Sunday, May 21, 2017

Serenade To A Duck

Having been propelled (with supercharged turbo jets) by ridiculous current events to the more benign ridiculousness of ducks, vaudeville, cartoons, 1930's movies and radio, we kick off today's post with Gus Visser and his singing duck.

Of course, Daffy Duck was duckier, especially in this cartoon by Chuck Jones and his crew at Warner Brothers, You Were Never Duckier!

Duckiest of all, even more than the song I Think You're Ducky, was one of radio's biggest stars of the 1930's, comedian Joe Penner (1904-1941).

One may not know Penner's name, but certainly comedy and old time radio geeks are familiar with his distinctive voice and catchphrases: "Wanna buy a duck?", "Don't never doooooooo that" and "You naaaaaaasty man" in particular.

After appearing in vaudeville and a series of Vitaphone comedy shorts, Penner hit the big time with a guest appearance on Rudy Vallee's radio show on July 13, 1933. The comedian's catchphrases and duck were already cornerstones of his comedy. Three months later, Penner got his own show, the Baker's Broadcast, soon the biggest program on radio. Joe and his duck sidekick soon received the ultimate tribute, sendups in animated cartoons!

The rise to fame was so meteoric, Joe and duck sidekick Goo Goo soon inspired official toys.

Penner's success on radio got him signed to appear in movies produced by Paramount Pictures and RKO. The following musical interlude from College Rhythm, in which Joe serenades Goo Goo, is funny and oddly sweet at the same time; the character genuinely loves his feathered friend and that is what puts the scene over. That said, co-star Lyda Roberti is not exactly thrilled about getting thrown over for a duck!

This writer also finds Joe likable and weirdly endearing in his later films for RKO, especially The Day The Bookies Wept.

Along with The Ritz Brothers, Joe Penner remains a bit of a Rorschach test for comedy buffs. As is the case with silent movie comedians Larry Semon and Harry Langdon (mostly due to their not-of-this-earth appearance), he often gets singled out even among comedy fans with a "I don't find him funny at all" reaction. Those who do like him (this writer included) are hard-pressed to explain just why Penner gets laughs, and for that matter what the heck was funny about another Rorschach test comedian from five decades later, Paul Reubens a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman.

As the Ritz Brothers, led by rubber-faced Harry, get laughs, not with rapid-fire jokes and Groucho Marx style witty repartee, but with the way they dance and move, Penner's humor was in his sound and delivery. This was also also the case with such popular contemporaries on radio as Jack "Baron Munchausen" Pearl, Harry Einstein, a.k.a. Parkyakarkus and Ed Wynn. Humor soon changed dramatically with the rise of Bob Hope, the beginnings of standup comedy, Jack Benny's character-based radio program (which had just started two years earlier) and the sophisticated and satiric Fred Allen. . . to some degree leaving even talented comics who relied on catchphrases in the dust.

It is just as well that Penner's duck-lovin' innocent did NOT meet the anarchic and up-to-no-good duo of Bobby Clark & Paul McCullough, as demonstrated this closing scene from Everything's Ducky (1934), which cements Clark & McCullough's rep as the darkest and disturbing of movie comedy teams in talkies, as Kalem's grotesque "Ham & Bud" easily take the "most despicable duo" crown in silents.

While Penner's comic approach is not easy to describe or categorize, this writer finds the "wanna buy a duck" man, especially on the Baker's Broadcast series, quite funny in a musical sense, based in the sound and dynamics of his voice and offbeat nuances of his comic timing. For a couple of years, Joe was a smash hit, cheering up radio audiences across the country during the worst days of the Great Depression. For more on Joe Penner, check out The Joe Penner Project.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Much Ado About Cartoon Music

Still in the vise-like grip of Writer's Block and, like SCTV's Bob & Doug McKenzie on Canadian Corner/Great White North, stuck for a topic today, so - WHAMO - the toe-tapping tunes from the toons will be the subject for May 12 of misbegotten 2017!

The notion of writing a piece about "This Blog Loves The Hammond B-3" for an upcoming jazz-related post immediately tripped certain memories, but we're not talking Joey DeFrancesco, Milt Buckner, Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, Shirley Scott or Booker T. Jones here. We're talking made-for-TV cartoons featuring very odd organ music soundtracks. One this blogger always liked was Q.T. Hush.

