Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Torch Song Celebrities

At one time or another in the 1930s, I’m sure every cartoon studio on the West Coast featured an all-star short with celebrity caricatures. They were fairly crude in the early years and became better drawn and funnier toward the end of the decade.

Here are some offered by the crew working under director Tom Palmer in the Warner’s cartoon “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song.” It doesn’t become a celebrity caricature cartoon until about halfway through. I’ve always wondered how this cartoon was constructed. Either they couldn’t come up with enough celebrity gags so they padded with other ones, or someone came up with one star-parody and Palmer decided to fill the rest of the time with them. In fairness to the always-maligned Palmer, the studio staff were all brand new and working together for the first time, so they hadn’t quite jelled.

There are places the cartoon looks more like something from Ub Iwerks than Leon Schlesinger. Witness the bun-headed woman and the wonky door and window behind Ed Wynn.

Maybe Palmer thought “Yeah, she’s a caricature of the woman in those Flip the Frog cartoons. Those are movies, aren’t they?” By the way, you will never hear a worse Ed Wynn impression than in this cartoon.

And what’s with the seven Earths anyway? Okay, let’s get to a few of the caricatures.

George Bernard Shaw. He got bashed a lot in the U.S. about this time for his decided preference of the Soviet Union style of government over America’s. The metaphor of Shaw battling the world and losing (and his egotism) wouldn’t have been lost on movie audiences of the day.

Bing Crosby. His limbs move like tubes of putty in this scene. Dreadful.

Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell in “Footlight Parade,” a 1933 Warner Bros. feature. If there was an orange in the scene, I’d say it was Mae Clarke. The studio’s female leads all have the same just-stepped-out-of-a-chorus-line look.

Ben Bernie. He’s animated with his face behind the microphone. Fine direction there, Tom. Someone hire Friz Freleng, quick.

Comedians Wheeler and Woolsey in “So This is Africa,” a 1933 Columbia feature.

Greta Garbo. You’ll note the radio station in this cartoon has abruptly become KFWB. The station actually exists and was owned by Warner Bros. when the cartoon was made.

Zasu Pitts. The solo animation of her looks like it was shot either at a different time or by a different cameraman. It’s muddier looking than the rest of the cartoon.

Mae West. It’s before the Production Code change, so she jiggles. Just not well in this cartoon.

I’d say these were the Boswell Sisters except any number of women in the ‘30s had the same generic hairstyle.

Jack King is the only credited animator here. He was a caricaturist and I suspect he designed the celebrities in this cartoon. He became a director as soon as Schlesinger showed Palmer the door after this one.


  1. Yeah this was a dumb one (the 7 earths bugged me too).

    Just noticed there's an ABC Radio News tab at the bottom of this blog, never saw that before.

  2. It's a fascinating cartoon mainly because of what the Warner Bros. studio was to become in part because this short was such a train wreck, and the fact that the cartoon doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, other than a bunch of strung-together gags with radio as the only link.

    And as you noted, the drawing style here (and on "Buddy's Day Out") doesn't even look like a cartoon from the studio -- the safecracker does look a bit like the bad guy who would show up in the early Buddy cartoons, so that could be one of the spots where Friz came in and 'punched-up' the short to the point where Leon would accept it (meanwhile, from a trivia standpoint, the cartoon was the first Merrie Melodie to use "That's All, Folks!" as the end tag, so I suppose that was something Tom Palmer got right).

  3. Palmer went on to work with Burt Gillett at Van Beuren - that must have been fun...

  4. They'd worked together at Disney so I suspect they got along. Palmer was there until Van Beuren shut down, I believe.

  5. Earl Duvall actually replaced Tom Palmer, not Friz.