April 23, 2024 posted by James Parten

Van Beuren Music 1934-35

The Van Beuren Cartoons seem to be enjoying a consistent improvement in quality during this period. The arrival of Burt Gillett and Ted Eshbaugh as directors ensured that the studio couldn’t get away with their ramshackle efforts of a few years earlier. Winston Sharples had the musical element of the films well in hand, though depending on his own compositions rather than the tin pan alley standards used for years. The studio kept trying to make Cubby Bear into a popular character along the lines of Mickey Mouse, but his career was winding down in favor of the advent of color. Also new to the studio was a series of subjects mixing live-action with animated segments, entitled “Toddle Tales”, using children in wrap-around segments framing the cartoon. Possibly, this was used as an interim method of budget-cutting while the studio was retooling for color, shortening up the amount of drawn footage to be produced per reel, in the same manner as Fleischer’s Screen Songs. The series banner would not be continued once the Rainbow Parade series spotlighted 2-strip Cinecolor – yet, two titles would be produced in the same wraparound format, in color, to be discussed in a later installment. Thank you Steve Stanchfield for restoring all these on your outstanding Thunderbean blu-ray collections.

Goode Knight (2/23/34) – Cubby as Robin Hood, trying to save a princess from having to marry a sheriff (she comments that the Sheriff’s face looks like a cellar door). Needless to say, Cubby and the princess wind up in front of a Friar, who asks the question “Do You?” “We do”, they respond in unison, while a parrot who has been serving as comic relief adds “And how they do!” Songs: “In the Days of Robin Hood”, an original medley of tunes, which acts as exposition for the film, with a sidelight trio number about having to marry the sheriff.

Cubby’s Stratospheric Flight (4/20/34) – Cubby is planning a record-breaking altitude flight, with the help of a convenient bird, and a fish on a fishing line. This seems to anger a bunch of storm clouds, who unleash rain and lightning upon Cubby’s gondola. Cubby winds up at or near the North Pole, attending a cabaret where a group of walruses provides entertainment. Cubby and another character wind up in a rolling snowball, which travels all the way back to Cubby’s girlfriend’s house, where she has been crying over his departure. The iris closes out on Cubby and the girl happily smooching as usual. Song: “I Wish I Had a Mammy”, an original number for the singing walruses, deliberately written in a barber-shop style 20 years out of date.

Pastry Town Wedding (7/27/34) – The first of the “Rainbow Parades” created in Cinecolor when Burt Gillett (director of “Three Little Pigs”) was hired by RKO to provide a shake-up at the Van Beuren studio and upgrade its work to the specs of competing studios. As mentioned in earlier reviews, the studio had already been showing signs of improvement in its artwork – but Gillett would provide the staff with more intensive training, and experience in color production (which, oddly, seems to have caused a brief hiatus of several months at the end of 1934, after two films had already been produced in color).

Things are going along pretty normally in industrious Pastry Town, with mass production of various sweets and confections, until the head patissiere hears plans of a wedding between two locals. He decides that they all have to bake a wedding cake, which turns into a mammoth project, large enough for the bride and groom (and much of the population) to stand upon. Songs: “Mendelssohn’s Wedding March”, and original numbers, “Pastrytown Is In the Dough” and “There’s Gonna Be a Wedding”.

Along Came a Duck (8/10/34) – A “Toddle Tales” cartoon in black and white, also directed by Gillett, framed by live action footage of “adorable” children at play. The kids are at a local duck pond, where they meet a frog who provides them with an explanation of what is going on with a local family of ducks. One of the ducks engages in adventures underwater, and gets wound up in plant undergrowth below the surface. The frog comes to the rescue, severing the underwater weeds by sawing at them with a fish skeleton, then propelling the duck to shore and compressing the water out of him. Songs: “Hello, There”, an original number gulped and croaked by the frog as he introduces himself to the kids.

A Little Bird Told Me (9/7/34) – Another “Toddle Tale”. A little boy has gotten into a jam jar, and is caught, being informed that “a little bird” told his sister the tale. The boy makes inquiry of an animated bird perched outside the window, and is told the story of how a reporter from the Birdville Daily News got the scoop and photographs of him for a front-page headline, printed on leaves and distributed for all birddom to read. One of the bird characters is referred to as “Walter”, (a reference to popular columnist Walter Winchell, famously rumored as getting his scoops by peeking through keyholes). Songs: “This Little Bird”, sung by the little bird with whom the boy is inquiring, an original presumably by Winston Sharples.

