and a further question why Paramount would choose to rename the series as “Kartunes” in 1951 while still maintaining style and content in the same manner as before.

Boos In the Night (9/23/50). The last of the Screen Song series to be included in the UM&M/NTA distribution package for television. Spot gags among the dearly departed in an old “Ghost Town (Day and Night Haunting)”. Television station B-O-O offers a ghost to ghost hookup of programing, and is even picked up on Dick Tracy style wristwatch receivers. Everyone seems headed for a big party shindig, and witches offer broomstick taxi service. A proto “Ghostly Trio” performs a wild dance transforming into geometric shapes, until the party is broken up by the appearance at the door of two faces that will scare even the most hardened spirits away – Frankenstein and Peter Lorre. Songs: “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day” from Gulliver’s Travels makes another appearance, sung by a provocative female bathing ghost, and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” as the sing-along (Halloween tunes being in shortage that anyone would remember the lyrics to). A British song from 1915, published in the U.S. in 1916. Victor had an early black seal recording credited to Edward Hamilton with mixed chorus (a pseudonym for Reinald Werrenrath, a concert baritone who usually appeared in the lowest-priced red seal series). James F. Harrison and Knickerbocker Male Quartette performed it on Columbia. Another Columbia release appeared in the concert series, by Oscar Seagle and the Columbia Stellar Quartette. Helen Clark performed the Edison version. Stanley Kirkby would record a British version on “The Winner”. Murray Johnson (possibly Kirkby again under a pseudonym) would issue a version on HMV. It would be included as the first selection on “Song Fest” medley, circa 1940. by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on red seal Victor. Dick Haymes and the Andrews Sisters would revive it in the 1940’s on Decca Spike Jones and his City Slickers would also revive it for a spirited performance on Bluebird, rewriting the lyric “While you’ve a Lucifer to Light Your Fag”. Bob Crosby would also revive it on Decca. Sharkey Bonano and his Kings of Dixieland would be responsible for an even later revival in the 1950’s on Capitol.

Fiesta Time (10/25/50) – Spot gags about Mexico, bringing up such typical tropes as the spiciness of Mexican cooking, Mexican jumping beans, and siesta time – and after siesta comes fiesta. Jackson Beck does a gentle Mexican accent in his narration. The payoff is a bullfight, with the bull ejecting over the arena wall the matador, the picador, and the cuspador, but one lone toreador outwitting the bull by standing atop a formidable obstacle into which the bull charges headfirst – a gravestone reading “El Toro”. Song: “Alla En El Rancho Grande”, using am English lyric, “Give Me My Ranch”. A traditional Mexican song still known to almost every Mexican and Mexican-American. Earliest recording is from 1926 by the Orquesta Tipica “Anahuac”, recorded in Mexico City for Victor. Pilar Arcos also issued a version on Vocalion circa 1926. Columbia had a 1928 recording by an Orquesta Tipica directed by Miguel Lerdo De Tejada. He had recorded for Columbia in the late teens, and would continue to record with a Marimba orchestra into the 1930’s. Another steady-selling version appeared later on Bluebird in the green and buff ethnic series in the 1930’s, by Emilio Caceras and his Club Agyula Orchestra. On Mexican RCA Victor appeared another steady seller by Jorge Negrete (this was also the title used in one of his movies). Bing Crosby performed it with the Foursome on Decca. Morton Gould gave it a concert rendition on green Columbia Masterworks. Western-styled versions appeared by Gene Autry on Vocalion (below), and Milton Brown and his Brownies on Decca. Al Bowlly gave the British isles a version on HMV. Versions continued into the ‘40’s and ‘50’s including Tito Guizar on Victor, Ethel Smith on Decca, Tommy Dorsey on Victor, Pedro Infante on Peerless, Marho Llergo and Rafael Mendez on Pan American, and the Mariachi Pullido on RCA Victor purple label.

Fresh Yeggs (11/17/50) – Spot gags on prison life. Tropes include the striped prison uniform, ball and chain, the rock pile, “You’ll swing for this” followed by riding in a kiddie swing, a striped fish in a bowl who complains “I’m gonna fry”, the jail bird and the stool pigeon, and the foiled escape attempt. Songs: “Home Sweet Home”, and the newcomer: “Give My Regards to Broadway”, from George M. Cohan’s “Little Johnny Jones”, recorded in 1905 by Billy Murray for Columbia and possibly other labels. It received revival in James Cagney’s academy award winning salute to Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy (below). Concurrent with the revival, am album set, “Songs of George M. Cohan”, was released on Columbia, giving the number to Mordy Bauman. In 1945, an Al Smith memorial album was also issued on Majestic, also using the tune by Kay Armen with Roy Bloch’s orchestra. (Kay was an Armenian singer, who would later issue the first version of “Come on-a My House”.) Al Jolson would issue a version on Decca. George M. Cohan, Jr. would perform a salute to dad on RCA Victor. Mickey Rooney would perform it on a RCA LP in 1954, “Sings George M. Cohan”. Mitch Miller would again include it on one of his sing-along LP’s for Columbia. The original cast album fron “Geoge M” starring Joel Grey would appear as an LP on Columbia. The tune would appear on many other Cohan tribute LP’s, including a budget label collection that circulated under many labels, with anonymous vocal by Norman Brooks, an excellent impersonator of Al Jolson.

