Carl Stalling: cartoon music pioneer

Soon after his first cartoon with music (Steamboat Willie, 1928), Walt Disney hired Carl Stalling as his music director.  Stalling provided music for many more cartoons over the next few years, including the earliest Silly Symphonies. Beginning in 1936, he worked for Warner Bros. and wrote all of the cartoon music there (including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, Porky Pig, and Sylvester) for 22 years until his retirement in 1958.

Stalling saw his first movie at age 12 in1903 and vowed to be involved in movies in some way. Seven years later, he got his first job, playing in a movie theater in Independence, Missouri. For more than 20 years he played piano or organ and directed theater orchestras. He could distribute music for the orchestra to accompany feature films, but for cartoons and newsreels, he could only improvise.

In a way, as he recalled later, he was composing for films before he ever met Disney; he just didn’t write the music out. Disney was unwilling to pay royalties for any music under copyright when Stalling worked for him. Stalling either had to use earlier music (like Stephen Foster or nineteenth-century operatic music) or write something that sounded like it. At Warner Bros., he could also use current popular hits.

Stalling loved musical puns. For example, when Sylvester swallowed some soap, Stalling used “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” to accompany the bubbles Sylvester hiccuped. Although some of the directors at Warner Bros. complained about the puns and borrowing, and considered composers at other studios more original and serious, Stalling insisted that his music was about 80 or 90 percent original. “It had to be,” he said, “because you had to match the music to the action.”

He is said to have invented the click track, a system by which the musicians could stay synchronized to the action. He used exposure sheets, which broke the picture down frame by frame. Twelve frames of film went through the projector in exactly half a second. That enabled Stalling to plan out the music, including abrupt style changes when the mood or scene changed.

Perhaps because the soundtrack played such an important part in the impact of the cartoon and because Stalling incorporated so much classical music, he has served as the introduction  to classical music for generations of listeners. Listeners and critics today increasingly appreciate the artistry of Stalling’s more original music.

For excerpts from Stalling’s only interview, see Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 421-27.


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