The 'star' of Screen Songs, the Bouncing Ball, in its usual setting.

SCREEN SONGS

Medium: Theatrical Animation
Produced by: Fleischer Studio
First Appeared: 1924
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It's widely known that the first animated cartoon made with sound was Disney's Steamboat Willie (1928), in which Mickey Mouse squared off against Peg Leg Pete. But like many widely-known "facts", it isn't entirely true. Steamboat Willie was the one …

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… that sparked the movement of the industry as a whole into sound production, but a few tentative experiments in that direction had been made years earlier. The first few were actually done by the Max Fleischer studio, and released in June of 1924.

The technique, developed by Dr. Lee DeForest, was first applied to a series the studio had introduced on March 9 that year, "Song Cartunes", in which audiences were invited to sing along with the film. Tho such audience participation would no-doubt go over like a lead balloon today, back then, it was received so enthusiastically that in some theaters, the first of them, Oh Mabel, was rewound immediately after showing, and shown again.

Actually, this wasn't the first audience sing-along. They'd been done earlier, in the form of slides, even before the movies themselves, when when the show was provided by live actors on a stage. Adding the bouncing ball, along with animated gags forming a rudimentary story, made for a wildly popular package. Adding DeForest's sound made it possible to get "name" performers to lead the songs, instead of just the theater's regular organist. The bouncing ball, which used techniques Fleischer had developed for World War I training films, was added with My Bonnie Lies Over the Sea, released September 15, 1925.

But the world was still a few years from embracing sound technology, and in most of the series releases the audience did all the actual singing. Still, more than a dozen were made over the next few years. When the studio did begin converting to talkies, its first sound cartoon, which came out on February 5, 1929, was The Sidewalks of New York. It was with that one that the name of the series was changed to the more familiar "Screen Songs".

Screen Songs remained a prominent part of the studio's output through most of the 1930s, with the ball often replaced by little cartoon characters jumping from word to word. The practice of using "name" entertainers to lead the songs was revived, with such luminaries as Rudy Vallee, The Mills Brothers, Ethel Merman and a very young Rose Marie joining in. Fleischer's regular characters, such as Koko the Clown, occasionally appeared in them. Fleischer's last Screen Song was Beside a Moonlit Stream, released July 29, 1938.

In 1942, the studio was absorbed by Paramount Pictures, and renamed Famous Studios. Famous revived the Screen Songs with The Circus Comes to Clown, released December 26, 1947, but the postwar world proved less interested in audience participation. The cartoons were made at a fairly rapid rate for a time, but the last one, Slip Us Some Redskin, came out on July 6, 1951.

Like Casper, Little Audrey and the rest, they later turned up on TV. But without a large audience to sing along, they didn't make much of an impression there.

— DDM

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Text ©2006-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Paramount Pictures.