December 21, 2021 posted by James Parten

Max and Dave: Screen Songs 1932-33

As 1932 glided into 1933, the mood of the country was going up. You had a new president in March, and a lot of people were anticipating the end of Prohibition, now that the legislatures of the several states had been sent what would become the 21st Amendment. Not that the cartoons anyone had produced were as gloomy as the former economic output. Fleischer’s cityscapes were familiar to urban audiences, and mostly, they seem to have played well to the exhibitors. Miss Betty Boop was proving to be a charmer, in both the Screen Songs and in her own series, where sense of humor remained as anarchic as ever.

Sing a Song (12/7/32) – Featuring James Melton, “Radio’s Most Popular Tenor”. He had risen from a saxophone chair in Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based jazz band to become a prominent radio and recording artist. The cartoon centers around hijinks at a radio broadcast, with parodies of Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and the Mills Brothers (possibly using soundtrack drops from previous cartoons for the Vallee and Mills Brothers bits). Featured numbers in the sing-along include “Love’s Old Sweet Song” (an evergreen if ever there was one, although I can’t place any recordings back in the day, except for inclusion in “A Miniature Concert” by the 8 Victor Recording Artists, which features an incomplete chorus by Campbell and Burr). Next, “Home”, a 1931 song, recorded for dancing by Wayne King on Victor, Louis Armstrong on Okeh, Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys on Columbia, and as a vocal by Mildred Bailey on Victor, and Harold Richards (actually Harold Van Emburgh) on Harmony et al., and in England by Gracie Fields on HMV.

“Wabash Moon”, backing one of the first “fat parodies” of Kate Smith, was recorded for dancing by Wyne King on Victor, the Cavaliers on Columbia, and just about every other label, plus vocal versions by Morton Downey (the father of the combatant ‘90s talk show host) on Victor, Charles Lawman on Columbia, Nick Lucas on Brunswick, the Singing Sweethearts (a duet active in the Ohio – Indiana region) on Champion, and by Kate Smith on Harmony et al. Also included in the film are “Blue Danube Waltz”, “Just One More Chance”, “A Little Kiss Each Morning”, “Tiger Rag”, plus a visit from “Crosby, Colombo, and Vallee”, a song we’ve covered in this column back when we were reviewing the Warner cartoon of the same name.

Time on My Hands (12/23/32) – Featuring Ethel Merman. Betty Boop appears as a totally topless mermaid (guaranteeing this film would get no reissues after code enforcement kicked in). The live segment is a showcase for Merman, who performs some of the same vocal pyrotechnics as in “You Try Somebody Else”. Merman finds herself in a setting that might have graced a Harold Lloyd feature – sitting on the hour hand of a giant tower clock (allowing her the opportunity to use her own hands to point at clock numbers where words of the lyric correspond to them). Songs: “Fishing” which may be an original, but sounds more like a coy ballad circa 1908. “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” is repeated. The title song was a 1931 number by Vincent Yeomans, which first appeared in a British revue, and was recorded that year by the New Mayfair Orchestra under Ray Noble with vocal by Al Bowlly on HMV (issued here around 1935 on Victor), and by Leslie Hutchinson as a vocal record on Parlophone. American versions appeared in late 1931 for dancing bu Leo Reisman with vocal by 15 year old Lee Wiley. For those who wanted a vocal record, they could choose between Russ Colombo on Victor, Red McKenzie on Columbia, and Connee Boswell on Brunswick.

