October 17, 2015 posted by

Paul Whiteman Tops a Jazz Rabbit, 1930

Walter Lantz’s new cartoon department at Universal was not even operational yet when Steamboat Willie caused a seismic shift in the industry. The initial success of Mickey Mouse was owed to the gimmick of sound, but at least the visual synchronization displayed ingenuity. While Lantz had little leeway to work outside his lean budgets at Universal, Disney was immediately raising the industry cost of theatrical cartoons by creating this new audience expectation for sound. It was the first of many times that he would chasten his competitors.

oswald-face-leftPerhaps the only significant early victory of Lantz over Disney was in regards to a high-profile recruit whom both producers coveted. In the 1920s, the most prolific American animators were Ub Iwerks, Otto Messmer, and Bill Nolan. Disney sorely needed to staff a full studio once he secured his contract to produce Mickey, and the only place with a large talent pool was New York City. Disney began recruiting animators there relentlessly in 1928, raiding the staffs of Fleischer, Mintz, Sullivan, etc. to accomplish this.

Bill Nolan had left Mintz the previous year and was one of the first East Coast animators approached by Disney. Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman wrote that having “both Iwerks and Nolan under contract would have given Disney an unbeatable animation staff, not to mention poetic revenge on Mintz.” However, Nolan declined Disney’s offer of $150 per week and then proceeded to accept Lantz’s offer to work at Universal.

This was a major recruiting coup for Lantz, which instantly boosted the stature and viability of his forthcoming studio. Lantz had an advantage because he had previously worked with Nolan in New York and the two were friends. As well, Lantz topped Disney by paying $175 weekly and then made his offer even more attractive. Nolan, in effect, became the co-director of the new Universal Cartoon Department. In a short time, the credits to the Oswald series read “A Walter Lantz ‘Bill’ Nolan Cartoon Comedy.”

Disney and Lantz were now among the handful of producers chiefly responsible for the westward migration of New York talent to Los Angeles. At this point, it could even be argued that Walter Lantz had a chance to compete with Disney. Even with Mickey freshly galvanized as a rising star, the Oswald series might have stood its ground, given the following conditions that existed in early 1929.

Oswald-heyheyWith Nolan and Lantz—two New Yorkers with real industry pedigree—ably canvassing their former co-workers, the Universal recruitment of seasoned animators went quite well. The studio that Lantz supervised was built right at the advent of sound cartoons and could take advantage of the new sound facilities on the Universal lot.

Furthermore, Lantz could read and play music. He not only had a competent musical director in James Dietrich, but also should have been able to communicate creatively with him.

Unfortunately, Lantz got off to a slow start. He technically succeeded in adding sound to his cartoons, but the artistry behind sync took a bit longer to realize. Post-synchronization led to results like the instrumentation of dialogue in the 1929 films. The conversion of the Oswald cartoons into recognizable musicals was gradual.

Lantz then pursued voice synchronization. In Broadway Folly, released in February 1930, the dialogue is plodding and drawn-out. It’s as unsteady as a kid on training wheels. From this, one can infer that the novelty of hearing the spoken word, even with an awkward slow delivery, was either deemed a sufficient wonderment in itself or that Lantz was using commercial releases instead of test films to refine the sound process.

It’s unsettling to watch the opening of Broadway Folly just to hear the belabored pace of an exchange between Oswald and a bellhop. The vocal performances are so painfully s-l-o-w, perhaps to lower the threshold for sync to occur, that it feels like watching a cartoon on novocaine. Because the animation adjusts to this temporal shift, it gives the sensation that the film is actually playing at a slower frame rate.

In a short time, by the middle of 1930, the Oswald cartoons were finally musicals, not experiments. Lantz and Nolan suddenly brought some verve to the Oswald series. However, in the intervening year Disney advanced still further, and the Silly Symphonies — in addition to Mickey Mouse — were enjoying huge popularity.

Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra

Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra

The assignment that really accelerated the Lantz studio’s sophistication with musical sync was the animated introduction to The King of Jazz, a feature film that showcased the music of Paul Whiteman. This was envisioned as Universal’s The Jazz Singer. By making an all-Technicolor musical, this lesser player among Hollywood studios was making a splash to be seen as catching up with MGM and Warner Bros, even if Universal was actually a bit late to the talkies and 2-color Technicolor. Nonetheless, being involved on this film certainly was a prestige moment for the newly minted animation staff.

