A Musical Up-Roar 1935-36

1935-36 was pretty good for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They got good box office out of features such as “San Francisco” and “Broadway Melody of 1936.” They were producing their own short films, especially a series of “Pete Smith Specialties”. And the cartoon series was holding up nicely, with their trademark ootsy-cutesie style continuing, and branching out into “swing” cartoons in a series of episodes with black characters, all in Technicolor – with access to the three-strip stock.

Honeyland (10/19/35) – Everything is pleasant in the land of the honeybees. We find out just how the honey is made, by squads of industrious bees (including french chefs) in true Harman-Ising fashion. The Rhythmettes (frequently-heard vocal trio featured in many of these cartoons) get a lot to do, providing most of the exposition as to the manafacture and storage of the golden good stuff. A spider absconds with the hero’s girlfriend, leading to a fierce fight in a junk pile. The girl escapes, and telephones through bluebells to call out the swarm. The bees amass in response to police-call alert (one of the earliest films to use the “Calling All Cars”-style call, which was a signature for a West Coast radio series of the same name, sponsored by Rio Grande Gasoline) to drive the spider away in militaristic fashion.

Two original songs, “Honeyland” and “Busy Busy Bees”, comprise a large portion of the score. “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines” also is prominent, marking one of the first uses in the cartoon series of a recent MGM musical hit. (“Happy Days Are Here Again”, used in “The Chinese Nightingale”, was several years old at the time of its use.) The best-known recording of the song is by the star who introduced it, Bing Crosby on Brunswick, from the film “Going Hollywood”, a Cosmopolitan picture released by MGM. Other versions appeared by Enric Madriguera on royal blue Columbia, Leo Reisman on Victor, and Nye Mayhew on Vocalion. “Flight of the Bumblebee” also makes a prominent presence during the climactic fight and chase sequences. An early electric version appeared on Victrola by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Frederick Stock. Most of the early sales of the piece, however, later went to swing trumpet virtuoso Harry James, first for the Varsity/Hut/Elite labels, and then in a superior version on Columbia. Boogie Woogie piano stylist Jack Fina would also modify its tempo for a hit, first released with Freddy Martin and his orchestra on Victor as “Bumble Boogie”, and later re-recorded as a soundtrack for a segment of Walt Disney’s “Make Mine Music”. B. Bumble and the Stingers would revive the Bumble Boogie arrangement in the 1960’s for Rendezvous Records and on various reprint labels. Perhaps its last semi-hit readaptation would have been in brief quotes within the new “Green Hornet Theme” as performed by Al Hirt in the 1960’s television series and on RCA records.

Run, Sheep, Run (12/14/35) – Bosko, now being drawn as a realistic black caricature, is a shepherd, recommending that his sheep should stay home. One black sheep doesn’t want to follow that advice, and seeks to go off into the dappled woods, where there are “lions, bears, and tigers” (predicting “The Wizard of Oz” by several years!). The sheep also plays some “boy who cried wolf” gags, and Bruno also gets into the act, donning a fake bearskin. Bosko starts taking pot shots at the costumed Bruno, and then believes that he has accidentally sent Bruno to that great dog-catcher in the sky. The black sheep eventually comes back to the fold, and Bruno is alive and well, much to Bosko’s pleasure. Song: “Stay at Home”, an original song sung by the sheep flock.

Bottles (1/11/36) – A dark and stormy night. An old pharmacist is working late, concocting something he puts into a bottle decorated with skull and crossbones – the universal sign for poison. The pharmacist falls asleep at his table. The poison bottle comes to life, continually announcing “Death walks tonight.” From his built-in eye-dropper, he deposits a drop of the pharmacist’s concoction upon the old man’s head, reducing him to a few inches tall. Various bottles on the pharmacy shelves engage the old man in song and dance, including crying baby bottles, jugs of Scotch and rum, a hot water bottle, and a Meerschaum pipe. Some name brands even get lampooned with slight misspellings, including Listerine and Absorbine and Absorbine Jr. The poison bottle, with the help of a bottle of Witch Hazel, release the ghostly “Spirits of Ammonia, who capture the pharmacist and toss him into a series of distilling tubes and vials of potion concocted by the skeleton, using all the colors of the rainbow, including a death trap at the end or the tubes leaving the pharmacist dodging a submerged set of scissors in a bubbling brew. Of course, the pharmacist awakens just in time to find it all a dream, remarking “Well, bless my soul.” Songs: “We Don’t Feel Like Singing Hi-Dee” (an original wail for the crying baby bottles), “Little Brown Jug”, “When Yuba Plays the Rumba On the Tuba”, “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” (sung in basso by the hot water bottle), and the original “Spirits of Ammonia”.

