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 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.