Music was the driving force in the early sound cartoons; think of the Silly Symphonies, the original Merrie Melodies and Mickey Mouse bashing out tunes on a variety of animals-turned-instruments. And music is behind one of the questions asked by animation fans on occasion: “What is that music in the background?”
In some cases, the answer is easy if someone has knowledge of classical music. My father had a large collection of classical music and listened to a classical radio station, so I’m not one of those people who say “I learned about classical music/opera watching cartoons.” But cartoons exposed me, and several generations, to popular songs of another era. How else would anyone born in the 1950s or 1980s know “Blues in the Night” unless they heard it in the soundtrack of a Warner Bros. cartoon? Or “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”? (Performed by a Jewish baby, in one short).
The definitive answer to “what is that music” is found in something that, regrettably for cartoon fans, is not available on the internet. It’s found on a cue sheet. Cue sheets have been around since before sound films, but they originally served a different purpose. Music publishers would send out cue sheets to theatres in the hope the music cues on it would be played—cues that, oddly enough, were exclusive to the publisher supplying the sheet. In the sound era, cue sheets were logs containing names of songs, publishers and other pertinent information, and sent to music licensing organisations to ensure composers got paid for their work. A cue sheet is still required for every production, film or television.
Below you see a sheet from the first Huckleberry Hound Show, though this sheet was revised in June 1960 for some reason.
Jerry Beck, as you might expect, has a random collection on his Cartoon Research web site.
My favourite cartoons were made by Warner Bros. In his doctoral dissertation at UCLA in 2001, Daniel Goldmark, perhaps the foremost expert on music in theatrical animated cartoons, transcribed portions of the cue sheets for almost every Warners short, beginning with the first Looney Tune, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (1930). Here’s the list of cues for one of Friz Freleng’s funniest cartoons, Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948).
The cue sheet reveals the melody behind Bugs and then Yosemite Sam dancing is a Carl Stalling original.
Dr. Goldmark’s dissertation expounds on Stalling’s use of popular and classical music, so most of his cue transcriptions are missing just about anything Stalling (and his successors and predecessors) composed for each cartoon. Also missing is a list of cues I’ve been trying to find out about for several decades—what the internet has dubbed “The Seely Six.”
Six cartoons released by Warners in 1958 bear a music credit for John Seely. Seely was a musician and composer, but he didn’t compose the scores for the six shorts. At the time, Seely was in charge of Capitol’s film music library. In 1956, Capitol created a library of several hundred records (or film reels) of music that could be licensed for films or television shows. It proved to be very popular; it provided background music for Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Gumby stop-motion shorts, industrial films from numerous companies (including Jerry Fairbanks Productions) and theme songs for several TV shows. Cues from the Capitol library were cherry-picked, quite possibly by Treg Brown at Warners, and edited together to form a score. Seely got the screen credit on the cartoons solely because he was the boss at Capitol.
Dr. Goldmark speculated in his dissertation that a possible reason behind using the stock music was an experiment to save money; Carl Stalling retired from the studio just before the Capitol library found its way into Warners cartoons. But the theory has also been floated, and I can’t remember where I first read it, was that the canned music was necessitated by a musicians strike.
The American Federation of Musicians launched a strike against the major Hollywood studios on February 20, 1958. Things didn’t quite go according to plan for the union and its leader, Caesar Petrillo. An unhappy group of members splintered off and formed their own union. Petrillo suddenly retired. On July 14th, the National Labor Relations Board certified the splinter union as the sole bargaining agent for musicians at the studios and the strike ended later that month, with “tooters” (as Variety insisted on calling them) returning to work starting July 21st. A contract was ratified on September 3rd.
Feature film production was only mildly inconvenienced by the strike; studios elected to have their composer’s scores recorded in foreign countries, mainly Mexico. From what I’ve been able to find so far, only one feature film released by a major studio required stock music to be used due to the walkout, Fox’s The Fiend Who Walked the West (cues were supplied by Leon Klatzkin, who supervised the Mutel library). As for the Warners cartoons, the Goldmark dissertation reveals the last in-house cue sheet filed before the Seely Six was on May 6th for Knighty Knight Bugs (released August 23, 1958). Cue sheets for the six Seely cartoons follow, four of them dated October 22nd, one on October 31st and the last on December 8th, the same day sheets were submitted for Milt Franklyn’s scores for Cat Feud and Baton Bunny (both released in 1959). Four of the Seely sheets are dated after the release of the cartoon. The music was added to each cartoon after the artwork was completed and shot. The dates could indicate the strike wasn’t the catalyst for using Capitol’s library.
Of the six, the Seely score I’ve been most curious about is for Hook, Line and Stinker, released October 11, 1958. It may be the most Hanna-Barbera sounding of the sextet, mainly due to the presence of a Capitol cue called “TC-303 Zany Comedy,” composed by Seely with Bill Loose, and heard frequently in the earliest Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and Pixie & Dixie cartoons. But the short is also distinguished by what some people insist is the theme to the Dennis the Menace TV series, which was also composed by Loose and Seely. The melody is the same in some spots but is not note-for-note and is missing the musical “twitch” that Loose felt made it a likeable theme. Dr. Goldmark didn’t list any of the “Seely” cues in his dissertation, but I’ve been blessed by the kindness of on-line friends who have graciously supplied me with the cartoon’s cue sheet. And it reveals a surprise.
The “Dennis” cue, which precedes the Menace sitcom by a year, was actually written for Gumby, and is called “Gumby Chase.” The cue is still licensed under that name by ASCAP and published by Sam Fox Music; Loose and Seely wrote for that company before their Capitol days and some Sam Fox cues found their way into the Hi-Q library, though I cannot find a record of “Gumby Chase” being one of them.
Among the cues in the cartoon (Photoplay names) are “GR-453 The Artful Dodger” (Wile E. with dynamite under the tub until he tip-toes off camera); “GR-255 Puppetry Comedy” (the stick clubs Wile E.); “GR-459 Dawn in Birdland” (shot of birdseed, Wile E. opens can); “GR-97 By Jiminy! It’s Jumbo Short Bridge No 1” (Wile E. high-steps to the tracks, gets run over) and “GR-256 Toyland Burglar” (balloon, shot of roadrunner; shot of grey clouds, Wile E. drops).
The cartoon isn’t strong to begin with (a gag is Wile E. gets a beard of dust) and the stock music doesn’t add anything, as much as I’m a fan of the library.
That’s enough about this particular cartoon, one of about a thousand scored at Warner Bros. It’s a shame cue sheets for all the studios aren’t more accessible to the public. Fans would be able to learn more about the scores stitched together by cartoon studio musical directors, music that, in some cases, would otherwise go forgotten.