Born July 19, 1883 Max Fleischer…
As I write this blog on the very day that would have been MAX FLEISCHER’S 133rd birthday (Max was born in Krakow on July 19th 1883) I am here to sing the praises of what is to me the absolute apogee of FLEISCHER STUDIOS’ creative output — a groundbreaking landmark in the history of cinema, a celestial signpost in the history of surrealism.
I refer of course to that ever so curious transmaniacal one-off Talkartoon that sports no beloved Popeye or Betty Boop, but instead stars that mischievous deviant canine Bimbo (Betty Boop’s sometime boyfriend).
A stand-alone quirky testament to the rugged individualism and visionary genius that was the hallmark of the animation emanating from 1600 Broadway — ladies and gentlemen, I give you “SWING YOU SINNERS”:
“Swing You Sinners” 1930
Once you have absorbed this masterpiece you will never look at animation again as a medium pitched for children.
Basically this is the tale of Bimbo as a chicken thief on the run from the cops, who gets his come-uppance locked inside an anthropomorphic graveyard where he’s tortured and bedeviled by all sorts of variegated spooks and monsters on the Highway to Hell.
This fascinating multifaceted gem was restored a few years ago, with the ubiquitous Dave Fleischer being given credit at the top as director. As chief gag-writer and schtick-meister Dave really shines here — this cartoon sports more inventive visual tropes than “Fantasia”. Willard Bowsky and Ted Sears are the listed animators, yet further research indicates that Fleischer mainstays George Cannata, Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster, William Henning, Grim Natwick, and Seymour Kneitel (my friend — and Max’s granddaughter — Ginny Mahoney’s Dad) also lent their considerable talents to animating it.
In this particular posting I am going to focus on the sensational music as heard throughout the cartoon — I will leave the awesome visuals and quirky mise-en-scene for another time.
The question haunting us Fleischer-philes for years is — who exactly provided the fantastic musical cues and spooky soulful voices heard throughout the cartoon? No musical entities are credited, and no one who is still among the living (this was made in 1930 remember) seems to definitively be able to recall. “Damned!!” as they say in the cartoon.
With the help of swing band leader Vince Giordano and jazz historian Will Friedwald, I have been able to fill in a few blanks here. Other facts I’ve unearthed about this cartoon are the result of sleuthing on the internet over many years.
Like many of the original Fleischer soundies, this animation does not seem to contain any original music per se composed especially for it, but instead uses medleys of popular songs somewhat transformed for the purposes of providing maximum merriment to the Fleischer’s general audience. Many in the audience would recognize these songs as they rolled quickly past them while becoming caught up in the dazzling visuals.
The title music (and the title of the cartoon itself) itself is a gloss on the hit foxtrot “Sing You Sinners”, with music by W. Franke Harling and lyrics by Sam Coslow, published by Famous Music (Paramount’s music publishing company — Paramount as you recall was Fleischer Studios’ distributor). Here it sounds like it is being sung by a Harlem gospel choir or black vaudevillians working at the Cotton Club.
You sinners, drop everything
And let that harmony ring
Up to Heaven
And sing, swing you sinners
Just wave your arms all about
And let the Lord hear you shout
Pour the music right out
And sing, swing you sinners
Whenever there’s music
The Devil kicks
He don’t allow music
By the river Styx
You’re wicked and you’re depraved
And you’ve all misbehaved
If you wanna be saved
Well, sing, swing you sinners
This song was already becoming well known and had been successfully recorded by the Harlem Hot Chocolates (a Duke Ellington small group) with vocals by Duke’s manager Irving Mills, as well as by Jewish Broadway star Lillian Roth in the 1930 Paramount film “Honey”:
Lillian Roth, “Sing You Sinners”
Lillian Roth actually made a Fleischer Screen Songs “Follow the Bouncing Ball” cartoon for Max Fleischer a few years later in 1933’s “Ain’t She Sweet”:
Lillian Roth, “Ain’t She Sweet”
At 1:36, the jaunty strains of the jazz classic “Down South” composed by William Middleton and originally released on Edison Records in 1927 by B.A. Rolfe and his Palais d’Or Orchestra is heard accompanying the antics of the strutting and squawking chicken being choked.