Dinah (1/18/33) – Gags abound on a cargo ship. Bales of an unidentified commodity are dumped into a hold, while the inventive labors of several animals (a giraffe as a crane, for example) take the place of the labors of hard-working longshoremen. A placard announces there will be magic music for the crew, supplied by the four Mills Brothers. The ship is eventually tossed in a storm, with waves from the angry ocean shaking each other’s hands at the iris out. Songs include the Mills’s theme, “Goodbye Blues” heard over the title. “Nancy Lee” appears again. The Mills Boys do their takes on :”Dinah” and “:St Louis Blues”. “Dinah” was from 1925, introduced by Ethel Waters who recorded it for Columbia. It was cut for Victor by the Revelers. Its best known dance version was by Jean Goldkette on Victor. More Germaine to this article is a more recent version cut by Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers for Brunswick, recorded shortly before the film. In fact, the Brothers pick up a riff from the Bing arrangement that gets reused in the cartoon – showing the influence of how well Bing and the Mills boys got along. “St Louis Blues” was recorded in 1914 by W.C. Handy. I am not certain when the earliest vocal was made. The song has been referred to as “The Jazz Man’s Hamlet” by Michael Brooks. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band cut it on Victor in 1921. Paul Whiteman had an electrical Victor in 1926. Ted Lewis had a version on Columbia the same year, as “The New St. Louis Blues.” Louis Armstrong had a version on Okeh in 1930, which also contributed some riffs to the Mills arrangement. There were vocal versions by Bessie Smith on Columbia, and Irene Beasley on Victor. It became a standard, and shortly following the film, Bing Crosby would wax a deluxe version on 12″ disc for Brunswick, backed by Duke Ellington, and issued in two takes that are decidedly different from one another.

Ain’t She Sweet (2/3/33) – There’s a lot going on at a barn raising and dance way out in the country, including a cat who samples rather heavily at the punch (likely heavily spiked). It all leads to “the inimitable” Lillian Roth singing the title song. Roth had made her name on radio, and was still not recording at this time, in her second production for Fleischer. Songs include “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” written in 1897, recorded by studio military bands in the early 1900’s including Charles Prince on early Columbia, and Sousa on Victor. It became a standard in the ragtime repertoire, and even crossed over into the hillbilly catalogs. There were versions by the Carolina Mandolin Orchestra on Okeh, the Leake County Revelers on Columbia, and McLaughlin’s Old Time Melody Makers (another Mississippi string band) on Victor. “Corn Fed”, a 1927 hot number, was recorded by Red Nichols for Brunswick, and by the Piccadilly Revels Band on Englsh Columbia. “Reuben and Rachel” makes another reappearance. The title song was a very successful 1927 pop widely recorded, including Nat Shilkret on Victor, the Radio Lites (a Sam Lanin group) on Columbia, Ben Bernie on Brunswick, and Hack Pettis on Banner, Rega;, et al. Vocal versions included Gene Austin on Victor, Charles Kaley on Columbia, and Lee Morse (as “Ain’t He Sweet”), also on Columbia.

Reaching For the Moon (2/23/33) – Featuring Arthur Tracy, the Street Singer of the Air. An astronomer comes to his planetarium in an old lighthouse, and gazes at the heavens through his telescope. He notes that there are some egg-shaped creatures on the moon having a good time. Some degree of battle ensues between Earth and the heavens after Tracy’s song. The score includes “Sweeping the Clouds Away”, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, “Jack and Jill”, “Humpty Dumpty”, “See Saw, Margery Daw”, “Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone”, “The Bowery”, and “Yankee Doodle”. “Just A Melody For a Memory” was recorded on several different labels by Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison in 1926 . The title song was composed by Irving Berlin. Most recordings are from early 1931, Versions appeared by The Troubadours (a Nat Shilkret group) on Victor, Sam Lanin for Hit of the Week, Ben Bernie for Brunswick, Lou Gold for Perfect et al., and British versions by Jack Payne on Columbia, and Ray Noble’s New Mayfair Orchestra on HMV. Vocal versions most notably included Ruth Etting on Columbia.

