Saturday, 18 June 2016

Any Bonds Today?

Porky Pig may have been the star of the Looney Tunes cartoon series but it’s clear that about a year after being created, Bugs Bunny had become the number one box office attraction from the Leon Schlesinger studio.

Bugs made his debut in “A Wild Hare” in July 1940. 16 months later, he got the only billing and the feature role in Schlesinger’s free gift to the war effort, the short cartoon “Any Bonds Today.”

On the same day as unionised workers at Schlesinger (led by Chuck Jones on the union side) reached a three-year contract with the studio, Daily Variety reported:
Washington, May 27. — Irving Berlin, whose 'God Bless America' has become the ex-officio national anthem, has been enlisted by both the Treasury and War Departments to write patriotic theme for Americanism. He has contributed 'Any Bonds Today' for Secretary Morgenthau's Defense Bond cause and 'Arms for the Love of America' for the Ordnance Department. Both will be handled by the Government as non-profit, non-commercial ballyhoo for a defense pep-up.
It would appear Leon himself came up with the idea to set Berlin’s song to animation. And we know when the film was in production. Variety on November 18th said:
LEON SCHLESINGER'S Cartoon creation, Bugs Bunny, appearing in 'Merrie Melodies' and 'Looney Tunes', will sing the song, 'Any Bonds Today?' in a special one-reel cartoon which the producer is readying as his Christmas donation to the government in the defense savings drive. Schlesinger volunteered to make the short subject to promote holiday sales of defense bonds, and has received acceptance of proffer from Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Calling a halt on all his other activities, Schlesinger has put his entire staff of 200 to work on the Technicolor graphic to insure release before Christmas. Plan is to distribute 7,500 prints to cover entire United States in one week. Vitaphone Recording Orchestra will obbligato.
Then on December 16th, Variety reported:
LEON SCHLESINGER and his staff of 200 cartoonists yesterday finished in record time Schlesinger's contribution to the Defense Savings drive, a short-reeler called 'Any Bonds Today', featuring Bugs Bunny. Special Technicolor cartoon, contributed to the government, was completed in three weeks and prints were speeded to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau for distribution before the Christmas holidays.
The studio had four units but, for reasons lost to time, Bob Clampett’s unit was picked to animate this little cartoon. Clampett had been put in charge of Tex Avery’s old unit about four months earlier after directing black-and-white cartoons for several years with a different team of animators. Bugs’ dance sequence is terrific. High-stepping, hand-wagging, finger-waving, there are some great poses. Here are just some of them. Check out the finger movements. Is this the work of Virgil Ross? Is there a change of animators during the dance?



Bugs is joined by pantsless Porky and Elmer Fudd in the closing. Mel Blanc is both Bugs and Porky, Arthur Q. Bryan is Fudd and the two actors harmonise very well.



Whether the short made it into theatres before Christmas, I don’t know. But the Motion Picture Herald had reaction from two exhibitors in 1942.
ANY BONDS TODAY: Victory Films— Three-minute cartoon furnished free to help sell bonds. It's worth running. — E. M. Freiburger, Paramount Theatre, Dewey, Okla. Small town patronage.

ANY BONDS TODAY: Official U. S. Victory Films — Bugs Bunny sings the song as a plug to sell stamps and bonds. It is good, but disappointing to Bugs Bunny fans, who expect it to be a regular cartoon when it only last two minutes. Best idea is to tack it on to the end of a regular Bugs Bunny release. That's what I would do. — W. Varick Nevins III, Alfred Co-Op Theatre, Alfred, N.Y. Small college town patronage.
Perhaps the short might not have been so short if it had been made after the attack on Pearl Harbor. That horrific event which pushed the U.S. full-throttle into the war inspired Irving Berlin to write additional lyrics which were introduced by Bing Crosby on his Kraft Music Hall show of December 11th:

Bonds for the planes
And bonds for the tanks
And bonds for the ships,
Meaning: “Here Come the Yanks.”
Bonds for the guns.
The shot and the shell,
And bonds to avenge
All the heroes who fell.
They died in the night
With no chance to fight.
But wait 'til the final text—
We’ll wipe Mr. Jap
From the face of the map,
And Germany has to be next.


