NEEDLE DROP NOTES
August 13, 2019 posted by James Parten

Looney Tunes 1931– A Good Year, Indeed!

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.

11 Comments

  • While the allure of movies seemed “Depression-Proof,” Adolph Zukor came close symbolically to selling apples in Time Square since Paramount experienced its first Bankruptcy in 1930, prompting the corporate name change from Paramount-Famous-Lasky, Corp. to Paramount-Publix in 1930. Two additional reorganizations occurred until Barney Balaban became Head of Paramount and set them on the path of solvency in 1936.

    • The April 25, 1930 edition of the New York Times notes the change in name from PFPL to P-P, and notes that the directors had approved it in January of 1930; it happened some time before the actual bankruptcy filings, but certainly while the overextended firm was starting to feel the effects of the Crash six months before. The company was still paying dividends as of May of ’31 (see New York Times, May 12, 1931), which it obviously couldn’t do if it was in bankruptcy proceedings filed in 1930. Paramount-Publix went into receivership on January 26, 1933, and then formally filed for bankruptcy on March 14, 1933 (there’s some technical legal differences between the two states of being) — see TIME magazine, March 27, 1933 and In Re Paramount-Publix Corp., 12 F. Supp 823 (1935).

      When the bankruptcy laws were substantially revised in 1934, Paramount-Publix made filings to take advantage of the new rules regarding reorganizations — see New York Times, June 8, 1934, and it received court approval for its reorganization plan in April of 1935 — see New York Times, April 5, 1935 and Paramount-Publix v. Wiseman, 82 F. 2nd 230 (2nd Cir., 1936). There only appears to have been one bankruptcy proceeding, though there was the major filing in 1934 while it was pending (plus, of course, the briefly lived receivership in ’33 that was superseded by the bankruptcy filing); thus there was only one reorganization, that of April of ’35. Balaban was elected president of Paramount Pictures Inc. in July of 1936, after being made a board member and an executive committee member the month before, though he’d been playing a role on a stockholders’ protective committee since 1932 — see the New York Times, July 3, 1936; he formally became head a little over a year after Paramount emerged from bankruptcy.

      One quirk is that from 1929-1932, Paramount owned a major stake in CBS — not the first time this would happen! It sold the stake in CBS back to CBS to raise cash to stave off the receivership/bankruptcy.

  • Foxy’s girl is named Roxy.

  • Did Foxy have much of a run? Early cartoon characters tended to look alike, but Foxy looks closer to Mickey Mouse than most of the others.

    • Foxy starred in just three Merrie Melodies cartoons, all from 1931: “Lady, Play Your Mandolin”, “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” and “One More Time”. I hope to hear all about the others in a later installment of Needle Drop Notes.

  • Remember that Al Jolson’s favorite pianist, Oscar Levant, composed “Lady, Play Your Mandolin”!

    • Oscar Levant! You may remember him from such films as “An American in Paris” and “Charlie Chan at the Opera”, but he was a great musician and one of Hollywood’s great wits. In one of his books he told a story about the conductor Otto Klemperer (father of the actor who played Col. Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes”): when Klemperer was rehearsing the New York Philharmonic and took a long time explaining to the violins how he wanted a certain passage to be played, the principal oboist, an Italian named Labate, lost his temper and shouted: “Mister-a Klemp’, you talk-a too much!” — a scandalous breach of protocol. This story still circulates among orchestra musicians, but I first read it in Levant’s book, and Labate’s words echo through my head whenever a conductor wastes rehearsal time with excessive verbiage.

      In the nineties I was a supernumerary performer in a production of Fidelio that was narrated by Werner Klemperer, and he was kind enough to chat with us backstage. Everybody else wanted to ask him about “Hogan’s Heroes”, but I asked him about the Labate story. “Yes, I’m afraid I take after my father in that regard,” he said, and then he shared some charming personal anecdotes about the man.

      Thank you, Oscar Levant — for that, for “Lady, Play Your Mandolin”, and for everything!

  • Thanks for posting this, and I only wish you could have included the a capella versions as well. I am really enjoying this series.

  • In 1931, Brunswick also produced this memorable recording.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__gXRqEzafk

  • Ah yes, one of my favorite MERRIE MELODIES cartoons and one that never made it to the GOLDEN COLLECTION, despite it being the launch for the MERRIE MELODIES series. I guess that Foxy suddenly singing like Al Jolson was in reference to the composer. The song has one of the strangest and most primal lyric of any song of that time–“Senorita, sweet chikita, I could eat your heart”, no doubt expressing the underlying sexual appetite being suggested throughout this cartoon, but that’s why I enjoy pre-Code cartoons.

    • No, Kevin, the reference to Jolson was simply a tribute to his then-current popularity as an entertainer and had nothing to do with Oscar Levant. Their association came about much later, when they teamed up for the Kraft Music Hall radio show from 1947 to 1949; they both also played themselves in the 1945 Gershwin biopic “Rhapsody in Blue”. In 1931 Levant was only 24, an up-and-coming pianist and songwriter, and I don’t believe that he and Jolson had even met at this point.

      You’re quite right about the underlying sexuality of that lyric. When Marilyn Monroe converted to Judaism before her second marriage, Levant quipped: “Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.” Sounds like a fetish to me.

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