October 10, 2016 posted by

Max Fleischer and Novelty Records

One type of record that the companies hoped would sell could be called “novelty records”, for lack of a better term.

Max Fleischer used three such “novelties” in some of his middle 1930’s cartoons. Two of them were marketed as “hillbilly” records, although it may have occurred to the record companies that these discs would sell to urban audiences looking for something new and different.

Betty Boop and Grampy features an original song “Over At Grampy’s House”, sung by Mae Questel and others in the cast (possibly including Jack Marcer). But, once they get to Grampy’s pad, and once they have imbibed some of the punch he serves, they want some music. Once his thinking cap starts flashing,he puts on some music–and the Fleischer music people put on another record from the American Record Company catalogue.

The Maple City Four were a vocal group that appeared regularly on station WLS out of Chicago. They were featured on the “National Barn Dance”, a very popular program throughout the Midwest.

Most of their repertoire appears to be “standard” songs, sung in straight quartet fashion, with piano accompaniment. But they would also let their hair down and sing and play some novelty material.

One coupling–issued as a general dance record, rather than a an “Old-Time” disc (a period euphemism for country music) coupled “Tiger Rag” with “Oh, Mo’nah!”

“Tiger Rag” got used in the cartoon. It is mostly instrumental, with piano vamping away while two of the boys play ocarinas (“sweet potatoes”), ad a third applies thimbled fingers and thumbs to a washboard. Aside from some chords from those singers who don’t have sweet potatoes to their lips, the main snging is the “Hold that tiger!” refrain, with one singer–probably their bass–supplying the “growls” at intervals.

The overall approach the Four give to this material might remind the record collector of the Hoosier Hot Shots. . . which is interesting, for that group wound up in a Fleischer short.

A Song A Day was another musical feast, and it made use of one of the Hoosier Hot Shots original numbers, “Ha-Cha-Nan (The Daughter of San”). For this cartoon,the record was sped up to a noticeable degree. This actually helped – for, sped up, Ken Trietsch’s scat singing sounds quite a bit like Grampy’s own scat.

The Hoosier Hot Shots were also heavily featured on the “National Barn Dance”, and specialized in novelties. Their instrumentation consisted of a clarinet, a guitar, a string bass, and–when he wasn’t manipulating a slide-whistle–a washboard equipped with bulb horns, other kinds of klaxons, and seemingly everything but the kitchen sink.

the-kids-in-the-shoe-movie-poster-1935-1020198358All four sang, in harmony, and their records usually give the feeling that they’re trying hard to entertain–and that they succeeded.

A third “hillbilly novelty” shows up in a fairly unlikely place–in a Max Fleischer Color Classic called The Kids In The Shoe.

The main body of the cartoon deals with the large family the Germanic mutterchen has to deal with. When she puts them to bed, they want to keep playing music–an idea that the Fleischer/Famous people would return to in two much-favored Popeye cartoons, Me Musical Nephews and Riot In Rhythm.

And, again, we go down to the neighborhood department store, and come back with a record – “Mama Don’t Allow It”, as sung by Smilie (sic) Burnette.

Like the Maple City and Hoosier groups, Burnette was featured on “National Barn Dance”. But his tenure on that show wasn’t as long as that of the other groups.

Burnette had hitched his wagon to a star-to-be–and it worked out magnificently for him.

On this disc, Burnette gives us Charles Davenport’s familiar tale of the singer’s defiance of Mama’s strictures. All the while, instrumental honors go to studio musician Roy Smeck, who is heard playing banjo, guitar, and jews-harp, while Bob Miller is believed to be the one tickling the ivories, and Gene Autry may be the rhythm guitarist.

Autry was that star-to-be. Not long after this disc, and others, were made. Autry, Burnette and Frankie Marvin were signed to Mascot Pictures, where all three of them got their start in the films. They worked unbilled in a Ken Maynard chapter-play (Mystery Mounain), and plunked out some tunes in a Maynard feature (In Old Santa Fe), before Autry got his starring role in another serial, The Phantom Empire (1935), the science-fiction-musical-western serial.

