During the late 1930‘s, almost every cartoon studio felt they had to keep up with the Disneys. That meant one thing – C-O-L-O-R. Color cartoons didn’t seem to go in for as much of the anarchic humor or the black and whites. Instead, most studios that produced them went in for fairy tales and other ootsy-cutesie settings. Where they didn’t succeed in this genre was in standing behind what they sold. There was a certain sincerity to Disney’s product, even if it was cute and cherubic. Others took some time to figure this out – witness some of the embarrassing efforts of Charles Mintz at Columbia. And so it was with Max Fleischer’s studio, who also walked the precarious line between “cute” and house style. Occasionally, the old spirit would slip through, and Fleischer sometimes scored slightly better than some of his competitors – though getting nowhere close to the success ratio of the Warner Brothers. While Fleischer attempted to spice up his color efforts with a string of original songs, they did not cross over to the hit parade, and produced little, if any, saleable material. Not that there might not have been possibilities. Imagine if the Sons of the Pioneers had issued a version of Hunky and Spunky’s theme, “Keep a’ Goin’”.
Chicken A La King (4/16/37) – A rooster is enjoying the company of his flock, repeatedly commanding “On with the dance”, in all the regal manner of an Arabian sultan, and with his bevy of hens in the outfits of harem dancers. One fat hen makes the attempt, and falls flat on her face, allowing the sultan rooster to do his best impression of Major Bowes, banging gong and calling out, “All right, all right”. The dance exhibition is interrupted by the arrival of “Duckie Wuckie”, a buxom duck who sashays in true Mae West style. The rest of the hens cluster in “hen talk”, likely consisting of juicy gossip, about this interloper, while the rooster’s head is decidedly turned to focus only on those inviting curves. However, there is no peace for the rooster, as a scimitar-wielding male mallard arrives, wanting to claim Duckie for himself. A whirlwind battle ensues between the rivaling royalty, while the hens take sides in favor of the jealous suitor. The rooster is put in his place and takes a licking, but keeps on ticking after Duckie is spirited away by the winner – returning to his plush palace cushions, and again ordering “On with the dance”. The hens, however, respond with theme and variation on “Oh, yeah?”, and take after him en masse, armed with rolling pins, delivering a more forceful onslaught that the rooster has ever faced before. Songs: an original song for “Duckie Wuckie”, presumably by Timberg and Rothberg, who receive screen credit for music, plus “Visons of Salome”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “La Cucaracha”, and the Valse Chaloupee (Apache Dance) by Offenbach.
A Car-Tune Portait (6/26/37) – a fine outing with more of the Fleisher Studios verve than usual for the series. At a concert hall drawn by a human hand as a background on the drawing board, a lion delivers an introductory address in his best Milton Cross manner, explaining that the animal kingdom has been regrettably type-cast for buffoonery and rowdiness, and wishes to dispel such imagery with a presentation of refined culture. As conductor, he mounts the podium before a multi-story bandstand, and presents the first half or so of the cartoon dead straight, with fine music and impressive color-changing lighting effects upon the stage. Then – at last – all hell breaks loose, as one bird in the orchestra goes berserk, and enters into a set of hijinks and pranks that drive his fellow musicians to distraction. Monkey flautists respond by loading their instruments with peas, transforming them into rapid-fire weapons. Sight gags come at furious pace, as all the musicians join forces to gang up on the bird, erupting in a knock-down brawl that levels the bandstand. See this previous Devon Baxter post for more details about the cartoon. Quoting Robert Burns, the lion moans, “Alas, alas, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”, as the bass drum is thrown from the battle to land on his head as a parting shot. The format for the film may have proved influential on Disney, who a few years later would have Mickey and his gang performing a before-and-after straight versus wacky rendition of the Light Cavalry Overture in Symphony Hour (1942). Songs: “Minuet No. 2 in G Major” by Ludwig Von Beethoven, recorded in early versions by Ignacy Jan Paderewski on Victor. A return for “Please Keep Me In Your Dreams” appears, plus and the featured composition – the old warhorse, “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2″ by Franz Liszt, which doesn’t seem to precisely follow the Leopold Stokowski arrangement which became the model for Warner Brothers’ Rhapsody In Rivets, then later breaks into licks that suggest jazz during the bird’s frenetic dancing, including portions played in duet by wah-wah trumpet and slap bass!
Peeping Penguins (8/26/37) – We open on a shot of a cliffside cabin, with notice on the door of being available, but in a “Restricted Neighborhood” – more likely restricted by locale than other factors. A quartet of penguins live up to the title by peeping in the windows, and curiosity gets the better of them, as they all hop down the chimney for a closer look. (It’s a marvel they still have any white left on them, after landing in the soot of the empty firerplace.) Resting on the mantel above them is a supply of signal flares. The penguins seem kerflummoxed by all the human impedimenta within the cabin. Eventually, a fire gets started in the fireplace, setting off the supply of flares, which go off all over the place. The penguins vow never to be curious again – until they reflexively follow another strange object – which reveals itself to be a polar bear, causing the penguins to hotfoot-it over the horizon. Song: “Curiosity Killed a Cat”, an original number presumably by Timberg and Rothberg.
