August 15, 2013 posted by

Fleischer Fun, part 1: ‘Singin’ like the Birdies Sing’


I think we’re in pretty good times for old Fleischer animation, or, at least, better than in many years. I think it’s safe to say that any fan of 1930’s animation loves a large portion of what the studio produced, and loves to see cartoons they haven’t seen before.

I particularly love the Popeyes, having grown up watching them on channel 50 in Detroit, Michigan in the 70’s. They were the only black and white cartoons still on that TV market, but as a kid I never cared about the lack of color…did anyone?

The Betty Boop BluRay sets from Olive Films will be released in the coming months; it will be nice to see the cartoons from such excellent material without all the DVNR that was in the previous set. As for other Fleischer cartoons, the Superman shorts restored by Warner Bros. look amazing now, as do the Warner sets of the Popeyes. Kit Parker and VCI did the best they could from the available materials on their Color Classics Somewhere In Dreamland set – not perfect, but about the best available on most of those shorts. Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images offers some excellent sets of Out of the Inkwell shorts, so a large body of the studio’s work is available now in decent versions. There was a time not too long ago that it seemed the majority of the Fleischer cartoons would never really get any further proper treatment, so we of course should all be grateful that things are as good as they are so far!

It still leaves quite a few cartoons to languish that Fleischer produced, including things like the color specials from the 40’s, the Stone Age and Gulliver’s Travels inspired shorts, the Talkartoons and Screen Songs, not to mention all the Kokos and Inkwell Imps that have barely seen the light of day in decades. Not all of these films are gems, but so many are, and others are just plain fun. I do hope more make it out before too long….

I’m living with Fleischer animation nearly every day right now, working on digital cleanup for a BluRay release that I’ll talk about a little next week.

The Screen Songs from the 30’s are generally hard to find, and complete versions of many nearly impossible to see. UM&M/ NTA, the television distributor, took out the live action sequences in many, often removing the song entirely from the film, leaving them to look as if they were just very short cartoons. This package was distributed to TV, but it must not have been as popular as the others. Some of the films run very short with the live action cut out, often around four minutes. Here are a few of those prints back to back: Tune in and Sing and Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing, both from 1934.

For reference, here’s a complete version of Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing, with the usually cut live-action featuring Reis and Dunn – performing the classic song written by Robert Hargreaves, Stanley J. Damerell and Tolchard Evans.

Hearing Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing reminded me of Billy Costello (AKA Red Pepper Sam) and his novelty recordings in the 30’s. Costello was of course the original voice of Popeye. I recently saw this picture of his grave.


Here’s his recording of Let’s All Sing in his regular singing voice as well as doing his unmistakeable Popeye voice, from 1935.

Costello does quite a few voices in early 30’s Fleischer cartoons well before Popeye. This particular Red Pepper Sam song, “I’m Nobody’s Sweetheart Now” shows up in the last portion of the Betty Boop Cartoon Betty Boop MD. If you ever wondered who was doing that singing and scatting as the baby turns into Mr. Hyde, now you know!


  • I would LOVE to see complete restorations of all the “Screen Songs” cartoons, both the Fleischer and Famous varieties. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s watching those on Boston TV; they were the means by which I learned the lyrics of a lot of old pop songs — lyrics that I haven’t forgotten after over 50 years. Others may not agree with me on this, but as a former music teacher I think today’s elementary school-age children would get a kick out of learning those songs. The “Screen Songs” were a very clever and creative idea on the Fleischers’ part — and, of course, a great way of promoting Famous Music’s pop songs. I’ve sometimes wondered why MTV never came up with a comparable concept.

  • Oh, why did Olive Films have to get the DVD rights to the Fleischer cartoons and not Thunderbean!?

    • In a word: Money.

    • It’s a shame when money talks in this business.

    • Does Thunderbean even do licensed releases? I thought they dealt strictly in public domain material. (I don’t mean that as criticism. Nobody does ’em better, and I’m sure if Thunderbean ever got their hands on the Boops that the results would put Olive’s release to shame.)

  • Tops on my list right now would be a nice color print of “The Raven.” Thanks for doing your part, Steve!

  • In the 1970s, ALL cartoons were in black and white on my family’s TV set. But I was always captivated by the rubber-hosey animation of the Fleischer cartoons (Channel 44 in San Francisco): early Popeyes and the occasional Koko. They were just so EXOTIC! I even loved the lethargic opening and shutting of the ship cabin doors to change the opening titles in Popeye. Warner Brothers cartoons (we didn’t call them Looney Tunes as kids) were for laughs, but the Popeyes were objects of wonder—and still are. And I’m as thrilled as any kid that I’ll soon have the Blu-Ray Boops. Of the 48 shorts, I’ve only seen four. These ARE “pretty good times for old Fleischer animation.”

