A Musical Up-Roar (Part 2)

Certainly by the beginning of calendar year 1935, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising found the mojo they had been seeking ever since they left Warner Brothers. They were trying to duplicate the charm that people were associating with Walt Disney’s cartoons. Efforts to force that kind of charm would prove to be as obvious as farmyard dirt on a gingham gown. But the suits at Loew’s Incorporated seem to have been quite satisfied with the quality, although the budgets were being strained. Eventually, this would come to a head. But when three-strip Technicolor became available, Harman and Ising used the full palette to what they thought was the best advantage. These cartoons proved to be effective accompaniment to such MGM blockbusters as “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “A Tale of Two Cities”.

When the Cat’s Away (2/16/35) – A female pussy cat leaves the comfortable hearth for the love songs of a tomcat on the backyard fence. An “adorable” mouse (call him a prototype of Harman and Ising’s soon-to-be character, Little Cheezer) takes the opportunity to shut a hinged window behind her, them calls out his fellow rodents to frolic in the kitchen during the feline’s absence. The mice eat everything in sight, and even get into whiskey kegs for a “chaser”. More species get into the act, including a Latin Rumba number for dancing cockroaches. But when a large rat horns in and tries to grab off the mouse’s girlfriend, the mouse finds himself in definite need of reinforcements. Enter the cat, returned from her night of wooing. She chases the rat back to his hole in the wall, her claws only able to grab away the rat’s oversized trousers. The mice all make the safety of their own hole, but the little mouse risks emerging from the hole to drag over a bowl of milk to the cat as a reward, before finally returning to his own home. Songs: “When the Cat’s Away”, an origial for narrating chorus, “Little Brown Jug” (with specialty lyrics). “Three Blind Mice” (played an an inebriated tempo when the mice imbibe), and “La Cucaracha”.

The Lost Chick (3/9/35) – Mother hen is sitting on her eggs, anticipating a family. She has taken the tine to handwrite their names on the shells. One Eggbert rolls out of the nest, and is retrieved by two adorable squirrels, who think it’s a nut, and nothing else but. They are not all that interested in gathering a load of nuts for winter, and think they have found the easy answer to foraging with the one giant “nut”, which they think will last all winter. Eggbert instead hatches in the warmth of the hearth. When Mother hen finally notices her egg is missing, she goes out to retrieve it, and discovers the squirrels in a compromising position with Eggbert, trying to expel popcorn from his gullet. She thinks they’ve been mistreating him, and takes Eggbert home, just as winter sets in. The squirrels, without sustenance, wander into the snow-covered forest in search of a basket of smaller nuts they had thrown away, but collapse in the snow. Eggbert meanwhile informs Mama that the squirrels were his friends, and Mama braves the storm to locate the squirrels, bringing them home with her to stay forever as her guests. Songs: “We Told You So”, an original, taunting refrain by a trio of squirrels who think they know better about the egg.

The Calico Dragon (3/30/35) – A little girl is reading a storybook about knights in shining armor, and imagines the scenario playing out in a world upon her bed, against the backdrop of her sheets and blankets. The title character, villain of the piece, is three headed, the middle one producing a tongue that gives the razz to anybody, like a New Year’s Eve unrolling party favor. He presides over a castle of red flannel underwear, and is battled by the girl’s dolls (a knight, horse, and Scotty dog). The girl awakens from her dream to discover that she herself is the princess the dolls were rescuing, but is frightened back under the covers when a breeze at the windowshade produces the same “razz” sound she heard from the dragon’s tongue. Songs: Von Suppe’s “Light Cavalry Overture”, Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”, and several originals – “The Knights of Old Were Not So Bold/Off to the Fray” and “I’m the Calico Dragon”, a number that in some respects seems inspired by a popular concert specialty by John Charles Thomas, “The Green-Eyed Dragon”.

Good Little Monkeys (4/13/35) – Normally, you’d expect a “midnight in a book shop” cartoon to come from Warner Brothers. But the ex-Warner men transport the format to MGM. A copy of Dante’s Inferno opens on a dark and stormy night, and the Devil comes out. Satan scampers about the place, coming across a knick-knack of the three little monkeys, whom the devil hopes to corrupt. No such luck for old scratch, who winds up being chased back into his book by The Three Musketeers, a herd of elephants and a yelling Tarzan, and assorted others. The monkeys are not willing to be corrupted, and repeat the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” creed in a recurring original song, which became their theme for all subsequent pictures. Other songs include “The Peanut Vendor”, and an unidentified shimmy number for a harem dancing girl.

