Leon Schlesinger hired several composers to create the music for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies between the 1930s and 1960s, but the same way that Mel Blanc is the main person you remember when you think about the voices of Looney Tunes, Carl W. Stalling’s work is what you mainly remember when you think about the music of Looney Tunes. He has worked as the musical director for WB’s cartoons for over 20 years during their most creative period and was an important part of Looney Tunes history as well as animation history.
Born in Lexington, Missouri in 1891, he was playing the piano since the age of 6 and became the principal pianist at his hometown’s silent movie house at the age of 12, accompanying the pictures on screen with his music.
By his 20s, Stalling was conducting orchestras at the Isis Movie Theatre in Kansas City. Even back then Stalling showed a knack for sampling famous compositions and improvising around them with his own compositions, something he would be known for doing at WB’s animation studio.
It was in Kansas City where Carl Stalling first met Walt Disney who was producing cartoons in Kansas City. When the two met, they agreed to help each other out. Stalling arranged for the theatre to screen Walt Disney’s cartoons while Stalling promised to accompany them with his piano playing.
Carl Stalling and Walt Disney remained friends even after Walt moved to California. Walt even asked Stalling to compose the first Mickey Mouse silent films Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which led Walt to ask Stalling to move to California to be Disney’s main music director. An important moment in animation history because it was at the Disney studio where Stalling set the standard for composing animated films in Hollywood.
It was actually Stalling who inspired Walt Disney to create the Silly Symphony cartoons following discussions between the two men on whether animation or music should come first in the creation of animated films. In the Mickey Mouse cartoons the music would support the animation, but in the Silly Symphonies the music would inspire the animation.
The first Silly Symphony The Skeleton Dance (1929) was arranged and composed by Stalling, and the music-first format of the series would allow Stalling to be free to improvise and experiment with the music.
The close synchronization of the music with the action on screen via Stalling’s innovative use of “bar sheets” and an early version of the click track system that would become the norm was first pioneered at Disney and came to be known as “Mickey Mousing” by industry insiders. Without this innovation, films like Disney’s Fantasia would not exist.
After two years at Disney, Stalling left to search for new creative outlets. After a short stint at Ub Iwerks’ animation studio where he also served as musical director, Stalling was hired by Warner Bros. animation producer Leon Schlesinger upon Stalling’s reputation as a talented composer as well as the recommendation of WB storyman and Bugs Bunny co-creator Ben Hardaway who worked alongside Stalling at Iwerks’ studio.
Stalling served as musical director for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series from 1936 until his retirement in 1958, ultimately ending up being credited for over 600 animated films over the course of 22 years.
At Warner Bros., Stalling had full access to the studio’s fifty-piece orchestra and was even encouraged by WB executives to sample as many of the songs in WB’s musical library as possible (free advertising) which led to a lot of creative uses of popular music. In fact, the use of familiar music in the WB cartoons is a tradition that has carried over into such modern shows as Taz-Mania, Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs.
Examples of Stalling’s sampling in the WB cartoons include:
“Powerhouse” – an instrumental by Raymond Scott often accompanying scenes involving machinery, factories or some form of repetitive labor.
“How Dry I Am” by Irving Berlin in scenes involving drunk characters.
“We’re in the Money” from the film Gold Diggers of 1933 in scenes involving great wealth and characters striking it rich.
“Oh, You Beautiful Doll” in scenes involving attractive women or characters in drag.
“Goblins in the Steeple” in scenes of a spooky or supernatural nature.
“California, Here I Come” from the 1921 Broadway musical Bombo in scenes involving characters making hasty departures.
“The Arkansas Traveller” in scenes involving hillbillies and yokels.
“42nd Street” from the 1933 stage musical of the same name in scenes taking place in big city locales.
Stalling also had various theme songs to represent certain parts of the world such as “Oh du lieber Augustin” for Germany.
“La Cucaracha” for Mexico.
“Alouette” for France.
“The Streets of Cairo” for Egypt or any Arabian country.
Plus there was “Rule Brittania!” (Great Britain), “Song of the Volga Boatmen” (Russia), “Largo al factotum” (Italy) , and the “Oriental riff” (any part of East Asia).
Other samplings include “Sobre las Olas” in scenes involving acrobatic feats, “Freddy the Freshman” in scenes involving football and athletic competitions, Raymond Scott’s “In an 18th Century Drawing Room” which was basically Granny’s theme song as well as frequent on-the-nose samplings of “William Tell Overture,” “Oh! Susanna,” “A-Hunting We Will Go,” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?,” “Aloha ‘Oe” and “The Chicken Reel.”
And this is far from all of the songs he has borrowed from. He also uses a lot of classical music and opera such as Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance” in Pigs in a Polka, Smetana’s “Dance of the Comedians” in the Roadrunner cartoons and various works in the Wagner-feuled What’s Opera Doc?
Watching these cartoons is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes. They are practically an education in music. If not for Stalling I may not have become a fan of classical music.
Now go to YouTube and listen to all these songs so you can know what the hell I’ve just been talking about, young people.