    • At least it sounds like you were spared the humiliation of seeing the colored redrawns of Betty Boop NTA also had to shovel out for who knows why (other than pacifying broadcasters thirsty for color cartoons to replace the black & whites).

  • I love the Betty Boop one with Ethel Merman

  • Strange, I’ve seen plenty of Screen Songs on YouTube like ROMANTIC MELODIES, POPULAR MELODIES and THE PEANUT VENDOR that had UM&M or NTA titles with the guest performer scenes intact.

    • Those were probably from the negatives U.M. & M. received and simply had their titles edited around initially, but probably dupe prints produced later removed those segments anyway.

  • Now were the live-action sequences cut by NTA or were they cut by local stations? The Harvey-owned Famous Screen Songs that ran locally when I was a kid all had the sing-alongs edited out of them, and I know that was done by the station.

    • The live action cuts were done to the NTA 16mm printing negatives, the prints themselves would not have splices.
      However, NTA would physically splice them out of old prints that they still had in distribution. Explaining why some UM&M prints are also cut. The UM&M prints were originally printed complete.

      I have heard that the early print runs from NTA were uncut also, but stations complained about the live action sequences being too dull for kids. I have to admit, many of the live sequences are a bit dull for kids, not as snappy as the color Famous Screen Songs.

      FYI, I handled all of the 16mm NTA films when they were in rental distribution, that is how I know the prints. We actually had a Paramount print of Betty Boop’s POPEYE THE SAILOR, but without any soundtrack! All Paramount logos & inkwell end title were intact.

  • I don’t know if this is quite the most appropriate place to express some appreciation, but… Along about 2004, when most of the Fleischer Popeyes were languishing in a vault somewhere and various bottom-feeding DVD releasing companies were dumping on the market dubious assemblages of whatever Fleischer material they could ascertain was in the public domain without any introductions or commentary, I came across a Popeye collection by Thunderbean and Mackinack Media that seemed different. I had not the slightest clue what the heck a thunderbean even was at the time, but the back cover blurb endorsing it by some character named Jerry Beck convinced me, and I bought it. And it turned out to be exactly what it looked like: The best possible collection of Popeye cartoons that could be done at the time, based on public domain material assembled by knowledgeable fans who knew what they were doing and what was available. I enjoyed it immensely.
    Since then, all the Fleischer Popeyes have been released, so the 2004 collection is perhaps obsolete, but I still have it for some of the bonus features. So here’s a belated thanks, guys!

  • The TV station my dad worked for throughout the 1970s and ’80s had, at one point, rights to a package of cartoons from NTA, but it was an all-color package. By that time National Telefilm had apparently shelved the black and white cartoons they owned and repackaged whatever Fleischer and Famous cartoons that remained into an all-color package.

    Those were good days for fans of classic animation. In addition to the aforementioned package, the station owned the Popeye theatricals, two packages of Warner Bros. cartoons (the pre-48s and a post-48 package of about 100 cartoons that was pretty heavy on Bugs Bunny), the Harveytoons/Famous shorts, and a package of MGM pre-48s (but no Tom and Jerry). Eventually they added the Walter Lantz titles, Tom and Jerry, and the Pink Panther to their library, but dropped the NTA package and the MGM pre-48s.

    Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny (“Bugs Bunny and His Pals”) got their own afternoon half-hours. The Panther and Lantz cartoons were jumbled into an odd morning show titled “The Pink Panther/Woody Woodpecker Show.” All the cartoons used in those series (as well as Beany and Cecil) turned up in a 90 minute early morning hodgepodge that was for years just listed in the TV guide as “Cartoons.” Despite the title, a Three Stooges short sometimes turned up during the show.

    Another local station had the Terrytoons. Another had the Porky Pig redrawns and whatever post-48s were in that package. And various old made-for-TV cartoons were scattered around the schedules, but I tended to pay attention primarily to the theatricals (well, and Beany and Cecil, which I loved.)

    Don’t remember ever seeing the Betty Boop redrawns back then.

    Funny how all these years later these old theatrical cartoons have largely vanished from television.

    Even in the ’70s, censorship was going on, though I didn’t recognize most of it until I got older. Cartoons that featured African American characters simply didn’t air. I did eventually notice that cartoons feature other ethnic types had vanished, too. And I remember very well spotting an edit that suddenly appeared one morning in a Baby Huey cartoon. A bit where Huey’s father angry at his son, kicks him repeatedly in the face. I remembered it very clearly. Suddenly it was just missing from the print. And people have told me I’m imagining this, but I remember very clearly seeing Tom and Jerry cartoons in which the Mammy character had been redrawn as a white woman and redubbed with an Irish-accented voice that I seem to recall as being that of June Foray. (And Jerry, if you wouldn’t mind letting me know whether or not I’m remembering correctly, and if so, shedding a little light on those altered Tom and Jerry’s, I would appreciate it.)

