By Steve Herte
Not only did Warner Brothers cartoons use the same popular pieces of music over and over in different situations, there were also cartoons in which dialogue was minimal to non-existent and took a backseat to the music. The most glaring example of course is Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), in which Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny play parts in the Wagnerian opera Die Walküre (1870) singing alternative lyrics while still performing the hunter and rabbit roles. For those who don’t recall it, all I have to say is, “Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit!” and it should come back to you. And you thought Wagner was impossible to sit through (well, maybe the entire “Ring” series).
The minimal dialog concept is best exhibited in Bob Clampett’s Corny Concerto (1943) and Elmer has all the lines (what there are). He looms up in silhouette to the podium as orchestra conductor and when the spotlight hits him we see he’s unshaven, slightly disheveled and having a comic battle with his tuxedo front. In his introduction of two Johan Strauss pieces, Tales from the Vienna Woods (1868) and The Blue Danube Waltz (1866), Elmer quotes the lyrics of “And it Comes Out Here” (Mike Riley, Ed Farley & Red Hodgson, 1935).
In the first scene, it’s Porky Pig’s turn to be the hunter stalking Bugs with his faithful but goofy dog. The movements of the characters are beautifully choreographed to the music while simultaneously delivering the loony comedy. The second piece depicts a mother swan gliding along the water followed by her babies while a little black duck longs to join the family. After being thwarted several times he sees them being attacked by a vulture and saves them. Though not as funny as the first cartoon, it’s still excellently synchronized with the music.
Two cartoons in particular stand out as musicals in the Vaudeville or English Musical Hall Night styles. Both involve bookstores where everything comes to life after closing time. The first was Have You Got Any Castles? (Frank Tashlin, 1938) where, after a cuckoo announces the midnight hour a town crier (based on critic Alexander Woollcott, who hosted a popular CBS radio show called The Town Crier and who opened each show with “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!”) plays emcee backed by “The Poet and Peasant Overture” by Franz Von Suppé (1846) and the book characters become the audience.
There is scene where Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde and the Frankenstein Monster leave their books menacingly and growl at the audience, then break character and do a dainty minuet to the “Gavotte” by Francois-Joseph Gossec (late 1700s). This piece of music also appears in Porky’s Party (also 1938) as the background to a knitting silkworm. The Invisible Man does a lively tap dance to Vincent Scotto’s “Vieni, Vieni” (1937), which segues into a cartoon Cab Calloway and group performing “Swing for Sale” (Saul Chaplin & Sammy Cahn, 1937). Then Old King Cole sings (appropriately) “Old King Cole” (Richard A, Whiting & Johnny Mercer, 1937). The Thin Man leaves his book to the tune of “Boulevardier from the Bronx” (Harry Warren, 1936), enters a cookbook and returns pear-shaped backed by “You’re the Cure for What Ails Me” (Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, 1936). The Three Musketeers and various book characters sing the title song, written by Richard A. Whiting and Johnny Mercer in 1937. Then they go literally “Three Men on a Horse,” steal keys from another book cover and liberate the Prisoner of Zenda.
In the hilarious Book Revue (Bob Clampett, 1946), Daffy Duck takes center stage in a zoot suit and blonde Cab Calloway hairdo while praising “La Cucaracha” (1910) “wooh-hoo-hoo-hoo!” with a Russian accent. He then launches into a chorus of “Carolina in the Morning” (Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson, 1922) while Little Red Riding Hood skips by to her possible doom at the hands of the wolf. When Daffy realizes where she’s headed he instantly switches to a fabulous Danny Kaye scat (from his Melody in 4F, 1944) to warn her. The cartoon ends with the wolf jailed to the tune of the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and a wild jitterbug celebration, interrupted only by the wolf screaming, “Stop that dancing up there! Ya sillies.” (The actual title of a 1944 song by Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, with the lisping delivery of "sillies" caricaturing Joe Besser.)
Then there are the big “concert” cartoons, with song after song, most notably Friz Freleng’s Notes to You (1941) where Porky Pig is kept awake by a serenading alley cat. His repertoire includes “The Umbrella Man” (James Cavanaugh, Vincent Rose & Larry Stock, 1938), “Largo Al Factorum” (Rossini, Cesare Sterbini) Figaro (1782), “Make Love With A Guitar” (Maria Grever/Raymond Leveen, words by Jimmy Messene & Al Bowlly, 1940), “Jeeper Creepers” (Harry Warren & Johnny Mercer, 1938), “Rockabye Baby” (Old English, 1765), “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (Chauncey Olcott & George Graff Jr., 1912), and ends with the “Sextet” from Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835).