The Chinese Nightingale (4/27/35) – This cartoon, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, spends about five minutes of scene-setting and exposition before reaching its plot, filled with eye candy and Chinoiserie. An emperor becomes very much fond of the songs of a nightingale. However, there comes a time when the nightingale has to leave the Emperor’s court, when the Emperor begins paying more attention to a mechanical wind-up bird brought to him as a gift from a foreign land, leaving the nightingale feeling ignored and unwanted. Only when the mechanical toy breaks down does the Emperor take note of the live bird’s absence, and falls into despair and illness. An alert is brought by way of another palace bird to the nightingale, in her new home with a new family, and she packs up nest and belongings to bring the whole family back to the Emperor, for a happy reunion that restores the Emperor to health. Songs: one we’ll call simply “The Chinese Nightingale”, an expository song sung by a trio of Chinese girls before a pictorial screen depicting chapters of the story. “Happy Days are Here Again” is heard in the happy reunion at the close of the film. Also, excerpts from Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (‘New World’)”.

Poor Little Me (5/11/35) – Almost all the woodland creatures are frolicking in the woods, There is one wallflower – a little skunk, who identifies himself as “Stinky”. He is all alone, as none of the other creatures will play with him. He runs back home, where mother leads the family in a special-lyric version of “Jesus Loves Me” (reworded as “Mother Loves Me”), but ths does not console Stinky. Stinky finally makes a temporary friend of a young female bunny with a head cold who cannot smell – but the friendship is rudely interrupted by the advances of a ferocious bobcat. The bobcat, however, is stopped cold by Stinky’s smell – but finds it can be neutralized with a spritz of perfume from an atomizer found in a junk pile. Stinky is almost caught, but makes the gate of his home one step ahead of the bobcat. Mama skink stands her ground, and nothing can neutralize the aroma of her and the entire skunk family. Stinky finally resigns himself to happily staying within the family fold, for a singing iris out. Songs: “I Ain’t Got Nobody”. “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”, written in 1930 by Sam Theard, recorded for Vocalion by him as “Lovin’ Sam from Down In ‘Bam”. Most popularly, it was recorded in 1931 by Louis Armstrong on Okeh, and also by Luis Rissell on Victor, Cab Calloway on Brunswick, Jack Teagarden on Columbia with Fats Waller, Chick Bullock on Perfect, Baner, Oriole and Conqueror, the Connie’s Inn Orchestra (Fletcher Henderson) on Melotone, and remade on Crown. An original number, “I’ve Got a Code in My Dose” (not to be confused with a 1929 song of the same title. Also, “Jesus Loves Me”, most recordings of which seem to be on children’s labels, with the exception of George Beverly Shea on Singspiration.

Barnyard Babies (5/25/35) – Blessed events are happening all over the barnyard, and Mr. and Mrs. Rooster are expecting such an event. The barnyard is holding a better baby contest (these sort of things were a testament to the belief some people had in the pseudo-science of eugenics). Trouble is, the rooster family’s brood isn’t due until two days after the contest. This leads pop and Mom to all kinds of drastic measures to speed up the process (including putting mama and the whole nest in the oven). The hatchlings arrive in the nick of time to take the prize, landing in the loving cup. Songs: “We Are Barnyard Babies”, a choral original for the contest participants, and “My Pony Boy”.

The Old Plantation (9/21/35) – The running time of ths film, like several of this period, is LONG – so long, you’d figure the footage was running off the reel. But then, this was the studio’s debut of three-strip Technicolor, so cause for celebration. MGM’s cartoons never had a formal “censored 11″, but if they did, this would probably be one of them. Politically incorrect cartoon which starts out as a lampoon of Uncle Tom’s Cabin without the pointed satire of a Tex Avery romp. In a world entirely populated by dolls and mechanical toys, Colonel Julep’s spring-wound stallion Black Beauty must win a race to avoid foreclosure of the mortgage upon his plantation home by villainous Simon Degree. The race horse sequence features a parody of track announcer Graham McNamee (referred to here as “Graham Cracker”), the best known broadcaster of horse races on NBC, and also Ed Wynn’s foil on his popular Texaco radio show. Simon pilfers the mainspring from Black Beauty’s frame, leaving the deice powerless. Substitution by Black Beauty’s jockey of various forms of fireworks becomes necessary, sometimes with unexpected results, leading to a mash-up of ideas previously used in Warner’s “Up’s ‘n’ Downs”. Beauty wins by a neck, its head popping off upon a spring to round the stretch just in time. Songs: a number of Stephen Foster favorites, including “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Camptown Races”, and one we haven’t encountered before, “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming”, recorded by the Peerless Quartet on early Victor, John McCormack for Victrola red seal, the Neapolitan Trio on Victor black label, The Shannon Four on Silvertone (possibly drawn from Federal), Theo Karle on Brunswick, and in numerous Stephen Foster Medleys for various labels.

Next Time: 1935-36