Born on November 10, 1891, in Lexington, MO; died on November 25, 1974, near Los Angeles, CA.
Carl Stalling was a composer best known for his work on animated films for Disney and Warner Brothers studios during what is now known as the Golden Age of the cartoon. He was responsible for scoring some of the earliest cartoons at Disney, and is credited with numerous innovations he made in the field throughout his career. Between 1936 and 1958 alone, he was responsible for scoring an estimated 600 cartoons for Warner's Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies. August Kleinzahler, writing in Slate in 2003, called him "an authentic American genius, an original ... as important, in his way, as Ives, Copland, Cage, Partch, and Ellington."
Stalling attributed his great love for film from having seen the film The Great Train Robbery when he was five years old. "It made such an impression on me," he said in an interview reprinted in the Cartoon Music Book, "that from then on I had only one desire in life: to be connected with the movies in some way." His first instrument was a battered toy piano that his father, a carpenter, had repaired. He took his first piano lessons at the age of six and was playing church organs by the age of eight. By age 13 Stalling was playing piano between reels at the local movie house.
Stalling's musical career in the 1920s was spent as an accompanist and director in silent movie houses in the Kansas City area. Sound had not yet become a part of film. Each theater typically had its own orchestra that performed live for each showing of a movie. Scores were improvised from books containing thematic musical material or ideas categorized by mood, rather than set pieces. The skills learned in this setting served Stalling well throughout his career. Walt Disney saw him directing an orchestra and playing organ at the Isis Theatre during this time. The two initiated a correspondence when Disney left for Hollywood, and Disney later hired Stalling as musical director for his new film studio in 1928---just as sound was poised to become an integral part of film. The earliest cartoons had no music, but Stalling would change that.
He was asked to provide a score for shorts featuring a new cartoon character, that of Mickey Mouse. "Animation and music fused in these cartoons, the visual rhythm of movement and the punchlines of gags dancing to the beats of the soundtrack," according to the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. "It was Stalling, also, who proposed the idea for the 1929 classic The Skeleton Dance and launched the Silly Symphonies series for Disney." In all, he scored about 15 film shorts for the studio. He also had one line as Mickey Mouse in 1930's Wild Waves, and provided the singing voice for a walrus in that same short.
While at Disney, Stalling invented a system for cartoon music scoring. At the heart of this was the so-called "tick system." Like a metronome, each earphone-wearing musician in the orchestra heard a constant beat that allowed them "to synchronize the music more precisely to the action," according to Kleinzahler. The system was first used for The Skeleton Dance. In a 1969 interview, Stalling soft-pedaled the importance of his innovation. "The 'tick' system was not really an invention, since it was not patentable," he said. "Perfect synchronization of music for cartoons was a problem, since there were so many quick changes and action that the music had to match. The thought struck me that if each member of the orchestra had a steady beat in his ear, from a telephone receiver, this would solve the problem. I had exposure sheets for the films, with the picture broken down frame by frame, sort of like a script, and twelve of the film frames went through the projector in a half second. That gave us a beat.... Each member of the orchestra had a single earphone, and listened to the clicks through that." This technique is now known as a click track, and is commonly used in studio music recording.
Stalling left Disney in 1930 to work at Aesop's Fables Studio in New York, a short-lived job where he was paid three times what he had been earning, but for which he did little. In retrospect, Stalling noted that this had been a competitor's ploy to undermine Disney. He went to work for Ub Iwerks for six months in 1931 on his "Flip the Frog" series. The two had been friends while working for Disney. "We were all very good friends, Walt and Roy [Disney], Ub and I," he said. "My leaving turned out better for Walt and it turned out better for me." Stalling then worked on the Three Little Pigs and several other Disney cartoons as a freelance arranger and musician. He returned to Iwerks in 1933, and when Iwerks's studio folded in 1936 Stalling found a lasting home with Warner, where he would work for the remainder of his career.
Stalling would typically be responsible for one six-minute long score a week. "I just imagined myself playing for a cartoon in the theatre, improvising, and it came easier," he said in a 1969 interview. "Stalling would write the piano parts of the score---the skeleton---and include the cues he wanted and special notations with regard to instrumentation," wrote Kleinzahler. "He was blessed with a brilliant arranger in Milt Franklyn and an equally brilliant sound-effects man in Treg Brown, something of a comic genius in his own right." The process typically took about seven or eight days to compose, about three hours to record. Stalling had a 50-piece orchestra of eager musicians at his disposal.
Stalling borrowed bits and pieces from various musical sources, including classical music and popular songs. Warner owned several music publishers, making a large catalogue available for use. "The pressure under which he had to work may have dictated his reliance on borrowing and playing with the work of others," according to the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. "But Stalling was also a consummate musician, well able to compose his own themes or songs when the opportunity arose." John Zorn, the avant garde composer-musician, noted in an interview with Philip Brophy that appeared in the Cartoon Music Book that Stalling was not the first composer to undertake composition in this manner. "Although he used elements and melodies from Scott, it's not unlike the way Charles Ives used American folk themes. Stalling's sense of time, his sense of narrative, completely revolutionized the idea of musical development. This was before the post-modern experiments. He created something completely new."
