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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The First Merrie Melodies!

Lady Play Your Mandolin a WB Cartoon Landmark

Historical because it's the first Merrie Melodies cartoon, but according to Thunderbean DVD program notes, Mandolin did not make the cut when pre-48 WB cartoons went to TV through AAP. Guess I never saw it on Saturday morning then, and indeed, this Attack Of The 30's Characters view (great disc, by the way) may have been my first. Well-known is fact that the Melodies group, at least early ones, played stalking horse for sheet music and recording sales, WB having bought up song publishers among talkie-enabled splurge. Initial shorts followed Fleischer example by using name bands, thus "Abe Lyman's Brunswick Recording Orchestra" credited on main titles (Brunswick another Warners acquisition). Lady Play Your Mandolin and ones to come would be seven minutes, or thereabout, of endless variations on a tune, sweetened with visual gags. Watching these on Saturday morning loop basis made musicologists of a generation, so that songs our parents knew became as familiar to us. It was a happy, in fact Merrie, way of bridging folks born decades apart.

Lady Play Your Mandolin was a first vehicle for "Foxy," a woebegone character Warners retired after two more subjects. He's just Mickey Mouse with pointy ears and bushy tail, but acquits well as a hero interchangeable with Bosko from the Looney Tunes unit. It's not every cartoon where you see a character submerged in content of a filled spittoon. Ever notice how disgusting razzberries sound when issued forth by an early 30's cartoon character? (later Code enforcement would stop them altogether) Lady Play Your Mandolin is to this extent more Fleischer-ish than Disney-like, being rude and celebratory of excess alcohol and its effect. Occurs to me that movies reveled in hooch for viewership that couldn't, thanks to prohibition. Was Foxy a proxy for thirsty patrons drinking vicariously through him? There's a Mandolin moment where he upends a mug of beer, empties same, then addresses the camera close-up with a lip-smacking ahhh ..., as if to say, There's all the booze we want in cartoon land, but you can't have any. Make no mistake, these early animateds were made for adults --- they were ones after all paying for tickets. It would take TV to kid-purify cartoons.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Guild Films got the B&W Looney Tunes (Bosko, Buddy, Porky, Daffy); A.A.P. promoted the pre-'48 color titles of both Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Did the B&W Melodies EVER make it to TV in the '50s or '60s? If so, who distributed them? There certainly seem to be a few old 16mm prints around, at least of the Harman-Ising batch, but all contain original opening titles, unlike their Looney brethren, and are sans any "a.a.p." prelude. I never saw any of them on TV when growing up in the NYC metro area during the '60s, whereas the B&W Tunes were on the tube until around 1967, courtesy of Seven Arts.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"You are not going to show those old things, are you?" Friz Freleng said when on Toronto as my guest in 1980 for a symposium on his career.

"Wait until you see how they go over," I told him.

There is a natural tendency we all share to dismiss our first work.

Most people look at animated cartoons from the fan's perspective which is always a very limited one.

For myself I have always wanted to see as much as possible. As a kid when watching cartoons on TV I particularly did not care for old 1930's Terrytoons (not alone there).

Once I began to program mammoth four hour retrospectives however I found a renewed interest in Terry's work both on the part of myself and my largely non-film buff audience.

In fact,the audience is the only real teacher. I had a black and white Terrytoon called "JUST ASK JUPITER" that did not strike me as particularly impressive. It was a huge hit with audiences when I began screening it.

From personal experience I found many cartoons that writers on the subject had called duds to be huge hits with more than one audience.

This happened when I began to program four hour animation marathons. Before that I stuck to those films writers on the subject praised. When organizing four hour retrospectives I said to myself,"How much harm can one poor cartoon do?"

To my surprise these "poor" cartoons were often huge crowd pleasers. That was when my learning really began. I threw out all my old rules and started fresh.

"LADY,PLAY YOUR MANDOLIN" is one of my favorites. Steve is doing a great job with THUNDERBEAN.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

This one can be found on Warners' DVD and Blu-ray versions of LITTLE CAESAR.

6:11 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Had not noticed that, Lou. Thanks for the tip.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Great comment, Reg and I think the same goes for live-action genre films - especially comedies, horror films, mysteries, film noirs and "series" films.

Laurel & Hardy's THE BIG NOISE is a prime example - reviled by critics for years but play this for an audience packed with adults and kids who've never read the diatribes against it and see what happens...

6:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson covers the major studios and their use of music in cartoons --- some great observations, Donald!:

It was strange to slowly realize so many of those catchy tunes originated elsewhere.

Just a couple of years ago I picked up an Al Jolson CD -- there is such a thing -- and discovered "I Love to Singa" was actually one of his movie songs, a duet with Cab Calloway. For other songs -- especially those written for Busby Berkeley musicals -- the recognition came somewhat sooner, with college film showings and late-night classic movies.

Some songs, as you note, didn't have movie origins. Did Eubie Blake ever express his thoughts on Daffy Duck or Mama Bear rendering "I'm Just Wild About Harry"? I certainly hope he got some royalties out of the heavy usage there and elsewhere.

Non-Tom & Jerry MGM shorts were late in coming to local stations I could get. By then I'd seen a few MGM musicals and could instantly recognize "If I Only Had a Brain" and "The Trolley Song". I found myself wondering "Can they do that?" Mostly what registered was the plush MGM sound, flavored with big band or Gershwin-style orchestrations courtesy (see Leonard Maltin's page for a Tom & Jerry symphonic suite, courtesy of the BBC).

Famous/Paramount would occasionally dip into Bing Crosby numbers and the like, but that seemed to fade away in favor of pure overworked stock music. "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day" cropped up a lot, the last bit of "Gulliver's Travels" to survive the post-Fleischer years. So far as I know, no other songs from either Fleischer feature were recycled (except in the shorts featuring Gabby and other Gulliver spinoffs). Even the Screen Songs tended to be relics, if not PD then old enough to be cheap.

Disney, starting without a big studio catalogue, stuck to public domain classics and original tunes (occasionally slipping in something that was clearly modeled on a specific number, like Raymond Scott's "Toy Trumpet"). Once they actually had a catalogue of songs from their own features, they seemed reluctant to tap into those for the shorts. Pluto lip-synced a ballad from "Three Caballeros" in a Sinatra parody; think Donald Duck sang "Wish Upon a Star" in a similar voice when an accident made him a crooner, but that was about it. On "Cock of the Walk" they used "The Carioca"; the DVD commentary indicates that happened when RKO was angling to distribute Disney product.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'm late to the conversation here, but I can tell you that I saw a lot of the early B&W Warner cartoons growing up. They ran on what was then the brand new ABC affiliate WTEV (Channel 6) in Rhode Island. I can't remember exactly what cartoons I saw, but what stuck out for me was that they all had the original Warner Bros./Vitaphone logo, which I had never seen before. It was like stepping into a time capsule.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I remember watching LADY, PLAY YOUR MANDOLIN on a local channel`s cartoon show called CARTOON CARNIVAL. It was on from noon to 12:30 mon to fri in the late 50s well into the mid 60s. They showed most of the pre-1948 WBs. I saw MANDOLIN on there many times.


6:49 PM  

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