Drippy Mississippi (4/13/51) – Spot gags following the course of the Mighty Mississippi, from its humble beginnings in Minnesota all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Among the cities referred to along the way are Minneapolis, Davenport, Iowa (showing a love seat), and St Louis (showing the “Cards” as a team of playing cards). Also gags about show boats and riverboat gambling. A gag about levees revisits the old “boy and the dike” trope, plugging a hole with his finger, but having water squirt out his ears. Songs: “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I” a 1916 spelling song introduced on Broadway by Frances White, who recorded it on blue seal Victor. Anna Wheaton covered it for Columbia. The melody will be familiar to anyone who sat through the credits of “The Alvin Show”, used musically to spell out the last name, letter by letter, of creator Ross Bagdasarian.

Miners Forty-Niners (5/19/51) – Spot gags about gold mining. Gags about the trek West to the gold country, (oddly depicting the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon, which wouldn’t have been on the route, as they were too far south), and the process of gold mining – panning for gold, blasting mountains open, and “gold-digging” (allowing them to draw a bunch of female figures). “Steaking” one’s claim has someone getting dibs on a Porterhouse. Songs: “Frankie and Johnnie”, and “Clementine”, the latter published in 1884. A 1928 version appeared on Grey Gull, anonymously performed by Arthur Fields. In the1940’s, Bing Crosby waxed it for Decca. Esmereldy recorded it for Musicraft. Rosalie Allen performed a quite comic version, complete with sound effects, on Spin (embed below). Sonny Dunham issued a picture disc on Vogue. Gene Autry recorded a children’s version on Playtime. Roy Halee would also issue a children’s version on Wonderland, and Smiley Burnette on Cricket. Bobby Darin would get a rocking hit out of a revival in the wake of his success with “Mack the Knife” in the 1960’s on Atco. The tune would also have a legacy in other animated films, featured In the 1950’s Jolly Frolic, The Miner’s Daughter from UPA, and every week as the ear-aching theme of television’s “Huckleberry Hound”.

Here’s that version of “Clementine” by Rosalie Allen I mentioned above. It’s deliberate corniness and use of sound-effects sounds like a cartoon track looking for a film:

Sing Again of Michigan (6/26/51) – Spot gags about the Wolverine state. Gags cover the fishing opportunities there (both regular and ice fishing), Briggs Stadium, then home of the Detroit Tigers, cultivation of cherries (George Washington chopped here), and the auto industry for a payoff gag. SONG: “I Want To Go Back To Michigan”, written by Irving Berlin in 1914, is the featured number. Victor issued it by Morton Harvey, Columbia gave it to Elida Morris, and Edison gave it to Billy Murray and chorus. The Van Eps Banjo Orchestra performed it instrumentally on Columbia. In England, HMV issued a dance version by the New Mayfair Orchestra. The song appears in two feature films of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s – “Pardon Us” with Laurel and Hardy, and “Easter Parade” with Judy Garland (below).

Vegetable Vaudeville (7/5/51) – The first of the series renamed under the banner “Kartune”, though there is absolutely no difference between them and the Screen Songs excepting the titling and theme music, which uses a jazzed-ip version of “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. The stock at a green grocer’s shop puts on a show for fellow fruits and vegetables. Gags include an olive who performs a high-dive into a martini, and comes out well and truly pickled. An ear of corn that does a fire-eating act until its kernels pop. A line of dancing “apple core-us” girls, in a direct steal from Dick Lundy’s “Apple Andy”. A crooning carrot that emulates a pencil-thin Frank Sinatra. A couple of Georgia peaches swoon over him. The cast exits in a conga line from the theater, the olive still feeling the effects of his visit to the “dive”. Songs: An original, “Wake Up, Wake Up”, a return of “Let’s Get Lost” for the crooning carrot, and, for the sing-along, a revisit to the unavoidable hit of 1923, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, led by “Carmen Banana” (a spoof on Carmen Miranda). Here’s The Pied Pipers performing that song in the 1948 MGM musical Luxury Liner:

