1931 was not a particularly good year for the economy. The malaise that had set in with the stock market crash in October, 1929, had deepened to a full-blown Depression, and it didn’t look like it was going to end.
It was a good year for the Great American Songbook, though. Several songs written that year would go on to become well-loved standards. Herman Hupfeld wrote a ballad praising the eternal verities of love and romance, in an ever-changing world. “As Time Goes By” would be revived in 1943, when it was used in the wartime romantic drama Casablanca. Halmy Kresa’s nostalgic ode to a romantic rendezvous would be revived in 1947,when a belter going under the name of Frankie Laine scored a big hit with “That’s My Desire”. And a bittersweet ballad about the aftermath of a love affair would be revived in 1947, when ‘Heartaches’ got a new lese on life, thanks to a disk jockey from Charlotte, North Carolina, who found an eight-year old platter, gave it a ride over his station, and saw the song climb up the charts. John Klemmer (composer) didn’t have many “heartaches” when the royalty checks started flowing in.
1931 was also a good year for animated cartoons–especially the ones marketed by Warner Bros. Pictures and the Vitaphone Corporation. These cartoons were hitting an early stride, having been introduced the year before, and more than just holding their own in an increasingly-competitive marketplace.
What’s more, producer Leon Schlesinger was able to get a green light for a new series of cartoons, produced for him (and for Warner’s) by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. This new series was going up against Disney’s “Silly Symphonies”, but these featured a hotter variety of music than the Silly Symphonies, which were handled by Columbia Pictures.
There were also a dozen new “Looney Tunes” starring Bosko, following a pattern of the 1930 releases. The new series, called “Merrie Melodies”, would prove equally popular with customers and exhibitors.
For a time, the movies looked to be depression-proof. You wouldn’t find Adolf Zukor or Harry Cohn selling apples at the corner of Sunset and Gower. But they were enduring the effects of the economic downturn.
First up in the new series of animated shorts was Lady, Play Your Mandolin, a recently popular song, trading in a Latin-Americn exoticism. Unlike the “Looney Tunes”, this “Merrie Melodies” short credits that the music was played by Abe Lyman’s Brunswick Recoding Orchestra. Warner Bros. had bought Brunswick Records in 1930, from the originators of the marque: manufacturers of billiard tables and bowling equipment. Lyman’s orchestra had been recording for Brunswick since 1923, and had built up an international reputation from its recordings, which included hot numbers such as “Shake That Thing” (Brunswick 3069). Their contemporary recordings had been a good deal sweeter, and the soundtracks of the cartoons come out hotter than the commercial recordings of the Lyman band of the time.
Besides the title tune, this cartoon uses the Mexican standard “Cielito Lindo” (used to set the scene at or near to the cantina in Old Mexico), and Frank Crumit’s “A Gay Caballero”, performed by the lead character, Foxy, to prove that he’s a fraud (“I’m expert in shooting the bull-o”).
Interestingly, Lyman never got to record “Lady, Play Your Mandolin’ for Brunswick. Popular guitar-playing crooner Nick Lucas – who had introduced “Tip-Toe Thru The Tulips” a year and a half earlier – was put in front of a house band styled as “his Crooning Troubadours”.
Victor and Columbia had house orchestras record the song, both with vocal refrains by Paul Small. The Columbia was presented by Ben Selvin and his Orchestra – which at the time included an up-and-coming clarinetist by the name of Benny Goodman). The Victor (billed as the “Havana Novelty Orchestra” – actually directed by Nathaniel Shilkret) sold well, and its flip side was a novelty version of “Mama Inez’, a genuine Cuban rumba. That side has been discussed in this column before, due to its use in a “Flip the Frog” cartoon soundtrack.
The smaller companies also bade the lady to play her mandolin. The cheapest of the cheap–the laminated paper discs known as Hit-of-the-Week–sold for fifteen cents at news stands everywhere. And the Madison records, made by what was left of the Grey Gull concern, sold for a dime at F. W Woolworth’s stores.
There were also entirely vocal treatments of this opus. Victor issued aperformance by the Revelers, with an up-to-date take on barber-shop quartet harmonies.
Coming in two weeks: the other “Merrie Melodies” of 1931, and the “Looney Tunes” of the same year.