The Mickey Mouse Genius

The brilliant composer behind Looney Tunes, now on DVD.

Carl Stalling: The wackiest soundtracks ever

The singular advantage of growing up in the 1950s was being able to watch Looney Toons on television. But the children of today need no longer feel culturally deprived. Now, with the release of The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, a selection of classic Looney Tunes, kiddies everywhere, by merely pressing a button, may gain entry into a veritable Age of Pericles—cartoonwise, that is.

But it’s not just the animation of the cartoons that’s so good. It’s the man who composed their music. You probably have never heard of him, and if you go looking for his name in the compendia of music—whether jazz, classical, popular—you’ll be unlikely to find him. He is, however, an authentic American genius, an original; if you were to hear even a few bars of any of his musical compositions you would recognize the source immediately.    

“Putty Tat Trouble” His name is Carl Stalling. And from 1936, when he hooked up with Warner Bros., until his retirement in 1958, he wrote the musical scores for 600 cartoons. As the musicmaker of Merrie Melodies and Looney Toons, Stalling is as important, in his way, as Ives, Copland, Cage, Partch, and Ellington; his most notable compositions include “Putty Tat Trouble,” “Porky’s Poultry Plant,” “Speedy Gonzales Meets Two Crows From Tacos,” “To Itch His Own,” and hundreds more. 

Walt Disney discovered Stalling in the early ‘20s at Kansas City’s Isis Theater, where Stalling was conducting his own orchestra and improvising on the organ to silent movies. Stalling would have been in his early 30s then. Born in Lexington, Mo., he saw The Great Train Robbery projected in a tent when he was 5. From that point on, he was hooked on motion pictures. By the time he was 13, he had become resident pianist at the primitive local movie house where he played during reel changes.

“Dough for the Dodo” Disney had Stalling score two animated shorts for a new character named Mickey Mouse. When Disney set up his studio in Hollywood, he brought Stalling along with him. Stalling invented cartoon scoring, which included a “tick” system, whereby individual members of the orchestra were provided with earphones through which they heard a steady beat and, on one occasion, the voice of Mickey, and which allowed them to synchronize the music more precisely to the action.

Stalling’s detractors sometimes call what he invented “musical mickey-mousing”—that is, merely a description of visual events. But he had many admirers, not least the formidable avant-gardist John Zorn:

In following the visual logic of screen action rather than the traditional rules of musical form (development, theme, variation, etc.), Stalling created a radical compositional arc unprecedented in the history of music. … All the basic musical elements are there—but they are broken into shards, a constantly changing kaleidoscope of styles, forms, melodies, quotations. …

“My Bunny Lies Over the Sea” In a sense, then, Carl Stalling was, among the first of the postmodernists—if not the first. His compositions are wildly disjunctive, incorporating tempo shifts, mixed genres (folk motifs, classical, jazz, nursery rhymes), sound effects, speed of transition. He characteristically moves from a stormy, dissonant section to a flute solo, maybe throwing in a quotation from a jazz standard or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” He was very fond (some might say too fond) of quoting from bandleader, pianist, and composer Raymond Scott, who recorded some notable novelty pieces with a studio quintet between 1936 and 1938—tunes like “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” a Stalling favorite. But Stalling was nothing if not voracious and democratic in his cribbing when it suited the action. For instance, Mendelsohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” made a good match with the Mynah Bird’s walk in Chuck Jones’ “Inki” cartoons.

“Speedy Gonzalez” Even with all the quotations from Scott, classical music, and so forth, some 80 percent to 90 percent of the material was original; it had to be specifically matched to the action. Stalling had a 60-piece orchestra to work with at Warner Bros., and by all accounts the musicians looked forward to the sessions, especially between Bette Davis and Bogart melodramas. Stalling would write the piano parts of the score—the skeleton—and include the cues he wanted and special notations with regard to instrumentation. He was blessed with a brilliant arranger in Milt Franklin and an equally brilliant sound-effects man in Treg Brown, something of a comic genius in his own right—excellent with breaking glass, etc. 

When Stalling died in 1974, at the age of 86, the fizz had long gone out of American animation with the televised cartoon. Stalling attributed it to the ascendancy of dialogue over music. But the conventions of the medium had hardened while at the same time the product had become more diluted. The market, not the artist, determined what was produced. That tendency has not abated. But every medium or genre has its heyday, be it the musical comedy, dance, the horror movie, or painted still life. These moments depend on cultural and economic forces, accident, a serendipitous conjunction of geniuses—like thatwhen Disney first found Stalling at the Isis Theater. In short order, Mickey Mouse was the king of cartoons, Disney Hollywood royalty, and Stalling, who had picked out tunes on a broken toy piano as a child, was providing the wackiest soundtrack any child or grown-up dared imagine. The lid was off American animation and would stay off for a good long while.