Thursday, February 7, 2008

Follow the Bouncing Ball - Sing-along Short Subjects

“Sing-Along” musicals are finding a wave of popularity as blockbuster type musicals such as “The Sound of Music” (1965) are being shown in theaters with the lyrics on screen to encourage the audience to sing with the film. It’s kitschy today, but in the early days of film sing-along shorts were extremely popular.

This form of entertainment actually has its roots in silent films, when the piano player or organist kept the audience entertained between reels by playing popular songs, with the lyrics being projected as slides on the screen. In 1924, Max Fleischer devised an early sound technology which allowed the music and the animated words to be put together on screen. Mr. Fleischer created the “bouncing ball” which flitted over each written syllable to encourage the audience to sing. Decades later, Mitch Miller’s “Sing Along With Mitch” television show used the same “follow the bouncing ball” gimmick.

Back in Fleischer’s day, famous popular entertainers would be featured in these sing-along shorts, like singer Rudy Vallee. Popeye also starred in a sing-along which featured his own theme song, “Popeye the Sailor Man.” Later on in 1942, after Paramount took over Fleischer’s studio, the sing-along cartoons were produced under the auspices of Famous Studios, and were called “Screen Songs.”

These cartoons of the late 1940s did not feature well-known performers or even popular cartoon stars like Popeye. There was no real plot or storyline to the cartoons, just a brief setting created to serve as a backdrop for the song.

In “The Golden State” (1947), a kind of animated travelogue on California history and tourist attractions leads us to sing “California, Here I Come.”

In “Winter Draws On” (1948), woodland creatures are beset upon by winter snows and the birds decide to fly south. One bird invites us to sing with her, “Alabamy Bound.”

In “Shortin’ Bread” (1950) the song is, of course, “Shortin’ Bread” as baked goods in a bakery come to life and go to a circus where a doughnut dives into a cup of coffee.

One is struck by the seemingly unending verses of these songs. By the cartoon’s finish, we have been drilled through several choruses and if you don’t know the song by heart when it’s over, you must be an idiot. It would be a miracle if you are not still singing it days later.

By the early 1950s the sing-alongs had apparently lost their appeal to younger generations, at least until Mitch Miller revived them on his show in 1961. Evidently, their current re-birth as additions to already well-known movie musicals must be some indication that the community aspect of going to the movies, in the form of group singing, is still a draw.

Here is “The Emerald Isle” (1949), a parody of a travelogue on Ireland featuring the song, “McNamara’s Band.” Enjoy. And don’t forget to sing.

For more on Max Fleischer’s innovations in sing-along cartoons, have a look this website.

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