Music and the Silent Film

State Theatre Collection

State Theatre Collection

Two of the earliest film exhibitors in Australia were Cosens Spencer and T.J. West. Spencer opened the Great American Theatrescope in Sydney in 1905 and soon after acquired a chain of cinemas across Australia. By 1912 he was the largest importer of films in the country. West began screening films in Sydney in 1906 and within four years he owned 14 cinemas and had a nightly audience of 20,000 patrons. In 1912-13 West’s Pictures and Spencer’s Pictures merged with Amalgamated Pictures and the Greater J.D. Williams Amusement Company to form Union Theatres Ltd (exhibition) and Australasian Films Ltd (distribution).


The two companies were based in Film House in Pitt Street, Sydney, and they maintained a library of piano and orchestral music to accompany silent films. The music was lent to the 80 or more cinemas that made up the Union Theatres chain. In 1921 Stuart Doyle, the managing director, began the large-scale modernization of many of the old cinemas. In 1929 he opened the grandest cinema of all, the State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney. Designed by Henry Eli White, it had seating for 2572 people and contained a gothic entrance hall, bronze Florentine doors, stalls upholstered in red leather, a Grand Circle with paintings and rich tapestries, and a Royal Mezzanine Circle with an enormous chandelier. In its opening months, the State Theatre had an orchestra of 24 players conducted by Will Prior, a permanent ballet, and singers and solo dancers with American choreographers.


Within a few months, however, the State Theatre was facing the effects of the Great Depression. Union Theatres went into liquidation in 1931. Its assets were bought by a new company, Greater Union Theatres Ltd. Facing strong opposition from the Hoyt’s and MGM chains, Greater Union Theatres struggled to survive. It depended almost entirely on film supply from Cinesound and Universal Pictures. Its fortunes improved during World War II and ultimately it was to be the largest cinema chain in Australia. The State Theatre also survived, although it was too large for modern use and it lost money for many years. In 1974 it became the home of the Sydney Film Festival and in recent years it has been the venue for many musical theatre productions.



The State Theatre Collection of music was donated to the National Library by the State Theatre in 1974.



The State Theatre Collection consists of 12,569 music scores which were used in Australian cinemas in the era of silent films. Most of them have ownership stamps indicating that they were originally in the music libraries of Union Theatres Ltd, Haymarket Theatres Ltd, Spencer’s Theatrescope Company or West’s Pictures Ltd. In some cases the covers are annotated with the dates and names of Sydney, country and interstate cinemas that borrowed the music between about 1915 and 1930. There is also some music that was performed by the State Theatre orchestra in the first twenty years of ‘talking pictures’.


The music was written or arranged for piano and small orchestras and includes overtures, serenades, marches, medleys, waltzes, fox trots and barcarolles. Some works were written specifically for motion pictures. The great majority of the scores were published in Britain or the United States, but there are also some Australian, French, German and Italian works.


The collection contains many arrangements of works by classical composers such as Chopin, Delibes, Gounod, Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann and Sibelius. Among the composers of original works, some of which were extremely popular in the early years of the twentieth century, are Harry Akst, Thomas S. Allen, Giuseppe Becce, Irving Berlin, Eric Coates, Sam Coslow, Buddy Fields, Perry Fletcher, George Gershwin, Victor Herbert, Leo Kempinski, Jerome Kern, Franz Lehar, Pietro Mascagni, Sigmund Romberg, John Philip Sousa, Albert Stoessel, Oscar Strauss, Arthur Sullivan, Haydn Wood and J.S. Zamecnik.


There are some manuscript scores, in particular music associated with the Cinesound musical director Hamilton Webber. They include scores and parts for at least two Cinesound features, Orphan in the wilderness (1936) and Lovers and luggers (1937).



The State Theatre Collection is kept together as a formed collection within the Music Collection. Each work has been numbered in a single sequence and the scores and parts have been placed in plastic bags within boxes. All the works have been catalogued individually, although the imprints are omitted. The call numbers have the prefix MUS State Theatre N.


