NEEDLE DROP NOTES
May 18, 2021 posted by James Parten

Max and Dave: 1926-29 – A “Sound” Business Move

The 1926-27 season saw the end of Red Seal Pictures. Within the next season, Fleischer had plighted his troth with Paramount Pictures, one of the “big five” of the day. Paramount had handled cartoon material before, including some of Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat films, and several Charles Mintz/Winkler Krazy Kats. Paramount was about to be rocked by a seismic wave which would hit the whole film industry – SOUND! During the spiring and early summer of 1928, Paramount released its first sound picture, “Warming Up”, a baseball drama, with music and sound effects. The next season would include Paramount’s first all-talking feature, “Interference”, and would also see Paramount set up its own music publishing house, Famous Music Corp. (drawing a name from Paramount’s past – in its early days, Paramount advertised its product as “Famous players in famous plays”, so the phrase got incorporated into its company moniker). Many of the films referred to below continue, however, to remain likely silent until the 1929 output – allowing Walt Disney to take the giant leap forward against all of his competitors.

Funiculi Funicula (1926. Silent?) – The song was written in the 1870’s to celebrate the opening of the funicular railway in Naples (a sort of “Angel’s Flight” type uphill short line). Possible earliest recording is a Berliner Gramophone disc from 1898 by the Hotel Cecil Orchestra (a disc remarkably-well preserved on YouTube – embed below). Francesco Daddi (a tenor who worked alongside Caruso on at least one recording of the Lucia sextet, and made numerous recordings of popular Italian song) later recorded it for Columbia. John McCormack recorded it for red seal Victor. Beniamino Gigli recorded it for the popular audiences on Victor. Grace Moore recorded it in the 30’s for Decca. The Mills Brothers gave it their signature vocal treatment in the 30’s for Decca. Al Duffy Trio (a violinist who had worked with the California Ramblers) performed a chamber-swing version on Decca. Also on Decca, a swing band arrangement by Jimmy Dorsey in the 30’s. Maurice Thoni, an accordionist, recorded it instrumentally on a Columbia blue label issue. Miliza Korjus, an operatic soprano rumored to be quite the good-looker, recorded a 40’s version for HMV. Les Brown and his Band of Renown also swing it instrumentally for Okeh.


Mickey (1926, Silent?) – The song is from 1918. There weren’t many early recordings of it – I only know of two. Columbia issued it by the Sterling Trio, while Victor had an instrumental version by the Joseph C. Smith trio, which was one of the first instrumental records to have a vocal refrain (by Henry Burr). An attempt was made to revive the song in late 1947. Ted Weems got to record it for Mercury (below), as a vehicle for Elmo Tanner. A harmonica version was issued by Lee Monte and his Tu-Tones on Aristocrat (a label most closely associated with hardcore Chicago blues).


That Tumble-Down Shack in Athelone (1927, silent?) – One of the “standard” Irish ballads, recorded for red seal Victor in 1919 by John McCormack. A 1920 instrumental was recorded by Canadian HMV by Willie Eckstein’s Strand Trio. The Sterling Trio performed it for Okeh, in a 1920 recording, held back for release until 1922. Theo Karle (Brunswick’s answer to Caruso) recorded an acoustic version for the label in the 1920’s, and a much later electrical version for Linden. A completely anonymous version billed as “Tenor” was issued by the Ajax record company (a product of the Compo company in Canada, mostly aimed at black audiences), which deliberately recorded its singer at a speed less than 78 rpm, so that when it was played back, it would fool listeners into thinking that the singer could hit the high notes of John MscCormack! Charles Harrison (under the pseudonym Hugh Donovan) also recorded a 1920’s vocal for Emerson. Also recorded in 1927 by Frank Munn on Brunswick, reissued in 1932 on Melotone under the name of Dennis Olcott (perhaps playing on Chauncey Olcott’s fame). Bradley Kincaid issued a version in Decca’s early Irish series in 1934. Phil Regan revived it with Victor Young’s orchestra for Decca circa 1940-41. Bing Crosby of course included it in his ever-growing Irish repetoire for Decca in the 1940’s. A barber shop version was issued on Decca by the Buffalo Bills (of “The Music Man” fame) in the 1950’s.


Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon (May, 1927, silent?) – The song is a 1910 number by Irving Berlin, and was recorded three times by Ada Jones, for Victor, Columbia, and Edison cylinder. Bing Crosby performed a version on an aircheck for one of his radio shows.


The Rocky Road to Dublin (1927, silent?) – I have not found any vintage recordings of this piece, which appears to be the setting of a poem to the melody of an Irish jig. All the recordings currently spotted on YouTube are of recent vintage by Irish folk groups, whose brogues manage to turn the English lyric into the sound of Gaelic.


