Friday, April 12, 2013

The American Absurdism of Carl Stalling

When it came to writing music for animated cartoons, Carl Stalling wrote some of the most outrageously impudent material heard this side of Spike Jones. Thanks to Stalling, it wasn't unusual in a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies cartoon to hear a happy collision of bassoons, trombone slides, mysterioso strings, violin glissandos and his memorable "boinnngg!" sound created on the electric guitar. Together, these instruments created a bold, anarchic sound for some of the wittiest and purest examples of American absurdism.

In his Memoirs of a Useless Man, the Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi said that "dramatic fables" should contain "the great magic of seduction that creates an enchanted illusion of making the impossible appear as truth to the mind and spirit of the spectators." This idea probably best describes the ultimate goal of animation. Even more than dramatic realism, the cartoon demands a suspension of disbelief. And if music is essential to movie drama, it is no less a significant component in animation. As Roy Prendergast accurately pointed out in Film Music: A Neglected Art, the element of exaggeration in cartoons already had its antecedent in the 18th Century comic operas of Carlo Gozzi and others (like Mozart). The rapid, almost frantic rhythm of opera buffa demanded that the music keep pace with the action. This is no less true of animation. Most North American animators looked to the 20th Century neoclassic style already heard in contemporary artists like Igor Stravinsky rather than the 19th Century romanticism preferred by most Hollywood composers. "In dramatic films of the 1930s and '40s the chromaticism of the nineteenth century was appropriate because of the music's tendency to de-emphasize small-scale musical events, thereby drawing the listener's attention to a large sense of movement," Prendergast writes. "Cartoons, on the other hand, are usually nothing less than frantic movement consisting of a series of small-scale events, and the music in cartoons plays at least an equal role with the animation and story in establishing the humourous success of events."

In the Thirties, the Walt Disney Studios, with their emphasis on the smooth, cultivated style of drawing, had little interest in 20th Century neoclassicism, instead cribbing their soundtracks mostly from the standard repertoire. For example, The Opry House featured a Rachmaninoff prelude, while Grieg's "March of the Dwarfs" from Peer Gynt turned up in one of their later Silly Symphonies. The feature film Fantasia (1940) was a desperately commercial attempt by Disney to, as Pauline Kael put it, "combine high art and mass culture." Here, animators merely designed visuals to accompany famous pieces of music. Conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia featured diverse compositions, from Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, accompanying such images volcanoes erupting and dinosaurs battling. Beethoven's Pastoral was even used as the backdrop for female centaurs frolicking like happy peasants. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was the film's one concession to 20th Century music. As Kael observed, Disney became the precursor "of the musical processing in [Kubrick's] 2001." In Disney animated features like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942), right up to the present day's Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994), the studio turned away from the practice of pilfering classical scores, and looked more to the tradition of the Broadway musical.

composer Carl Stalling

With Carl Stalling, Warner Brothers brought onboard a composer with a sophisticated sense of the ridiculous. Stalling was born in Lexington, Missouri, in 1898, and his earliest introduction to music was, not surprisingly, improvising tunes on a toy piano. He fell in love with the movies as a five-year-old, after he saw a screening of The Great Train Robbery. By the time he was twelve, Stalling conducted his own orchestra in the pit at Kansas City's Isis Theatre. It was there that he met Walt Disney, who offered him a couple of assignments – starring Mickey Mouse. Stalling was so successful at musically enhancing these shorts, Disney brought him to his newly formed studio in Hollywood where Stalling created one of his most famous pieces, the highly imaginative "skeleton dance," used in the first of Disney's many Silly Symphonies.

By 1930, Stalling grew restless at Disney and moved to other small animation studios. In 1936, he arrived at Warner Brothers, where a madly inspired team of animators, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones and Fritz Freleng, were putting together a collection of wise-ass animated characters including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig. For twenty-two years, until his retirement in 1958, Stalling was a dissonant jukebox that could play just about every American musical idiom ever invented. Rather than simply raid the classical repertoire, as Disney did to cut costs, Stalling sought out popular songs that Warners could purchase. His idea of popular, though, included ridiculous odd ditties like Raymond Scott's "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," or "How Dry I Am?" which he forever linked in our imagination to states of inebriation.

"Set against the historical happenings in American music in the Thirties and Forties, Stalling's achievements become even more impressive," composer John Zorn wrote in a 1990 appraisal. "Copland's pantonality; [John] Cage beginning to explore the sonic possibilities of the prepared piano with quiet, Satie-inspired music; [Harry] Partch freaking out and building his own instruments based on his own forty-six-tone tuning theories; [Duke] Ellington balancing improvisation and composition with his swinging, harmonically lush big was a period of basically conservative American impressionism invaded by the search for new sonic resources." Curiously, when Stalling retired, he despaired over the state of the art of scoring for animated pictures. "One trouble with cartoons today," he remarked shortly before his death in 1972, "is that they have so much dialogue the music doesn't mean much." For Stalling music was dialogue – especially in cartoons which were about music, such as, What's Opera, Doc? and One Froggy Evening. Stalling's variations on Rossini's Barber of Seville, for instance, while Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd duke it out on the opera stage in The Rabbit of Seville, is as madly inspired as the satirical shots at high culture in The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera (1935). When Hal Wilner released the first CD collection, The Carl Stalling Project: Music from Warner Brothers Cartoons, 1936-1958 (1990), not only could we clearly hear the playful surrealism at work in Stalling's orchestrations, but we could also happily re-imagine the inspired lunacy in those loony images he enhanced.  

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

No comments:

Post a Comment