Tuesday 30 May 2023

I'll Have the Chicken Chevalier

Ub Iwerks’ ComiColor cartoons were supposed to be based on fairy tales, nursery rhymes and children’s classics but, despite that, finding good gags for a story line seemed to have been a real problem for the studio’s writers.

Let’s look at Old Mother Hubbard (1935). Once you get past enacting the famous six rhyming lines, then how do you fill the screen time? Being 1935, everyone was imitating Disney, so Carl Stalling filled the soundtrack with original songs that kind of told the story, like an operetta.

But gags?


Old Mother Hubbard’s poor dog ended up in the King’s kitchen and started chowing down on a roast chicken. The cook delivered a platter to the King, removed the cover and—why, it’s the dog with his head buried in the bird.

The King (who has no neck) thinks it’s funny. I’ll bet theatre audiences didn’t.

The dog tries to remove the chicken from his head. Stray dogs jump through a window and join in. No, we haven’t hit the funny part yet.

The strays have eaten the meat off the chicken. The dog finally shakes the bones off his head. They reform into a chicken skeleton. And—it’s alive! You’re yucking it up now, right?

The bird gives the dog the butt-bird then throws a spittoon at his head. Fuh-nee!

The spittoon crushes into something that’s supposed to resemble a straw hat. The dog then develops a thick lower lip and starts to do the worst Maurice Chevalier impression in history. It’s like the voice actor had never heard a French accent before. It truly is stupefyingly inept.

However the stiffly-animated king (where are Irv Spence and Dick Bickenbach when you need them?) thinks it’s great and all’s well for Mother Hubbard, the King and the dog at the end, who dance and reprise the song “Cheer Up.” In case you want to sing along the next time you watch the cartoon, the lyrics go:

Cheer up!
Why do you look so sad and grumpy?
Cheer up!
Why do you sigh?

Cheer up!
Your road of life is not so bumpy.
Cheer up!
Take it in high.

Why do you sit around so humble,
Mumble, jumble, groan and grumble?

Cheer up!
A king should sing
For that will bring
A smile. Be a regular guy!

Carl Stalling’s score and arrangements are actually pretty solid (he gets screen credit). He even incorporates a minor-key version of the aforementioned melody. Within a year, the ComiColors were finished and Stalling would move to Leon Schlesinger and lasting fame.


  1. I think the only Mother Hubbard cartoon made during the Golden Age that was really funny is the gag from Freleng's Foney Fables (1942). The Color Rhapsody Mother Hubba-Hubba-Hubbard (1947) is just as dire; I think the only thing I find funny about that one is the name.

  2. There is also Hep Mother Hubbard (1956), made at Terrytoons just before Gene Deitch arrived to the studio. It is just as dull and bland as nearly all the stuff Paul Terry had been making since the 1930s, proving that his cartoons were in awful need of a long-delayed renewal.

  3. I recall that the trailer for the Mr. Bean movie showed a scene of Rowan Atkinson with his head stuck inside a large roast turkey. Evidently there are connoisseurs of physical comedy who find that sort of thing amusing.

    The writer of the liner notes for the CARTOONS THAT TIME FORGOT video collection also accused the dog of doing "the worst Maurice Chevalier impression in history." But then you've never heard me sing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls". Some people just can't do accents. I don't even do my own very well.

    "Cheer Up!" is very closely modeled on "Mimi", which Chevalier sang to Jeanette MacDonald in the 1932 film musical "Love Me Tonight" and became a signature tune for the man. With different lyrics, it was used as the theme song for several late Betty Boop cartoons.

    "Cheer Up!" is also one of the great cartoon songs to sing if you want to annoy someone with a hangover, the others being "It's a Goody Good Morning (from "Pinocchio in Outer Space") and the ever-popular "Start the Day with a Song".

  4. Tumbling from M-G-M with Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper to states-rights distribution for his Comicolor cartoons must have been quite a blow to Iwerks. Like the rest of his studio's output, the Comicolors are largely unfunny and maddeningly slow..