Tuesday, August 3, 2010

No More Stalling

Mention the Golden Age of Warner Bros. cartoons, and people will shout "Bugs Bunny!" "Road Runner!" "Daffy Duck!" Or maybe remember specific favorites: "The Singing Frog!" "Duck Dodgers!" "Duck Amuck was better." "The Wagner one... you know, What's Opera, Doc?" Someone will name Chuck Jones, of course. And someone else Bob Clampett. And then: "Wasn't Tex Avery involved there briefly?" "Oh, and what about Mel Blanc, all those voices he did..." And every one of those call-outs will have been appropriate, and important to the history of the Warner Studio animation unit--where busy, eagerly active animators (that's a joke, son) toiled for a pittance of wages (soppy strings now) in a building known as "Termite Terrace" (chomping effects) in honor of some critters they shared the space with (ba-da boom).

Less commonly mentioned, though not quite unsung--let's say "faintly sung" instead--is the man whose credit appeared on over 600 cartoons, Carl Stalling, composer and conductor of the wacky and wonderful music that graced, or improved, or saved outright, 'toon after 'toon after 'toon. So it's rather unjust that he should be so little known, considering that he labored for Warner Bros. for over 20 years--and ironic given the genre title of all those cartoons: "Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies"!

Stalling wasn't the cartoon unit's first music director, but when he joined in 1936, immediately the music for every cartoon took on new life. Six or seven minutes of perfectly timed zingers; instant fragments, precisely placed and right on cue, that popped up, then vanished in the on-rushing flow. Brief interpolations from some Classical piece by Mendelssohn or Strauss; or a favorite theme written by Raymond Scott; or some newer tune owned by Warner in its ever-expanding filmscore library. But above all, an astonishing, improbably unified field of orchestral music that was somehow 80 or 90 percent Stalling's own: a zigzagging, lollygagging, speed-bagging, piano-ragging, subconscious-nagging composition that might be all of a piece and startling in its apt beauty; or be just brilliant bits strung together, seven seconds of madly sawing strings, bathos and bassoonery, followed by three seconds of solo-flute euphoria, then a four-note fanfare leading to a comic passage mixing oboe, timpani, and chicken squawks, a sudden Satchmo burst of hot trumpet fading into a brief clip from the LT&MM theme itself, and then onward... One could not anticipate what to expect next or at any instant but, however momentarily unsubtle, each score would play so perfectly, reinforcing the great color visuals, that most of it wouldn't even be noticed by the audience; responded to but not really heard.

Stalling worked with the producers and directors and sound effects men at the beginning of each project to plan out all scenes and timings, and then took a week to compose and/or arrange those merry moments of melody. The assembled new piece was then orchestrated by arranger cohort Milt Franklyn and finally conducted by Carl himself at the recording session, typically using an orchestra of 50 musicians; and by the time the animation was complete, so was Stalling's latest looney tune, precisely ready to synch up to picture. And this went on week after week, month after month, for 22 years.

By the mid-Fifties, however, Stalling and the surviving animators could see the writing on the wall. Movies weren't as financially successful, mostly thanks to that upstart called television. Short subjects weren't wanted any more, as theaters sought to squeeze in more screenings of the feature only. It was clear the Warner unit would be shutting down. Carl retired in 1958, and top animators like Chuck Jones were soon out on their own too, establishing their own production companies, still creating where possible. Presumably Carl could have composed for his old pals, but as far as I know, no such reunion of talents occurred. He stayed retired and mostly withdrawn until his death in 1972.

By then, of course, the old Warner Bros. cartoons had become hot items again, popular as comic nostalgia and classic animation both. Collections of the best cartoons appeared, on video at first and then revived for DVD sales. The creators and front office honchos got their credits once more, belatedly writ larger; and even Stalling's scores were accorded some critical attention. Among serious fans a push began to save and promote Carl's music. It took some years, but in 1990 a splendid CD appeared, The Carl Stalling Project: Music from Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958 (Warner Bros. Records W2 26027), thanks to the steady advocacy and then production assistance of various influential people: music producer Hal Willner, animation expert Greg Ford, avant garde Jazz guitarist John Zorn, Jazz and Vocals and animation critic Will Friedwald, and several others. Still available today, the Stalling CD offers a mixture of inspired bits, extended passages assembled in medleys, and some entire cartoon scores; he and orchestrator Franklyn and some musicians are also heard discussing interpretation of details during recording.

One might assume that Stalling's scores without the classic animation they were composed to accompany would be uninteresting curiosities, but not so. Instead, his mile-a-minute changes and far-ranging quotations and appropriate musical compositions meld into a Symphony of 20th Century Popular Music (the first half, anyway)--wildly inventive, effortlessly bouyant, unstintingly comic, unexpectedly tender; a font of fun in the ear of the behearer.

The first CD proved so popular, in fact, that a second was issued in 1995, The Carl Stalling Project Volume 2: More Music from Warner Bros. Cartoons 1939-1957 (Warner Bros. Records 9 45430-2). For the second selection, more whole scores and through-composed passages are present, and fewer disconnected fragments. Between the two CDs, a listener hears part or all of such famous cartoons, among many more, as Hillbilly Hare, Rabbit Fire, Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, Zoom and Bored, Gorilla My Dreams, Putty Tat Trouble, Ghost Wanted, Curtain Razor, Speedy Gonzales, Barbary Coast Bunny, Scent-imental Romeo, Mouse Mazurka, Scrambled Aches, Porky in Wackyland, and To Itch His Own (with the last music he composed for Warner).

Rather than serve up more historical (or hysterical) hype, I'm just going to suggest that any fan of Jazz, Classical, or Pop Music, comedy, animation, the ins-and-outs of pop culture, or laugh-out-loud surprises owes it to his/her good health and joy to own and listen occasionally to at least one of Carl's cartoon CDs. It wouldn't hurt to watch some 'toons either.

There's no more Stalling.


Alan Kurtz said...

avant garde Jazz "guitarist" John Zorn? Wikipedia says Zorn learned piano, guitar and flute as a child, but I wonder if he was an avant-gardist back then? Has he played the guitar in public as an adult?

I Witness said...

Answer is yes, many recordings and live concerts from Seventies to Nineties at least; much experimental noise. Don't know what he's doing these days aside from a klezmer band (i think).

Ed L. said...

... but i should have said multi-instrumentalist or saxophonist or something broader than just guitar (which was how i had heard him).