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Music for Animation: The Golden Years

Mary Ann Skweres looks back over the rich history of music-writing for classic cartoons.

Carl Stalling's music for Looney Tunes shorts are classic examples of cartoon music. All Looney Tunes images  & © Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

As a child, Daniel Goldmark experienced an earworm -- a tune that sticks in your head. He eventually identified the memorable piece as Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major. As a music major in his early twenties, he had a similar experience with Schubert's Die Erlkonig. Around that time he came to the realization that his familiarity with these musical compositions came from hearing them in numerous cartoons, and that cartoons in fact had given him an eclectic introduction to various styles of music -- "classical, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood film musicals, folk songs from America and around the world, Viennese opera and nineteenth-century American parlor songs, particularly the work of Stephen Foster." This epiphany set Goldmark, currently an Assistant Professor of Music History at Case Western Reserve University, on the path to write Tunes for 'Toons, a book that examines the music written for the Golden Age of Hollywood cartoons -- the period from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Music for animation has evolved since its original inception during the silent film era. Although some cartoons may have been delivered to the theaters with "special scores," according to Goldmark, early cartoon music before the age of sync sound focused on the theater's organ accompaniment as a means to display the musician's wit and skill as opposed to using the music to delineate character or create mood. The 1923 periodical Motion Picture News printed a statement from the Pathe home office, which suggested: "Jazz music goes well with Aesop's Fables. That's the conclusion reached after a number of tests, and consequently hereafter Pathe, the distributor of these subjects, will furnish musical effects sheets to each distributor booking one of these cartoons."

Animation music in the 1930s was not highly regarded, as exemplified by the term "mickey-mousing." The expression is attributed to David O. Selznick, who supposedly used the term derogatively in comparing a Max Steiner score to a Mickey Mouse cartoon, with the implied meaning that the score was not only too simplistic, but also telegraphed what is happening in a scene.

The use of popular songs was pervasive in the cartoons of this period. The music included standards like My Old Kentucky Home, as well as popular songs that were owned by the studios, and songs from live-action films such as The Varsity Show, performed by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, a 55-piece jazz orchestra.

Music historian Daniel Goldmark's book Tunes for 'Toons chronicles the history of music in animation.

The person with the greatest impact in the field of cartoon music who relied heavily on contemporary songs was Carl Stalling. Stalling learned to use songs as film music when he was a theater accompanist. After seeing The Great Train Robbery projected on a tent, Stalling was hooked on movies. In 1904, he began playing piano during reel changes at a local movie house in Lexington, Missouri, where he had been born in 1891. By the mid-1920s, he was the orchestra leader at the Isis Theater in Kansas City, choosing the music to accompany the features, while improvising on keyboard for the short films, including the animated series Alice in Cartoonland created by a young Kansas City area filmmaker, Walt Disney. Although Disney had moved to California in 1923, he took finished prints of two Mickey Mouse cartoons -- Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho -- back to Kansas City in 1928 for Stalling to score.

Stalling worked for several years as musical director at Disney, scoring 19 more cartoons and arranging numerous others. He had to use classical music or older19th-century songs in order to avoid high licensing fees. He learned to use "bar" sheets, which provided a new method to synchronize the music and sound effects with the visual action. Using this blueprint he could time the musical rhythms with the animation storyboards, allowing him to compose the score before the picture was done. Along with composers Max Steiner and Scott Bradley, he is credited with developing the method of cartoon scoring -- which included a "click track" system where orchestra members could hear a steady beat -- that better allowed them to synchronize the music to the action.

Stalling's greatest contributions came during his time at Warner Bros., where he worked from 1936 until his retirement in1958. Music was the driving force behind the Warner Bros. cartoons, which were thin on narrative story development. Instead of the traditional story arc, the "plots" were a steady stream of high-energy shtick, gags and verbal jokes. Stalling developed a complex building-block style of short, rapidly changing musical cues, with tempo shifts and mixed genres that were perfectly in tune with the storytelling style of the Warners cartoons.

A key component of Stalling's compositional style while he was a musical director at Warner Bros. was combining short original cues, recorded with the studio's 60-piece orchestra, with songs from that studio's vast popular music collection. Once Stalling received a story premise, the setting and the gags involved, he would search the Warners music library for songs that would support the narrative. He would sketch out the piano parts of the original music, including the cues and the instrumentation that he needed. Milt Franklin arranged the orchestrations and Treg Brown added his comic genius with sound effects, which were recorded as a "punctuation point" for the music.

