Bimbo leads an awful German street band to serenade Betty Boop, but she prefers Arthur Tracy, 'Street Singer of the Air,' who in live- action sings several old-fashioned songs with a ...
See full summary »
Bimbo leads an awful German street band to serenade Betty Boop, but she prefers Arthur Tracy, 'Street Singer of the Air,' who in live- action sings several old-fashioned songs with a Bouncing Ball. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Viewers interested in the popular culture of the Great Depression will find a mother lode of fascinating material in the products of Hollywood from the early '30s. Some of the films from the period, especially gangster sagas and melodramas, directly reflect the grim mood of the times, while comedies and love stories tend to ignore or make light of it. And then there are the Fleischer cartoons, which are in a class by themselves. To my way of thinking these films capture the atmosphere of the era as well as anything produced in any branch of the popular arts. In the studio's best cartoons, or even their routine releases, you find a fascinating blend of urban sass, pitch black comedy, melancholia, and random, impossible-to-categorize weirdness, all set to the tune of hot jazz, low-down blues, and Tin Pan Alley standards, often used in ironic counterpoint to what we're seeing. Despite running only 8 or 9 minutes, each short is a feast.
Romantic Melodies, released in the autumn of that rock bottom year 1932, is a gem. This short follows the traditional framework of the studio's "Song Car-Tune" series: it starts with an animated sequence, building up to the moment when a musical guest star appears in live action footage. The guest sings a song, then invites the audience to join in and follow the lyrics, assisted by that ever-popular bouncing ball. After the live action segment we return to the cartoon characters, who wrap up the short with an action finale of some sort, usually a chase. On this occasion our star is Arthur Tracy, a rather eccentric performer who was popular on the radio under the moniker The Street Singer. Tracy made a few other film appearances around this time, most memorably in Paramount's The Big Broadcast, where he appears in a ghostly hallucination before the bleary eyes of Bing Crosby and Stu Erwin, singing "Here Lies Love." Tracy was known for histrionic renditions of sentimental songs, and I must say it's a style that doesn't wear especially well, but he's charming in brief doses, and acquits himself nicely in this short.
On this occasion the animated sequences concern a group of street musicians, who are busking for coins from passersby. The band is made up of animals (a dog, a hippo, and a pig) led by perennial Fleischer star Bimbo, also a dog and a sometime companion to Betty Boop in her early appearances. The band plays emphatic German "oom-pah" music but not very well, which prompts an array of sure-fire gags as listeners react to the sour notes: a lamppost comes to life and dives into a manhole, a streetcar re-routes itself to get away from the music, etc. But along with the familiar material there's a noticeable element of financial desperation here, too. When a passerby tosses Bimbo a penny he and his band-mates fight over it; Bimbo wins, then rushes the coin to a bank and deposits it. When someone tosses a second penny and Bimbo attempts to deposit that too, he finds the bank president closing up the branch, presumably for good, and sitting out front with a tin cup, wailing "Please help the poor!" Bimbo shows he's a good guy by tossing his coin into the banker's cup as he remarks: "I ain't hoarding!" At this point Betty Boop makes a cameo appearance from an apartment window several floors up, calling out for a song and tossing the musicians a coin. (There's another significant topical gag here: when she reaches into her bodice to get money Betty has only two nickels, and as she selects one to toss to the musicians the nickels sadly shake hands goodbye. Only in Fleischer Land!) Betty's nickel hits the sidewalk and splits into five pennies, prompting another struggle between the musicians. There's a great overhead shot of Betty leaning out her window, listening to the band while gently wagging her derrière to the rhythm.
Eventually the camera pans from the animated activity to a studio set representing the front of a tenement. This is where Arthur Tracy awaits us, accompanying his singing with one of those hand-operated accordion-like instruments -- it looks like a Slinky, you know -- I can't remember what they're called. Anyway, he strolls over to an older woman gazing out her window and croons "Silver Threads Among the Gold." Then he crosses to a young, pretty woman and sings a sprightly tune, "Under Your Window Tonight." Finally, he concludes the melody with "Good Night, Sweetheart," sung to another attractive young woman, who rewards him with a kiss.
The cartoon wraps up with an animated sequence, as the street musicians create such a racket they're carted off in a patrol wagon-- a patrol wagon bearing mysterious Hebraic lettering on its side. (These cartoons were made in urban New York, not Hollywood, and it shows.) Betty weeps to see her friends arrested, but Mr. Tracy steps back in and urges her, in song of course, to keep her heart from breaking, despite it all. It's nice to hear Mae Questel duet with Tracy on this last number, and the song is strangely touching. It transcends its context in the short and seems to be addressed to the audience, urging us all be brave in the face of anxiety and sadness. This cartoon may be dated and quaint, but that message never gets old.
0 of 0 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?