Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Legacy of Frank Churchill

The sad irony was not hard to see. The man whose song was used to chase away the blues of the Depression couldn’t chase away his own. A .30 calibre rifle ended the life of Disney composer Frank Churchill.

The animation industry, over the years, has mourned self-inflicted deaths. A list would serve little purpose and so would armchair psychology. So, instead, let’s talk about Churchill’s legacy.

Kansas City theatre organist Carl Stalling had been scoring Walt Disney’s films since the start of the sound era but left the studio in early 1930 for supposedly greener pastures at fellow defector Ub Iwerks. Bert Lewis came in to replace Stalling and then Churchill was brought in before the end of the year. He had been working in a Hollywood orchestra but had movie experience. Photoplay of July 1929 revealed it was Churchill playing the piano for Dick Barthelmess in “Weary River.” At the time, he was still living at home. His parents were Andrew J. and Clara E. Churchill; his father was a chemical engineer. The family was in Los Angeles by 1923.

Music was the raison d’être of just about every cartoon of the early ‘30s. Characters (animated and otherwise) danced, frolicked, played musical instruments, turned animals into musical instruments, with a bare storyline holding things together. This wasn’t good enough for Disney. He wanted better drawing, better stories. As for music, public domain songs were about all Uncle Walt could use unless he bought music rights. Then, someone got a brilliant idea. A Disney cartoon would have a song especially composed just for it. And it was a song co-written by Frank Churchill. The song became a hit, the cartoon became a hit, and pretty soon, everyone wanted to know more about how it came to be. Here’s a column from 1933. While the reporter mentions his own first name, there’s no byline.

Telling on Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD, Nov. 14.—“Believe it or not, Bob, my ‘Three Little Pigs’ have ended the depression,” Walt Disney confided to me yesterday. . . . “The biggest hit of any cartoon comedy ever made . . . if the fact that the picture has cleaned a cool million means anything . . . and it’s good for a half million more.”
Disney submitted the idea to his staff three times before they fell for it ... It went through the inking department in ten days . . . a record in animating when you consider it runs around 750 feet and takes eight minutes to screen. . . . A trio . . . the Rythmettes [sic] . . . did the three little pigs . . . and a member of Disney’s staff was “the big bad wolf.”
Pinto Colvieg . . . former newspaper man and a member of Disney’s staff . . . suggested the bad wolf line . . . and Frank Churchill wrote the music. . . . the “tra la la la la” last line was given to the flute and violin when the author couldn’t make a line fit. . . . And only four characters appear in it.
Incidentally, Walt is making his Silly Symphonies in French and Spanish editions now. . . . And Irving Berlin will publish all of the songs originating in them or the Mickey Mouse cartoonettes. . . . Disney has three music and three picture directors who team in pairs . . . so look for something new from Hollywood.
(Copyright, 1933, Publisher’s Syndicate)

“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” continued to fascinate people. An Oakland Tribune columnist with the nom-de-plume ‘The Knave’ had this to say in his offering of January 3, 1935.

PIGGIES. Still a bit puzzled over the popularity of his song hit, “Three Little Pigs,” Frank Churchill, Hollywood musical composer, today returned to the studio to start work on the first 6000-foot movie cartoon feature that will take one year to produce.
Churchill, accompanied by Mrs. Churchill, were the New Year’s Day guests of Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Burnham of Richmond.
A Chinese fable provided the inspiration for the great song hit which made him famous, declared Churchill. He is a former medical student at the U. C. L. A., who abandoned his studies for a job as piano player in a Tijuana resort and rose to fame -as a radio pianist and musical director of Walt Disney’s animated cartoons.
Churchill is a constant reader of fables. Most fables had their origin with the Chinese, he asserts.
“Fables, with their musical scores, appeal to the public because of the originality of their treatment,” Churchill declared. “I did not discover this in the beginning. I began writing musical scores for these animated cartoons to get away from the cost of using stock music. Being a reader of fables, they furnish most of the ideas which I put to music.”
“Three Little Pigs” has been a money maker, according to Churchill. Sheet music sales already have reached three quarters of a million, copies, 110,000 phonograph records have been made of the number and piano roll music is now on the market. Success of the number in Europe has been nearly as great as in America, he said.

Music was central in the Disney cartoons in the early ‘30s and when Walt Disney decided he had no choice put to go into features. Music held together the story. Just like the jingle-esque “Big Bad Wolf,” Churchill co-wrote singable, memorable tunes for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although others contended Churchill a little bit of extra help. Cue the lawyers! First, from 1938.

Song in ‘Snow White’ Pirated, Music Publisher Charges
New York, Oct. 15.— AP— Music Publisher Thornton W. Allen filed in federal court today a copyright infringement action charging that the song “Some Day I’ll Find My Love” in the motion picture production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a “deliberate piracy” of a college march titled “Old Eli,” written by Wadsworth Doster, Yale ‘09, to which Allen’s firm holds the rights.
Allen named Irving Berlin, Inc., publishers of Snow White’s song, credited to Larry Morey and Frank Churchill; Walt Disney Productions, Ltd., RKO Pictures, Inc., and Walt Disney Enterprises in his application for a temporary injunction to restrain use of the song pending a ruling on a permanent injunction and an accounting of unspecified damages.

The Oakland Tribune of April 12, 1939 reveals:

Exits and Entrances
Another plagiarism suit is on file. This time Modest Altschuler wants a quarter of a million from Walt Disney, Irving Berlin, Radio, and Frank Churchill because “Whistle While You Work” is like his “Russian Soldier’s Song.”

And while the newspapers seem to be silent on the outcome of those cases, it did report the ending of another, also in 1939.

‘Dwarf’ Suit, Old As Hills, Out of Court
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 20—(UP)—The $50,000 suit of Reynard Fraunfelder, a Swiss who said he put the yodels into the motion picture “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was thrown out of court today. .
Superior Judge Frank Swain upheld the defense contention that yodelling is “as old as the Swiss hills” and that the Swiss acted only as an adviser for Walt Disney studios for which he was amply paid.
Fraunfelder had sued Disney, Radio Pictures, RCA manufacturing Co., and Frank Churchill, composer.

Churchill’s work wasn’t restricted to Disney. He came out with some songs for 11-year-old Bobby Breen and his co-stars in the musical-romance “Breaking the Ice” (1938). And there was a brief period at Walter Lantz’ studio; Boxoffice of December 11, 1937 reports he was hired as a composer at the same time Frank Marsales was hired as an arranger and Nat Shilkret as a conductor and musical advisor. But he carried on composing for Walt’s features until his sudden end in 1942.

Death of Frank Churchill, Who Wrote “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Termed Suicide.
Newhall, Calif., May 14.—(AP)—Frank Churchill, composer of the song hit, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"—the tune with which America laughed itself out of the depression—was shot and fatally wounded today on his ranch near Newhall. Deputy Sheriff John Morrell said the death was a suicide.
The composer, 40 years old, long had been employed at the Walt Disney studios in Hollywood. He returned here only yesterday for a rest.
Morrell said he left a note to his wife, reading:
“Dear Carolyn: My nerves have completely left me. Please forgive me for this awful act. It seems the only way I can cure myself.”
The composer’s "Big Bad Wolf" was from Disney’s “The Three Little Pigs.” His most recent tunes are in the Disney films, “Dumbo” and “Bambi,” the latter not yet released.
Churchill wrote the songs for “Snow White,” including the memorable “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work.”
Studio associates said his last composition probably was his greatest. It is called “Love is a Song That Never Ends,” and was written for Bambi. He was ranked among the highest paid members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Morrell said Mrs. Churchill, aroused by a shot, asked Don Dernford, a hired man, to investigate.
He found Churchill, a bullet wound through his heart and a rifle lying beside him. Beneath his body was a rosary.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Churchill quoted him. “Put me to bed.”
He was dead when Dr. E. C. Innis reached the ranch from here.
Studio associates said his health had long been poor, and he spent much time on his ranch.

The United Press of June 3, 1942 had this post-script with further indication Churchill’s home life was troubled:

The will of the late Frank E. Churchill, composer for the Walt Disney studios, was filed for probate Tuesday, disclosing he left his daughter, Corrine, 20, only $1 because she “refused to accept any educational advantages or moral guidance” from her father.

Is there more to the story? Could be. This news site story from Santa Clarita, California leaves questions hanging for the reader to decide on their own.

Churchill isn’t as well known as his predecessor at Disney, Carl Stalling, because of the enormous popularity-—and endless rerunning on television—of the Warner Bros. cartoons that Stalling went on to score. But Churchill ultimately had more influence. He was responsible for Disney’s first hit song. Considering all the fortune-making musical features the Disney people have had over the years, they owe a great deal to Frank Edwin Churchill.


  1. My first piano teacher was his half sister. This was in San Jose. I took from her from 1952 to1958. She then moved to Tacoma. After that I lost track of her.
    I have a copy of The music for Silly Symphonies with his writing to her a note.

    1. How fortunate you are to have an autograph from Churchill!... i'm writing my thesis on him and his music for Snow White, Dumbo and Bambi... can i ask you the favor to see it? Thanks

  2. Some day my prince will come has always meant so much to me! The progression of lovely chords are so evocative. Poor man, I feel sorry for him. Talent is not enough to get us through life,s heartaches.