The cartoon resulted in a letter of commendation from Secretary Morgenthau on August 25, 1942 and Bugs was later made an honorary sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps (Washington Post, Dec. 11, 1942). But it receives jitters and even criticism today. Not because of stereotyped depictions of the enemy; unlike other cartoons, the Allies’ opponants aren’t shown. But because of Al Jolson. Rather Bugs’ impression of him.



I’m not going to get into a long dissertation on the subject of race and popular culture, other than to provide background to readers who don’t know that Jolson was a hugely popular entertainer whose act, in vaudeville and on film, included performing songs while in blackface. I am going to—and this is the purpose of the post in the first place—direct you to a piece on Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research blog by Christopher P. Lehman, author of The Colored Cartoon. Mr. Lehman republishes a letter he received from Martha Sigall, one of the most delightful and genuine employees of the Schlesinger studio, who worked there when “Any Bonds Today” was in production. Any comments about the studio’s history from the late Mrs. Sigall should be lapped up, and I hope you click on this link and read what she had to say.

Now, if Leon had his staff animate to the song We’ve Got to Slap the Dirty Little Jap...

9 comments:

  1. Personally, I love this cartoon. It's not because of the blackface scene or anything, it's because I've got a real soft spot for all those World War II propaganda films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. That being said, who animated the Al Jolson impression?

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    1. I'll await Mark Kausler or someone more expert than I am to comment about that. I have a guess but I don't want to mislead anyone.

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    2. You're correct on Virgil Ross animating the dance sequence. Whenever Bugs spins -- which occurs twice -- it switches to Bob McKimson, when he tosses the war bonds out, and imitates Jolson.

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    3. Did Scribner do anything on this one? The last shot kind of looks like his Bugs.

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  2. I don't know about the song you mentioned at the end of this post, but if it's cringeworthy wartime propaganda you seek, look no further than Popeye in "You're a Sap Mr. Jap"...or don't, actually.

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  3. "Any Bonds Today?" is mentioned in today's Cartoon Research post:
    http://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/a-letter-from-martha-sigall/

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    1. Cool, I see you've already linked to it. (Try not to mind the comment from CR's resident troll "Öh.")

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  4. Fascinating subject. The longevity of Al Jolson's "Mammy" bit has always annoyed me if for no other reason than I know Jolson was capable of far more than that. It's like doing a Steve Martin bit by saying "Wild and crazy guy" for the billionth time. But, in showbiz you give the people what they want. And in the interest of selling war bonds, and building a patriotic image, Schlesinger used the tried and true to make sure it was hit.

    With that in mind, it's important to remember that Leon Schlesinger might've felt he owed an eternal debt of graditude to Al Jolson for the succcess of "The Jazz Singer," the film that gave us the "Mammy" bit and the world's first movie catch phrases. Schlesinger took a gamble on Vitaphone, the early sound system that made it possible for Jolson to sing on film. Without the success of "The Jazz Singer" Leon Schlesinger might not have been able to start an animation studio. Without Al Jolson and "Mammy," there would be no Bugs Bunny.

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    1. Agreed, Steve. I didn't get into it above because I wanted to keep it within the cartoon realm, but the song was already a hit in June, with Barry Wood and others recording it. Arrangements were made for it to be allowed to be played on radio, bypassing the dispute ASCAP had with the broadcasting industry. So the song was still current when the decision was made to come up with the cartoon.
      "Mammy"'s longevity can be partly attributed to (a) the endless rerun of old cartoons and (b) Jolson's comeback after the war with the release of 'The Jolson Story.' He described himself as a sentimental singer so on his Kraft radio show he dredged up all his worn-out old songs -- "Rating For the Robert E. Lee," "Swanee," "California, Here I Come," and every mother/mammy song he ever did.

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