Saturday, 10 December 2011

68. I've Got to Sing a Torch Song (1933)

Warner cartoon no. 67.
Release date: September 30, 1933.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tom Palmer.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Cast unknown.
Animation: Jack King.
Musical Score: Bernard Brown, Norman Spencer.
Sound: Bernard Brown.
Synopsis: A parody of radio listeners are depicted all over the world - along with some celebrity caricatures to go along with it.

[REVISED VERSION: 19/05/2017].

While Buddy's Day Out remains a failure in achieving humour and coherency, Torch Song suffers from a wide range of problems in the same vein of Tom Palmer's previous cartoon. The first Merrie Melody cartoon after Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising's departure; the newly-formed Schlesinger staff attempt to parody radio, to fit alongside their mandatory policy of promoting popular songs. 

Although this might seem predictable and easier to approach amongst fresh artists - successful results are likely depending on its execution. Tom Palmer, once again fails to achieve this. Torch Song's overall construction remains very inconsistent in its premise. The cartoon is very indecisive by focusing on caricatured celebrity performing on radio - or gags involving radio listeners. The finished short is a mashup of the two, and it's evident how insecure Palmer was as a director. 

Not only is the short inconsistent in its content; but also in animation style. Judging by his two directed cartoons for Warners - Palmer appeared to be attracted to cartoon spark line effects, a trait Ub Iwerks took pride with in his cartoons. Although Ub used them effectively, Palmer wasn't creative with them. In a scene featuring an elderly woman caressing her radio set is another duplicate of the bun-headed woman who appeared several times in Flip the Frog cartoons.

Understandably, the new Schlesinger studio consisted of green artists who hadn't quite settled in their new environment. None of them had blossomed and they were still milestones away from creating cartoon masterpieces.

The opening scenes indicate some potential, as far as creative styles go. Palmer applies a brief montage of several hands switching on their radio set. Many cartoons produced in that era were fairly pretty and unambitious in composition - to see a montage effect at the opening shows some promise. In comparison to Buddy's lacklustre debut, it's a step forward.

Unfortunately, Palmer's brief stride of creativity slides into an abyss. The following sequence lead to a series of gags featuring radio listeners exercising in time to a fitness radio program. Much of the gags remain largely uninspired, and are further hampered by weak animation.

The animation of the scene featuring a millionaire reading his stocks from a ticker tape machine, whilst exercising, is poor. The weight of the millionaire pulling his stocks is poorly handled, and the clarity of the gag isn't matched. It's a prime example of how poor animation can ruin a conceived gag.

One gag that might have gained laughs from audiences is a scene of a caricatured George Bernard Shaw boxing. Instead of exercising with a punching bag, he's punching the globe. The globe swings back by striking his face and knocking him out. Shaw garnered major controversy in the U.S. for his admiration of the Soviet Union government in the 1920s. The globe itself is represented as a visual metaphor of Shaw's battling against the world.

For a large portion of the cartoon, Tom Palmer is too reliant on pan/truck shots for gag delivery and payoff. Admittedly, some of it work when it's called for - like the scene of a man exercising by pulling the strings of a large woman's corset, as revealed in the pan. The gag itself adds more content to the fitness instruction: "One, two, breathe deeply."

Some gags are more unpredictable and absurd; like a closeup of a duet dancing, but the camera trucks out to reveal Joan Blondell and Jimmie Cagney using their hands as shoes. Both stars often paired together during this era - most notably in the Warner Bros. musical Footlight Parade. I'm curious whether or not Cagney punching Blondell is a reference to Cagney's infamous grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy?

In other sections of the short; it's used somewhat lazily. In a scene featuring a sloppily caricatured Ben Bernie - he announces a broadcast orchestration, with his dialect and mannerisms ("Yowza") captured. This soon follows with a pan shot of Bernie "conducting" the music from a record player.

The gag standalone isn't bad, especially it's purpose is to parody Ben Bernie's radio orchestration. However, Palmer's poor use of staging in the scene marred the gag.

Palmer's reliance of camera pans make gags very predictable in delivery. At an African locale; a cannibal switches on a cooking program. He follows the ingredients as instructed - but a pan shot reveals the caricatures of the popular double act, Wheeler & Woolsey. Scenarios of humans trapped in a boiling pot have been illustrated numerous times beforehand in cartoon form - that the delivery goes without saying.

