If you ever think of Warner Bros. cartoons, you probably think in terms of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the other animated characters to "come to life" in the "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" the studio released steadily to theaters from 1930 to 1969.
Music was a part of those cartoons, but from the vantage point of watching since I was a kid - and, since the advent of VCRs, amassing a collection of over 77 percent of them - the standout musical period for me was what I'll call the Carl Stalling era, from 1936 to 1958.Now Warner Bros. records has released "The Carl Stalling Project," an album available on cassette or compact disc, with just under 78 minutes of Stalling's music from some of the classic cartoons over those years. The albums's executive producer, Greg Ford, and producer, Hal Willner, were able to go into the Warner vaults and come up with straight music tracks in some instances and music- and sound-effects tracks in others to put together the selections that make up the album.
The package has extensive liner notes by Ford, Willner and others, some of them difficult to read because of the lack of contrast between black print and medium-to-dark backgrounds.
Stalling had able competition at some of the other studios in the area of scoring for animated shorts, but he had advantages at Warners. One was access to the full Warner Bros. studio orchestra, around 50 members strong, which seems to be playing with a fairly high degree of enthusiasm. Another was free access to hundreds of popular songs from the studio's movies and the several music-publishing firms the studio owned or controlled. Still another was a well-developed ability to write original themes that complemented the songs and classical music "quotes" he used, all of them helping what was going on in a cartoon without distracting from it.
Stalling came to Warner Bros. well prepared. He had been an organist and orchestra-conductor for silent movies in Kansas City, where he developed a knack for matching songs to what was happening on screen. He was brought to Hollywood by Walt Disney in 1928 and worked at the Disney studio for two years, not only composing and arranging the music for the historic 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Steamboat Willie" but also proposing the idea for the 1929 short "The Skeleton Dance," scoring it and launching the "Silly Symphony" series. He spent the next six years at fellow ex-Disneyite Ub Iwerks' studio honing his craft, coming to the Warner operation when the Iwerks studio closed.
You could logically ask whether music lifted from a cartoon soundtrack is able to stand by itself; I'd say: "yes." In cuts like the music track of the Disneyesque 1938 "Merrie Melody" titled "The Good Egg," it could help to know the story line about a chickless hen that raises a turtle from egghood who later rescues some of the other hens' chicks from drowning. The various themes would have more meaning, such as the quick-tempo toy-band arrangement of Schubert's "Marche Militaire" accompanying the chicks' playing soldiers-on-parade.
But the various themes Stalling uses to set the scene and mood for this and others cartoons, making full use of the expressive capabilities of the string, brass, woodwind and percussion sections of the Warner orchestra, are still enjoyable on their own.
This album also gives you a chance to hear Stalling parodying himself. In the music for the 1941 "Porky's Preview," off-key violins imitate the electric-guitar opening ascending chord that begins the "Looney Tunes" theme "The Merry-go-round Broke Down." Things go hilariously downhill from there, with deliberately off-key and/or thin and tinny renditions of "The Old Grey Mare," "La Cucheracha," "Aloha Oe" and others. The stick-figure images on screen are a great spoof in and of themselves, but that's another story.
Another enjoyable part of this album is hearing part of a recording session for a 1951 Tweety-Sylvester cartoon called "Putty Tat Trouble."
At one point in the session Stalling's assistant, Milt Franklyn, who according to the liner notes is conducting the session with Stalling observing, has the orchestra repeating takes, with the click-track counting time at the start of each take, of a passage with a descending note-pattern denoting Tweety running down Sylvester's throat in a desperate attempt to escape a rival orange tabby cat, with the cat reaching down Sylvester's throat almost full-arm-length, the music changing to an ascending note-pattern as the cat brings Tweety up Sylvester's throat and out of his mouth.
After the third take Franklyn says, "Once more, this'll be the one - once more." After the the fourth take, which does have subtly better timing within the different instrumental sections, Franklyn says with quiet satisfaction: "That's the one."