Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.1, April 1997
Who's Afraid of ASCAP?
Popular Songs in the Silly Symphonies
by J.B. Kaufman
Music and animation: the potent union of those two forms of expression was celebrated in Walt Disney's animated series, the Silly Symphonies. From 1929 to 1939, this extraordinary series of films united animation with a rich array of music, encompassing classical melodies, traditional folk tunes, operatic themes--and popular songs.
Carl Stalling, who played a pivotal role in inaugurating the Silly Symphonies, also set the musical tone for early entries in the series. Drawing on his background as a theater organist, he exhibited a knack for developing musical scores both from original themes and from a wide variety of existing sources, including currently or recently popular songs. This facility would serve him well in later years during his celebrated tenure at the Schlesinger/Warner Bros. studio, where it was part of the charter of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies to exploit the songs in the vast catalogs of Warner's music publishers.
But Disney in 1929 had no music catalog, and the use of copyrighted music in his films meant the added expense of royalty payments--at a time when his meager budget was already stretched thin. Stalling and his musical successors were usually discouraged from using such material in their scores. Occasionally copyrighted songs did turn up in Disney's films; Walter Donovan's "Aba Daba Honeymoon," for example, can be heard in Monkey Melodies (1930).
When established music was used in the Silly Symphonies, it was used imaginatively. Historian Russell Merritt points out the significance of Just Dogs (1932), which opens with a group of mournful dogs in a dog pound. The score accompanying this scene is a musical joke: the tune is Guy Massey's "The Prisoner's Song," made popular by Vernon Dalhart's 1924 hit record. To get the joke, an audience was expected to recognize the tune and remember the title. (In 1935 the song was reused in a roughly similar way in another Symphony, Music Land.)
As a rule, however, Disney composers were urged to avoid such tunes. Stalling recalled* that, on at least one occasion, Disney had asked him to compose a tune that suggested a popular song without actually plagiarizing it. This practice did not end with Stalling's departure from the studio in 1930; a notable example can be heard as late as 1934, in the baseball sequence in The Tortoise and the Hare. As the cocky Hare flaunts his speed by playing baseball with himself, the music accompanying him is an original theme written by staff composer Frank Churchill--the cue sheet identifies it as "Battin' the Balls Around"--but it plants a strong subliminal suggestion of Albert Von Tilzer and Jack Norworth's "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." This was the preferred way of dealing with established songs in Disney's cartoons.
The success of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" inaugurated a wave of original songs written for the Silly Symphonies.
A New Concept
But if one source of music was generally discouraged, Disney did sanction another, characteristically inventive, one: the use of original songs. This phase of Disney music was launched in earnest with the success of Frank Churchill's "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" in Three Little Pigs (1933). This landmark song was conceived only to serve a simple functional purpose in the short: the two playful Pigs sang it to express their carefree personalities and to tease their hard-working brother. As heard in the film, however, the song exercised an irresistible appeal of its own.
Three Little Pigs opened in the spring of 1933, and its subsequent success story has become a matter of record. Similarly, the extraordinary success of "Who's Afraid" is now well known; quite unexpectedly, the Disney studio found itself with a hit song. Soon "Who's Afraid" appeared in sheet-music form, published by Irving Berlin, Inc. and embellished with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell. (In recent years her contribution has been disputed--inexplicably, since the "additional lyrics" attributed to her are embarrassing at best.) By the end of 1933, at least a dozen recordings of "Who's Afraid" had been issued by various record labels, and several of those recordings were further "milked" by recoupling with alternate B-sides or on subsidiary labels. One side by Harry Reser and His Eskimos, recorded in October 1933, was used on seven different records!
Perhaps spurred by this overwhelming success, the Disney studio began to inject more original songs into the Silly Symphonies. Songs, or sung dialogue, had been heard in the series before Three Little Pigs, but now the Disney musicians seemed to be composing songs with the popular-music market in mind. Lullaby Land, produced in the spring and summer of 1933 as Three Little Pigs was first appearing in theaters, illustrates the trend. The Lullaby Land score was composed primarily by Leigh Harline, but Frank Churchill, fresh from "Who's Afraid," contributed a theme song titled "Lullaby Land of Nowhere." This song not only helped set the mood of the film but was also a pleasant tune in its own right, and enjoyed a modest life of its own apart from the film.
Story development of another Symphony, Grasshopper and the Ants, took place in the autumn of 1933 while the "Who's Afraid" recording boom was at its height. Coincidentally or not, great care was taken to develop a theme song for the Grasshopper; pages of tentative lyric suggestions survive today as evidence. The result was Leigh Harline and Larry Morey's "The World Owes Me a Living," a number which, though undeniably catchy, failed to duplicate the runaway success of "Who's Afraid" when Grasshopper and the Ants was released early in 1934.