The majority of the worldwide sequence suffers from weak gag development - and for the most part, poor animation skills. A sequence featuring an unimpressed sultan watching a harem dancer is indeed unimpressive. The dancer's limbs are ludicrously rubbery in design, indicating an animator's lack of understanding of anatomy; and intimidation of breaking the joints.

The sultan shouts "Bah!" - and switches on his radio to listen to  Amos 'n Andy instead. Wouldn't anybody do the same whilst sitting through this cartoon?

At times, it appears Palmer is trying too hard in conceiving visual gags. In one scenario, an eskimo is ice-fishing at an Arctic locale. An incoming whale advances towards the eskimo, and eats an entire ice block - including his radio set. The whale reappears above the surface, and the audience discovers the radio sitting on top of the whale's blowhole, as the whale swims away dancing to the music as he swims.

One of the largest faults of the cartoon is the animation itself. For the most part, the caricatured celebrities are animated shockingly below the standards of that era. Admittedly, caricatures weren't as sophisticated in the early 30s, as a lot of them would be drawn by animators instead of stylised caricaturists like T. Hee or Ben Shenkman later that decade.

One of the more painfully ludicrous sequences features a trio of iconic stars like Greta Garbo, ZaSu Pitts and Mae West, singing the cartoon's titular song. Garbo's appeal and glamour isn't taken advantage of through drawing and movement; and the timing of ZaSu Pitt's arms spastically moving is amateurish.

Overall continuity is also very inconsistent. Why is Pitts staged behind a different background compared to Garbo and Mae West? I'm not sure whose impersonating the voices of these iconic stars - but the overall results are very jarring and awkward in execution and delivery.

Much of the mannerisms of these stars are still in place, like Mae West's sex appeal or Garbo's melodramatic motions. Animating caricatures is a challenge itself; but none of the animators at the newly hired Schlesinger studio were solid enough draftsmen to tackle such a feat. They were still years away from mastering it.

Tom Palmer applies a running gag throughout the cartoon; but the overall result doesn't amount to much of a gag at all. Throughout the cartoon, Ed Wynn consistently announces it's "eight o'clock" throughout the cartoon - firing a pistol, and later a cannon.

I imagine it was an attempt in capturing Wynn's wacky mannerisms on radio. Such a gag could work fine; depending on how it's handled from every department. It's biggest flaw is the voice impersonation. I'd nominate it as perhaps the worst Wynn impersonation to ever appear in animated cartoons.

Towards the end of the short; Wynn fires his cannon at the strike of "eight o'clock". The impact of the explosion backfires, causing Wynn to fly past multiple buildings - away from the studio. He soon crashes into a bedroom - and discovers that the occupants of the be are all Ed Wynn lookalikes, who all shout "Ohhhh" in unison. The overall payoff lacks coherency, despite the fact the running gag itself wasn't funny to begin with.

Torch Song is at least a step above Buddy's Day Out, but only marginally. The premise shows more promise for gag opportunities, but the way it's handled puts the cartoon down. It's one of the most oddly conceived cartoons turned out by the studio's legacy. Not only does the short fail in entertainment values, but also consistency. Tom Palmer was not a director with a strong point of view. His insecurities and indecisiveness is all too evident in this short. Palmer would leave the studio after his two cartoons - briefly returning to Disney before heading over to Van Beuren with Burt Gillett. In hindsight; Torch Song is an important piece of history that only shows how far off the Schlesinger studio was, but also how green the artists were to the industry. As remembered by Bob Clampett, it was "like a gold rush town".

"Dat's ALL, folks!"
Rating: 1/5.


  1. OMG, what a terrible cartoon!We need to present this as a horror cartoon for all next generations, it was as a bas as possible! Damn you, Tom Palmer!

    I notice the scene with frail old man. This man was George Bernard Shaw, but it was also can be the inside joke("to Shaw"), related to Mel Shaw, one of artists who gone with H-I.

    P.S. And don't forget to use mosaic in your next review!

  2. Sure, I'll post the mosaic (but seperate post).

    Yes, since I wrote this review - I hope people will be aware that this cartoon is certainly bad.

  3. If you all say this was terrible, how come this appeared on the sixth Golden Collection DVD set anyway?

    1. Why do people slow down to look at fatal accidents on the highway?

  4. Has a certain quality to it. Not worth the harangue it received from this kid

    1. The "kid" is hopefully no longer. Hope my revised post has at least brought some justice :-)