While variety was a major cornerstone in Soundies production, there are reasons that classical music is rarely represented on the Panoram screen. For one thing, there are few classical compositions that can be performed in three minutes, although I suppose that John Cage’s 4’33 comes close. And in a bar, pool room, recreation hall, diner, or army post, it was the popular music of the day that would attract the dimes.
A Musical Joke features “the Mills Philharmonic Orchestra,conducted by Fredrick Feher.” The music performed is an adaptation of Johann Strauss’ “Perpetuum Mobile.” As the Billboard review notes, “The title [“A Musical Joke”] is a mystery, since fine music is played, unless it is because only a portion of the number is heard.”
Fredrick Feher Productions was the second company the Mills Novelty Company contracted with to produce Soundies. Their total output, nine shorts in all, was recorded and filmed in December 1940 and January 1941. There is a fair amount of variety among the nine shorts, with classical music, Latin sounds, and jazz all represented on screen.
Fredrick Feher was born in Vienna in 1889. David Raksin, who worked as musical director on this series, noted that Feher had a small acting role in the silent 1920 masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and that Feher recalled this with “particular pride.” Although Feher worked frequently in popular music, Raksin observed, “He was essentially a classically oriented musician.” It is not surprising that three of the nine Soundies in this series feature classical content, and that they are among the only Soundies inspired by European concert music.
It was probably during the fall of 1940 that the Mills Novelty Company contracted with Feher to produce a series of Soundies. Feher hastily put together Fredrick Feher Productions at Talisman Studios in Hollywood. Eight of Feher’s nine Soundies were released in early 1941. For some reason, A Musical Joke did not pass muster and was withheld until early 1943.
The Mills Philharmonic Orchestra was promoted as a 100-piece symphony, conducted by Fredrick Feher. And so it appears! The orchestra is immense and at least 100 musicians are seen on screen. In reality, a smaller symphony is heard on the soundtrack, comprised of Los Angeles studio musicians under the baton of film composer David Raksin.
The music is wonderful, and the coverage of the orchestra is strong. But compared with what would follow, it is fairly obvious why this type of Soundie rarely made it to the Panoram screen.