The Parrotville Fire Department (9/14/34) – An old village fire chief in an all-parrot community, and his old engine Betsy, open the cartoon. Betsy doesn’t get a lot of use, but the chief claims she has a lot of life left in her (despite parts falling off her randomly). The house that catches fire looks to be a total loss. The flames even attack the hose by which the water is delivered. The parrots think they’ve trapped the flames in the firehouse, until the flames start consuming the station from within, rampaging victoriously while the parrots fret and fume. An original song by the chief, which I’ll call “Old Betsy”, opens the film. RKO did not own a music publishing company, and seems to have had little aspiration to get these original songs exposed in other media.

The Sunshine Makers (1/11/35) – A cartoon that may be compared to the old “Joys and Glooms” comic strip. A tribe of gnomes are up at oh-dawn-hundred to greet the sun, which they treat as their monarch, and to distill sunshine into their sunshine milk. They deliver the product in the manner and fashion of the old-fashioned milkman, picking up empties and leaving a few bottles on the doorstep for whoever lives there. In the course of their appointed rounds, they draw the ire of a clan of gloomy gnomes, dressed in blue suits and top hats, who don’t think much of sunshine and joy. When one of them gets sunshine milk spilled on his coat, he feels he has to bury it. A pitched battle ensues, with the glooms resorting to Flit guns, and the joyous gnomes using artillery that ejects the empty bottles like so many shell casings. One recalcitrant gloomy gnome expresses a wish to continue to be sad, until a few drops of sunshine milk are deposited on his tongue. The juice eventually transforms the gloomy ones into dancing joys with glowing stomachs. This cartoon makes good use of the Cinecolor palette, and there’s a pleasant bit of effects animation as the happy gnomes fill their bottles of sunshine milk, a glow of light filling the room from each bottle. One can only wonder when Borden’s Milk associated itself with this cartoon for re-release, presumably theatrically and/or on television. One wonders if the Borden’s print would ever appear on early television, as it might be deemed an intrusion upon the time of the usual sponsors of hosted kids’ shows of the day. I may be guessing, but I speculate whether one of the voices in the choruses of this film might be Roy Halee, later of Mighty Mouse fame. Songs: a full song score, all originals presumably by Winston Sharples, including, “Hail, His Majesty the Sun”, “Sunshine, Sunshine”, “We’re Happy When We’re Sad”, “Tra La La La La”, and “Sunshine Everywhere”.

Japanese Lanterns (3/8/35) – A rather tubby boy and girl are busy making lanterns, with the assistance of a crane whose feet and tail feathers help him to decorate the paper lanterns associated with the Far East. A windstorm comes up and blows everything all over the place. The crane, who is the comic relief character in the early part of the film, becomes the hero, rescuing the children with a stretched wire to allow them to “slide for life” back to earth, than tethering all the lanterns to the wire with some fancy flying through the necks of the lanterns. Songs: apparently more compositions by Sharples – “Cherry Blossom Land”, and “Fly, Butterfly”.

Next Time: 1935 and into 36.


  • Burton Gillett has been credited, or blamed if you will, for making the Van Beuren cartoons increasingly Disney-like. Yet Winston Sharples had begun doing the same with their musical scores even before Gillett’s arrival. One can hear this even in small details: for example, when Cubby blows on his horn in “Goode Knight”, we hear a flourish played on three flutes (or possibly two flutes and a clarinet) in close harmony, just as when the Pied Piper blew on his pipe in the 1933 Silly Symphony. The flourish even cadences on an augmented triad in both cartoons.

    As his scores became more complex and difficult, Sharples had to hire better musicians with a tight sense of ensemble. I’m especially impressed by the tuba player in “The Parrotville Fire Department”, who had to play almost constantly throughout the cartoon at a very quick tempo that scarcely gave him any time to breathe (and the tuba requires far more breath than any other wind instrument). Yet there are no missed or flubbed notes, no woofiness or other signs of struggle, and at the same time he’s also capable of great delicacy when the mood calls for it.