    My dad said what killed local TV syndication of those old theatrical shorts was that the use of 16mm film, the format on which those cartoons were syndicated, ended by most broadcasters in the mid-1980s. Everything went to videotape. While stations could accommodate reels and reels of 16mm prints of cartoons, it just wasn’t feasible to store reels and reels of videotapes of individual cartoons. Additionally, for broadcast, stations generally spliced together onto one large reel all the cartoons to be aired on that day’s “Cartoon Circus” or whatever. You couldn’t do that with videotape. With videotape, stations needed programming supplied as nice, neat pre-edited half-hours or hours. The companies that owned those cartoons largely dropped the ball on doing that, so as a result, al those cartoons vanished from local stations. Most of them aren’t even offered, anymore. CBS, for example, hasn’t offered the Terrytoons in years. Oh, if a large outfit like, say, Nickelodeon got it into their heads to want to show them, they could probably make arrangements to do so, but by and large, all those wonderful old cartoons have just been relegated to vaults.

    With the Terrytoons, I know for a fact that CBS went to the trouble to make tape transfers of those cartoons some twenty years ago, and then having made those transfers, proceeded to do absolutely nothing with them. Aggravating!

    • And people have told me I’m imagining this, but I remember very clearly seeing Tom and Jerry cartoons in which the Mammy character had been redrawn as a white woman and redubbed with an Irish-accented voice that I seem to recall as being that of June Foray.

      I’ve seen this on YouTube (except I don’t think Mammy was actually re-drawn). It was a redub of the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, where in the original version they were called Jasper and Jinx. The redubbed version changed their names to Tom and Jerry and gave Mammy the Irish June Foray voice you described.

    • “Don’t remember ever seeing the Betty Boop redrawns back then.”

      It’s nice to know some stations didn’t buy into that one, but I suppose NTA was pretty desperate unless it was a shelved property at that point.

      It’s true what film-chain projectors did for these cartoons that video simply didn’t match. I wish it stayed that way into the 90’s myself even if it gotten so ghetto by that point against anything else on the dial. I get impressed just noting clips of foreign broadcasts of American cartoons all over YouTube showing how desperate some of these channels are in what they could acquire to show, like this.

    • I worked in Television in the 1980s when our cartoon library was switching over from 16mm film to 1″ video tape.
      The new cartoons arrived on hour long 1″ reels that we dubbed over to master “spot reels” like TV commercials were.
      We would then dub them over to broadcast cassettes and play them out like commercials.

      Some cartoons like Woody Woodpecker & Popeye were mounted by the distributor as half-hour cartoon shows on one tape.

      To be honest, video tape was much easier to broadcast than the old 16mm film days when you would have to re-cue multiple projectors or spend days mounting hour long reels of film, then breaking them down.

      So as someone who worked at a TV station at the time of the conversion, I can say that video tape did NOT kill the classic cartoons in broadcast TV. It was POOR RATINGS, I am sorry to say.

  • Any information on the “Ink Well” cartoons made in the 1950s for TV? I read about them in Leslie’s book on the Fleischers but have never seen them. Do prints exist?

    • Oh yes, they exist. Perhaps we will do a post about them at some point… till then:

    • I’m sure that’s going to be a big topic Jerry!

  • The old Tom and Jerry laserdisc box that MGM/UA did ages ago included a cartoon that featured Mammy Two-Shoes, but the soundtrack had her speaking in an Irish voice. It was the one involving Spike, a bone into which Jerry buries a metal bolt, and a magnet that Jerry tricks Tom into swallowing.

    Interesting memories. I remember various old theatrical and TV cartoons being liberally scattered through the schedule when I was a kid, and come to think of it most of them did vanish in the 1980s. I never knew TV abandoning film for videotape was a big reason for that, though.

    • Well now you know. Gone is the kind of physical limitations that use to be a part of showing a film at all as I see it. I was glad to have lived through part of that end period personally.

  • It looks like Um&m kept the scenes intact, but NTA edited them.

  • Just out of curiosity, does anyone have access to NTA prints of the following Color Classics: Little Dutch Mill, The Song of the Birds, Educated Fish, Hold It, and Little Lamby? I have never seen TV prints of these cartoons, but I would like to see one, some, or even all of these cartoons with NTA titles. I could not find any TV prints of these cartoons on any PD DVDs. If anyone has a TV copy of one of the aforementioned cartoons on DVD or on an old tape try to post it on YouTube or if you already know of a site where I can view one or more of these cartoons post a link.

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