Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Start Your Day With A Song

Lately, Bijou Executive Producer and Festival Films founder/proprietor Ron Hall has been watching a lot of Paramount Screen Songs that  feature the Famous Bouncing Ball.

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.

Fleischer made many sing-alongs in the silent era with a seamless transition into sound that produced 108 cartoons from 1929 through 1938, plus the offbeat Let’s Sing with Popeye (1934) that added words to a segment of the first Popeye cartoon.

One wonders why these immensely popular sing-along cartoons ended in 1938, especially when the late-1940s revival found just as much favor with audiences.

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.

When G.I. Johnny Comes Home is a template for the ones to come. “Peace” rises above a battle field. Hundreds of troop ships sail home while the Statue of Liberty salutes. Thousands of soldiers unload, only to get back on the same ships now labeled “World Tours.” A draft board fortifies itself with a moat and guns. A soldier draws up a map of where his old girl friends live. A private drives a general to an office building; they emerge with roles shifted. A baby carriage factory reopens. Storks go into action. One rapid fire gag follows another, all on the theme of returning soldiers in 1945.

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.

“Now Everybody Sing” leads into a repeat for the entire audience. Then the Girls are encouraged to sing alone. “Now Only the Boys.” “How About a Contest?”

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.

Paramount produced four other Noveltoon sing-alongs before naming the series "Screen Songs." Old MacDonald Had a Farm (1945) features the obvious title song. The Goal Rush (1946) is themed to college football games with three separate “fight songs” for Army, Navy and Notre Dame. Madhattan Island (1947) has spot gags about New York City, followed by the two popular songs "Penthouse Serenade" and "42nd Street.” The Mild West (1947), which was featured on the original Matinee at the Bijou series, continues the formula of blackout gags -- the smoke clears on a bronco rider actually in a jeep, rope twirling turns into the outline of a sexy cowgirl, a shot quarter turns into five nickels -- until the welcome singing of “I’m an Old Cow Hand.”

The 1947 cartoon The Wee Men has a song over the credits by Buddy Kaye and Dick Manning called “Start the Day with a Song.” With a little re-writing of the words but not the tune, this became the theme song for the Screen Songs series that started with The Circus Comes to Clown in 1947. The catchy tune plays over the title screen shown here and the opening credits:

"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.

After 43 color Screen Songs, why did they end suddenly in 1951? Well, it turns out they didn't end! Paramount kept right on making bouncing ball cartoons from 1951 as Kartune Musical Shorts through 1953, and as one-shot Noveltoons in 1954 (Candy Cabaret) and 1963 (Hobo's Holiday). The title change remains a minor mystery, but the format was the same.

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.

A similar series, “Sing Along with Mitch,” ran on TV from 1961 until it was canceled in 1964 -- another victim of changing musical tastes. In any event, the Famous Bouncing Ball retired from the big screen after Hobo’s Holiday.

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.


JPuzzleWhiz said...

The songs you say weren't included in Wikipedia's listings were shown under the "Harveytoons" banner, but you left out one: "Drippy Mississippi," which featured the song "M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I". Also, the song that you couldn't apparently remember for the cartoon "Forest Fantasy," was "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon" (not to be confused with Farm Foolery's "Shine On Harvest Moon").

Unknown said...

Introduced in 1924 the first talkie cartoon long before Karaoke CD player music cassette & 8 track tape now comes the animated song along music created by Dave Fleischer creator of Famous Studios who made the animated film series Popeye Casper and other animated shows now aired on television and theaters released by Dreamworks Animation. Thanks for the information. From:Wayne