The Early Bird and the Worm (2/8/36) – This is a chase cartoon, featuring an early bird with blue feathers, a worm, a rattlesnake, and two would-be chasers, in the form of feathered caricatures of Moran and Mack as the “Two Black Crows” of Columbia record fame (with a few direct quotes from the record routine included in the dialogue). Animation of the crows was provided by Jim Tyer, in a rare instance of meticulously animating on-model (which he probably hated doing). Song: “The Early Bird”, an original exposition song for The Rhythmettes.

The Old Mill Pond (3/7/36) – Plotless collection of caricatures of the best (and best known) black entertainers of the day – all cast as frogs. Included among the cast are frog versions of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Bill “Bohangles” Robinson, and Stepin Fetchit. When all put together, this explains why this film has not seen any great amount of television run. The orchestra manages to follow the music cues in the then-current swing style quite competently. Songs: “Kickin’ the Gong Around”, “Down By the Old Mill Stream”, “Is That Religion?” (verse only) a number recorded by Cab Caloway on Brunswick and Duke Ellington (under the pseudonym of Earl Jackson and his Musical Champions) on Melotone, and the well-known “Tiger Rag”. An original number, “Mister-Sippi Is My Name” is also performed by the Bojangles frog.

The Old House (5/2/36) – Another gothic cartoon from Harman and Ising. Bosko is telling ghost stories to Bruno, which fail to impress Honey, who “Boo”s them into Bruno’s doghouse. However, she herself winds up in terror while running an errand to Gradma’s, as she is forced to take refuge in an old deserted house as a storm breaks. Is the house deserted? Hard to tell, as various items within seem to come to life, resembling spooks. Bosko and Bruno respond to the screams, and get well mixed into the chaos. Thematic ideas of this story seem to form a blueprint for the later cartoons of other studios, including Porky Pig’s “It’s an Ill Wind”. Song: “There Ain’t No Spooks Nowhere”, an original sung by Honey.

The Pups’ Picnic (5/30/36) – A seemingly endless chase in the form of a fox hunt, with the restyled Two Little Pups (originally white in an earlier cartoon, but now in two different colors) embroiled in the midst of it. The pups’ mistress shoos them from the picnic spread when they get too nosy with the food, displacing them into the path of the ongoing hunters an an old lead dog, who nearly trample the pups under the horses’ hooves. When the family packs up the picnic and whistles for the pups to come on home, the pups are more than happy to regain the safety of the family car. However, they take the hunt with them, as the fox hitches a ride inside the car’s rear spare tire, with the hunters still in pursuit. Songs: “A Hunting We Will Go”, and “Fight On” (the football march of USC), recorded in 1930 by Harold Grayson and his Trojans on Victor. The USC Trojan Band issued a march medley on the scarce Hollywood label. Jimmie Grier combined the USC and UCLA songs for a medley on Decca. The Columbia Military Band issed a version circa 1940. A custom set by an unknown pressing plant also included the march, issued in 1953 as “Songs of Troy” by Tommy Walker and his Trojanaires.

To Spring (6/20/36) – A three-strip Technicolor palette-cleanser, showing again what Harman and Ising could do with the now available color process. It must have looked gorgeous on the big screen. William Hanna’s directorial debut. An old gnome rouses his fellow gnomes to get out their picks and shovels to dig up the minerals necessary for producing the colors of springtime. These colors are vibrant, filtered through various pipes and tubes to the accompaniment of pipe organ music. Old Man Winter turns up to try one last blow, claiming that the gnomes have started spring too soon. He ends up further complaining that he doesn’t have enough snow to put the kibosh on the gnomes’ s plans, as the gnomes battle back against an underground reverse flood, to force their mixtures up into the flowers and plants. The gnomes finally get the colors where they belong, in a display of green grass, flowers in blossom, and birds singing in the trees. Songs: two originals: “Time For Spring I Say”, in what the Germans call “Sprechstimme”, or talk-singing, and “Blow, Blow”, sung by Old Man Winter as he blows his icy winds.

Next time: 1936.