Aloha Oe (3/17/33) – Featuring the Royal Samoans (although currently circulating prints excise their visual contributions). There’s a wedding on a south seas tropic isle. At one point, a lion eats an entire multi-tiered wedding cake, ad winds up with a multi-tiered belly ache. We don’t know thanks to the edits how the Samoans were presented, or how much dancing we got from Miri (the dancer rotoscoped for “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle”). Songs include “On the Beach at Waikiki”. a 1916 Tin Pan Alley song published during a time when the songwriters were all going wicki-wacky. The song introduced to popular parlance the phrase “wiki-wiki”, meaning “quick” – a phrase which has passed down to the present day for use in the name of a most popular online encyclopedia. Louise and Fererra recorded the number in 1915 on Victor. It was probably recorded by every other label in the business at the time. The title song was written by the last Queen of Hawaii, and considered the quintessential Hawaiian song. Earliest recordings I am aware of are from the mid teens. An anonymous “Hawaiian Quintette” recorded it for Victor in 1913. Louise and Fererra recorded it for Pathe around 1915. A concert version was recorded on red seal Victor in 1916 by Alma Gluck, Toots Paka’s Hawaiians recorded it on Brunswick around 1920, and an earlier version of unknown date for Columbia. It would be played at dockside by the Royal Hawaiian Band whenever a liner left Honolulu Bay, and the group got to record it on Victor in 1935. It was inevitably recorded by Bing Crosby as part of his Hawaiian repertoire in the wake of “Waikiki Wedding” on Decca.

Popular Melodies (4/7/33) – Featuring Arthur Jarrett, “America’s Song Stylist”. An artist is trying to paint a picture of a statue of the discus thrower, and is being completely harassed by a batch of kids under his care. He decides to go out into the country in his flivver to paint a still life, but the kids tag along. Art Jarrett, former vocalist of Ted Weems, performs three songs, then the mood switches to a montage of surreal monsters emanating from the painter’s work, ending with a fiery face of Satan telling the audience, “Goodnight, kiddies”.

This may have been the first of a few episodes to feature “Keep a Little Song Handy” as an opening theme, an original written by Sammy Lerner and Sammy Timberg. “Crazy People”, a 1932 pop, was recorded by Gene Kardos for Victor, and Ben Selvin on Columbia. The Boswell Sisters had a vocal version on Brunswick. Many years later, Something Smith and the Redheads would use it as the title number for an LP on Epic in 1958. Jarrett performs “My Silent Love”, which was based on an earlier composition, “Jazz Nocturne”, recorded instrumentally by the Victor Concert Orchestra under Nat Shilkret’s direction in 1932, and also by Victor Young and his Orchestra on a 12″ Brunswick release. Versions that acquired the lyric and new title were recorded by Roger Wolfe Kahn for Columbia (bandleader son of the banker Otto Kahn), Ruby Newman on Victor, and Isham Jones on Brunswick. Harry James would release it as the flip side of his perennial hit, “You Made Me Love You” on Columbia in 1941, with vocal by Dick Haymes. Jarrett also performs “One Hour With You”, which we have mentioned before, and a bouncing ball version of the “Betty Boop” theme song, while Betty looks on from a sheet of drawing paper. Also included in the score, “Let’s Go Out in the Open Air”, (written by Ann Ronnell of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” fame, as well as writing “Willow, Weep for Me”), which shows up instrumentally in a few Fleischer films, but I know of no commercial recordings. “Look Who’s Here” was a 1932 pop, recorded by Ted Weems on Victor, and by Claude Hopkins on the then-new Columbia royal blue records.

