Reflections on the Creativity of Cartoon Accompaniment

I am enjoying the synchronicity across the various textsI have been consuming for a paper I am writing on thematic music (e.g., comedy music, Chinese music). I am currently reading Daniel Goldmark’s “Tunes for Toons: Music and the HollyTunes for Toons Coverwood Cartoon.

I found this book in one of my literature searches for papers on the referential meaning of music. The book title and summary intrigued me. The title of one of the chapters (Chapter 2 – “You Really Do Beat The Shit Out of That Cat: Scott Bradley’s Violent Music For MGM”) got me curious enough to check the book out from our library and I’m glad I did. This book is well-written and clear. It is also one of the more interesting scholarly books I have read. Even though it is only marginally related to what I am writing and the research I am conducting, it is fascinating to learn how music accompanists at the beginning of the film industry chose which music to use to accompany the action in the film (for silent films) or how the early film soundtracks were chosen and/or created. This was especially true for the cartoons of the time. Since cartoons weren’t really taken seriously as art, the music accompaniment could be very creative. I enjoy reading how this creativity was manifested in the early days of film.
For example, popular tunes were more likely to be chosen to accompany the action in a cartoon than a serious movie. By doing so, the accompanist could enhance the on-screen humor through the choice of songs. One way they could do this was to select a song that heightened or emphasized the on-screen humor, essentially cuing the audience that something funny was occurring. Another method of enhancing the humor of a film was to choose songs to accompany the film that intentionally went against the intended mood of the on-screen action. This particular use of music by the accompanist was sometimes engaged in even if the current scene was not intended to be humorous just to get a laugh out of the audience. Another article I recently read (“American Valkyries: Richard Wagner, D.W. Griffith, and the birth of classical cinema” by Smith, S.M. (2008)) made the point that many film critics decried this particular practice. They argued that the use of such devices pandered to a “theater of attractions” in which the purpose of film was simply for entertainment. This was a problem for those critical of the practice because there was a movement at that time (early 1900’s) towards film becoming a “theater of narrative integration” in which storyline, character development and immersion in the narrative was the goal of the film. The reformers were hoping that moving film from a theater of attractions to a theater of narrative integration would similarly move film’s reputation from “just” being entertainment to being an art form.

The lady in Red Warner brothers cartoonAs the film reformers experienced success in reforming the film industry, accompanist practices that intentionally and humorously deviated from the cinematic intent of the film became confined to comedies and cartoons because narrative integration and character development were not the goals of cartoons and comic shorts at that time. This left the accompanist free to make whatever creative choices they deemed necessary to enhance the entertainment value of the film. Sometimes, they chose a song in which the music mood went against the mood of the action occurring in the film (e.g., cheerful music played during a funeral scene). A more clever application of this technique in cartoons and comedies was to choose a popular song to accompany the the film action for which the song’s lyrics explicitly went against the grain of the action occurring in the film. Since the music accompanying the film was alsways lyric free, the gag would only be appreciated by the audience members who recognized the tune and realized the discrepancy between the film action and the popular tune’s lyrics. Accompanists who adeptly and frequently used this technique were known as “film funners” and the technique often became their stock in trade. This was certainly true of the great Warner Brothers cartoon soundtrack specialist, Carl Stalling.
Carl Stalling had been a film accompanist since 1910. While working as an accompanist, he became adept at using and adapting the popular songs of the day to enhance and supplement the action on the screen. Stalling joined Warner Brothers in 1936 with over 20 years of experience choosing, adapting and composing music to accompany film. The technique he enjoyed using the most though was choosing popular songs to accompany a scene that served as a comic gag or inside joke for the audience. For example, if the scene in the cartoon featured a woman in a red dress, Stalling would choose the song “The Lady in Red” to play during the scene. In this sense he remained a film funner throughout his 30 year career at Warner Brothers.

Stalling’s extensive use of the film funning technique described above was not always appreciated. Several of his co-workers criticized his choice to accompany the WB cartoons in this way (rather than creating original compositions or arrangements) as lazy work. Some of the directors of the cartoons Stalling worked on worried that audience members would not get Stalling’s musical in-jokes because they didn’t recognize the music being played. They argued that, in those situations, Stalling’s use of those particular songs was not adding value to the cartoon. That said, Stalling was always careful to not allow the music to detract from the film. Even when the audience did not get the joke he intended through his music selection, the music still functioned perfectly to enhance and supplement the action on the screen.
The fact that Stalling continued to tell jokes through his music selection throughout his career suggests that he was doing so as much for himself as he was for his audience. Choosing, adapting or composing music to accompany cartoons allowed Stalling considerable creative freedom. Cartoons were not expected to be a part of the “theater of narrative integration.” They were all about entertainment. This allowed composers such as Stalling considerable freedom to move away from the “master narrative” and employ techniques that “exhaustively investigate, discover, and create new meanings and spectacle”s (Goldmark, 2005, p.24).
As I work my way through Goldmark’s book, I have enjoyed reading his breakdown of the music used in particular Warner Brother cartoons. One of the cartoons the author focused on was “Bugs Bunny Rides Again.” I discovered that I could watch this cartoon on metacafe and it was one I remember watching (and enjoying) as a child. Having read about the techniques Stalling employed creating the soundtracks for his cartoons and what he did for this cartoon in particular, allowed me to watch this cartoon with new eyes. I was able to appreciate some of the obvious gags and skillful adaptation of the music to the scene. Since the creation of this cartoon preceded my birth by decades, I never picked up on the inside jokes Stalling incorporated into the cartoon through his choice of songs. This has never affected my enjoyment of the cartoon (which says a lot about Stalling’s skill). However, after reading about the songs chosen for particular scenes (and looking up the ones I didn’t recognize) I appreciated how masterfully a wide range of disparate music clips were arranged an integrated to perfectly compliment the on-screen action.

Warner Brothers cartoon “Bugs Bunny Rides Again” (1948)

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