Merrie Melodies 1940-41: The Care and Feeding of a New Cartoon Star (Part 1)

Late in the previous season, Warner Brothers released A Wild Hare, the first true Bugs Bunny cartoon. We haven’t seen any contemporary trade reviews, or any indication as to what the exhibitors thought of it – but within six months, the next Bugs Bunny release would come out, followed by additional periodic releases throughout the 1940-41 season. One gets the feeling that Bugs was an immediate hit, with the wiseacre rabbit not only proving popular with paying customers and exhibitors, but also catching the eye of the Oscar committee, gaining the studio an Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile, Carl Stalling continued to fold songs – both old and new – into the scores of the WB cartoons.

Malibu Beach Party (9/14/40) – Plot: Not much of one, but a wide assembly of Hollyeood caricatures, built around a party at Jack Benny’s beachfront home. One of the first manifestations of the love affair between the Termite Terrace crew and the Jack Benny Program (which eventually culminated in The Mouse That Jack Built (1959)). Songs: “Avalon”, “California, Here I Come”, “Aloha Oe”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “Melancholy Mood”. “Carissima” (an art song which would appear again years later in the score of Back Alley Uproar – recorded accoustically by Frances Alda on Victrola Red Seal, with a revival issued in the 50’s on Columbia by Richard Tucker with Percy Faith and his Orchestra), and “Traumerei”, a famous violin piece, murdered in the usual fashion by Benny’s playing.


Stage Fright (9/26/40) – The two curious dogs return in chase of an ever elusive bone on the stage of a theatre, and run afoul of the props of a stage magician – and an aggressive little bird in the magician’s hat, who formed the precursor for Chuck Jones’ later creation of Henery Hawk. About the only recognizable song is the old standby for the series, “Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone”.


Holiday Highlights (10/12/40) – Spot gags on holidays, including even the almost forgotten holiday of Arbor Day. Timing of the film is curious, as one of the last Scrappy-related cartoons from Columbia (actually featuring Oopie), Happy Holidays (10/25/40), is basically the same idea! Who had industrial spies in whose midst? Songs: “Ain’t We Got Fun?” “Auld Lang Syne”, “Yankee Doodle”, Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters”, “Hail To the Chief”, “Shine On, Harvest Moon” (a song from 1908), and “California, Here I Come” (with inevitable gags about “California sunshine”, and dogs making a fuss over the “Big Trees” float in the Rose Parade).


Good Night, Elmer (10/26/40) – My own pet champion for an example of early Chuck Jones boredom. Elmer Fudd vs. a candle, trying to get to bed. The idea was much better presented by Clampett in Porky’s Badtime Story. Songs: “Good Night, Ladies”, heard over the opening titles, and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (a borrow by Stalling from his previous scoring for Badtime Story).


Wacky Wild-Life (11/9/40) – Spot gags on nature in the raw, with just what you’d expect from Avery of this period – with yet another tree gag, as a “wild dog” is driven wild by the activities of a lumber camp sawing down redwoods. Songs: “Pale Moon”; “How Do You Do?”; “Listen To the Mocking Bird”; “It Had To Be You” – probably the most successful song composed by Isham Jones, and one the the Warner Cartoon unit would go back to periodically (including as a striptease for Daffy Duck, and as an ersatz-Sinatra number in Book Revue). Early recordings include the composer’s version on Brunswick, Paul Whiteman on Victor, and the California Ramblers on Columbia. Marion Harris recorded it as a vocal for Brunswick, as did Billy Murray and Aileen Stanley for Victor, and Cliff Edwards for Pathe and Perfect. Later revivals include the Benny Goodman Trio on Victor, Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest on Decca, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli on French Decca, Jimmie Lunceford on Decca, Kate Smith on MGM, Betty Hutton on Capitol, Artie Shaw on Victor, Earl Hines on Bluebird, Edmond Hall and Teddy Wilson on Commodore, and recent revivals by Harry Connick Jr., Gary Paxton, and Rod Stewart.

Also included is “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)”, written in 1926 but becoming a hit in 1930, recorded successfully by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers on Victor, a vocal version on Columbia by Ruth Etting, accompanied by a young Larry Adler on harmonica, a dance version by Ben Pollack featuring Jack Teagarden on Perfect (he would revive the song again in the 1940’s on V-Disc for the servicemen), and Louis Armstrong on Okeh. There was also a Q.E.S. piano roll performed by Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. A revival jam session (as the Capitol International Jazzmen) included the likes of Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, Nat “King” Cole, and vocal by Kay Starr. More revivals included Louis Prima on Decca, Hudson-Delange Orchestra on Brunswick, Red McKenzie and the Mound City Blue Blowers on Victor, Benny Goodman on Victor, Count Basie on Vocalion, the Fontaine Sisters on Dot, Herb Jeffries on Exclusive, Doris Day on Columbia, Wingy Manone (with Kay Starr again) on ARA, and Coleman Hawkins on Decca. Certainly, two songs that deserve the label of “evergreen”.


