Saturday, 27 October 2018

Boogie Woogie Calker

Walter Lantz turned out some pretty good cartoons in the 1940s.

He had some extremely talented artists. He had a versatile musical director/arranger. Together, they combined for two different musical series in that decade.

While the Musical Miniatures had some fine animation timed very well to classical music by director Dick Lundy, I may be more partial to the Swing Symphonies simply because I enjoy the boogie woogie and big band sounds put together by Darrell Calker and the musicians he was able to round up.

Lantz made 14 Swing Symphonies from 1941 to 1945 but actually had two precursors in that first year—Scrub Me Mamma With a Boogie Beat and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company “B”, which reused some animation from the first cartoon. The later received an Academy Award nomination. Interestingly, it was also profiled in Movie-Radio Guide of July 25, 1941 on its “Recommends” pages. It was rare a cartoon received that privilege, and considering Walt Disney’s towering reputation, it’s odd a Lantz cartoon would be picked.

The story in this cartoon was credited to Bugs Hardaway and Lowell Elliot.

Variety announced on April 9, 1941: “Walter Lantz has bought the ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B’ number used in Universal’s ‘Buck Privates’, and will make an animated cartoon of the song for Universal release.” The film was released on September 1, 1941. The following January 27th, Variety reported the cartoon had been nominated for an Oscar along with “two Walt Disney cartoons yet to be named.” It was one of those Disney cartoons that landed the prize (Lend a Paw).

The animation credits in the cartoon go to Alex Lovy and La Verne Harding. Lovy was credited as an animator in each cartoon around this time, and it’s possible he could have been helping Lantz supervise this one, much like the first-named animator in the Fleischer cartoons was a head animator/director. Hal Mason, Les Kline, Ralph Somerville and Frank Tipper were also on Lantz’s animation staff about this time. They weren’t quite the A-listers that Lantz had later in the decade but they were capable.

About the only place this cartoon falls down is in the gagging department. Hardaway’s sense of humour generally varied from lame puns he thought were really funny, to the obvious, to the surreal. A few years after this cartoon appeared, Shamus Culhane arrived at Lantz to direct and immediately battled Hardaway’s unsophisticated sense of humour. Today, of course, this cartoon has the added handicap of stereotypical, minstrelsy black caricatures (and dice and razor jokes) which leave some people horrified. Incidentally, the Norfolk New Guide and Journal, a black newspaper, published a feature article on January 24, 1942 about Ann Rhodelle Johnson of the Lichtman Theatres, the “only colored woman short subjects booker for a major theatre chain in this country” who booked Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy into 24 houses to play with Murder By Invitation.

At least Hardaway didn’t use his flat, inexpressive voice like he did for Woody Woodpecker. Danny Webb plays the sergeant and an African-American was selected to play the title character.

Some contemporary reviews talk about this cartoon appealing to young people because of the music. Whatever the case, Lantz decided swing cartoons were the way to go. Variety announced the new series in its November 6, 1941 issue, and that 21 Dollars a Day would be released around Christmas time. That’s even though the Swing Symphonies cost extra to make. Knock Knock was made in 1940 for $8,500. Scrub Me Mama cost $10,000 (perhaps that’s why Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy reused animation—to save money) and others went up to $12,000 in 1942.

“I think I made some of the most interesting musical cartoons ever made,” Lantz told author Joe Adamson. More interesting than the Screen Songs at Fleischers? Or Leon Schlesinger’s characters bopping along to those great tunes from Warners musicals of the ‘30s? Whatever the case, Darrell Calker and the rest of the Lantz crew did fill soundtracks of the studio’s cartoons of the ‘40s with some great music.

1 comment:

  1. On CBS Sunday Morning today, blackface was reported done by BLACKS; I wonder if THAT was supposed to make their REAL faces more cartoony.