December 12, 2016 posted by

“Organ Grinder’s Swing” (1937)


Usually, theatrical cartoons have shied away from the politics of the time they were made. Thus, the cartoons do not become dated so quickly–and do not follow the progression from “dated” to “nostalgia” to “historical” that happens so often when topical references are used.

(One glaring exception to this is the field of World War II cartoons, which are often as topical as all get-out–and some of which have not aged well due to attitudes that became politically incorrect after hostilities ended.)

So, it came as a surprise when I viewed again Organ Grinder’s Swing, a Popeye short from early 1937. That led me to several Wikipedia pages, and to an interesting connection.

To encapsulate: Organ-grinder Wimpy arrives at the square where Popeye and Olive Oyl live in adjoining apartments, with his street organ and his monkey. Popeye and Olive like the music, and offer Wimpy some change (and some hamburgers!). However, neighbor Bluto becomes demonstrative in his dislike of the music being offered. Eventually, Popeye eats his spinach, becomes strong to the finish, and beats up on Bluto.

The Max Fleischer cartoons of this pre-Miami period have a New York sensibility not usually found in Disney, Warner Bros., or M-G-M cartoons, which were made mostly by mid-westerners transplanted to sunny Southern California. This cartoon has that sensibility in spades. And it turns out that there’s a bit of New York City politics involved in this short, as well.

Fiorello La Guardia, an uber-liberal Republican (back when there were uber-liberal Republicans), had been elected mayor of New York City, taking office at the beginning of 1934 on a platform of reform–which the voters wanted after yet another corrupt Tammany administration under colorful Jimmy Walker. And while LaGuardia’s “progressive” bona fidea were impeccable, he also possessed a puritanical streak that is not usually associated with “progressives” in this modern day and age.

laguardiaDuring the first two years of his first term (of three), the new Mayor was instrumental in going after the slot-machines controlled by Frank Costello. He was also instrumental in seeing laws passed that banned burlesque shows and pinball machines. Indeed, there exists newsreel footage of LaGuardia happily applying the sledge hammer to slot machines and pinball machines, before their remains would be dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.

He was also instrumental in seeing another law passed; under La Guardia, organ grinders were outlawed in the City of New York.

This ban went into effect sometime in 1935, and put a number of hard-working Italian-American men out of work–not that there were not a lot of public-works jobs for those who could do them, mind you.

The original credits of the cartoon don’t tell us about who might have written it. But one wonders if it could be interpreted as a protest against what could be seen as a joyless reformer, who served to suppress one of the things that, in nostalgic memory, brought joy to the hearts of real New Yorkers.

organ-grinder-swing-sheet-musicAs for the music itself, the song “Organ Grinder’s Swing” was not even a Famous Music copyright. Mills Music held this one, and ostensible composers Mitchell Parish, Will Hudson and Irving Mills saw the song get widely covered, both here and abroad.

Hudson had the first recording of the piece, with the band he co-led with Eddie deLange. That was in March of 1936. By August, it had been covered by Joe Haymes (“dime stores”) and Frank Froeba (Columbia), with these versions having the lyrics by Mitchell Parish (who wrote the lyrics to “Stardust”, and who would write the English-language lyric to “Volare” many years later.)

Other successful covers were by Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra, and by Ella Fitzgerald, with a contingent from the Chick Webb orchestra as “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight”.

The melody was based on a nursery-rhyme tune associated with the lyrics “I love coffee, I love tea”. Curiously, not long before the Hudson recording came out, this same melody was the base for the verse of “You’re The Cure For What Ails Me”, a song introduced by Al Jolson and Sybil Jason in The Singing Kid (1936). Later in the same pic, it would be re-introduced by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. Calloway would record it for Brunswick. That song may be familiar to cartoon fans from its use (at least the first eight bars) in Little Blabbermouse, a 1940 Merrie Melodies cartoon featuring W. C. Fieldmouse leading a group of rubberneckers through a “modern” drug store. It’s sung there by a bottle of “Pink Pills for Pallid People”.

Some years after “Organ Grinder’s Swing”, another song would be based on another branch of this nursery-rhyme tune. “Java Jive” would be one of the few hits for the Ink Spots that did not feature Bill Kenny’s near-falsetto tenor and Hoppy Jones (or later Herb Kenny) paraphrasing the lyrics with some easily-spoofable dialect. But that’s another story – for another time.


  • Organ Grinder’s Swing was also used in the Popeye cartoon Problem Pappy where Poopdeck Pappy takes a job flagpole sitting much to Popeye’s chagrin and it wasn’t until a thunderstorm struck and Popeye had to save Pappy’s hide after being marooned by the storm.

  • Regarding the Popeye cell and background at the top, was that brownish/sepia coloring normal for cells and backgrounds made for cartoons filmed in black and white? I guess I just assumed those would have been painted in shades of grey.

    • The brownish/sepia coloring was standard for early black and white Fleischer original backgrounds. Later black and white Fleischer backgrounds were indeed painted in shades of grey. By the way, the background depicted here was not from the Popeye cartoon Organ Grinder’s Swing (l937) but is from the Betty Boop cartoon Betty Boop, M.D. (1932).

  • I wonder if LaGuardia’s ban on organ-grinders (or “hurdy gurdy men”) was motivated by sanitation, since they were often accompanied by monkeys? The mayor had acquired a new fleet of garbage trucks, and was justifiably proud of them to demand that they be shown on a “March of Time” film that profiled him.

    • I don’t suppose he was ever really liked by certain people.

  • I have just listened to 5 different versions of this song. I still like this one best. GREAT POPEYE SHOW on METV THIS MORNING (5/1/21)

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