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Carl W Stalling

Carl W Stalling

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Also Known As: Died: November 29, 1972
Born: Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Missouri, USA Profession: music arranger, musical director, composer, producer of singalong film shorts, conductor, movie theater pianist and organist

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Histories of music in the cinema often speak of important composers like Prokofiev and Gershwin, who wrote a handful of landmark scores and songs. The great song composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern are studied and appreciated, and slowly the names of original score composers like Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, who worked primarily in Hollywood, are becoming better known as well. Among the ranks of the latter, Carl W Stalling occupies a paradoxical place. With animated cartoon shorts finally having won acceptance both as art and as important artifacts of mass culture, names such as Stalling's are familiar to many. But again, the attention given has been partial, for it is the animation director who has been feted foremost. And yet, Stalling merits pride of place as the most important composer and music arranger in the history of animated cinema.Stalling got his start in film, close to the industry's own beginnings, when he began playing the piano between one-reel film shorts in 1904. Over the next two decades, he gradually rose to theater organist and orchestra conductor at the classy Isis Theater in Kansas City, MO. While there, he met and...

Histories of music in the cinema often speak of important composers like Prokofiev and Gershwin, who wrote a handful of landmark scores and songs. The great song composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern are studied and appreciated, and slowly the names of original score composers like Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, who worked primarily in Hollywood, are becoming better known as well. Among the ranks of the latter, Carl W Stalling occupies a paradoxical place. With animated cartoon shorts finally having won acceptance both as art and as important artifacts of mass culture, names such as Stalling's are familiar to many. But again, the attention given has been partial, for it is the animation director who has been feted foremost. And yet, Stalling merits pride of place as the most important composer and music arranger in the history of animated cinema.

Stalling got his start in film, close to the industry's own beginnings, when he began playing the piano between one-reel film shorts in 1904. Over the next two decades, he gradually rose to theater organist and orchestra conductor at the classy Isis Theater in Kansas City, MO. While there, he met and befriended Walt Disney, even lending the future animation great money shortly after he went to Hollywood. After Stalling moved west as well, Disney, riding high after the success of his first Mickey Mouse effort, the landmark sound cartoon "Steamboat Willie" (1928), hired the composer. Soon after, Stalling scored the second and third Mickey shorts, "Gallopin' Gaucho" and "Plane Crazy" (both 1928). He quickly conquered the difficulty of synchronizing his scores to cartoons by using a separate strip of film (known as the "click track" and still used today) as a metronomic, audible parallel to a film's imagery.

When Disney and his head animator Ub Iwerks had a falling out, Stalling left the studio, convinced that Disney's company would not survive. A job offer in New York turned out to be a ruse by competitors to keep Disney's key people from him, but Stalling soon had a job with Iwerks' new studio, where he scored "Flip the Frog" (1930). Stalling stayed with Iwerks until the entire team was absorbed by producer Leon Schlesinger's animation unit at Warner Brothers in 1936. One of the most important creative crews in the history of animation was forming, and Stalling was there at the start.

For more than 20 years, Stalling served as the head composer, conductor, music director and arranger for the entire Warner Brothers' cartoon output. Working closely with such gifted animators and directors as Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin, Stalling played a key role in creating the Warner Brothers house style. The outlandish visual style and comic brio, the keen satirical edge, the memorable gallery of cartoon characters and the frequently reflexive play with the medium of cinema itself--these hallmarks of Warners animation were beautifully complimented by Stalling's breathless, all-stops-out orchestrations and his often bizarre use of music and sound effects for emphasizing or counterpointing comic high spots.

Despite his undoubted talent as a composer, the pressure of having to score one six-minute cartoon a week for two decades inevitably meant that Stalling would recycle ideas and, more often than not, arrange already composed music. Indeed, Warners' animated shorts, especially the much loved "Merrie Melodies" series, were designed to plug songs used in the studio's live-action features. Its music library and publishing companies were huge, and between these resources and public domain material, Stalling most often found it expedient to simply look for song titles which suited a character, situation or mood. If one associates the song "Lady in Red" with classic Warner Brothers cartoons, it's because the song plays seemingly every time a female character wearing any red appears onscreen. Similarly, scenes of eating rehashed "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You". "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" accompanies an overhead shot of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner on a highway clover leaf, and Stalling made frequent and especially memorable use of bizarre and darkly comical songs by Raymond Scott such as "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals".

Stalling was one of the older members of the team that produced one of the sustained highs in the history of animated cinema, but he stayed with the unit through its peak years of the late 1950s. He gradually gave his assistants, especially Milt Franklyn, more of the work until he retired from Warner Brothers in 1958. Unfortunately, Stalling did not live to see the revival of acclaim for American animated cinema so prominent at film festivals, in colleges offering courses on the subject and in the spate of appreciative histories written. But his place was secure nonetheless, and the playful experimental bravura of his best work was later collectively reissued on compact disc, and stood up remarkably well on its own.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

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Milestones close milestones

1904:
Began work in the film industry as a piano player in early moviehouses, playing music between reels of different short films
:
Became orchestra leader and theater organist at the Isis Theater in Kansas City, MO; also produced a number of short singalong films shown as part of silent film programs at major theaters
:
Met Walt Disney while conducting orchestra in Kansas City
1928:
Scored second and third Mickey Mouse cartoons, "Gallopin' Gaucho" and "Plane Crazy"
:
Suggested to Disney the idea that music should suggest the animated image rather than merely support it; led to the development of the famous "Silly Symphony" series
1930:
Left Disney when the producer and his key animator Ub Iwerks had a falling out; Stalling accepted a job offer in New York which fell through; later worked on "Aesop's Fables"
1930:
Joined Ub Iwerks to score "Flip the Frog"
1936:
Began affiliation with Warner Brothers after the Iwerks studio closed and was absorbed by Leon Schlesinger's unit at Warners
1958:
Retired from Warner Brothers
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

"He was a strange little man, but probably the most innovative musician who ever worked in animation. He invented the "tick" track, which is used by everybody. He was the one who did the original music for "Skeleton Dance" (1929) when he was at Disney before coming to Warner Brothers. He was a brilliant musician. But the quickest way for him to write a musical score--and he did one six-minute cartoon a week--was simply to look up some music that had the proper name. If there was a lady dressed in red, he'd always play "The Lady in Red". If somebody went into a cave, he'd play "Fingal's Cave". If we were doing anything about eating, he'd do "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You". I had a bee one time, and my God if he didn't go and find a piece of music written in 1906 or something called "I'm a Busy Little Bumble Bee". --Animation director Chuck Jones

Question: "Was there any problem with the rights to these things?"

Jones: "The original purpose of Merrie Melodies was to plug Warner Brothers songs. They owned four or five big music companies, so if he couldn't find music there, Stalling would find it in public domain. Stalling was good at writing his own music, but he seldom did."

--The above from "Chuck Jones Interviewed" by Joe Adamson, in "The American Animated Cartoon", edited by Gerald Peary and Danny Peary (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1980)

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Gladys Stalling. Survived him.

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