There is a certain ‘money shot’ that got repeated in the Oswald cartoons at the time, and it involves a galloping cycle of a beast pouncing suddenly into the foreground and then shrinking way back in perspective, only to take another big stride right into the full frame. This shows up in the intro as a lion chasing the bandleader Whiteman. As a corny joke on how he got crowned the “King of Jazz”, he appears here as a big game hunter, and some of its cel animation was then repurposed in the Oswald short Africa.

Jeanie Lang and Paul Whiteman in "King of Jazz" (1930)

Jeanie Lang and Paul Whiteman in “King of Jazz” (1930)

A bit more interesting than this opening movie number was the short cartoon it subsequently engendered, My Pal Paul. After his public performance playing a cat as an instrument, Oswald hangs himself from a tree, but is then rescued by Paul Whiteman himself, who slips the jazz-rabbit’s head from the noose, prompting the two to compete in a strange bunch of musical gags involving Paul’s car. This becomes one of those signature cartoon oddities for which Bill Nolan is known—and which link him indeliably with Iwerks, both for their pencil mileage and hermitic humor.

The King of Jazz did not fare well at the box-office, catching the downward trend of a glut of musical revues that talkies had made possible. Even Paul Whiteman would shortly drop out of public favor, as if spun ‘round a turnstile by the handsome young crooner Bing Crosby, who made his debut in the movie. Like an animated artifact of one man’s fame, My Pal Paul remains a small trophy marking the apex just before Whiteman’s descent from the top. Like Nolan, he would enjoy a few more good years, but by the middle of the decade he would seem irrelevant, a holdover from his peak in the 1920s.

oswald-jazz-singerThe caricatures of Whiteman are fun. He’s a great figure to cast in cartoon form—rotund with a little waxed moustache. His ‘stache is even a prop, with Paul plucking at it musically.

He also blows notes from a hollow trunk and naturally he sings, too. The dialogue in this cartoon still seems awkward, but it’s progress. At least the musical sequences zip right along. Then Whiteman puts Oswald back into the noose. He’s had enough of this rabbit who’s wrecked his car.

Top that? Well, the most isolated and self-indulgent sequence in an Oswald cartoon usually belongs to Nolan, and in this case there is every reason to expect that he animated the anthropomorphic hood ornament that dances on the cap of the radiator shell (3:00 mark). Then, as an encore, you’ll see a bunch of these ornaments—how did they multiply?—all dancing on the clarinet tailpipe (5:40). That sure strikes me as Bill Nolan animation, perfectly jubilant and unrestrained by logic or worry. It’s time to party like it’s 1929.


  • Interesting! A few days ago, I was wondering: Were there any other color cartoons released in 1930 besides the one embedded in “The King of Jazz” and the first Flip the Frog cartoon “Fiddlesticks”? Those cartoons must be considered pretty important “pioneers”…

    How about cartoons from the silent era using natural color film? (Not color-tinted, I mean.) Awhile back, I was leafing through one of the cartoon encyclopedias I have, and stumbled upon an entry for an early 1920 cartoon entitled “The Debut of Thomas Katt,” made in Brewstercolor, and directed by none other the infamous John Randolph Bray. Just a few days ago, I found an entry for a color cartoon from about 1927, but I’ll be hanged if I can find the entry again. Does anyone know the chronology of early color cartoons? Have any silent-era color cartoons survived?

  • BREWSTERCOLOR?? Wow..that must not have been that long lived…:)

  • More about color film and Brewster Color here:

    • Useless information on Thomas the Cat…

      This is how it was reviewed in FILM DAILY (February 15, 1920) as part of a Goldwyn-Bray Pictograph. Many Bray cartoons of the period were “inserts” as part of a movie “magazine” (resembling a newsreel) with live-action scenes. Another contemporary magazine scanned on the Internet Archive, MOTION PICTURE NEWS only fleetingly mentions it. Apparently the viewers were more interested in seeing sculptor Gutzon Borglum than the cartoon.

      “Bray Pictograph, No. 423, has three parts of more than usual interest. Opening it is a portion devoted to the formation of dew, including several interesting shots, through magnifying apparatus. Gutzon Borglum, famous sculptor, is shown at work in the second part, which also includes scenes showing some of his works, now completed. The Debut of Thomas Cat, announced as the world’s first color cartoon on a caption, closes and is out of the ordinary and should go well in houses attended by youngsters. The coloring has been done fairly well and adds value.”