By using references to popular songs and even classical pieces, Stalling liked to add an additional dimension of humor to the screen action by layering musical gags on top of the sight gags. The titles of songs often mimicked the action, becoming another joke for those familiar with the music. For instance, an establishing shot of Elmer's Cabin would be accompanied by the tune There's No Place Like Home. These musical puns became part of his signature style. He had a special fondness for certain songs, notably Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee. To the consternation of some of his directors, Stalling repeatedly used many of these songs in different scores.

Part of the fun of classic shorts like Porky's Duck Hunt is the perfectly timed music.

During his tenure at the studio Stalling worked with legendary animation directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson and Chuck Jones. He averaged one score a week for twenty-two years -- approximately 600 in total. He was most closely associated with the Looney Tunes shorts that featured the iconic animated characters that have become part of our cultural heritage, including Catch as Cats Can with Sylvester the cat, Porky's Duck Hunt with Porky Pig and Daffy Duck and Mutiny on the Bunny with the perennial favorite Bugs Bunny taking on a pirate Yosemite Sam.

The distinctive sound of Warner Bros. cartoons became the standard for the field. It was a sound developed by Stalling.

A contemporary of Stalling's who took a different approach to scoring animation was MGM musical director Scott Bradley. What Bradley really wanted to do was to write original music, despite the trend of using popular music in scoring cartoons. Although he acquiesced to this common practice in his early work, by the late 1940s his work had developed into more complex and original compositions. He was greatly influenced by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, and Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, which was based on the principal of using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale equally in a composition, and avoiding the imposition of a specific key.

Unlike Stalling, Bradley considered himself a "serious" composer. His background probably contributed to that self-image. He was a conservatory-trained composer and English horn player. He worked as a composer and conductor at a Houston theater before moving to Los Angeles in 1926 to work in radio at KHJ and KNX. He established himself on the Los Angeles concert scene with works such as The Headless Horseman (1932), inspired by Washington Irving's classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Although Bradley worked briefly at Ub Iwerk's animation studio in 1931, which coincided with Stalling's tenure there, his career in animation music began in earnest in 1934, when he collaborated with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising on the inaugural short of the new Happy Harmonies cartoon series The Discontented Canary, being produced for MGM. In 1937, when Harman and Ising moved onto the MGM lot to help the studio establish its own animation studio, Bradley was hired on and remained at the studio until he retired in 1957, the year that the cartoon division closed its doors. During his twenty years at the studio, Bradley scored most of MGM's theatrical cartoons, as well as composing music for several features and US military shorts produced during World War II.

Although the MGM stories tended to be formulaic, the signature style of the MGM cartoons included a penchant for extremely violent action sequences. Containing less dialog than the typical Warner Bros. cartoons, an MGM narrative unfolded through visuals in the tradition of slapstick and vaudeville comedy. The structural style consisted of fight, chase and conflict. With diminished dialog, the music only had to share the stage with the animation and sound effects. Bradley incorporated many sound effects into his score, giving him additional control over that aural element.

For 1947's Cat Concerto, Scott Bradley rescored Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody.

With the exception of shorts that were musically based, in his work with Harmon and Ising, Bradley had no say in determining the films' stories. However, once he was given the completed film to score, he was allowed the creative freedom to do whatever he wanted with the music, without any predetermined guidelines. He would interweave the music to match the pacing and quick changes in the action. This resulted in a choppier, less-flowing score.

When Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera started directing, they began to use "bar" sheets, which changed the scoring procedure and allowed Bradley to start composing earlier in the production process. His musical language became closely tied with the action, characters and emotions and could be used to maintain the cartoon's momentum by increasing the tempo when the story's pulse slowed. In Bradley's style of composing, each part of the music could connect to the action without being limited by a steady beat. This influenced the style of storytelling, which, especially in the case of Tom and Jerry, became a series of escalating reactions until both the action and the music came to a violent explosion.

According to Goldmark, Dance of the Weed is the one production in which Scott Bradley really had a chance to do what he wanted. In a public talk in 1944, and in comments published later in Film Music Notes, Bradley said that the usual procedure was reversed in Dance of the Weed and that the entire music score was composed and recorded before the story was written. The music in the opening scenes was in the manner of French impressionism: "The valley of the flowers is a waltz movement in which the themes of the little weed and the wild rose are combined. Later, the terrible snapdragons that menace the weed and flower are represented by bassoons and basses, while the strings and woodwinds play a different theme in the high register. We used neither saxophones nor trumpets in the orchestra." Goldmark adds, "In the Snapdragon bit, there is a lot of very modern sounding music. Bradley was a big fan of Schoenberg and Bartok. You can hear a lot of unusual harmonies for cartoons, especially around the early forties when he was experimenting a lot."

Bradley's unique, illustrative style of composing influenced composers both in his time and beyond, and helped create a distinct place in history for the MGM cartoons.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.