Warner came to the fore as an animation studio in the 1940s. The animators he hired still remain atop the pantheon: Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, and Frank Tashlin. They created the now-iconic characters of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, "as well as a brand of anarchic comedy far removed from Disney's gentility," observed Jason Ankeny, writing for All Music Guide. Mel Blanc, the voice-over genius, completed the team.
In creating a score, Stalling would select music according to the on-screen action. For example, this included using snippets of "California, Here I Come" when trains were in the action, or "How Dry I Am" when characters were drunk, and "The Lady in Red" for Bugs Bunny in drag. In one Road Runner cartoon, for example, a chase was viewed from overhead, taking place in a cloverleaf pattern, and the score switched to "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover."
"Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't," said Jones. When it worked it engendered praise, including that of James Agee, the noted critic, who said of Stalling's use of Franz Lizst in Rhapsody Rabbit, "A good musician must have worked on this.... I have never seen anything done from so deep inside the ham." In the latter days of his career, observed Will Friedwald in an essay on Stalling in the Cartoon Music Book, "Stalling could transmit a musical joke or idea with an ever-decreasing number of notes."
"The modern cartoon, and especially the Hollywood cartoon from the Golden Age of Animation, relies so much on music that it is truly difficult to conceive what they might have been like without a soundtrack," wrote Daniel Goldmark in Animation World Magazine. "Carl Stalling was, without a doubt, the most skilled and clever composer of cartoon music Hollywood ever had. ... He essentially created the sound that most fans of animated shorts know as, simply, 'cartoon music.'"
"Having established the musical conventions for cartoons, Stalling basically had an influence on every cartoon composer since his run at Warner Bros.," stated Goldmark. "He was also a master at telling a story through music, with gestures and nuances so clear, that there is never any doubt as to his intentions. If you don't believe me, go turn on your television and watch some Looney Tunes. ... I guarantee you will know exactly what is happening, and to whom. This was the comedic skill of Carl Stalling."
Stalling's last score was for 1958's To Itch His Own, after which he retired. He had been the only composer the studio had for its cartoons until his departure. Stalling died in 1974 at the age of 86. After his death, Warner released two compact discs of Stalling's music, titled The Carl Stalling Project.
by Linda Dailey Paulson
Carl Stalling's Career
Began playing piano, c. 1897; played piano between reels at local movie house, c. 1910; accompanist and orchestra leader for silent films in Kansas City area, c. 1918-28; hired as musical director at Walt Disney studios, 1928-30; hired away by Aesop's Fables Studio, 1930; worked at Ub Iwerks's studio, 1931, 1933-36; worked intermittently for Disney as arranger and musician, 1931-33; musical director for Warner Brothers cartoons, 1936-58.
- Selected discography
- The Carl Stalling Project Volume 1, Warner, 1990.
- The Carl Stalling Project Volume 2, Warner, 1995.
- That's All Folks!---Cartoon Songs from Merrie Melodies & Looney Tunes Rhino, 2001.
- Selected film compositions
- For Disney
- The Barn Dance 1928.
- Gallopin' Gaucho 1928.
- Plane Crazy 1928.
- The Skeleton Dance 1928.
- The Merry Dwarfs 1929.
- The Op'ry House 1929.
- When the Cat's Away 1929.
- Springtime 1930.
- Wild Waves 1930.
- For Warner Bros.
- Porky's Poultry Plant 1936.
- The Village Smithy 1936.
- Picador Porky 1937.
- Little Red Walking Hood 1937.
- Sniffles Takes a Trip 1940.
- Little Blabbermouse 1940.
- Bedtime for Sniffles 1940.
- Sniffles Bells the Cat 1941.
- The Brave Little Bat 1941.
- Rhapsody in Rivets 1941.
- Inki and the Minah Bird 1941.
- Little Red Riding Rabbit 1944.
- What's Cookin', Doc? 1944.
- Stage Door Cartoon 1944.
- Odor-able Kitty 1945.
- Baseball Bugs 1946.
- Rhapsody Rabbit 1946.
- I Taw a Putty Tat 1948.
- Mouse Wreckers 1949.
- Mutiny on the Bunny 1950.
- What's Up, Doc? 1950.
- Rabbit of Seville 1950.
- Putty Tat Trouble 1951.
- Beep, Beep 1952.
- Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century 1953.
- Jumpin' Jupiter 1955.
- Speedy Gonzales 1955.
- Cheese It, the Cat 1957.
- To Itch His Own 1958.
- Goldmark, Daniel, and Yuval Taylor, editors, Cartoon Music Book, Da Capo, 2002.
- International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James, 1996.
- "Carl Stalling," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 3, 2004).
- "Carl Stalling and Humor in Cartoons," Animation World Magazine, http://www.awn.com/mag/issue2.1/articles/goldmark2.1.html (June 3, 2004).
- "The Mickey Mouse Genius," Slate, http://slate.msn.com/id/2092021/ (June 3, 2004).