Burnette went onto a long career in musical oaters (or “oatuners” as the trade called them), playing sidekicks for more than fifteen years. He also wrote songs, some of which became successful in the Country music field, and made a small number of records.

Another generation of television addicts would see him and fellow sidekick Rufe Davis as engineers of the Cannonball on Paul Henning’s paired rural sitcoms, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

BONUS TRACK: The Legion of Decency Tells Betty Boop Where To Go.

Even in the early 1930’s, there were those who believed that ‘Cartoons-Were-Only-For-Kids’.

And they did not like Betty Boop one bit.

After all she was still, pretty much, a “flapper”. She was flirtatious. She was prone to ‘wardrobe malfunctions” (often spotted right quickly and rectified by friendly tree branches, which received polite greetings from Betty when she realized what was going off).

It was no wonder that various Crusaders for Decency thought that Betty Boop should go to hell.

Which she did. . . in dreams!

Red Hot Mamma (spelled thus on the original title card), finds Betty freezing he little tail off, building a fire in the fireplace, and curling up in front of same–where she dreams that she’s gone Down Below, where she is met by various imps and devils.

This is a quite musical cartoon. Manny Baer’s various melodists take on some Famous Music copyrights, such as “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Love”, “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” and “Good Morning, Glory”.

But there is also a needle-drop from a commercial record included in the sound track.

Hell’s Bells was a departure for composer Art Kassel. Usually, his “Kassels-In-The-Air” were devoted to a slavish imitation of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. By comparison, “Hell’s Bells’ is a middle-to-uptempo novelty, with deliberate dissonances written into the first strain for otherwise-unison clarinets.

The piece proved to be quite popular, and,within a few months, several “cover” versions were on the market from various labels.

For the American Record Company’s “dime store” labels, that meant a version credited to “Gene’s Merrymakers”. The band was that of Gene Kardos, who led a working orchestra (which was an accomplishment in the depressed economy of 1932), which played regularly at the Gloria Palast in the Yorkville section of Manhattan (in the ‘Eighties, east of Central Park). This orchestra was considered quite “hot” for the time, and various of its records are quite desired by collectors of “hot” dance music.

The Fleischer sound editors deserve a round of applause. They produce some very smooth edits (although record scratch can be heard at the beginning of the performance of “Hell’s Bells”. This is especially notable as they’ve edited out the original vocal chorus by Dick Robertson, so that they could edit in a vocal by Mae Questel in character. The edit back to the Kardos recording is especially smooth.

The idea of going down to the Infernal Realm seems to have been quite popular then. There was an M-G-M short in two-strip Technicolor (Devil’s Cabaret, 1930) which was built around that, with Hell seen a a nightclub. And there’s Hell’s Fire an Ub Iwerks cartoon featuring Willie Whopper — a cartoon which had been shorn of its topical references and circulated as “Vulcan Entertains” — but now exists restored and intact thanks to Steve Stanchfield. And it too uses “Hell’s Bells” on the soundtrack:

NEXT WEEK: Needle Drop music in Ub Iwerks Cartoons


  • Loving these needle drop posts!

  • Thanks for talking about my favorite post-Code Betty Boop cartoon!

    If Paramount cared more about their cartoons from the 20s-60s (in any period of time), or at least if Walt Disney would have lost his Oscar for “The Country Cousin” to “Popeye meets SIndad” instead of the other way around, maybe a documentary would mention the needle drops having an impact on The Ren and Stimpy Show and SpongeBob Squarepants (the first movie used a needle drop for a musical number),……

  • If this has been mentioned, I missed it, but were record companies aware of these needle drops? Did they sanction them, or were cartoon makers just keeping their fingers crossed that no one would notice and call them on it?

    • Good point, Jon!

      I wonder if the folks down at the American Record Corporation were even aware that their records were being used as needle-drops for cartoon soundtracks. And, if they were aware, did they even care, and could they have done anything about it?

      In the case of the Ub Iwerks studio, I have a sneaking suspicion that he may have made a deal with the Victor.

      However, unless internal memos surface, we may never know for sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *