HISTORY & SURVEY OF FILM MUSIC

Animated Features & Shorts 1928 - 1958

The history of short animated films runs parallel to that of feature films, reaching it’s own creative zenith in the 1950’s with Warner Brother’s “Merry Melodies” Looney Tunes cartoons. Animated shorts became a mainstay of the theater experience, serving as a prelude to main-attraction feature films.  

Steamboat Willie (1928)

The first major animated cartoon with synchronized sound was Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie from 1928. The film’s music consisted of a series of arrangements by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis. Much of Disney’s early cartoon music drew on popular tunes and classical melodies, as Disney had an aversion to paying royalties for new music.  The small community of early animators were well-versed in classical & popular forms of music, and drew upon them extensively. Animations shared the same tempo and beat map as the music, often cut to the music itself. This necessitated the invention of the “click track”.

Steamboat Willie (1928)

Other Disney cartoon shorts from the period include the Silly Symphony series, a lot of 75 animated films which were shown as previews to feature films from 1929-39. A very early and significant example is The Skeleton Dance from 1929. The original music score was composed by Carl Stalling, a composer who later became the most prolific composer of animated shorts in the 1940’s and 1950’s. 

Carl Stalling  (1891 - 1972)

The son of German Immigrants, Carl Stalling began accompanying films at an early age, and by age 12 (1903) became the principal piano accompanist of his hometown’s silent movie house. By his early 20’s, he was conducting his own orchestra and improvising at the organ at a major movie house in Kansas City. It is there that he met a young Walt Disney, who was producing animated shorts. The two determined that cartoons would be improved if the animation was created to fit the music, and this led to the “Silly Symphony” series of cartoons. After two years, Stalling left Disney and became a full-time cartoon music composer, working most notably for Warner Brothers until his retirement in 1958.

Silly Symphony - The Skeleton Dance (1929)

Another film from the  Silly Symphony  Series is the 1935  Music Land, with music arranged by Wilfred Jackson. The  Silly Symphony series ran from 1929-1939, containing 75 shorts which served as previews to feature films.

Silly Symphony - Music Land (1935)

MGM, Hanna Barbara, and Warner Brothers

Ub Iwerks, and animator for Walt Disney (including work on the Silly Symphony series), broke away from Disney and created the Flip the Frog series of shorts. Distributed by Warner Brothers, the films ran from 1930 to 1933. The first episode, Fiddlesticks, was the first animated cartoon in color. Music by Carl Stalling.

Flip the Frog - Fiddlesticks (1930)

Scott Bradley  (1891 - 1977)

Scott Bradley was the prolific musical voice behind Hanna Barbara’s “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, scoring a total of 113 episodes between 1940 and 1958. Bradley’s style, like Stalling, infused a mixture of classical and popular musical styles. The music was very tightly synchronized with the action of the film, necessitating irregular beat and phrase patterns to depict the action. In many cases, dance and music scenes in particular, the animation was created to fit the music.

Tom and Jerry - Cat Concerto (1946)

Among the most sophisticated cartoon shorts of the 1940’s-50’s are the Warner Brothers - Chuck Jones produced Looney Tunes films based which parody classical music performances and opera. The scripts show a great affection for the musical art forms, and in many ways encompass the Wagner idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk”, or “total art”. Wagner attempted such feats in his nineteenth century music dramas- yet it wasn’t until the next century that music and staging (celluloid) could be so closely intertwined. 


The “Rabbit of Seville” (1946) was based on the music of the 19th century Italian operatic composer Gioachino Rossini, arranged by Carl Stalling.

Looney Tunes - Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Fantasia and Fantasound

The 1940 Disney production Fantasia introduced a variety of technical innovations to cinematic sound, and represented an attempt to artistically marry music and animation. Based on a series of classical musical works paired with animated episodes, the films range from whimsical (Sorcerer’s Apprentice) to abstract (Toccata and Fugue). Fantasia met with mixed reviews, with most music critics seeing it as an assault on the sacred territory of classical music. Walt Disney (who lost money on the elaborate production) saw it as an opportunity to solidify his legacy as a legitimate artist.  


“Fantasound” was the name given to a multi-channel audio system created by Disney for Fantasia. The orchestra was recorded with an elaborate multi-channel recording system (which necessitated the invention of the “pan pot” for animating musical movement across the screen), and the music music was played back on a 3 channel system. Since theaters were equipped with no more than a single audio channel, Disney had to truck the system to selected theaters during theatrical road shows in 1940/41. The endeavor lost money, but Disney’s legacy lived on.

The Making of Fantasia

Fantasia - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940)

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