silent film

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.

Restoration of Trip to the Moon

Restoration of Trip to the Moon
Before restoration!


A rebirth in color

The color version of Georges Méliès’ masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon (1902), was presented at the Cannes Film Festival during the Opening evening, on May 11, 2011. 109 years after its first release, a fully restored color version is once again visible on screen, after being considered lost.

In May 1902, Georges Méliès shot the film, A Trip to the Moon. It was released in black and white, and also in color, hand painted. It was considered as a long feature at the time – around 14 minutes – and was success worldwide. The first blockbuster in the history of cinema was immediately pirated and plagiarized. In 1913, the black and white version survived Georges Méliès’ act of folly, when he attempted to burn his collection of film negatives.


The color version was considered definitively lost, however a color print was finally found in 1993 in Barcelona, Spain, donated by a private film collector to the Filmoteca of Catalunya. However, the nitrate print had been severely damaged over time and was in such poor condition that attempting any restoration work seemed futile. Following a film exchange with the Filmoteca of Catalunya, Lobster Films received the damaged color print and began the tedious task of peeling off and unrolling the nitrate prints to be able to digitize them. It took two years to extract the images fragments. The data obtained was stored on a hard drive for eight years as the technology available at the time did not allow Lobster Films continue the restoration.

In 2010, a restoration project was launched by Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. Thanks to the advanced digital technologies available today, the fragments of the 13, 375 frames were reassembled and restored one by one. In 2010, a project team involving Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage – the only two foundations in France dedicated to worldwide cinema – launched the most complex and ambitious restoration project in the history of cinema, with a budget equivalent to a long feature high-end restoration (more than 400,000 €)


The digital restoration of A Trip to the Moon took place at Technicolor’s laboratories in Los Angeles (California) and was supervised by Tom Burton. A black and white original nitrate print belonging to the Méliès family and a positive print belonging to the Centre National du Cinéma (CNC) were used during the restoration. The digitization of these elements was done by the Archives françaises du film (CNC-AFF) near Paris. As is the case with all the restoration projects conducted by the two Foundations, the objective is to circulate the film to the largest audience possible. For this purpose, they have asked the French band, AIR (Jean-Benoi Dunckel and Nicolas Godin), to compose an original soundtrack to accompany this silent film, which was at the time of its first release screened with a musician on stage playing “popular music,” as described in the film reviews of the time.

“This is the most complex and ambitious restoration project we have evertaken on, all the more that this film, one of the first in the history of cinema, was had vanished for over 100 years,” declared Serge Bromberg (Lobster Films), Gilles Duval (Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema) and Séverine Wemaere (Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage).

A colossal amount of work was done in order to breathe life back into this color masterpiece by Georges Méliès. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, was mark the 150th anniversary of the filmmaker’s birth.



Adapted from the Technicolor Film Foundation

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.




Foley with children


Foley is a funny term but all it is, is the reproduction of everyday sounds for use in filmmaking or for radio.

The term Foley was named after Jack Foley who  began what this art in the twenties. He had started working with Universal Studios in 1914 during the silent movie era, but talkies soon came.  Foley then became part of the sound crew that would turn Universal’s then upcoming “silent” musical Show Boat into the musical that it is known as today. Because the microphones used for filming could not pick up more than dialogue, other sounds had to be added in after the film was shot. Foley and his small crew would project the film on a screen while recording a single track of audio that would capture their live sound effects in real time.This was not so different from what was done to the silents except the sound artists had to be  at the film’s screening. An early print shows how it was done then.

Jack Foley created sounds for films until his death in 1967. His methods are still employed today.Foley artists look to recreate the  sounds that the film portrays.

Creating Foley is a lot of fun and can be added to any silent film you can find. My people created the sound for three short Buster Keaton films last year and discovered what a genius he was, and how funny. Below I have given a list of noise makers that give effective sounds and where you can get them.

  1. Fire    Crinkle cellophane
  2. Horses hooves    Coconut shells cut in half and stuffed with padding 
  3. Birds flapping    A pair of rubber gloves flapped
  4.  Sliding Door    A  skate board rolled down a length of aluminium then hitting a door stopper.
  5.  Ocean   Churning a bucket of water with the mike held close
  6. Thunder   Large balloons containing metal bearings shaken close to a mike.
  7. Sword fight   Two garden trowels hit together
  8. Crowd noises   Cue cards which tell the audience the sound that is needed
  9. Brake screech   Sheet of glass in a box on which you pull a large nail across
  10. Falling body   A telephone book wrapped in gaffer tape, then dropped.
  11. Footsteps   A pair of leather shoes on your hands and walk  across a wooden table
  12. Winches etc.   Toy ratchet
  13. Creaking door   Cotton rope rubbed with rosin and wrapped tightly around a dowel.
  14. Drowning   Bubbles blown through a straw in a glass of water
  15. Gunshot   Flicking a clip on a clip board

There are lots more things you can make to imitate real sounds, just keep your ears open but the most important and possibly the most fun sound effect device is the crash box. This is used for every type of accident from car and train crashes to medieval warfare. This you can easily make.

Take a large empty tin with a lid like a large billy.put in one broken ceramic coffee mug, one crushed aluminum can, a few pennies, a few screws, one piece of wood (about the size of a fist), and two handfuls of pea-sized gravel. Tape the lid shut with gaffer tape—around the seam. Keep the lid on tight or the junk or its soon-to-be fine dust will leak out. Don’t use glasses or wine bottles because they powderize too much. Ceramic coffee mugs are sturdier. Experiment with crash sounds, you can roll, shake or just drop the box. It all sounds different.

Look at an example of real life foley being produced in a studio


Now select your silent movie, and have fun!

The Moving Picture Show

State Theatre Proscenium Arch

State Theatre Main Staircase










Modern cinemas are noted for being small black boxes with the walls draped in cloth and low ceilings all for focussing on the front screen and a clearly hearing the dialogue broadcast from carefully positioned speakers. This was not so during the silent era. It was just stepping out from vaudeville and the theatre itself was as much part of the experience as what was on the screen – just look at the State Theatre in Sydney where our music came from. The films were accompanied by live music and live acts and sing a longs were interposed between films to rest patrons eyes. A whole show could go for hours and was run by the leader of the orchestra or MC in big theatres. I have been studying early cinema practice and working in the National Library on their collection of film music from the State Theatre Sydney to reproduce an authentic silent film experience for a modern audience. For this I have a film orchestra as would have been used in the time that has helped to develop the show. Many of these musicians are also expert in the jazz of that era as most comedies were accompanied by popular numbers I also have a Foley – sound effects person as was used in the big theatres. This experience is what we want to give modern people a touch of, Sydney cinema of the 1920s.