4 March 2007 | wmorrow59
The Fleischers steal a march on Uncle Walt
The Fleischer Studio's ever popular Follow-the-Bouncing-Ball series began in the early 1920s when studio boss Max Fleischer was approached by songwriter Charles K. Harris (best known for "After the Ball") who wondered whether audiences could be inspired to sing along with an animated cartoon. Magic lantern shows offering sing-along's to illustrated slides had been a popular form of entertainment long before the invention of motion pictures, but Harris believed the form could be modernized. Max put his brother Dave Fleischer to work on the project, and Dave came up with the concept: a live-action ball would bounce along atop the lyrics and guide the audience through the verse at the appropriate tempo, and as the song progressed the lyrics would be illustrated with visual puns and sight gags. It was a great idea, wildly popular with audiences from the very start. In later years, incidentally, both Max and Dave Fleischer claimed credit for creating the series, but it appears that Harris was the guy who got the ball rolling, as it were.
The earliest series entries were silent, and it was up to local pit bands, organists or pianists in each theater to accompany the cartoons. In 1924 the Flesichers struck a deal with engineer Lee De Forest to produce some shorts with prerecorded sound tracks. De Forest, an unsung pioneer of the cinema, had been experimenting with a sound-on-film system of his own devising, producing short works featuring musicians, politicians delivering speeches, and stage stars such as Eddie Cantor and DeWolf Hopper. Together, De Forest and the Fleischers created the first animated sound cartoons fully four years before Disney's Steamboat Willie.
The Fleischer/De Forest 'Song Car-Tunes' were simple little films that followed the same pattern established in the silent shorts. Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, one of the survivors, begins with Koko the Clown emerging from his ink well, smoothing his hair in familiar "conductor" fashion, then raising an Asbestos curtain to start the show. He calls forth a chorus of dignified-looking singers, and the song begins. No attempt was made to synchronize the words to the singers' lips; instead, the filmmakers cut directly to the lyric sheet. As the lyrics roll across the screen a comical stick figure dances across the tops of the words and occasionally acts them out (i.e. waving goodbye on the line "since he said goodbye," etc.) And because the subject of the song is an Irishman, the song concludes with a drawing of a typical vaudeville-style "stage Irishman" of the day filling the screen, complete with green necktie and fringe of red beard. I gather original prints of this subject were hand-colored, but the one I've seen is in black-and-white and the animation is rudimentary, while the sound quality is no worse than surviving phonograph records of the period.
Animation buffs will find this significant, though the average viewer may not consider it anything special. It's a pleasant song in any case, and it's interesting to see -- and hear -- a sound cartoon that predates Mickey Mouse by a couple of years.