We're in the process of reviewing and selecting the very best in the sing-along series genre, where high quality original 16 or 35 mm film prints exist and are suitable for transfer to HD.
Here Ron shares some of his original research on the topic and spotlights a few Bouncing Ball treasures we hope to include in the sequel Matinee at the Bijou series to be hosted by the legendary Debbie Reynolds.
Audience sing-alongs to words projected on a screen go back before 1900 -- when magic lanterns were used in vaudeville shows. The famous "Bouncing Ball" debuted in 1924 in the Max Fleischer Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune Oh Mabel.
1939 is often considered Hollywood’s peak year. Theaters were packed for the inexpensive escape movies offered during the war years, when group singing further helped unite audiences. The cheaper to produce live-action (or little action!) sing-alongs did continue with words on the screen for audiences to follow.
Only the song cartoons went on hiatus. It may have had to do with the faltering Fleischer studio that was in limbo and finally sold to Paramount in 1942. Only Superman and Popeye cartoons were produced that year by the new Famous Studios.
In 1947, Famous Studios revived the Screen Songs as an all-animated series in color. The earliest color Screen Song was part of the Noveltoon series -- When G.I. Johnny Comes Home -- and was released on February 2, 1945. The Wikipedia entry lists the Max Fleischer sound Screen Songs, plus 38 Paramount/Famous Studios cartoons from 1947 to 1951 in the official “Screen Songs” series. Paramount also made a few before and after these 38.
One stork turns into a white ball -- the return of the Bouncing Ball after many years and (presumably) serving in the war itself! The optimistic song harks back to the Civil War:
“When John-ny comes march-ing home again, hur-rah, hur-rah.
We’ll give him a hear-ty wel-come then, Hur-rah, Hur-rah.
The men will cheer, the boys will shout.
The la-dies they will all turn out.
And we’ll all feel gay, When John-ny comes march-in’ home.”
Multi-syllable words are hyphenated so the ball can hop on each and aid the singing.
This brilliant concept for whipping up audience participation worked well, but the most creative animation was yet to come. After a few minutes of only words on the screen, a soldier replaces the ball to dance across the words, which turn into animated bakery goods, a rifle, planes, choir boys, football players, or whatever is referred to in the song. The tradition of a singing contest and animated-words finale harks back to the Fleischer silent days and ahead to all Screen Songs to come.
"Start the day with a song, and sing the whole day through.
Even while you're busy working, do just like the birdies do.
Though the day may be long, you never will go wrong.
Off key, on key, any old key, just start the day with a song!"
The five early Screen Songs and 29 of the 38 in the Wikipedia list are in the public domain, and so can be found on DVDs and many can be viewed at Youtube. It is interesting to note that many songs date back well before 1923 and are also in the public domain:
Old MacDonald Had a Farm - Title Song, of course (c. 1917)
Base Brawl - "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1908)
Short-nin Bread - Title Song (1900)
The Big Flame-Up - "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" (1896)
Helter Swelter - "In the Good Old Summer Time" (1902)
Comin' Round the Mountain - Title Song (late 1800s)
Marriage Wows - "For Me and My Gal" (1917)
Little Brown Jug - "Little Brown Jug" (1869)
The Golden State - "California Here I Come" (1921)
Winter Draws On - "I'm Alabama Bound" (1909)
Snow Foolin' - "Jingle Bells" (1857)
When G.I. Johnny Comes Home - "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" (1863)
Toys Will Be Toys - "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" (1911), and others.
Here is a list of the “extra” Bouncing Ball cartoons that are not on the Wikipedia list:
Vegetable Vaudeville (1951) -- “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” (1922)
Snooze Reel (1951) -- “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” (1942)
Off We Glow (1952) -- “Glow Worm” (1902)
Fun at the Fair (1952) -- “Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” (1905)
Dizzy Dinosaurs (1952) -- “Sweet Adeline” (1903)
Gag and Baggage (1952) -- “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (1894)
Forest Fantasy (1952) -- ?
Hysterical History (1953) -- “Yankee Doodle Boy” (1904)
Philharmaniacs (1953) -- “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911)
Aero-Nutics (1953) -- “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine” (1910)
Invention Convention (1953) -- “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (1910)
No Place Like Rome (1953) -- “Oh, Mama,” aka. “The Butcher Song.” (?)
Candy Cabaret (1954) -- “Ain’t She Sweet” (1927)
Hobo’s Holiday (1963) -- “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (1928)
Candy Cabaret, directed by Dave Tendlar (who animated Betty Boop for Fleischer in 1932), ranks among the best Screen Songs. You can enjoy it here. A sugar cube leads the orchestra in a night club where the patrons, band and dancers are pieces of candy. The girl singer is a cute candy heart, and the catchy song is a real crowd pleaser.
Hobo's Holiday, directed by Seymour Knietel (who worked on the first Popeye cartoon in 1933), is lame at best. The animation is "limited" like the Popeye, Casper and Beetle Bailey TV cartoons that Kneitel also directed. The single gag involves a hobo stealing a fresh pie from a bulldog. "Big Rock Candy Mountain," about a paradise for hobos, is fun to sing but many audiences may have gaped in silence. The tradition of the hobo hopping on words that turn into images persists. You can pay a fond farewell to the Bouncing Ball here.
And thus ends the theatrical sing-along cartoon, a cornucopia of the most popular American songs dating back into the 1800s. Perhaps the lower theater attendance caused by television in the mid 1950s dimmed the enthusiasm of smaller audiences to sing out loud.
Several images for this piece came from Jerry Beck's superb Cartoon Research site, in particular from this page about the original titles on Paramount/Famous Studios cartoons.
Ron Hall also contributed to a previous Bijou Blog post about the theatrical bouncing ball phenomenon. Check out "The Famous Bouncing Ball" to learn more about the early history of the sing-along genre.
Bijou friend and colleague Ray Pointer also wrote a piece for The Bijou Blog about the many innovations of pioneer genius Max Fleischer in "Industrial Strength Max"
Here for your enjoyment is the first color Bouncing Ball cartoon in Paramount’s Noveltoon series: When G.I. Johnny Comes Home.