Ah, Such Beautiful Music

I am old enough to remember when TV stations had hosts who showed cartoons. I used to watch such hosts as Sandy Becker in New York in the early 1960’s and Brakeman Bill in the Seattle/Tacoma area in the latter part of the decade. A mainstay of both of their programs was old Warner Brother’s cartoons.

Brakeman Bill, 1955 Photo: Tacoma Public Library

The Warner’s cartoons were my favorites, especially the ones from the 1940’s. Those were made before the artwork was “stylized” – meaning simplified artwork so the cartoons could be made quickly and less expensively. I would not quite say “cheaply” yet: those cartoons would come in the ‘60’s after the advent of the Hanna Barbera cookie-cutter cartoons that were made for TV.

There is another thing about those cartoons that make them first rate: the music. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies originally had two purposes. The first was to plug Warner Brother’s movies. Many cartoons from the 1930’s had names that were the same as or were a play on the names of Warner feature films. The other reason was to plug the Warner music catalogue. Getting people to hear the music was important. If people enjoyed the cartoons, great but it was a secondary concern. It was purely a business decision.

To handle the music Warner’s brought in someone who had worked for Walt Disney: Carl W. Stalling. As Chuck Jones, Warner’s animator, explains in this video, Stalling had been the organ player and orchestra conductor in Kansas City.

Chuck Jones, Warner’s director

Disney was a young animator also from Kansas City who heard Stalling at work and was greatly impressed. The two began to work together. They kept in touch once Disney moved to California, . Stalling would later go out to California as well. Stalling worked for Disney for two years, then freelanced for several years. He was hired by Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s animation producer, in 1936.

Skeleton Dance from 1929, animated by Disney with Music by Stalling

Stalling had a terrific memory for music and had the entire Warner’s music catalog to work with. He also had the full Warner’s orchestra as well. I saw Leonard Maltin speak in 1980 after the release of his book Of Mice and Magic. As Maltin explained, Max Steiner would finish a session recording the music for the latest big production, then Stalling would come in and record the music for the next Looney Tunes.

Leonard Matlin’s great book from 1980 about the history of cartoons Photo: Amazon.com

There was no editing of the music. The timing of the film had all been worked out. Stalling would work out the musical arrangement and it would be recorded straight through.

The orchestration was magnificent. Sometimes I will watch a cartoon just to hear the music. One of my favorites is the opening of the 1941 cartoon Wabbit Twouble (released two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Stalling’s opening rendition of Says Who, Says You, Says Me swings. I just wish it was longer. He returns to that theme later in the cartoon, but it is more sedate the second time.

Opening of Wabbit Twouble, 1941

Stalling often would uses just a few short bars of a song. Often, the song would have some tie-in to the action on the screen. If there is food, you can bet that the music is from A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You. Another song that Stalling used often was Powerhouse, a bizarre 1937 tune that you almost would have thought was an original to be used in hectic scenes. (It was also licensed for use in Ren and Stimpy cartoons in the 1990’s)

This is from 1937?

The old Warner’s cartoons are under copyright and those copyrights are closely protected so I can’t give you much in the way of samples, but if you have a chance, go watch some of the old cartoons. Maybe you are old enough or know enough about history to know what such lines as “Turn out that light” and “Is this trip really necessary?” mean.

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