Educated Fish (10/29/37) – We all know that fish swim in schools. This is one of the earliest cartoons to show a real school of fish – complete with all the accoutrements of a little red school house. Miss Pickerel, a matronly schoolmistress, has to deal with the rebellious Tommy Cod, who kicks his books, and doesn’t study a jot. During a Schnitzelbank-style lesson on the dangers of “hook so sharp, reel that winds”, etc., Tommy plays pinball with a set of clamshells for targets within his desk, and never internalizes the lesson – becoming a class embarrassment when he can’t answer the teacher’s questions. He is sent into the closet to learn his materials, but skips class through an open window. He ultimately learns his lessons the hard way, through real life experience with a seductive worm, and a human fisherman operating the rod and reel attached to her hook. After a harrowing experience to flee the trap, Tommy barely escapes with his fish bones, and returns to class, knowing all of the answers by heart, and promising to reform. Songs: “Alphabet Song”, “Frankie and Johnny”, and “Schnitzelbank” with special lyrics. Notably, the latter number had been used by Disney a year earlier, as Big Bad Wolf’s lesson to the “Three Little Wolves” on “Little pigs iss good to eat.” The piece was first published in the United States around 1900, and would later be performed on stage by Groucho Marx when he was still in his early 20’s. A Schnitzelbank is actually a shaving tool, known in some circles as a shaving horse (no relation to any endorsement from Mr. Ed.) An early acoustic version appears on Edison Blue Amberol cylinder by the Nebe Quartett from 1913, later followed by the Manhattan Quartette circa 1921, and another performance by the same group on Puritan. H. Visser issued an early version of the piece on Vocalion. The International Novelty Quartet would perform it electrically on Victor.. Another two-sided edition would be issued on Scroll Victor by the Benisch Eisenschiml Group. A cab driver named Paul Bendix would record a 12″ version for Victor. Karl Weiss and his Barvarian Peasant Band would record it for Victor Ivan Frank’s Hofbrau Band would issue a Decca version in 1935. The Andrews Sisters and Russ Morgan would adapt it into “Oh, You Sweet One” for Decca (later covered by the Ames Brothers on Coral), A Mel Blanc Capitol recording adapts it into “Yah, Das Ist Ein Christmas Tree” for the holidays (embed below). The Six Fat Dutchman would issue a single on RCA Victor. Bill Haley would issue “Rockin’ Rollin’ Schnitzelbank” as an album cut on Decca. Jimmie Dodd and the Mouseketeers would issue a version for Mickey Mouse Club records. Even the Animaniacs would get a recording culled from soundtrack on Rhino CD. The piece would also show up in feature films such as Wedding Present with Cary Grant and June Lockhart (1936), and later in Stalag 17, used by American POWs to distract the Germans from finding a transistor radio concealed in a volleyball net.
Little Lamby (11/12/37) – Everything is hunky-dory in Animalville (population 201). Young critters are doing what young critters do, while the parents are busy with their tasks. Also busy is a fox, who is looking through a periscope, sees a little lamb, and immediately has culinary thoughts. He puts up a sign announcing a contest for the most beautiful and healthy baby (mist be young and tender). The parents spruce up their kids for a baby parade (Mrs. Rabbit, for example, washing and ironing her kids’ ears.) The fox is busy building a judge’s stand, with little command of carpentry skills. After rejecting a young squirrel, a few ducklings, and a heap of rabbits, he spies the lamb on parade, and announces “The winner – and my dinner.” He makes a quick getaway on a motorcycle hidden under the reviewing stand. The villagers give chase to the Fox’s home in an old tree, and bash down the door with a battering ram, utilizing the head of a billy goat (who takes intermittent doses of headache pills). They break through for a nick-of time rescue of the lamb from the roasting pan, and administer punishment by letting the fox serve as weight for an improvised high striker, while the lamb peppers his nose, then utters, “Gesundheit”. No original songs or tin pan alley creations in this score, only “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, and “Merrily We Roll Along” (the incidental chorus from “Goodnight Ladies”, not the Eddie Cantor tune).
