Toon Town!

Written by WL Woodward

I think  was in my teens before I realized that the couple thousand Warner Brothers cartoons I’d seen since I could remember with a big bowl of Rice Krispies in my lap used written music, actual musical scores written by somebody to add sound effects as well as background.  And a new world opened.   I started reading opening credits and wondering who people like Carl Stalling, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc were.  The first revelation was that one guy, Mel Blanc, did all the character voices.  All of them.  Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and Foghorn.  Yosemite, Pepe, Tweety, Sylvester and Wile E. [Well—Elmer Fudd was done by Arthur Q. Bryan, who was never credited on-screen. —Picky Ed.] Also, dig this, Barney Rubble.  Once you realize this, you can hear the similarities in the voices, but not only were these all unique voices they were all unique characters.  If I listen to a couple of Foghorn Leghorn toons I start to think, I say think, in that voice.  Know what I’m sayin son?  Look at me when Ah’m talkin to ya boy.  (Boy’s about as sharp as a sack fulla wet mice). 

In 1929 Warner Brothers bought Brunswick Records and their library and were keen to promote their library for sheet music and record sales.  In that same year Walt Disney, with Carl Stalling his recently hired music director, created Silly Symphonies.  Stalling   created the score and arrangement for The Skeleton Dance.  I remember this one.  We used to see it around Halloween, probably on The Wonderful World of Disney.  Creepy stuff.  Must have scared the crap out of the kids in the theaters.  But Disney and Stalling were just discovering the uses of music in short films (They didn’t like, I say didn’t like to call them cartoons).  Steamboat Willie, the first synchronized sound cartoon which introduced Mickey and Minnie, had just come out the year before.  Disney was a creative genius that a lot of people copied over the years, and Warner Brothers had no more pride than the rest.  So they hired Leon Schlesinger, who with WB created and produced Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.  But whereas Disney was trying to create and explore, WB wanted a vehicle to showcase that music library.  Short producers working for Warner had to have one of their songs in every film.  These guys, cartoonists in nature, struggled with this until Schlesinger hired Stalling away from Disney.

Stalling was thrilled to be working with such a large library, and became the musical director for most of what is called the Golden Age of Animation, roughly 1930 to 1958 when Stalling retired.  His innovation was to use snippets of popular songs, anywhere from 2 seconds to 2 minutes as a musical gag.  Most people from my generation can picture a multicolored train engine puffing its way through a few bars of California Here I Come.  And also using the score for comic effects.

Stalling worked this magic by meeting with the director before the animation process started.  They worked up story boards and set up the time signatures for the film.  Animators measured frames per beat according to the time set by the director and Stalling.  After the animation was complete Stalling was given what he termed bar sheets, which broke the animation, dialogue and studio sound effects into musical bars or separations which Stalling would use to write the score.

Remember that in the early days of animation families went to the theater where they’d see a news reel, a few short films by Disney or WB, then the feature film.  The cartoons had to appeal to the adults as well as the kids.  So the great directors like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Robert McKimson worked hard at achieving broad appeal by laying in jokes for the adults as well.  So as the kids grew up they would discover these new levels each time they re-watched an old favorite.

Check this short and listen for the popular songs used as chase scenes and background, as well as the instruments doing sound effects.

Carl Stalling came up with using music for effect as well as background quite naturally.  When Disney hired him for a couple of the first Disney scores Stalling was working as an organist/pianist in St Louis silent film theaters.  None of us are old enough to remember any of that but we know the history.  The films were silent, but were usually accompanied by a score, especially important films, and the music was handed to the musician the night of the performance.  And the music had to follow the beat and timing of the film, so the organist had to develop a sense of what was needed from the music.  Disney early on recognized that moving to sound pictures would require the score to follow.  So he hired one of the better known silent film organists in St. Louis to score his short films.

Stalling used Warner Brothers’ 50 piece orchestra to perform his scores, first practicing the music, then going into the studio to synch the finished score live with the film.  This orchestra was usually used as background for full feature films, which was pretty straightforward work which they could usually sight read.   What they faced when working for Stalling was a complex series of stops, starts, instrumental whack-a-doodling, and song integration that challenged the best of them.  This was jazz in a very unique form.

Carl Stalling wrote a Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies score a week for 22 years.  Sometime in the late 60s cartoons began to lose favor as we all grew up, and the shorts went from theater fare to TV.  Production was getting expensive and took too long.  Even Disney Studios were struggling during this period after Walt transitioned to full feature films which hardly cut down on the costs.  The empire of Bugs Bunny was crumbling, and in 1967 Warner Brothers shut down their animation operations.

I remember there was a rumor at the time that linked Bugs romantically with the Easter Bunny, and the resultant scandal forced the studio to stop production.  I never believed the rumors myself.  I always blamed that little rat Mickey Mouse who frankly was over-rated and would have been nothing without Donald Duck and Goofy.  Then Goofy developed a serious cocaine problem and went into rehab.  Donald tried to start a fried bird franchise that failed for poor marketing and went broke.  Minnie left Mickey and ran off with Pepe Le Pew.  Bugs ran for the State Senate in California from San Francisco’s third district and won, held his seat for 8 terms.  The studios were breaking up, and there was no new talent on the horizon.

But we have the recordings and videos.  And Rice Krispies is still my favorite cereal, because it has Ah say it has those smiley memories in every snap, crackle and pop.

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