Of Fox and Hounds (12/7/40) – The first exposure of Tex Avery’s fondness for John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Willoughby, a hunting hound who is so dense, if you shine a light in his ear, it will come out the other, is fooled by a nervy fox who keeps giving him directions that will send him over the local cliff. Eventually, Willoughby does wise up to some degree, allowing him to prepare for his next trip over the cliff by setting up mattresses below. Songs: William Tell Overture (The Calm), “A Hunting We Will Go”, and “Let The Rest of the World Go By”. Animation from the opening of this film would be reused verbatim years later in Bugs Bunny’s Foxy By Proxy.


Shop, Look, and Listen (12/21/40) – Midnight in Gimlet’s Department Store, which is going out of business. Everything must go – including Gimlet. W.C. Fieldmouse is conducting another tour, much as he did in the preceding season’s Little Blabbermouse, and he is pestered every bit of the way by the same vociferous junior rodent. Blabbermouse winds up getting gift wrapped, with a “Do Not Open Till Xnas” seal upon his mouth. Songs include “About a Quarter to Nine”, “The Old Gray Mare”, “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain”, “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”. “Home Sweet Home”, and “Piggy Wiggy Woo”, recorded by the Pied Pipers on Ammor and Varsity records, Art Kassel on Bluebird, Horace Heidt on Columbia, and Paul Whiteman on Decca with the Four Modernaires.


Elmer’s Pet Rabbit (1/4/41) – Another milestone in the “wabbit”s career, being the first time he received name billing on the credits. Elmer is attracted by advertising signs in a pet shop to purchase Bugs as a pet. Bugs (whose personality has reverted to a closer resemblance to his prior Jones appearance in Elmer’s Candid Camera, crossed with a decidedly “Groucho” walk), complains and fusses over his rabbit hutch, his dinner (although ravenously devouring same while complaining), and finally takes over Elmer’s abode instead. Songs: “Strolling Through the Park”, “Home Sweet Home”. “Where Was I?”, and “Love Me and the World Is Mine” (the national earache of 1906, recorded by Henry Burr for Columbia, William T. Evans for Victor, Albert Campbell for Victor, and inastrumentally by Arthur Pryor for Victor. There were revivals by Bob Hannon on Decca, Mantovani and his Tipica Orchestra in England on Regal Zonophone, and even in the 50’s by the Chordettes for Columbia).


The Fighting 69th 1/2 (1/18/41) – reviewed heavily in previous Animation Trails article “Bugz Livez: Antz (Part 1)”, this film marked Friz Freleng’s first major encounter with ants in a war of scale, restaging WWI over a picnic lunch. The only recognizable musical piece is “Pizzicato Mysterioso” by J. Bodewalt Lampe, which becamre a stock mystery theme used over and over again not only in cartoons, but live action films, radio, you name it.


Sniffles Bells the Cat (2/1/41) – The old fable of belling the cat, with Sniffles winding up saddled with belling duties after suggesting the idea to the other mice. Despite utter failure in fast-talk sales pitching, he does finally get the cowbell around the feline’s neck, and puts on false bravado (with fingers crossed behind his back) when reporting to the other mice. Songs: “Three Blind Mice”, and “Jimmy Valentine”, a 1910 song recorded by the Peerless Quartet for Victor and Columbia, and Billy Murray for Zonophone. The song received a revival around the time of MGM’s 1929 release, Alias Jimmy Valentine, with a commercial recording by Nat Shilkret with Billy Murray and the Revelers on Victor. Bing Crosby had a famous “fluff” take of this song in recording a film soundtrack, probably for The Star Maker. Freleng would begin to use this tune in many criminal settings in later cartoons, including Racketeer Rabbit (1946).


The Crackpot Quail (2/15/41) – Willoughby (a reasonably facsimile of the dog from Of Fox and Hounds) hunts for quail – particularly a little guy who can’t get his topknot out of his face, and constantly whistles (or, in the original director’s cut, Bronx-cheers) to blow it back atop his head. Of couse. Willoughby gets the worst of it, and encounters severeal inevitable Avery “trees”. Songs; “A Hunting We Will Go”, “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”, “The Little Old Fashioned Music Box”, “The Umbrella Man”, and the “Lone Ranger” section of the William Tell overture (played in ultra-speed tempo). That tune played under the first scene of the dog admiring that “Barko Dog Food” billboard is a country-western standard “They Gotta Quit Kicking My Dog Around”.


The Cat’s Tale (3/1/41) – A mouse tries to convince a cat not to chase him – and in turn talks the cat into attempting to convice the bulldog into a non-chasing policy. The cat reports back – “He just couldn’t see it your way” – and the chase is on again. The only notable song in the score is “Trade Winds”.

Next Time: Part 2 of Merrie Melodies 1940-41

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