Still, the Grasshopper's song did realize a nominal success. It was published and recorded, and it also achieved a curious immortality at the Disney studio itself. During a nightmare sequence in Mickey's Garden (1935), the orchestral score quotes a few bars of "The World Owes Me a Living"--whereupon Mickey Mouse looks around to find himself menaced by a giant grasshopper! Still later in 1935, Goofy makes his first appearance in On Ice singing "The World Owes Me a Living." Why was the Grasshopper's song given to the Goof? The only connection between the two characters was gag man/vocalist Pinto Colvig, who had supplied the same voice for both characters. As slight as this connection may seem, it was enough to justify the adoption of "The World Owes Me" as a sort of unofficial theme song, both vocal and instrumental, for Goofy in numerous cartoons over the next 15 years. As late as 1950, in Lion Down, he can be heard singing it.
The Wise Little Hen (voice by Florence Gill) sings Leigh Harline and Larry Morey's "Help Me Plant My Corn" in The Wise Little Hen (1934).
Then Came the Deluge
After Grasshopper and the Ants came the deluge. Virtually every subsequent 1934 Symphony included an original song of some kind, written by either Churchill or Harline. The title character in The Wise Little Hen sings "Help Me Plant My Corn," the Three Pigs reprise "Who's Afraid" in The Big Bad Wolf, while other songs, like "See the Funny Little Bunnies" in Funny Little Bunnies or "The Penguin Is a Very Funny Creature" in Peculiar Penguins, are sung by offscreen choruses. (One seeming omission from the hit parade is The Tortoise and the Hare; the song "Slow But Sure," written by Churchill and Morey for that film, is never sung in the finished version but is used as an instrumental theme.)
All of these songs, of course, were kept subservient to the overall flow of the pictures; the Silly Symphonies were never reduced to mere showcases for popular songs. Songs in the Symphonies always helped to establish a character or a mood, and were deftly integrated into the action and incidental scores of the pictures. In The Flying Mouse, for example, the song "You're Nothin' But a Nothin'" occupies a scant 35 seconds of screen time, a brief, mocking snippet of music sung to the title character by a gang of evil-looking bats. Apart from the film, however, the song was published and recorded by several popular dance bands.
As the Silly Symphonies continued into 1935, the string of original songs continued apace: "Dirty Bill" in The Robber Kitten, "The Sweetest One of All" in The Cookie Carnival, "We're Gonna Get Out of the Dumps" in Broken Toys. The title song in Water Babies, like "Slow But Sure" the year before, was written as a vocal song but was heard in the film only in instrumental form. One of the most brilliant Symphonies, Who Killed Cock Robin?, featured several new songs. In a key sequence Jenny Wren, designed as a caricature of Mae West, struts into the courtroom singing Churchill's "Somebody Rubbed Out My Robin," a canny and hilarious sendup of Mae West's own songs.
Offscreen choruses provided the songs in several Silly Symphonies, such as Harline and Morey's "The Penguin is a Very Funny Creature" in Peculiar Penguins (1934).
After late 1935 the use of original songs in the series suddenly declined. Interestingly, in a few isolated but marked cases, the studio began again to turn to outside sources for songs. The title characters in Three Orphan Kittens (1935) find their way onto a player piano and accidentally start it playing; the tune is, appropriately enough, Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys." An all-insect orchestra in Woodland Café (1937) gives out with a hot rendition of Ted Koehler and Rube Bloom's "Truckin'," introduced two years earlier. Perhaps the most significant of these later "borrowings" is in Cock o' the Walk (1935). This short was produced when the Disney films were still being distributed by United Artists, but overtures had already begun which would lead to a new Disney distribution arrangement with RKO Radio in 1937. Fully half the screen time of Cock o' the Walk is accompanied by an instrumental version of the Vincent Youmans-Gus Kahn-Edward Eliscu hit "The Carioca"--introduced two years earlier in an RKO feature, Flying Down to Rio.
In any case, if the practice of original songs was disappearing from the Silly Symphonies, the days of the Symphonies themselves were numbered. By 1936 serious work was under way on the studio's first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Soon development had begun on other features as well, and those projects increasingly usurped the role of the Symphonies by absorbing the studio's top talent--including its composers. Accordingly, within a few short years the Disney features began to introduce popular songs that would become standards: "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Whistle While You Work," "When You Wish Upon a Star," and many more. In this domain--as in so many others--the Silly Symphonies led the way.
J.B. Kaufman is an independent film historian who has written extensively on early Disney animation. He is co-author, with Russell Merritt, of Walt in Wonderland, and the two are currently completing a second book on the Silly Symphonies, to be published by La Cineteca del Friuli in 1998.
*As quoted by Mike Barrier and Milt Gray in Funnyworld 13 (Spring 1971) p. 22.
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