Saturday 30 November 2013

Joe De Nat

It’s hard to believe watching today’s animated TV shows, with talk, talk and more talk, that when sound was added to cartoons over 80 years ago, dialogue was pretty minimal. Music and lyrics filled the soundtrack, not chatter, as composers and arrangers worked to fit their melodies to the sight gags.

It’s a shame, considering how important music was (and remained) to theatrical cartoons, how little is known about most of the people responsible for the scores. Carl Stalling at Warners has received his due and, to a lesser extent, so has Scott Bradley at MGM. But what of David Broekman or Art Turkisher or Joe De Nat?

De Nat was the Charles Mintz’ studio’s composer/arranger from the time sound came in to when Mintz’ studio underwent a house cleaning by Columbia a number of months after Mintz’ death just before 1940. De Nat’s pretty much forgotten, much like the cartoons he worked on. This post won’t try to analyse his style—I’m no musicologist—but his early stuff owes a lot to accompanists of silent films who’d mix in public domain tunes with their own themes to match the mood and action (Evidently, Columbia paid for tunes on occasion. De Nat managed to fit in a Dixieland-ish version of “Darktown Strutters Ball” in the 1931 Scrappy cartoon “Showing Off”). Instead, I’ll just post some biographical stuff I’ve stumbled over on the internet because there really isn’t much information about him.

De Nat was born in New York City on October 2, 1898 to Raphael and Hannah De Nat. His parents were from England, his grandparents from Holland. His father was a cigar manufacturer. As you can see by his World War One draft card to the right, he was already a musician in his teens. Whether he served overseas is unclear. I’ve also been unable to find where he received his musical training, but he was a published composer. He co-wrote “Just a Little Song For You,” copyrighted October 6, 1923. He fronted his own orchestra; I’ve found one appearance in 1927 on WBOQ radio, a part-time station that shared airtime and studio space with the much bigger WABC. In 1929, the Mintz studio started adding sound to its cartoons. Rosario Bourdon scored the first cartoon, “Ratskin,” released August 15th. However, The Film Daily reported on July 22, 1929:

De Nat to Handle Scoring for Krazy Kat Cartoons
Charles B. Mintz, president of Winkler Film Corp., producers of Krazy Kat cartoons, has arranged with Joe DeNat, composer and orchestra leader, to take charge of synchronization and scoring of Krazy Kat cartoons. With installation of this department, DeNat will write a special score for every instrument to be used in the final synchronization so that the scoring will be done simultaneously with the production of each picture. The music and effects are to be written before the cartoons are made so that at the completion of the picture there will be a co-ordination between it and the musical score. DeNat has just returned from a six months sojourn in Hollywood where he made a study of sound. The synchronized Krazy Kat cartoons will be distributed by Columbia Pictures.

The studio used a sound-on-disc process. The discs were recorded by Victor and you can read the list of De Nat’s early work on this web site. Incidentally, the site credits the musical direction in the second Mintz cartoon, “Canned Music,” to LeRoy Shields.

In April 1930, De Nat packed up his wife Ida and headed for California with other selected members of the Mintz studio, where he remained for about another ten years. Variety of April 16, 1936 stated he had written and directed scores for 166 shorts and features. Eddie Kilfeather began work on the studio’s cartoons in 1937 but De Nat remained. Variety reported on October 12th, 1942 that Kilfeather had been made musical director of the studio. De Nat is listed simply as a “salesman” in the 1942 Los Angeles City Directory, but the following year, Variety revealed he was the front man for the house orchestra at Earl Carroll’s Vanities in Los Angeles. Six years later, he was a pianist for a road company edition of a touring ice stage show. He remained a member of the American Society of Music Arrangers. Other familiar members to cartoon fans were Darrell Calker, Clarence Wheeler, Win Sharples, Milt Franklyn and Bill Lava; Kilfeather and De Nat’s replacement, Paul Worth, were not, and neither were Carl Stalling, Scott Bradley or even Phil Scheib of Terrytoons..

De Nat died comparatively young. The New York Times of August 15, 1951 stated his funeral would be held that day. He was 52. Possibly he had returned to New York City. De Nat and his wife divorced a month before his death and she spent the next seven years in court fruitlessly trying to get her hands on less than $400 worth of bonds that she claimed belonged to her (a judge finally ruled in favour of De Nat’s estate). They left no children.


  1. Hi Tralfaz - - or Yowp - -
    My brother-in-law sent me the link to your blog and I must say we are both very excited about are writing and researching my great-uncle Joe!! We do not have this much information about him. We are fascinated as to why you are researching him and HOW you are doing this. A few of us have looked for information on him in the past and have not come up with this much info. Of course, we do know some of it.
    Hoping to hear from you! Thanks!

  2. My grandfather was Allen Rose, animator and director/Scrappy and Krazy Kat!

  3. I've not seen or heard many of De Let's works, but the Charles Mintz cartoon "Hollywood Picnic" -- despite the caricature of Stepin Fetchit -- is a great example of his work. I wish I knew the name of the piece he used as the main piece for the cartoon, which a well-caricatured Martha Raye sings and to which all the Hollywood stars are fruggin' along. The dancing stars included Irvin S. Cobb, Ned Sparks, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, and Boris Karloff all in caricature.

    De Nat was clearly a seriously talented guy who I wish we knew more about...