Mickey's Music Box: Carl W. Stalling's Silly Symphonies - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Mickey's Music Box: Carl W. Stalling's Silly Symphonies

Chris Morley looks at the life and work of Disney's first in-house composer Carl W. Stalling.

What is the true heart of most Disney films? As Disney Plus brings the magic home, continuing a several year long hot streak of appearances by the House of Mouse at the most opportune moments, and with plenty of time to ponder upon the answer to the question, turn off your mind, relax & float down steam - Steamboat Willie to be precise!

Notable as a first step into sychronised sound for the former Mortimer Mouse, rechristened Mickey at the behest of Mrs Disney, the tale of his service aboard Pete's boat was actually the third such cartoon Walt produced - Plane Crazy & The Gallopin' Gaucho first off the presses. Music for that particular pairing was handled by Carl Stalling, who's arguably more famous for his work on the Looney Tunes for Warner Brothers.

At the peak of his powers with Warner Bros. he was averaging a complete score a week for 22 years!

Born in Missouri on November 10, 1891, he started playing piano at the age of six & within another six years of that was providing the musical accompaniment to silent films in his local cinema. Stalling would eventually also take over, at least for a short while, as organist for what was then the St Louis Theatre, now Powell Symphony Hall.

Having taken on similar duties for Kansas City's Isis Movie Theatre in the early 1920s alongside conducting an orchestra, he met Walt Disney. Having noticed that Carl had a flair for integrating his own work alongside that of more established composers he was suitably impressed and so they came to an agreement whereby Stalling would play the accompaniment after the Isis was allowed to screen Disney's cartoons.

The two kept in touch, a stopover back in Kansas en route to New York to make a preview cut of & record sound for Steamboat Willie leading to a job offer for Carl to become the first musical director for the studio once both made the move to Hollywood.

Following in the footsteps of Walt, who had given voice to Mickey in Steamboat Willie, the man in control of all things tuneful would go on to do so in 1929's Wild Waves - the same year, discussions between the two would give birth to the Silly Symphonies series. Where before music was composed to match what was on screen, Carl had the bright idea to reverse that dynamic & thus break new ground!

Not for nothing did the process earn the nickname Mickey Mousing, perhaps best demonstrated in the Sorceror's Apprentice section of Fantasia in the segment where Mickey chops up a magically alive broom, the chopping synchronised to a particularly crashing section of the Paul Dukas piece that gives rise to its title.

Beginning with The Skeleton Dance, the Silly Symphonies series presented the opportunity for Carl Stalling, credited as both composer & musical arranger, to work hands on in partnership with Walt Disney & his team of animators through a bar sheet system - which allowed for music to be sketched into storyboards. Time was somehow then found for the invention of a tick system which served as a forerunner of the click track used in both animation & live action films even to this day.

In a sense, then, the Symphonies could broadly be seen as a dry run for Fantasia - new life breathed into existing classical music through accompanying animated sequences. They also served as the testing ground for Technicolour & ever more advanced special effects, 1932's Flowers & Trees the first to benefit from full three-strip colour & going on to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Stalling left Disney within two years of his elevation to the role of musical supervisor, after completing at least 20 scores for them. He went freelance for a period of time, until 1936 when Warner Brothers came calling with the Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies series. Command of a fifty-piece orchestra, as conducted by Leo Forbstein, no doubt sweetened the deal!

He was also given access to the full back catalogue of Warners' existing film library with the directive that he use as much of the music within as he wanted to help it get over with the viewing public, as well as the cartoons that would repurpose it. Perhaps his best known little trick in this regard was a sort of musical punning - excerpts of classical pieces or popular songs of the day used as a nudge & wink to the audience.

In probably the most appropriate case given our subject here he cribbed full-scale from Johann Strauss's Tales From The Vienna Woods & The Blue Danube for 1943's A Corny Concerto, which was itself a parody of the very Silly Symphonies he'd originally helped create, as well as Fantasia.

Not that Chuck Jones was a fan of this musical quotation.
“[Stalling] was a brilliant musician. But the quickest way for him to write a musical score was to simply 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 & 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" ..”
Stalling would retire in 1958 following the completion of his work on To Itch His Own, but as Disney's first musical maestro he paved the way forward for over 90 years of phenomenal success.

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