Gag and Baggage (8/8/52) – Spot gags on railroads. (Somehow, this manages to avoid gags on hoboes.) It takes us from the earliest days to the present, represented by streamlined trains such as The Champion (which is seen putting up its dukes), and the Dixie Flyer (which is seen hovering above the tracks). Amazing they also avoided the old one on the Super Chief. Also gags about railroad stations, and porters mishandling cargo. “Check your baggage” results in a porter painting the bags like checkerboards. Songs: “Kingdom Comin’ and The Year of Jubilo”, a civil war song most-remembered in animation for its whistling rendition by Tex Avery’s southern-fried wolf (Daws Butler) starting with “Three Little Pups”. The best remembered recording was by Frank Crumit on Victor in 1927. Guy Mitchell would update it in the 1950’s for Columbia as “The Day of Jubilo”. And the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra got a hit record out of it as an instrumental under the retitling, “Doodletown Fifers” for RCA Victor. “Beyond the Blue Horizon” makes a revisit. The sing-along goes to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, considered to be a folk song whose origins are lost in the mist of time. Recordings include Frank Novak and his Rootin’ Tootin’ Boys in a deliberately corny version on Vocalion in 1937. Frank was a multi-instrumentalist, capable on trombone, clarinet, saxophone, violin accordion, piano, string bass, and xylophone. Another version in big band swing appeared on Vogue picture record by Art Mooney and his Orchestra. Arthur Godfrey did a children’s version for Columbia Playtime, while practically every other children’s label gave it to more generic talent. Alvin and the Chipmunks would include it as an album cut on Liberty. And Mitch Miller would inevitably include it on a sing-along album. The song had a second life as a college fight song, “The Eyes of Texas”, which was recorded by the University of Texas Long Horn Band for Victor in 1928. The Carolina Club Orchestra (which would become Hal Kemp’s band) would issue a version in 1929 for Okeh. Ozzie Nelson recorded a version for Victor in the 1930’s. Dick Powell included it among college songs on Decca. The Light Crust Doughboys waxed it on Vocalion. Milton Brown and his Brownies take it hot on Decca. Later versions included Del Wood on Decca, and Tex Beneke on RCA Victor. Here’s Paul Tremaine & His Aristocrats covering it in a 1929 Vitaphone short:

Next Time: A mixed bag.


  • Our last look at the Screen Songs raised the question of how these cartoons were received by audiences back in the day. I asked my brother-in-law, who’s old enough to remember attending kiddie matinees in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, if he remembered seeing the Screen Songs, and he most certainly did. He said that as soon as the singalong with the bouncing ball began, the kids in the audience would go nuts and start throwing things at the screen: popcorn, candy, peanuts, any miscellaneous junk they happened to have in their pockets, whatever they could get their hands on. In those days movie popcorn came in red-and-white rectangular cartons that, when folded flat, could be flung like frisbees — and when you got hit by one of those spinning corners, it really hurt! He thinks that’s why those cartons were eventually replaced by the round popcorn tubs used today.

    However, he also said that a higher sense of decorum prevailed at evening shows, and on those occasions some people did in fact sing along with the bouncing ball.

    It’s been speculated that “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was derived from the cello solo in the introduction to Franz von Suppe’s “Poet and Peasant” Overture; the first four bars of the two melodies are almost exactly identical. The overture was composed about 50 years before the first published edition of the song saw print, but there’s no hard evidence of any deliberate appropriation.

    I guarantee that if “Fresh Yeggs” had been screened anywhere in the Detroit area in the 1970s, the audience would have enthusiastically joined in the singalong, albeit with somewhat altered lyrics:

    “Give our regards to Jim Fresard!
    Main Street is the place to go!
    Tell all the folk in Royal Oak!
    They’ll follow those who know!
    Fresard has got a Pontiac
    At a price that’s safe for you.
    Main Street became the big wide track
    When Jim Fresard came on the avenue!
    For you! Jim Fresard! Main Street! Royal Oak!
    North of Eleven Mile!”

    Oh, the things that stick in your memory….

    • “North of Eleven Mile!” indeed. Like me, you still recall all the lyrics! Ah, memory…

  • It could be that the “singalong” concept was perceived as quaint and corny by early 1950s audiences, and the KARTUNE retitling was an attempt to conceal the content. Unless Paramount actually advertised them as new song cartoons.

  • I wonder whether the same kind of product could be revived again to a modern-day audience, and be given “relevance” by retitling the series, “A Karaoke Cartoon”. For that matter, how come Paramount never marketed Karaoke machines using their bouncing-ball visual? Technology too expensive, or just a missed opportunity?

  • Leave it to Famous to rip off Walt Lantz. (Okay, he spelled it cartune with a C, but still…)

  • I think it’s easier to read lyrics on a karaoke screen when the words light up one at a time, rather than with a ball bouncing on top of them. I like the idea of Karaoke Cartoons, but the music licensing fees would probably be prohibitive:

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