We will go from the ridiculous to the sublime (although nothing involving the 1990's rock band Sublime) and nothing says sublime quite like the made-for-TV cartoons of Sam Singer Productions. Singer has been termed the Ed Wood of cartoons, but that may be giving him a tad too much credit. His studio's series included Pow Wow The Indian Boy, Courageous Cat, Sinbad, Jr. and the bad-beyond-belief Bucky & Pepito. . . all of which make Magilla Gorilla look like Fantasia.

The cheapest of these bottom-of-the barrel series - well, the cheapest that we know of - would be The Adventures of Paddy The Pelican.

At the same time when the likes of David Raksin, Gail Kubik, Boris Kremenliev and Phil Moore were composing and conducting ambitious original soundtracks for the artsy yet highly entertaining animation by United Productions of America (UPA), these Paddy the Pelican adventures redefine what cheap means: one poor bastard playing an organ in the background.

One case of a television cartoon in which an ultra-minimalistic music track works beautifully is Gene Deitch's Tom Terrific, originally a feature of CBS-TV's popular Captain Kangaroo show.

Less minimalist but extremely gratifying soundtrack music in TV-toons can be found, not surprisingly, in the blazing work of Jay Ward Productions. LOVE that original Rocky & His Friends theme by Dennis Farnon.

We especially have a soft spot for Stan Worth's opening theme from the Super Chicken cartoons.

The theatrical cartoons of the 1940's not made by Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM feature some very odd soundtracks. One of the oddest is in one of the oddest of all cartoons from the oddest of all cartoon studios, Screen Gems, the creepy Halloween opus The Fly In The Ointment, featuring a Leo Gorcey fly and a John Barrymore spider. The latter, voiced by John McLeish, stentorian narrator of Goofy "How-To" cartoons, plays a theater organ with none of The Phantom Of The Opera's formidable ability to terrify.

If asked to name a Screen Gems cartoon that is not so far off-the-rails as to not be entertaining, this blogger might choose the weirdly inspired Sherlock Holmes spoof, The Case Of The Screaming Bishop. While aware the "best bones of all go to Symphony Hall" running gag is a reference to a popular ad campaign of 1944 and makes no sense today, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog DON'T CARE. This Holmes & Watson sendup could only be better if there was a live-action cameo at the end by Louis Armstrong, "come and see Satchmo at Symphony Hall."

Even better than the wonderfully strange Case Of The Screaming Bishop was the 1942 MGM masterpiece by comic genius Tex Avery, Who Killed Who? Love that cheesy organ track, killer surprise ending and a main character patterned on ubiquitous character actor Fred Kelsey.

On the complete other side of this discussion, Scott Bradley leads the fantastic MGM orchestra in the stirring musical sounds for Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera's Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 1940's and 1950's.

Although this writer's favorite Bradley cartoon backing is for various mindbogglingly brilliant Tex Avery MGM cartoons (Red Hot Riding Hood, Swing Shift Cinderella, The Kingsize Canary), the Tom & Jerry cartoons feature wonderful soundtracks.

Do we love the soundtracks of Carl W. Stalling and the Warner Brothers orchestra? Yes, this blogger admits it - he could be in a 12-step group for "Men Who Love Carl W. Stalling Music From Warner Brothers Cartoons Too Much.

Few could "swing the classics" quite like the Warner Bros. orchestra, conducted by Carl W Stalling and Milt Franklyn.

Warner Brothers bought the music of Raymond Scott, which can be heard in the fabulous compilation recording The Music Of Raymond Scott - Restless Nights & Turkish Twilights.

While Mr. Scott wrote these songs for his "Quintette" and never intended them to be cartoon soundtracks, these unique and original compositions are undeniably and inextricably intertwined with Warner Bros. cartoons.

Now THAT great tune was arguably best showcased in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Gorilla My Dreams, directed by Robert McKimson.

The fella who writes Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, event programmer, scribe and film historian Paul F. Etcheverry, co-founder of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival, has been happy to collaborate on several occasions with Jeff Sanford's Cartoon Jazz Orchestra.

Finishing this post: this blogger's absolute favorite jazzy cartoon soundtrack, in which the innovative Don Redman Orchestra swings like mad. The creative "rubber-hose" style animation is by the Fleischer Studio, then, in 1933, at the peak of their creative powers.