Carl Stalling

When I first started setting music to silent films, I became impressed with the skill of the use of music in many cartoons, in particular Bugs Bunny. Now many of these cartoons really are just silent films with music and sound effects so I began to term my method as the Bugs Bunny way. It turned out this was not a silly as it sounded because behind all these wonderful cartoons was a man of amazing knowledge and skill who had honed his craft in the silent era. I could do no better than base my work on Carl Stalling. This lecture below tells his story



Carl Stalling and Humor in Cartoons

by Daniel Goldmark

“All cartoons use music as an integral element in their format. Nearly all cartoons use it badly . . . .” 

–Chuck Jones*

Carl Stalling.Carl Stalling.

What exactly is the role of music in cartoons? This is a question I have been trying to answer for years. Music can serve many functions within animated cartoons, several of which apply to its more widely accepted big brother, live-action films. Music can set mood, fill in “empty” sonic space, and emphasize motion. In cartoons, music also helps to enliven and yes, animate, a long sequence of drawings which, taken singularly, don’t carry much life, or as a professor of mine always said, “forward motion.” The modern cartoon, and especially the Hollywood cartoon from the Golden Age of Animation, relies so much on music that it is truly difficult to conceive what they might have been like without a soundtrack.

One more role that music may play in a cartoon (and occasionally in movies as well) is that of storyteller; and what better stories to tell in a cartoon than funny ones? When you look at cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s, one of the primary roles of the music is to enhance the comedic affect of the story or gag. Thus, the composer must make it his or her business to make the music funny and, at the same time, still effective as a soundtrack. Carl Stalling was, without a doubt, the most skilled and clever composer of cartoon music Hollywood ever had; he not only created the scores to hundreds of Warner Bros. cartoons (from 1936 to 1958), he essentially created the sound that most fans of animated shorts know as, simply, “cartoon music.” His unique style (which we’ll discuss in a moment) of using songs for background music that had some nominal relation to the subject at hand became his trademark; and while it was not looked well upon at the time, people today have realized just how important and influential these soundtracks have become in our society. The presence of two compact discs of Stalling’s music, The Carl Stalling Project, V. 1 & 2, as well as several new recordings of Raymond Scott’s more famous tunes (those frequently used by Stalling) should be enough evidence, yet there are other proofs, such as the smash touring company Bugs Bunny on Broadway, which essentially is a celebration of the unique soundtracks of the cartoons.

Stalling’s Early Years
Stalling’s origins as a silent movie accompanist reveal a great deal about his character as a musician. Accompanists, more often than not, had to create spontaneous scores for films, assisted only by thematic musical catalogs. These books would have well-known material arranged for piano and indexed according to the mood or ideas with which they were most often associated. Stalling’s job was more of a pastiche artist than a composer, as he had to create a musical narrative with a wide array of genres, including folk, classical, Tin Pan Alley, and big band, among others. When he went to Warner Bros., this skill came in very handy. (Let’s not forget the fact that Stalling started his cartoon career with Disney, scoring two of the first three Mickey cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, as well as writing Mickey’s first theme song (with Disney), “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo.” He then worked at Iwerks’ studio for a while before going to Warner Bros.) One of the original stipulations made by the Warner Brothers to Leon Schlesinger was that each cartoon had to have some portion (the usual consensus is at least one verse and the chorus) of a Warner Bros.-owned song. The studio’s catalog at this time was enormous; yet, it was still rather restricting for the writers to have to construct a story around the idea of a song. By the time Stalling got to the studio, the demand for song-based cartoons seemed to be slowing, yet Stalling immediately saw the advantage of having such an extensive catalog of music at his disposal. Thus, his musical vocabulary extended immensely, and he had a song for literally every occasion.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Beck, Cartoon Research Co.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Beck, Cartoon Research Co.