    “The Sunshine Makers”, on the other hand, eschews heavy brass altogether, being scored for (as near as I can determine) a mere dozen instrumentalists. The piano, which I assume was played by Sharples himself, dominates the texture and gives the small ensemble a fully symphonic quality.

    I had a feeling that “I Wish I Had a Mammy” had been written specifically for that cartoon; the closing line about “these polar skies” indicates as much. It’s a dead-on parody of a dated genre that nevertheless was still occasionally heard in the 1930s. I also find it amusing that the four walruses apparently drop dead at the conclusion of their performance and have to be swept offstage by a janitor.

    • You’re quite right to point out that Winston Sharples was the first person in the studio to actively imitate Disney, and I think this was a very bad thing for Van Beuren, since the studio’s main appeal lay in the very personal style of their cartoons.

  • “There’s a bit missing from “Goode Knight”: we don’t see the wiggly arrow reach its target, but the parrot’s “It hit the button” gives us an idea of where that was.

    Borden probably didn’t anticipate “Sunshine Makers” having the afterlife it’s had for 90 years, and likely sold it off to a distributor, not caring much whether their logo continued to appear on it, in much the same way film studios rid themselves of their earlier content to make a quick and badly needed buck in the 1950s (although they’d have made much more in the long run by hanging on to the titles and leasing them out; moral: keep your shorts on).

    It’s no surprise that Winston Sharples’ music figures so prominently in the Van Beuren cartoons. It’s usually the best element of most Famous cartoons, and was nicely recycled in TV toons made by Famous off-shoots like Trans-Lux and Hal Seeger.

    • SUNSHINE MAKERS wasn’t originally produced in cooperation with Borden’s. That company became connected with the film as an advertising tool in 1940, after Ted Eshbaugh purchased the original VB negative outright.

  • I’ve read that “The Sunshine Makers” was a staple of early children’s television, shown multiple times every single day on many stations. Leonard Maltin has written of “countless viewings” during his own childhood; another writer described it as “omnipresent”. So there don’t appear to have been any sponsorship issues with Borden.

  • The commentary with “A Little Bird Told Me” notes the reporter “is referred to as ‘Walter’, (a reference to popular columnist Walter Winchell, famously rumored as getting his scoops by peeking through keyholes).” The connection to Winchell is more explicit than that: look on his desk, and you’ll see his complete name is given as “Walter Finchell.”

  • Apparently, some press articles have noted that the backgrounds for the “Japanese Lanterns” cartoon were created by Japanese artists specially hired for the occasion.

    However, this statement seems highly improbable to me, as Van Beuren was a small studio and I find it hard to see them spending so much money just to ask professional Japanese artists to paint the backgrounds for a single cartoon.

    In fact, I think it was more likely a bluff on Van Beuren’s part to draw attention to the cartoon.

    • I understand your scepticism. New York had a sizeable community of Japanese-born and Japanese-American artists in the 1930; however, they had by and large been trained in the U.S. and were working in contemporary Western styles like surrealism and Art Deco. Some of them painted murals for the WPA, and many of them signed an open letter to the Times denouncing Japanese militarism at the beginning of the war. They don’t sound like the kind of artists whom one would consult about the traditional Japanese way of doing things.

      Gillett’s mandate to raise the studio to the Disney standard would have included a budget for hiring additional artists and providing specialised training for them; this, after all, is precisely what Disney was doing. It’s not out of the question that Japanese-trained artists might have been hired to do the backgrounds for this one cartoon. Whether or not it actually happened is another matter. However, Japanese wall hangings and the like were very cheap in those days and could be obtained in any good imports store; the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a huge collection of Japanese artworks; and the New York Public Library would have been well stocked with illustrated books about Japanese art. It seems to me that it would have been easier, and more efficient, to instruct Van Beuren’s background artists in some of the elements of Japanese style, than to hire Japanese-trained artists (assuming there were any in New York) who were unfamiliar with the process of animation.

      I doubt that Van Beuren would have deliberately sent out a press release falsely claiming that Japanese artists had worked on “Japanese Lanterns”. If they hadn’t, I think it’s more likely that the release merely stated that the backgrounds were painted in traditional Japanese style, and then some journalist jumped to an erroneous conclusion. This sort of thing happens all the time, especially when cartoons (or the arts in general) are under discussion.

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