The Peanut Vendor (4/28/33) – Featuring Armida, a singer and dancer whom I am unaware of having any other recording or film appearances. The circus is in town, and Bimbo is selling peanuts out of a wagon. A rather greedy elephant gobbles up his stock. Bimbo asks Armida to take over selling the peanuts, leading to her live action footage. Son of Music Publisher Edward Marks had heard the title tune during his wedding in Havana, under its original title, “El Manisero”. He returned to the states, and had a vaudevillian named “Marion Sunshine” write an English lytic. He then hired the same band he had heard in Havana, Don Azpiazu and his Havana Casino Orchestra, to come to New York to record it for Victor. It became a best-seller, and would be covered by the California Ramblers on Columbia, the Anglo-Cersians (a Louis Katzman house band) on Brunswick, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies on Brunswick (used for a stop-motion experimental film often displayed by Thunderbean Animation), Don Carlos and his Rumba Band on Perfect et al., Nathan Glantz on Champion, and Louis Armstrong on Okeh. Later versions include Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra on Columbia, Stan Kenton on Capitol, Xavier Cugat in 1940 for Columbia and in 1950 for Mercury, and a parody aircheck by Betty Hutton on AFRS ‘Command Performance”. Morton Gould did a concert arrangement for Columbia Masterworks in the mid 1940’s. Other songs in the score include a return of “The Gay Caballero,” and the “Jarabe Tapatio” or Mexican Hat Dance. Portions of the bouncing ball lyrics on this film are presented in phonetic Spanish – I wonder how many in the audience could keep up with it!

Next: Betty Boop 1933…Things are Looking Up .


  • That Ben Bernie recording of “Reaching for the Moon” is not the song used in the Screen Song, but an earlier one with the same title by Benny Davis and Jesse Greer, first recorded by Gene Austin in 1926. The one in the Screen Song was composed by Irving Berlin for the 1930 United Artists musical “Reaching for the Moon”, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Just to make things more confusing, Fairbanks also starred in a silent film titled “Reaching for the Moon” in 1917.

    There’s an obvious edit in “Sing a Song”, just as the hippopotamus Kate Smith finishes her performance. I suspect the cut footage showed the button on the flap of her undergarment popping open and exposing her “Wabash Moon”.

    Tenor James Melton had a respectable career as an opera singer, making his debut as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly (which would become a signature role for him) at the Cincinnati Opera in 1938 (which in those days held its performances at the zoo). He sang at the Met for several seasons until 1950, when he returned to recording popular songs and hosted a variety show on NBC sponsored by Ford. Melton was one of the few singers to go from popular entertainment to opera and back again; his voice, like his career, had the best of both worlds.

    The mania for Hawaiian music that started in 1915 had its origin at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where the Hawaiian Pavilion was one of the most popular attractions, totally upstaging big-name headliners like John Philip Sousa. Tin Pan Alley, always on the lookout for new fads to exploit, jumped on that bandwagon in a big way.

    Armida Vendrell was born into a family of Mexican vaudeville performers and signed a contract with United Artists while still in her teens. She was in several dozen films of the ’30s and ’40s, appearing alongside such stars as John Barrymore, Gene Autry, and Rin Tin Tin, though seldom in a major role. She made some Spanish-language recordings for Brunswick in the late 1920s, but I don’t know of any discography later than that. As with Lillian Roth, Armida’s talents were apparently better suited to live performance than to the recording studio.

    I love that freaky weird ending to “Popular Melodies”! As Satan says: “Pleasant dreams, children! Good night!”

  • Surely that Hawaiian song by Bing Crosby has not been recorded at the right speed, has it? It sounds e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y slow.

  • I just had a look at the surviving fragment of “Aloha Oe”. The tango that plays during the monkeys’ wedding ceremony is “El Choclo”, written in 1903 by A. G. Villoldo. The title means “The Corn Cob”, which was the nickname of a nightclub owner in Buenos Aires, in whose honour the tango was written. Within a few years Villoldo had furnished the tune with several different sets of lyrics. Louis Armstrong recorded a version in English called “Kiss of Fire”, which was in turn translated back into Spanish as “Beso de Fuego”. But the English-language version I learned as a teenager (my mother had a book of tango music) was about a jealous lover who kept his girlfriend locked up in a tower guarded by an owl, the idea being that the owl would hoot as an alarm if any man tried to visit her. But the girl had so many paramours that the owl lost its voice, and so the jealous lover never learned of her infidelity. Not exactly the sort of song you’d want sung at a wedding, but maybe monkey customs are different.

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