At 2:16 to 4:20 we hear the funereal strains of early jazz composer Rube Bloom’s award-winning piece “Song of the Bayou (Spirituelle or Damon)”, which you can enjoy here in a version sung by Ben Bernie with his Orchestra released on Brunswick Records (also owned by Paramount):
Ben Bernie and his Orchestra, “Song of the Bayou”
In “Swing You Sinners” the lyrics “Oh Lord, please take away the darkness/ Oh Lord please take away the rain” have been changed to “Goodbye/ this is your finish brother/ You’re never gwine to get away — You’ll never rob another hen house/ You’ve sinned and now you must be damned” etc., reflecting the punitive measures in Hell about to be meted out to the chicken-stealing Bimbo as sung by the sepulchral offstage choir.
(By the way, at 3:32 the stereotypical bowler-hatted Jewish ghost in the graveyard who splays out both hands in front of Bimbo the thief and shrugs “You needed it?” in reference to the imminent loss of Bimbo’s soul is a reference to the famous dialect comedian Monroe Silver, who had a long career in vaudeville and as a comic recording artist, actually recording sides as Casey and Cohen with the voice of Bimbo (and all around Fleischer utility voice-over guy) Billy Murray.
Monroe Silver “Cohen at the Telephone”
The remainder of the soundtrack is simply the wildest ride, a hysterical variation on the “Sing You Sinners” verse and chorus melodies with pumping tubas, tail-gating trombones, and other manic Dixieland swing passages courtesy of Joe Tarto tuba, Bob Effros trumpet, and the great Tommy Dorsey trombone, along with other great NYC jazzers as yet unidentified. According to Vince, Jelly Roll Morton and Chick Webb sideman Ward Pinkett is probably also on trumpet on this session (and is possibly one of the scat singers).
There is also a breakdown section with Reverend Ike-ish testifying call and response sections from the choir and male soloists– fantastic comic vocal interjections on the order of “Brother you’re gonna get your face lifted!! And a permanent shave!! Ha! Ha!! Ha!!! ” and “Where you want your body sent?” ” Body? Huh! There ain’ gonna be no body!! Ha! Ha!! Ha!!!”
The quality of the writing and wordplay in these sections is just astounding, at once both accessible and avant-garde (something I’ve always aspired to in my own music).
Brothers and sisters,
Come on get hot.
We’ll amputate your vo-do-dee-oh
And tie your bones in a knot.
I could go on, but you really have to experience it for yourself. I have seen “Swing You Sinners” dozens of times, and never grow tired of it. Part of it is the musical soundtrack. Despite it being muffled in places (blame this on primitive recording studios and techniques), fully assembled and constituted by Lou Fleischer of the Fleischer Studios Music Department it drives and swings like anything, the themes and sections going to major and minor keys many times back again throughout the soundtrack –with a final exultant major key resolution by the choir at the end as Bimbo gets swallowed up by a giant skull: SWING YOU SINNERS!!!
–Gary Lucas for Classic Movie Hub
Dubbed “one of the best and most original guitarists in America” (Rolling Stone), Gary Lucas is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, and an international recording artist with over 25 solo albums to date. As a fan of classic cinema, Gary tours extensively, playing live accompaniments to legendary horror films including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Vampyr among others. He has also recently released two classic-related albums: “Gary Lucas’ FLEISCHEREI: Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons” featuring 2015 Tony nominee Sarah Stiles as Betty Boop, and “Cinefantastique,” a collection of themes and incidental music from classic films, ranging from South Pacific to Psycho! You can learn more about Gary at GaryLucas.com or by following him on twitter @lucasgary.