Today, we bring a rare treat — a draft from a Fleischer Screen Song!
Documents from Fleischer cartoons for this column are getting harder to unearth. Luckily, the first page of the working copy for this cartoon was found in the collection of underground comics collector Eric Sack (www.undergroundcomixart.com), where other Fleischer artwork is contained. Eric loaned the remaining pages, including the final copy, as well. I Feel Like a Feather in The Breeze — with the working title “The Roof Garden” — stars Wiffle Piffle, one of the few eccentric characters the studio created without much development, beyond a funny moniker and an amusing arm-swishing walk. He appeared in two 1937 Betty Boop entries (Whoops! I’m a Cowboy and The Hot Air Salesman), and then appeared in a few more Screen Songs, mostly de-facto directed by Tom Johnson.
In the early ‘20s, Max Fleischer set up his own distributing company, Red Seal Pictures Corporation, which released their Out of the Inkwell cartoons and a series of Song Car-Tunes. The latter series was an extension of theater sing-along slides, where audiences would sing along from slides projecting song lyrics onto the screen, accompanied by a piano or Wurlitzer organ.
Although immensely popular with the masses, the static theater slides harbored some problems. The theater musicians would often increase or decrease their tempo, and the projectionist frequently showed the next slide too early or too late, which made the audience’s singing not correspond with the lyrics. Fleischer used different approaches in the series to overcome these burdens.
Many of the Song Car-Tunes used the new technological innovation of sound-on-film with the Phonofilm process, developed by Dr. Lee DeForest (also a co-founder of Red Seal). Theaters that weren’t wired for sound used an eighteen-piece orchestra for accompaniment. It proved immensely successful; Dick Huemer recollected that the print of the first Song Car-Tune, Oh Mabel, was rewound and played again.
For the 1925 Song Car-Tune, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, Fleischer introduced another technique: a “bouncing ball” which guided the audience to sing along. The lyrics were written on a flexible black show card, which was wrapped around a rotating drum, so that two lines would be shown at a time, while the rest were masked off. For the luminescent ball to appear on screen, the film elements were photographed on negative film stock. A Fleischer staffer wore a black glove, and held a black stick with a rounded white object at the tip, which they moved along in time to the music.
There were other improvements in the series; My Old Kentucky Home, released on April 1926, provided an early attempt in synchronizing animation with spoken dialogue, as an unnamed dog urged audiences to sing along. When Red Seal folded in 1926, Fleischer formed a partnership with Weiss Brothers-Artclass Pictures to release new Koko the Clown cartoons — retitled Inkwell Imps — and song cartoons.
The partnership between Fleischer and the Weiss brothers ended when Fleischer signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in late 1928. The Inkwell series ended permanently, but he continued producing song cartoons under the title Screen Songs.
As the studio progressed in the ‘30s, Paramount’s affiliation with Fleischer provided popular musical performers such as Rudy Vallee, Ethel Merman, the Mills Brothers and the Boswell Sisters in the Screen Songs. These recording and vaudeville stars appeared in live-action portions of the films, in which they performed each cartoon’s title song. In exchange for their on-screen presentations, Paramount agreed to promote these artists in their theater chain, with the cartoons serving as a supplementary feature, released in advance of their live appearances.
By the time of Feather’s release, and other subsequent Screen Songs in the mid-thirties, the musical acts — in this case, bandleader Jack Denny and his orchestra — would perform in the middle of the cartoon, sans live-action introduction. The song itself was a plug for the tune from Paramount’s Collegiate (1936).
Being a Screen Song, with a live-action performance in the middle of the film, Feather has roughly 3½ minutes of character animation in its seven-minute duration. Three artists are credited on the draft: head animator Tom Johnson, Harold Walker and Dave Hoffman, who isn’t credited in the titles. Hoffman served as animator in Seymour Kneitel’s crew, but later switched over to Johnson’s unit. He migrated West and animated for Bob Clampett on his black-and-white Looney Tunes (‘39-‘40 releases) for a brief period. Hoffman’s career is unknown after his short career at Warners, but his animation credits re-appear in the late ‘50s when he became a production planner and coordinator on animated television programs (Jay Ward’s Crusader Rabbit, Total Television’s King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Calvin and the Colonel). He later became an animation checker for the 1960’s Krantz/Bakshi Spider-Man series.The draft pages shown here aren’t sourced from scans, but from photographs, so they are a little hard to read. The working copy shows a rough continuity of the scenario (provided by Jack Ward and “McCallister”); there are borders to distinguish shot numbers, scenes are omitted and descriptions are crossed out but ultimately re-written later for the final copy. Readers will notice the waiter/customer gags in scene 8, along with the final shot of Wiffle Piffle slurping spaghetti as he becomes roly-poly, were written by hand in the working copy.
It’s interesting to see the in-studio vernacular in this document — the live-action performance by Jack Denny and his Orchestra is known in the draft as “actual,” signifying it as the actual performance of the title song.
Sit back and enjoy the breakdown video, or you could walk around the room and wave your arms, like Wiffle Piffle…
(Click to enlarge)
(Special thanks to Eric Sack, Bob Jaques and Frank Young for their help.)