I write about Disney a lot. There are a couple of reasons for this; first and foremost is that, what with one thing and another, I had a lot of exposure to Disney as a kid, and it shapes you. However, there’s also the fact that a lot of talent has gone through the Disney studios over the years. As exemplified by Carl W. Stalling. Because I thought, “I was considering George Bruns [not Burns; this one was a composer for Disney] for today, but maybe a different studio. Maybe someone who worked for Warners?” Only to discover that iconic Warner Bros. Composer Carl Stalling had in fact gotten his start working for Disney back in the days when what he did was write scores to be sent to the studios along with the cartoon, because Disney wasn’t doing synchronized sound yet.
It is literally impossible to live in modern society and have any connection with popular culture and be unfamiliar with the work of Carl Stalling. Even if much of what he did was adaptation, he still scored hundreds of cartoons. He produced an average of a score a week for twenty-two years, and even though all those scores were for seven-minute cartoons, that’s still a lot of work. And among those cartoons are some of the most famous cartoons of all time—he left Disney in 1930 and still helped produce “The Skeleton Dance.” Not to mention having written “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” used as her theme for decades. And, it turns out, he was the first voice of Mickey Mouse, even before Walt?
And while Milt Franklyn did “What’s Opera, Doc?” and not Stalling, Stalling did do “Rabbit of Seville,” the other great classic of classical Warners cartoons. And “Duck Amuck,” hands down my favourite of the Warners cartoons. And hundreds of others, both great (“Barbary-Coast Bunny,” “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!”) and not-so-great (“Easter Yeggs,” “Sniffles Takes a Trip”). A score a year for twenty-two years works out to works out to over eleven hundred scores, after all.
Not only that, but he pioneered a lot of the techniques of writing music for animation, developing ways to synchronize music and visuals. He was known for coordinating music with storyboards. In part, this was purely practical; while he started at Disney, he worked under Schlesinger, who required every cartoon produced at his studios to be exactly seven minutes—the minimum length allowed—and did not allow editing after the fact. All details on how to synchronize animation and music were necessary to deal with the insane Warners cost-cutting requirements. While working on “The Skeleton Dance,” which required extremely precise synchronization, he developed a predecessor of the modern “click track.”
Warners encouraged Stalling’s borrowing of their musical catalog, on the grounds that it would be good cross-promotion for the cartoon and whatever he was borrowing the music from. He was allowed to conduct the Warners orchestra, adding a lushness to the music that few other cartoons have ever had. He was also fond of musical jokes, putting certain popular songs into the cartoon every time they were relevant, such as “We’re in the Money” and “Home! Sweet Home!” His music shifted mood as often as the cartoons themselves. Really, the more I write, the happier I am that I chose to write about him, even if I didn’t quite manage to dodge the Disney connection after all.