Visual-Musical Gags
One thing that I have always loved about the Warner Bros. cartoons is some of the old, campy gags that always draw groans from my friends. They seem to think the jokes get old after a while, but I never tire of them. John Tebbel, in his Film Comment article, “Looney Tunester,” speaks somewhat disapprovingly of one of my favorite Stalling gags. It is from the original Road Runner/Coyote cartoon, Fast and Furryous (1949). After having sent off for some jet-powered running shoes (from Acme, no doubt!), the Coyote seems to be on the verge of catching the Road Runner. Their chase takes them farther down the highway, and we see via a high shot from above that they are running around a cloverleaf. What was Stalling’s solution to this image, which would have meant nothing except for an appropriately chosen song? Why, “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” of course. Stalling allows the music to tell a bit of the story, as opposed to letting the music mimic the characters’ actions. I once asked Chuck Jones, the cartoon’s director, about this choice of music, and he said, “That was Carl’s doing. It was kind of strange to me for him to do it, and it was okay, but I didn’t think everybody knew that it was that music.” Tebbel has a similar argument, agreeing with Jones that people would not always recognize the tunes that Stalling had included as intentional gags. 

A particularly notorious example is in Mutiny on the Bunny (1950). Yosemite Sam the Pirate has lost his crew and is searching the docks for new victims/crew for his ship. Bugs happens along, and is quickly tied up and brought on board. Stalling’s choice of music for this scene? A tune called “Put `em in a Box, Tie `em With a Ribbon, and Throw `em in the Deep Blue Sea.” With a song that so perfectly matches the scene, you really cannot blame Stalling for his selection, regardless of who gets the musical gag. This ignorance of the actual meaning or context of the original song actually works to Stalling’s advantage, for while the viewer may not glean the original ironic connection between the aural and visual gags, the music becomes a gag itself if used often enough with the same type of visual gag. Thus, “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You”, a love song that has little to do with food other than its title, and which Stalling used as his number-one song for food scenes (just picture Sylvester putting Tweety between two slices of bread), actually becomes associated with eating in the Warner Bros. cartoons. Entirely new generations of cartoon watchers are exposed to music from Tin Pan Alley and other genres and learn to appreciate it, albeit for a completely different reason. 

Some of Stalling’s more subtle jokes are actually some of his funniest. The one that immediately comes to mind is in the Jones classic Mouse Wreckers (1952), in which the two mice, Hubie and Bertie are trying to rid the perfectly nice house in which they want to live of Claude Cat. Their approach is simple enough: they torment him while he sleeps, and then escape up the fireplace, so that he never actually sees who is torturing him. After a particularly harrowing episode (having his tail tied to a rock, which is thrown off the chimney, dragging him all over and around the house), Claude decides to get some professional help. The next scene opens with him reading a book, Psychology of Dreams by S. Freud. On closer inspection, we notice he is reading the section on nightmares, which tells him he should just say it was a dream and go back to sleep. With a contented look on his face, Claude curls up and goes back to sleep. The background music throughout this scene has been a very peaceful, lullaby-like tune. In actuality, the tune we have been hearing is “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart,” yet another Warner Bros. owned melody. Stalling once again has the last laugh, and I cannot help but wonder if he knew he would be one of the only people actually getting his jokes.

Stalling and the directors he worked with did not, by any means, limit themselves to inside jokes. Some of the most memorable cartoons ever made happen to be about music, such as What’s Opera, Doc?, The Rabbit of Seville, One Froggy Evening, and Rhapsody Rabbit. In this situation, the director and writers work directly with the music to try and bring out its inherent (and perhaps latent) comedic points. One example of this should suffice. In The Rabbit of Seville (1950), Bugs and Elmer slug it out on the opera stage during the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Once Bugs gets Elmer in the barber chair, however, he is in control, giving Elmer a memorable head message (and fertilizing) during the middle section of the overture. I am still not sure which is more favored, this or the “Kill the Wabbit” scene inWhat’s Opera, Doc? (1957); yet, when I talk to people about cartoon music, one of these two scenes inevitably comes up.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Beck, Cartoon Research Co.Photo courtesy of Jerry Beck, Cartoon Research Co.