  • There are other color animated shorts from the mid-20s as well, all in two color process. One, ‘Hector the Pup’ (1926, not to be confused with the 1935 stop motion short) was produced in New York, and is a combination of animated cutout ‘puppets’ and drawings- if memory serves it is in Brewstercolor as well.

    The 1931 short, Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, by Cy Young, is in the demo above. Here is a print of that short:

  • Tom, I believe those are not hood ornaments dancing out of the clarinet tailpipe – they’re musical note figures (a la Chuck Jones’ High Note).

  • And as regards Brewster Color – tsk, tsk, how soon we forget: 🙂

  • It’s interesting that you should make mention of the plodding pace of animation in some of these early Lantz shorts, because I had an OSWALD cartoon in silent form from Castle Films when I had a projector–a cartoon in which Oswald was being hunted by a big ol’ bloodhound. I would watch that short again and again and feel that the film is running at the wrong speed because the dog was just moving soooo sloooow! I kept wishing that I could catch a sound print of that film just to see just how fast that dog should have been going. Does anyone know the actual title of that cartoon? I never did catch a sound version of that short, but this Paul Whiteman thing was wonderful. I hope we see a disk, soon, of “THE KING OF JAZZ” no matter what box office thought of it in its day. I like these early jazzy films and cartoons.

    • Castle never had “Elmer The Great Dane” as Tom Klein suggests; the cartoon you saw MIGHT have been “Rabbit Hunt.” You’re right about the issue of running speed; the old “regular” 8mm silent format ran 16 fps, fully one-third slower than sound speed. (Super 8 ran slightly faster at 18.) 16mm silent films could be run on sound projectors at either 16 or 24, but I suspect many silent-only 16mm machines also ran only at 16.) The slow silent speed sometimes added a dreamlike quality to the famous Castle horror reels, but it usually made comedies or cartoons just drag along.

    • I suspect you might be thinking of “The Quail Hunt” (1935) The pacing of Elmer in this cartoon is also very drawn out……… (pun intended)

  • Kevin, you might be referring to “Elmer the Great Dane”, which has some slow-speed sequences, even though it’s well after the start of talkies. You can see it with audio on YouTube. And– to Top Cat James, have a look at 1:30 on “My Pal Paul” to see the anthropomorphic hood ornament that I think then dances through the rest of the film, though it’s hard to know for sure. Nolan’s imagination may have gone either direction on that.

  • I wish “King of Jazz” would get an official DVD release.

    – William Carroll
    Denham Springs, Louisiana

  • Re “My Pal Paul”…OK, we have here a Walter Lantz cartoon including a shot of a goony-looking woodpecker poking his head out of a tree and laughing “Ha, Ha, Ha.” A harbinger of things to come? Hmmmm, could be??

  • Frank Moser was infamously just as prolific as Bill Nolan, and both guys worked much faster than Otto Messmer. Also, Moser and Nolan gained infamy around 1916-1917 while Iwerks was not well known until the Oswald series captured the attention of forward-thinking NYC animators ten years later.

    Also, Nolan spent a little more time between Winkler and Lantz than you’ve made it sound…. after losing his contract to make Krazy Kat in 1927, he produced the short lived “Newslaffs” series that year.

    Fantastic post though!! That’s so interesting that Lantz could read and play music, which I’d never heard. It makes sense, seeing how his early Oswalds are among the best musical cartoons of the early 30s…. thank god Nolan didn’t go with Disney!

  • Thank You Tom for another fine article! I agree with your observations concerning the early sound Oswalds. I’d add that it was the change from David Brokeman to James Deiitrich for the scoring that really ramped up the musical energy and verve for the series. Songs from “The King of Jazz” showed up in Oswalds very frequently, probably because Universal didn’t have to pay for the rights to use them. In particular, “Ragamuffin Romeo” tune (The dancing Hammer and Wrench sequence in My Pal Paul) was often re-used, with similar bits in “The Band Master”, and “Teacher’s Pest” coming to mind .

    I would also say that from about “The Singing Sap” to “Mars” the Oswalds’ were probably superior to Disney’s work. Iwerks departure took a while for Disney to recover from. “Africa” in particular showed excellent timing with the music and imagery, demonstrating that Oswald might still have it over Mickey. Shame it didn’t last..

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