The Tears of an Onion (2/26/38) – An all-vegetable village, concentrating on the activities of the kids, who all avoid a young onion, whose aroma makes them cry. The onion cries himself, at feeling so left out. Along comes a female peach, who is at first generous enough to offer to be his friend, but also begins to cry and runs away. Enter the villain – a ravenous centipede, who pursues the tasty peach up and around the trees. The onion enters the fray to try to defend her, but gets largely walloped by the centipede, who begins twirling him around his head in old wrestling moves, intending to throw him out of the picture. Instead, the fumes from the onion spread around him in a whirling cloud, knocking the villain out. The community embraces the onion as a hero, and everyone plays with him – even if their eyes water all the while. No identifiable songs, although some original underscoring appears to provide a theme motif throughout the cartoon, which I believe we will encounter again in other films.
Hold It (4/20/38) – It’s the witching hour, when it’s time to wind up the clock and put out the cat. One household actually puts out the clock (we don’t know if they wind up the cat). The felines gather on the fence and begin singing, as they are wont to do on a moonlit night. There’s the usual romantic shenanigans, and a dog is finally awakened by the serenade and gives chase. The gimmick is in the title song, inspired by another song from the 1937 Grand Terrace Revue in Chicago, called “Posin’” (embed below). It’s an idea that’s been around in dance songs ever since 1929’s “Freeze and Melt” from one of the Cotton Club Revues” – basically for the dancers to freeze in position at a given command, then resume dancing on another cue. “Posin’” modified the idea with a candid camera, causing dancers to strike a pose on command. The same idea would find its way into “Watch the Birdie” from Olsen and Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’”, and many years later would serve as the idea for “The Freeze”, a 1958 Rock and Roller by Tony and Joe. The cats go through wild extremes on the holds, leading to freeze frames intended to provoke laughter by their distortions. One wonders what a Rod Scribner reel of this sort might have looked like at Warner Brothers – he did it for an isolated gag at least once in “Gruesome Twosome”.) By the end of the film, the whole cat congregation is doing it, but finally get knocked off to sleep by thr pitching of old shoes.
Hunky and Spunky (6/24/38) – Two wild donkeys, mother and child, cavort around the mountains. Spunky is having trouble climbing a truly rocky mountain, the rocks slipping from under his hooves. This rural idyll is interrupted by a prospector – a big, burly type, who needs a pack animal to tote al; of his equipment. He settles on Spunky, even though the young donkey is not up to the task of carrying it all. It’s Hunky to the rescue in a tug of war over Spunky’s harness. After Hunky gives the prospector a hoof sandwich, followed by her version of the horse-laugh, the two donkeys trot off to settle in for the night. Songs: “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, used during the tug of war, and an original song “Keep a-Goin’”, presumably by Sammy Timberg, which became the characters’ theme in all subsequent appearances.
All’s Fair at the Fair (8/26/38) – Not to be confused with a Popeye of the same title later produced by Famous Studios. Max and Dave anticipate the New York World’s Fair, which would be upcoming the following year, and was already under construction. Their fair of nameless location is attended by a couple from the sticks, Elmer and Miranda, who arrive in an old cart pulled by their tired old steed, Dog Biscuit (playing on the legendary Seabiscuit). The fair is heavily advertised, with searchlights and stenciled smoke-signals, yet. Parking problems are solved in a modern manner – a crane lifts cars with a horseshoe magnet and stacks them in piles. Our bucolic couple stop and get a drink from a booth that instantly grows an orange tree from a seed, to sprout one fruit for automatic juicing. (As someone who grew up amidst the orange groves of Ventura County, CA, I can vouch that trees do not grow up that fast!) One pavilion offers several different types of services: dining, dancing, and both beauty and barber shops. All services are supplied by robots, -who line up at the end of the conveyor line with five outstretched hands for tips. Our couple receive complete makeovers, emerging from the shops looking like moderns. Dance instruction is next on the bill, provided by robots of alternate genders, teaching the latest steps to a latin tune played by an all-mechanical orchestra. Now up to date, the happy couple leave for home – with the assist of a coin-operated dispenser of the latest in automobiles – a model that folds out from a tiny hand-held package, big enough to not only transport the couple, but the horse too, back home. Original song is “The World’s At the Fair” music by Sammy Timberg, lyrics by Edward Heyman – another German who got out while the getting was good.. Also “Reuben and Cynthia”, “Always and Always”, and the unidentified latin dance.
The Playful Polar Bears (10/28/38) – A group of polar bears cavort in an arctic setting. An Eskimo hunter (we don’t know if he wants fur or meat) pursues one little beat, who in the process of the chase gets knocked out by a falling chink of ice, and is presumed by the elders to be dead. A solemn requiem takes place to mourn the loss (more maudlin and less effective than the studio’s previous, “Song of the Birds”), until the mood is broken by the cib coming to and sneezing. Happiness resumes, and all ends well, with no sign of the hunter’s return. An untitled original number is sung in mournful fashion by male voices of a choir, which, for lack of a title, we’ll call “The Requiem.”
Next post: Betty Boop – 1936.