Max Fleischer had a pioneer’s interest in the burgeoning technology of adding sound to motion pictures. This explains his connections with Lee DeForest, who had been working his “phonofilms” system for years, wirh no great financial returns. DeForest was a pioneer in the field of radio, but his phonofilms were far from a commercial success, Fleischer produced several of his “Song Car-tunes”, with DeForest soundtracks, which were released through a joint venture called Red Seal Pictures. The experiment ended at the end of 1926, with the Song Car-Tunes abadoned for the 1927 and 1928 release years, and all Inkwell films remaining silent.
Paramount Pictures realized that sound was here to stay by the Summer of 1928. Instead of buying up existing music publishers as Warner Bros. had done, they set up their own tin pan alley publishing firm, Famous Music. This firm drew its name from one of the earlier names of the film company, Famous Players. This also explains why, when they later took over Max Fleischer’s business in the 1940’s they rechristened the animation department Famous Studios. By the end of 1929, Paramount had put out a seemingly endless stream of musicals – operettas, campus comedies, backstage musicals, and personality-driven pictures. It seemed like every third song that year put on records was a “talkie musical hit” from the silver screen. Amidst this atmosphere, Fleischer would eventually return to the medium of sound, resuming the musical sing-alongs as “Screen Songs”, and also adding music and voices to his new series of one-shot episodes, under the series banner “Talkartoons”.
Unique to the experience of the Song Car-Tunes and eventually the Screen Songs was the “bouncing ball” which would lead the audiences in the rhythm of the subject song and highlight the words to be sung, as opposed to static slides more typical to the likes of magic lantern shows. Dave Fleischer is reputed to have been the man literally behind the scenes, with a luminescent ping pong ball on a stick to wave over the song lyrics, whether on a static slide or eventually on a rolling drum. The amazing part about this is the unique talent it must have taken to coordinate the ball from a vantage point behind the lyric projection, in which the song lyric would be seen backwards (right to left). It was uncanny that Dave was able to figure out what words to bounce over while viewing each lyric sheet as a mirror image in a blackened room (presuming this was in fact the way the effect was achieved)..
Many of the early films in the series are lost to time, having presumably deteriorated to powder and jelly long ago. We will thus discuss what is known of the title songs from these early episodes. Where known, indications below will note whether films were released silent, or with a DeForest soundtrack.
Daisy Bell (May, 1924, silent), a song perhaps better known as “A Bicycle Built For Two”, popular both in the U.S. and the U.K. When the song came out, the recording industry was in its infancy, so we don’t know of any 1892 versions of the song. In the 1930’s, British music hall comedienne Florrie Forde recoded it for Zonophone’s “The Twin” label, then electrically for British Rex and Columbia. The song would become an olde tyme standard, receiving revival by Dinah Shore on Bluebird, Gerald Adams and the Variety Singers on Regal, the Orchestra Mascotte on Odeon, the McNulty Family (an Irish family, who eventually spawned Dennis Day as Eugene McNulty) on Decca, the Brittanica Accordion Band on Decca, the Old-Time Singers on HMV, Frank Quinn (a singer and multi-instrumentalist) and Nan Fitzpatrick on Columbia, and in Medleys by Jack Hylton on HMV, Reginald Foort on HMV, Winifred Atwell on Phillips, and in several re-recordings as part of “Old Timers Night at the Pops” by the Boston Pops on RCA/Victor. More recently, it is well remembered as an old chestnut by Alvin and the Chipmunks on Liberty – and sung by Hal 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Dixie (June, 1924, silent) – The perennial from the Civil War, the progenitor of many songs that treated anything South of the Mason-Dixon line as heaven on earth, a trope that would continue in cartoons as late as 1953, with Bugs Bunny’s Fresh Hare (1942) and Southern Fried Rabbit (1953). Mabel Garrison provided an early recording it on Victor Red Seal. Dinah Shore again revived it much later, this time on Columbia. And Bing Crosby would perform it in film, in a bio-feature of the same name (1943), as the composer, allegedly turning a slow ballad into a lively hit by picking up the tempo to cover over a fire erupting in the theatre backstage. Curiously, no commercial recording by him was issued. The trailer below is clearly politically incorrect – you’ve been warned.
Goodbye, My Lady Love (June, 1924, sound), a hit for Joe Howard, who also composed Michigan J. Frog’s theme song, “Hello, Ma Baby”. Long after the initial success, Joe would get to record the two pieces together electrically for Vocalion in 1936. Harry MacDonough recorded the piece on Victor during its heyday. Russ Morgan revived the number in the 30’s for Decca. One of its last appearances was part of a medley on an album from Epic dedicated to the memory of the minstrel show, “Gentlemen, Be Seated”.
Mother, Mother, Mother, Pin a Rose on Me (June, 1924, sound). Recorded by Billy Murray on Victor. Later revived in the late 1940’s by Kitty Kallen on Mercury.
Oh, Mabel.(silent) (Filmographies claim to credit the film to May, 1924, but may likely be placing it too early, as all the commercial recording activity on the piece seems to commence between November of 1924 and January of 1925. California Ramblers’ groups recorded it for four different labels – Columbia (with full band), Edison (full band), Cameo (full band), and Okeh (a small contingent of the group, known as “The Goofus Five”). The Oriole Orchestra (directed by Dan Russo and Ted Fio Rito, the latter of whom was one of the composers of the song) recorded it for Brinswick. Victor covered it with Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and also a vocal record by Billy Murray. Columbia gave it to Billy Jones and Ernest Hare. In England, Arthur Raymond recorded it for Regal. It was also widely covered in plain generic dance versions by many smaller record companies too numerous to mention.
Old Pal (June, 1925, silent). Without a film for guidance, it is difficult to say precisely which of multiple possible songs with similar titles this cartoon was featuring. Knowing Fleischer’s pattern of generally not featuring current pop songs in the first blush of popularity (“Oh Mabel” being an exception), and preferring to use songs with some established staying power, I believe it may have featured a 1921 song. “Old Pal, Why Don’t You Answer Me”, recorded by Henry Burr on Victor ad Columbia (the latter on the flip side of Al Jolson’s “Avalon”), and Paramount/Puritan. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band included it in a medley around 1920 for Victor, though I’ve not as yet verified the title assigned to the medley. George Beaver (probably Irving Kaufman) recorded it on 7” Melodisc for Emerson. A salon orchestra headed by Herbert Soman recorded it for Edison Diamond Disc. Harry Vernon recorded it for British Regal.
The Shiek of Araby (June, 1925, silent). Recorded by the Club Royal Orchestra, (conducted by saxophone virtuoso Clyde Doerr, who had come out of Art Hickman’s orchestra) on Victor, Ray Miller on Columbia, the California Ramblers for Vocalion, and Nathan Glantz on Okeh. Numerous other smaller labels would pick up the piece. As the song became a standard, revivals would occur by Red Nichols on Brunswick (with brief vocal by Treg Brown of Warner cartoon fame, interrupted by Jack Teagarden), Duke Ellington on Brunswick, Spike Jones on Bluebird, the Firehouse Five Plus Two on Good Time Jazz, and Lou Monte in 1958 for RCA Victor, among numerous others.
Next Time: more from the not-so-silent era.