Tunesters’ Looney-ness
Never let it be said that composers don’t have a sense of humor. Haydn is famous for being the original musical “jokester,” a reputation he gained by doing highly unexpected things in his music. Mozart wrote a piece called “Ein musikalischer Spaß,” which translates roughly into “a musical joke.” Later on, as Chuck Jones points out, the French composer Erik Satie became known for his collection of piano pieces, many of which contained humorous, and often ridiculous performance instructions, such as “bury the sound in the ground” and “He also loves his pen holder, his green sleeves, and his Chinese cap.”

Composers do not only paint pictures and evoke moods within their music, for they can also tell stories of great depth and detail. Carl Stalling almost single-handedly brought about a new form of music that did not exist before 1928. Having established the musical conventions for cartoons, Stalling basically had an influence on every cartoon composer since his run at Warner Bros. He was also a master at telling a story through music, with gestures and nuances so clear, that there is never any doubt as to his intentions. If you don’t believe me, go turn on your television and watch some Looney Tunes. Turn up the volume and listen while doing something else (exploring the net, perhaps.) I guarantee you will know exactly what is happening, and to whom. This was the comedic skill of Carl Stalling.

* “Music and the Animated Cartoon,” unpublished lecture, UCLA, 1944.

Music and the Silent Film

People are often intrigued by how music is put to silent films. It is always imagined that the films are accompanied by a little old man on an enormous organ making the music up as he went. That image is one way it was done, but not the only way by any means.


They’re called silent films. Weren’t they silent?

They were not called silent until talkies came along — they were called movies, motion pictures, flicks, photoplays (and, okay, sometimes “silent drama”). People nowadays usually think of silent films being accompanied by a solo pianist or organist, but in the teens and twenties, deluxe houses would have had an orchestra (although often a rather small one). In many ways, the silent film era was the golden age of film music, since the music was presented live and did not have to compete with dialog or sound effects. In those days, it was “foreground music,” not “background music.” Talkies were not a good development for film music.


Were silent films always presented with music?

It’s a mistake to look at the “silent film era” as a uniform time. It took a while for film presentation to become standardized, and there’s a lot of evidence that before 1910 a lot of theaters may have not used music, or just had a musician who played to entertain the audience while the film was being rewound rather than during the film itself. But it’s safe to say that by 1913, appropriate music was expected during the film. The idea that early films were not accompanied by music is supported by the fact that almost no photoplay music was published before 1913 (films having been shown since the mid 1890s), implying that there may not have been a demand in the early years.


How is a silent film score put together?

There are three fundamental kinds of silent film scores: improvised scores, composed scores, and compiled scores. Improvised scores are created off-the-cuff by a musician while watching the film, usually a soloist on organ or piano. Composed scores are made of new music written freshly for a specific film, usually for a specific combination of instruments which were generally only available at a limited number of theatres. Compiled scores are assembled from a library of previously written music. In real-world scores, the three techniques were often combined in one score. The Moving Picture Show compiles its scores from period theater music, leaving a few scenes to be improvised on the piano to make the score more flexible for live performance conditions. We are blessed with some very fine jazz musicians which means we can extend the improvised sections when we are showing comedies. The comedies historically used popular music of the era to accompany them, thus the enormous number of foxtrots and charlestons found in the libraries of silent film music. This early jazz suits my musicians totally! Listen to them performing for The Two Tars using popular twenty themes that are well known even today.

Dramatic films are more difficult. Much of the music for such films were cut down favourites from the classical repertoire. It is no surprise everyone knows part of the theme to the Overture to William Tell as a chase tune. This was set down in that era. Here is how we used Funeral March for a Marionette by Gounod(also known as the Hitchcock theme) in the film The General.

In this time also developed composers who composed mood music specifically for film. These are often have titles like “Hurry” “Violence” or “Storm Music”  One of the most important composers of this type of music was Jon Stepan Zamecnik . Here is a video of the opening of The General accompanied by music he composed to give the feel of the American deep south. He really was the John Williams of the twenties.


There are only a few other people reviving the “compiled score” technique, as it is very labor intensive. but it is  probably closest to the authentic sound of the era.