review by Rachel Newstead
For the animated cartoon, sound arrived not with a bang, or a whimper, but a bark.
The scene: a movie palace of decades ago. The lights go down. On a grainy black-and-white screen, the audience sees a black cartoon dog in an iris shot a la the MGM lion. Several barks issue forth from the screen.
A series of mildly amusing gags follow: the dog enters his home, where he removes his coat and hat. Cartoon magic transforms a statue in the corner into a water pump, while the dog’s hat becomes a washbasin. His coat, which he has thrown over a chair, does double duty as a towel, then a tablecloth as he prepares to eat his meal. While sharpening his dentures, the dog pauses to replace a loosened tooth, knocking it back in place with a mallet to the tune of “The Anvil Chorus.”
Disdaining the meat he’s selected for his evening meal for the juicy bone inside, our canine friend doesn’t consume it, but pulls and stretches it like putty, until the soup bone resembles a trombone. (OK, you try coming up with a better pun in the wee hours of the morning.) He plays a few notes of a familiar tune–“My Old Kentucky Home”. Turning to the audience, with a voice not quite in synch with the mouth movements, he says, “Follow the ball, and join in, everybody!”
That audience didn’t know it then, but they’d just witnessed cinema history. The cartoon they saw–with sight and sound gags so typical of the “wide-eyed ’30s”–premiered not in the thirties, but 1926.
What about “Steamboat Willie”, you ask? Oh, yes–we all know the story, as Hollywood (and Walt Disney) had told it for decades:
From the moment Mickey Mouse appeared, and turned every available pot, pan, and farm animal in his reach into a handy musical instrument, the dying animated-cartoon industry was saved. Mickey, so we’re told, was animation’s Al Jolson, the star of the first sound cartoon, proving that sound was here to stay. In his wake, rival studios panicked, tripping over each other trying to acquire and understand a baffling new technology. Each tried to make its own “Steamboat Willie”, with results ranging from “fair” to “atrocious.”
Like all legends, this story has a grain of truth, but only just. It conveniently forgets that not only was “Steamboat Willie”not the first sound cartoon, it wasn’t even the first that year.
Some six weeks before Mickey made his November 18, 1928 debut, Paul Terry entered the running with his cartoon “Dinner Time.” Though to say it posed no threat to Disney’s status as the “first” is a vast overstatement–Disney himself dismissed it as “a lot of racket and nothing else.” Audiences agreed, and it was quickly forgotten.
Rather, the fatal blow to the Disney legend comes from a man who had in fact been making sound cartoons when few people had ever heard of Walt Disney–Max Fleischer.
It’s probably safe to say most people are unaware of Fleischer’s astounding achievement. Animator and historian Ray Pointer, however, isn’t “most people”: he brought six of these groundbreaking cartoons together in a DVD documentary/compilation called Ko-Ko-‘s Song Cartoons.
Using Lee DeForest’s Phonofilm system (a sound-on-film method devised by Theodore Case and E. I. Sponable, the future inventors of Fox’s Movietone), Fleischer made about a dozen such cartoons in two years, all part of his Song Car-Tune series. To add sound to such a series was not only logical but irresistible to the technically-minded Fleischer–sound shattered the barrier between film and audience, allowing for a more intimate, interactive experience. Audiences couldn’t help but sing along.
Of course, the whimsical and fluid animation helped; not content to merely have the audience “follow the bouncing ball”, the printed lyrics would grow, stretch and transform into animated representations of the song. In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp The Boys Are Marching, the words on screen transform into three hoboes (“tramps”, get it?). On the line “And beneath our country’s flag,” the word “flag” transforms into a literal flag emblazoned with a pawnbroker’s symbol (another visual joke, as pawnshops are likely to be frequented by tramps). While their first tentative efforts to synchronize speech were less than successful (the brief dialogue spoken by the dog in My Old Kentucky Home is about a half-second off) the “bouncing ball” sequences never missed a beat. The cartoons eventually reached a surprising degree of sophistication–the animators were soon able to move beyond old standards and match their drawings to the syncopated rhythm of Irving Berlin (When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam).
Rough spots aside, those experimental years provided the Fleischers with invaluable experience in working with sound, and what they learn would eventually enable them to produce the offbeat, ad-libbed “post-synch” tracks that characterized their best work in the thirties. Had they waited until everyone else had adopted the new technology, they might have been compelled to do things Disney’s way–and the hilarious sotto-voce muttering of the Popeye sound tracks might never have been.
For an old animation geek like me, with a lifelong fascination with vintage music and early talkies, Pointer’s compilation is the answer to a prayer. That said, I do have some minor complaints: I was disappointed to find that several of the cartoons, such as By The Light Of The Silvery Moon, were not shown in their entirety–that’s a minor quibble, as what I saw was charming enough. The $26.95 price tag is a bit steep for a scant 40 minutes, but considering the wealth of animation history contained within, I’d have gladly paid twice that much.
I was born far too late to be a part of that anonymous 1920’s audience as they saw history being made. But now, I at least have some idea how they felt.