The remake of Notes to You in 1948 was Back Alley Oproar and starred Elmer Fudd as the harassed sleeper and Sylvester as the insatiable singer. His song list is even longer with two reprises; “Largo al Factorum” and “Sextet.” Poor Elmer gets to hear “Angel in Disguise” (Paul Mann, Stefan Weiss, Kim Gannon, 1940), “Carissima” (Arthur A. Penn, 1907), Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody # 2” (1847), “Moonlight Bay” (Percy Wenrich, Edward Madden, 1912), “Some Sunday Morning” (Ray Heindorf, Ted Koehler, M.K. Jerome, 1945), “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart” (Ted Koehler, M.K. Jerome, 1944), “Wiegenlied”, op.49 no 4 (Johannes Brahms, 1868, aka “Brahm's Lullabye”), and “You Never Know Where You’re Goin’ ‘Til You Get There” (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn, 1945).
The library of popular as well as obscure songs available to Carl Stalling was incredibly large and it seems the copyright laws were less strict than now (or the fees were a lot less) so Warner Brothers could easily create such cartoons as Friz Freleng’s Yankee Doodle Daffy in 1943. Daffy is the promoter for his nephew, Sleepy Lagoon, and is desperately trying to get Porky Pig to hire him. In the process, we’re treated to an entire show complete with costume changes and hear: “Angel in Disguise,” “Can-Can” (1858) Offenbach, “I'm Just Wild about Harry” (Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, 1921), “Laugh Clown Laugh” (1928) Ted Fio Rito & Sam Lewis & Joe Young, “Lone Ranger Theme” (actually the William Tell Overture) Rossin, 1829), “Rebola a Bola” (1941) Arranca-Telhados (in full Carmen Miranda costume), “We Watch the Skyways” (Max Steiner & Gus Kahn, 1941), and “Cheyenne” (Egbert Van Alstyne, 1906) with new lyrics to make it “I’m a Cowboy.”
When Porky Pig needs to get egg production stepped up in Frank Tashlin’s Swooner Crooner (1944) he hires a rooster who sings like Bing Crosby and it works, even on Porky. The music in this cartoon gives us an idea why women loved the sounds of Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the great crooners. The cavalcade includes “September in the Rain” (Harry Warren & Al Dubin, 1937), “Minnie the Moocher” (Cab Calloway, 1931), “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (Clifford Friend & Dave Franklin, 1936), “It Can't Be Wrong” (Dick Haymes, 1943), “As Time Goes By” (Herman Hupfeld, 1931), “Blues In The Night” (My Mama Done Told Me) (Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen, 1941), “Lullaby of Broadway” (Al Dubin & Harry Warren, 1935), and “Shortnin' Bread” – a plantation song written by James Whitcomb Riley in 1900.
Did I mention “obscure” songs before? Well, in 1948, Chuck Jones gave us Long Haired Hare. Bugs Bunny is trying to have a great time singing and playing various instruments out in the field while an opera singer is trying to rehearse “Largo al Factorum” at home. Invariably he winds up singing whatever Bugs is playing, he goes out to Bugs and stops him. “Of course you know, this means war!” says Bugs and he means it. In the beginning, Bugs sings “A Rainy Night in Rio” (Arthur Schwartz & Leo Robin, 1926), “My Gal Is A High-Born Lady” (Len Spencer & Barney Fagan, 1896, with substitute lyrics), and plays “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba”(Herman Hupfeld, 1931), of course on a tuba. Later, we hear the “Prelude,” second theme from Act III of Lohengrin, Richard Wagner (1850) when the opera singer is signing autographs and “Beautiful Galathea Overture” by Franz Von Suppé (1865) when Bugs walks into the concert hall to the hushed tones of “Leopold!” (Stokowski).
Lastly, a new singer is introduced in 1955 when Chuck Jones directs One Froggy Evening and Michigan J. Frog gets to strut his stuff. The story involves a man who discovers a singing frog in the cornerstone of a building and thinks it will make him rich. But Michigan J. Frog will only sing for him. The high-stepping frog belts songs old and new: “Come Back to Erin” (Claribel, 1830-1869), “Hello! My Baby” (Joseph E. Howard & Ida Emerson, 1899), “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (Eubie Blake & Noble Sissle, 1921), “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (Sam H. Stept & Sydney Clare, 1930), “Won’t You Come Over To My House” (Egbert Van Alstyne & Harry Williams, 1906), “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby (Harry Warren & Johnny Mercer, 1938), and a new song, “The Michigan Rag” (Michael Maltese & Chuck Jones, 1955), for which he was named, as well as (you guessed it!) “Largo al Factorum.”
Just the mention of these songs from these various cartoons has the melodies playing in my head. I was amazed at how many actually had titles and authors. It seemed the deeper I researched the more I found and the memories came flooding back. I actually wanted to re-view the cartoons and re-experience them with my new perspective (in some cases I had to). I hope you will too. Next, I hope to explore the “One-Hit Wonders of Warners.”
Part One of Animation Orchestration can be read here.