SoundTreks | The Carl Stalling Project
Carl Stalling (1891 – 1972) is, without exaggeration, one of film’s most important composers and is, without hyperbole, one of the single most influential music-makers in American history. He should be ranked among greats like Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, and John Williams in terms of his cultural stature. And yet, his name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as those other greats.
Stalling was, if you cannot immediately recall the name, the musical genius behind almost all of the notable Warner Bros. cartoon shorts from 1936 until 1958. Some of the funniest, best, and most revolutionary cartoon shorts were produced by Warner Bros. during this period, and Carl Stalling was one of the most consistent and hardest working talents to have contributed.
Stalling’s genius was, essentially, repurposing and remixing a vast mental library of well-known classical pieces, old-fashioned standards, and downright obscure folk tunes from a century ago, into a recognizable, friendly, hilarious form of musical celebration. His sound became so ubiquitous in Saturday morning TV slots, that his music came to underline several generations of children, introducing them, in a subtle and salient way, to a vast musical library.
Several years back, Warner Bros. records decided to give the man his due, and released a record called The Carl Stalling Project: Music from Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936 – 1958. We here at SoundTreks have listened to the album, and will now take you, dear and lucky readers, through it track by track as a tour of appreciation of one of cinema’s great musical geniuses.
Track 1. “Putty Tat Trouble” Part 6 (1951)
This track is a complete audio recording of in-studio orchestrations conducted by Stalling while making the 1951 short Putty Tat Trouble. The album includes audio of Stalling himself counting down and directing his orchestra. With Stalling’s sound such a permanent part of so many people’s consciousness, it’s easy to forget that he was a working man who had to do several takes and perfect this sound in a working environment. This first track is meant, I think to humanize Stalling. To let us see him as a man, rather than a collection of childhood memories.
Track 2. “Hillbilly Hare” (1950)
I wouldn’t know the song “I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee” were it not for Stalling (although my big sister was the one who introduced me to the vomit-centric lyrics as a child), and he cannily included it when slow-moving people or hicks were depicted. If one looks close enough, one will discover that Stalling quoted many, many standards that may even be forgotten today. “Hillbilly Hare” displays every piece of the Stalling orchestra in action. Flutes are given bird-like riffs, reeds are given classical “sneak” music, fiddles evoke the South. The moods rotated quickly, as they would have to in a seven-minute cartoon.
Track 3. Early WB Scores: The Depression Era (1936 – 1941)
The early works of Stalling were, you’ll find, more tinkly, more jazzy, and more evocative of Tin Pan Alley blues. He still quoted a lot, but he quoted the jazz and blues musicians of the time more than anything. It’s been said that Warner Bros. cartoon shorts were very urban, and characters like Bugs Bunny were meant to be animal versions of playful street tramps. Compare that to the placid farm cleanliness of Disney, and the jazziness stands out in starker relief.
This track includes clips from Porky Poultry Plant, Stalling’s first WB score, as well as 1936’s Milk and Money, 1937’s Porky’s Romance, 1938’s Daffy Doc, and 1941’s Porky’s Midnight Matinee.
Track 6. “There They Go Go Go” (1956)
Carl Stalling’s best work may have come from Chuck Jones’ excellent Roadrunner cartoons. These were more or less silent movies that strung together a tragic string of comic vignettes wherein a desperate coyote would attempt to kill a feckless roadrunner, only to harm himself. With no dialogue – or story really – Stalling’s music would have to speak all the more clearly to dictate the mood. His music worked in sublimely with the timing of the cartoons to create some of the most immaculate comedy ever committed to film. This track is the entire soundtrack to the short, this time without sound effects. You can almost picture the film.
Track 7. Stalling Self-Parody: Music from “Porky’s Preview” (1941)
And yes, Stalling was aware of how he was seen by the WB film community. It’s not that he was disrespected; far from it. But cartoons were seen as a lesser business when compared to WB’s big-hitting studio features, and Stalling was part of that “lesser” team. The team, however, were happy with their position, as they were often granted more wild creative freedom. Pretty soon, they were making slapstick flicks for themselves, and making many in-jokes. Indeed, you’ll find that many of the WB cartoon shorts were self-parodies about WB operation, and about the making of the cartoons therein. In this track, you can hear Stalling giving a rendition of “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” as how it must have sounded to the bigwigs at WB. Plinky, toy-like, and childish.