I Want To Go Back To Michigan (1927, silent?) – Another of these numerous possibly lost cartoons. The song is from 1914, and was recorded by Billy Murray in one of his first dates for Edison Diamond Disc (after renegotiating his Victor contract to allow for Edison recording on vertical cut discs as opposed to only cylinders), and covered on Victor by Morton Harvey (a stentorian baritone, known mostly for “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”). Collins and Harlan recorded it anonymously (billed as “Duet”) for Columbia’s Little Wonder series. Elida Morris (a vaudeille singer, still alive in the 1960’s), performed it for Columbia’s full size series. The Van Eps Banjo Orchestra (featuring Fred and brother William) performed it instrumentally for Columbia.


The Sidewalks of New York (2/5/29) marked the inaugural entry of Fleischer’s newly-christened “Screen Songs” series, reviving the bouncing ball format. Now, with the help of his distribution deal with Paramount (through which his Ko-Ko cartoons had also been distributed under the new banner “The Inkwell Imps”), Fleischer was finally able to capitalize upon Paramount’s use of the Western Electric System for full 24 frame per second sound on film, and so able to reintroduce the sound cartoon to a market more readily prepared to accept it. Unfortunately, the first batch of these new Screen Songs has failed to turn up among collectors or old television packages, and may be lost, leaving us with still no confirmed sightings of these films for the remainder of this article. The song by this time had become associated with the previous failed presidential run of Al Smith in November 1928 (resulting in the election of Herbert Hoover). The tune, however, had already been covered for a previous silent Song Car-Tune discussed in an earlier article of this series, to which the reader is directed for recording coverage. (NOTE: all titles from this point on are issued with sound.)


Yankee Doodle Boy (3/1/29 – presumed lost) – The famous George M. Cohan “flag-waver” from Little Johnny Jones, that would later serve as the signature vehicle for James Cagney’s portrayal of its author and performer in the Oscar-Winning Warner Musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In its day the song was performed by Billy Murray during his freelance period of non-exclusivity. He thus performed it on each of Victor, Columbia, Zon-o-Phone, the American Record Company, and no doubt on Edison cylinder. (It would be curious if a print of the film turned up, as Murray would become associated heavily with the recordings of the Fleischer soundtracks, and thus may have used the opportunity to record yet another version of his hit.) Leeds records, with a distinctive gold foil label, gave the number to Arthur Collins. An unknown Henry Evans would record a 7″ Emerson side in 1917. In the wake of the Cagney musical, the song was revived by Horace Heidt for Columbia, and Mordy Bauman would issue an album set of Cohan songs including the number for Columbia. In England, it was also picked up by Geraldo and his Orchestra for Parlophone, and by Joe Loss on HMV.

Next time: Speech! Speech!

5 Comments

  • I remember my father telling me about “Funiculi Funicula” when the Chipmunks sang it on The Alvin Show. It was written in 1880 to commemorate, as you noted, the first funicular railway in Naples, which ran to the top of Mount Vesuvius and immediately became an immensely popular tourist attraction. The song likewise was a popular hit, selling over a million copies of sheet music within a year.

    In 1886 the young composer Richard Strauss, then 22, traveled to Italy looking for musical inspiration as so many composers had done before him (resulting in works like Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien). In Naples, “Funiculi Funicula” was so ubiquitous that Strauss assumed it was a traditional folk song. He then incorporated its melody as a bit of local colour into what became his first major orchestral work, the tone poem “Aus Italien” (Out of Italy).

    By this time Luigi Denza, the composer of “Funiculi Funicula”, had moved to London, where he would spend the rest of his life, much of it as a professor of voice at the Royal Academy of Music. Upon hearing a performance of “Aus Italien” in London, he noticed the appropriation of his melody and promptly took legal action. He successfully sued Strauss, and for the rest of his life he received a royalty payment on every performance of “Aus Italien” anywhere in the world. This was an important lesson to Strauss, who thereafter spent much of his long life (he died in 1949) codifying copyright law to his personal advantage.

    In addition to The Alvin Show, “Funiculi Funicula” figures in another TV cartoon of the same vintage: Fred and Barney sing a portion of it while preparing to go to the opera in the very first episode of The Flintstones.

    Thanks for mentioning the Buffalo Bills!

    • In “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, Donald and Goofy use the tune when singing about an expected dinner.

  • “The song was written in the 1870’s to celebrate the opening of the funicular railway in Naples”
    Nope, it’s been composed in 1880 to celebrate the Vesuvius funicular.

  • Paramount actually evolved from Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, established in 1912. In 1916, Zukor merged his enterprise with Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company. In 1927, the company was known as Paramount-Famous Lasky Corporation, and throughout the teens and twenties, built it’s own chain of theaters called Publix Theaters. So that is where the Famous name came from that Paramount used so often later on, as in Famous Music and our beloved (?) Famous Studios.

  • “Sidewalks of New York” was featured in a later Fleischer cartoon, “Musical Memories” — with a caricature of Al Smith singing the title.

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