We’ve all watched cartoons at some point in our lives, and if you grew up in North America, your childhood is certain to have included old Bugs Bunny animated shorts at some point. While the newer ones are entertaining, it’s the older ones that linked to pop culture that was relevant at the time. This included drawing movie stars into some of the stories (such as the one with Humphrey Bogart) while others made use of songs that were on the Hit Parade at the time.
“Singing in the Bathtub” was featured in the first-ever Looney Tunes animated short, “Sinkin’ in the Bathtub” released on April 19, 1930. The short was 8 minutes long and starred Bosko and Honey, and was the opening act, so to speak, for the Warner Brothers feature, “Song Of The Flame.”
“Song Of The Flame” was the screen version of the 1925 operetta of the same name by Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Herbert Stohart, and George Gershwin, and told the story of a peasant who leads a revolution in Russia. There do not seem to be any versions of the film that survived over the years, however, it’s known that while the movie was almost entirely filmed in Technicolor, there was a sequence in Warner Brothers’ wide screen Vitascope process. The movie starred Alexander Gray as Prince Volodya, Bernice Clair as Anuita — and the Flame mentioned in the movie’s title — Bert Roch and Count Boris, and Noah Beery as Konstantin.
The animator on the short was Isador Freleng (21 August 1906 – 26 May 1995) who came to be known, and credited as, Friz Freleng. He got his start with Disney when he was hired on as an employee in 1927 after working with them as a contractor worker in the 1920s. A few years later, he along with Kansas City animators Hugh Harman (31 August 1908 – 25 November 1982) and Rudolf Ising (7 August 1903 – 18 July 1992), moved to Warner Brothers where he went on to direct nearly 300 cartoons for them. Allegedly the character of Yosemite Sam was modeled after Friz.
But where did the song come from before it Bugs got a hold of it and before Bosko before him? It came from the movie musical, “The Show Of Shows” that debuted in New York on November 20, 1929. Producers Jack Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck had compiled an array of actors and performers — which included such names as John Barrymore, Myrna Loy, Loretta Young, Ann Sothern, and Noah Beery — to spoof “Hollywood Revue” by rival studio MGM. There was no real story line or plot as everything relied on comic monologues of Frank Fay (1894 – 1961) acting as a Master of Ceremonies to link the segments to each other.
The outstanding segments from the movie came from John Barrymore (yes, he’s related to Drew Barrymore) as he recited Richard III’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, and from Winnie Lightner (17 September 1899 – 5 March 1971) when she gave an hysterical performance of “Singin’ In The Bathtub.” Ms. Lightner sang the song with perfect comedic timing and delivery, accompanied by a chorus of male dancers dressed in old-fashioned women’s bathing suits, and large-waisted middle-aged men in striped bathing suits lounging about in clawfoot bathtubs.
The song was so popular that it was recorded by several artists of the day back in 1929 when it was released, including British singer and comedian, Gracie Fields (9 January 1898 – 27 September 1979), the High Hatters, Dick Robertson, The Four Aces, Ben Bernie and his Orchestra, and others.
The comedy that was central to the song in “The Show Of Shows” was in keeping with the comedy that was central to the Looney Tunes animated short, and so it made sense to have the song as the main song in the animation.
While many of us who watched the cartoon as young children may not know any of the words past “singin’ in the bathtub” followed by several doo doo doo de doo’s, the song is something that has stuck with us over the decades, and not surprisingly so. It’s one of those memorable songs that gets stuck in your head, that’s hard (if not impossible to shake),and lots of fun to sing. So the next time you find yourself humming “Singin’ In The Bathtub,” smile. You’re keeping a part of history that’s nearly 100 years old alive and well. And maybe someday, one of your future grandchildren will ask, “Hey, what’s that song you’re humming? It’s real catchy!” If they do, you’ll be able to share the history of the song with them and send them off to download a legal version of it to listen to in its entirety.