Track 8. Anxiety Montage (1952 – 1955)
Although just about every one of the WB cartoon shorts was a comedy, Stalling could crack out with some pretty dark emotions. Many of the shorts, you may find, were kind of nightmarish and horrifying, thanks to the occasionally grotesque animation (most notably from director Bob Clampett) and to Stalling’s virtuosic, Herrmann-like efforts. The “Stalling sting” shall never be outdone.
This track contains spooky samples from Tree for Two (1952), Claws for Alarm (1954), Jumpin’ Jupiter (1955), Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½ Century (1953), and Hyde and Hare (1955).
Track 11. Carl Stalling with Milt Franklyn in Session
Milt Franklyn assisted Carl Stalling for almost Stalling’s entire run at WB, and learned all the ins and outs of the biz directly from the master. Franklyn would eventually replace Stalling when he retired from the WB camp in 1958, having scored cartoons as early as 1954. This track has audio of Stalling directing Franklyn on Putty Tat Trouble, working on a Franz Liszt riff. I love these studio behind-the-scenes audio tracks. We can hear how efficient these people were at making some amazing comedies.
Track 12. “Speedy Gonzalez” (1955) Meets “Two Crows From Tacos” (1956)
Speedy Gonzalez, of course, caught a lot of flack in the PC-happy 1990s when it was finally acknowledged that he was a pretty racist caricature. Never mind that Latino audiences kind of loved the character. Is Speedy racist? Yes, a little. Is he a good character? Actually, yeah. He’s an endlessly happy, optimistic, downright heroic character who helps his fellow mice, damages cats, and who is eager to use his talents for the greater good. He also gave Carl Stalling an opportunity to tap into his knowledge of Latino musical forms, incorporating Mexican folk, Spanish guitars, and the like. However stereotyped it may sound to modern ears, many countries and eras tended to have a particular sound in movies. Mexico and South America sounded one way. Roman epics, you’ll find all had similar music. I prefer to think that, in both cases, we’re tapping into extended cinematic traditions.
Track 13. “Powerhouse” and Other Cuts from the 1950s
“Powerhouse,” written by Raymond Scott in 1937, is one of the most recognizable musical riffs in all of cartoon-dom. Large machinery often had “Powerhouse” as its theme. Stalling may not have written the piece, but he utilized it so expertly, you would be forgiven for thinking that he had.
This track is a sampling of Stalling quotations,most of which you may recognize, but some you’ll have to look up. The cartoons sampled are Turntale Wolf (1952), Early to Bet (1951), one of my personal favorites in Drip-Along Daffy (1951), Bear for Punishment (1951), Scent-Imental Romeo (1951), Feed the Kitty (1952), Beep Beep (1952), Corn Plastered (1951), and A Hound for Trouble (1951).
Track 14. “Porky in Wackyland” (1938) and “Dough for the Do Do (1949)
The 1949 cartoon is a remake, almost shot-for-shot, of the 1938 cartoon. As in most things, I prefer the original, but they’re both pretty excellent. Stalling would often create a lot of the musical-based sound effects for the WB cartoons, often working with Treg Brown to make a full soundscape. Indeed, the full audio of these cartoons are included because of Stalling’s complete involvement. He did the music, but also tended to dictate the entire sound of any cartoon. When Mel Blanc sang, he worked with Stalling. Yes, that is Blanc singing the “rubber band” music.
Track 15. “To Itch His Own” (1958)
To Itch His Own was the final cartoon Stalling did for Warner Bros., and, as you can hear, his work never diminished. By 1958, Stalling’s sound has only grown more expert. He started out with jazz and playfulness, and slowly, over the course of 22 years, became more and more classical and professional. This late score sounds slicker, more polished, and more orchestral than the early samples. The musical cues and general mood may be similar, but the actual format and attitude has changed.
This album is a wonderful sample of Stalling’s music, but, at only 78 minutes in toto, it doesn’t seem like an ultimate collection or something that may be considered fully representative of his work. There was eventually a Carl Stalling Project Volume 2 released, five years after this one, in 1995, but even together, they don’t really capture the span and breadth of the man’s entire career.
But then, what could? A 15-disc box set? No, I think if you want a sampling of Carl Stalling this record – and its follow-up – will do rather nicely. Having any amount of Carl Stalling available as an album is a positive move, and, to be honest, after listening to a great deal of Carl Stalling at one time can leave the listener kind of exhausted. Stalling, after all, wrote scores for 7-minute films. They had to be fast, eclectic, and frantic. That’s easy to take for seven minutes, but for several hours, one may start to sweat a bit.
So it’s not holistic, comprehensive song collecting, this record, but it is pretty great.
Top Image: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.