Book Review: What’s Opera, Doc?

A groundbreaking book explores the music written for Hollywood’s animated cartoons and how the tunes shaped the characters and stories that are now a vital part of American culture.

Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon by Daniel Goldmark. (University of California Press)

By Mark Kroll


When I was growing up, my friends and I would walk to the local movie house almost every Saturday morning for the special children’s matinee, where 35 cents got you a free bag of popcorn, two grade-B horror movies and twenty cartoons. The cartoons were my favorite part of the show, of course, as they were for the hundreds of other baby-boomer kids in the audience who made the theater a madhouse of screams, laughter and flying candy and popcorn bags.

I still love cartoons, particularly those created by masters like Friz Freling, Tex Avery, and especially Chuck Jones. He produced such classics as “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy Duck is tortured by Bugs Bunny playing the role of a cartoon animator, and everybody’s favorite, “The Road Runner.” What I didn’t realize as a kid, at least consciously, but what now seems so obvious, is that music plays a crucial role in cartoons. If you doubt this, watch one of your favorites with the sound off, and see if you still laugh as much, or at all. Without music, the jokes and sight gags fall as flat as Wile E. Coyote after a boulder lands on top of his head. All the great cartoonists understood this, and Daniel Goldmark has written a fascinating book, the first dedicated exclusively to the subject, Tunes for ‘Toons.

According to Goldmark, live musicians accompanied not only films but also cartoons during the silent era. Quite a few collections of music and how-to books were published for this purpose, and a warning in one written in 1920 indicates that some of the accompanists during this period must have been pretty awful: “nothing is more calamitous than to see ‘Mutt and Jeff’ disport themselves in their inimitable antics and to have a ‘Brother Gloom’ at the organ who gives vent to his perennial grouch in sadly sentimental or funereal strains.”

Such problems were solved with the arrival of the “talkies,” when music became a permanent part of cartoon production. As you would expect, Walt Disney took the lead in combining music with his animated films, such as in his groundbreaking “Steamboat Willy” of 1928. In fact, Disney’s technique of synchronizing music to the action on screen was called “mickey-mousing,” and it still is.

There were many cartoon composers working in the studios, but the two greatest were Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley. Stalling began writing music for Disney in 1929, worked at Warner Bros. from 1936-1958, and didn’t stop composing for cartoons until a few years ago. Stalling’s most productive period was with the group of loony cartoonists at Warner Bros. that included Freling (the inventor and model for “Yosemite Sam”), Avery and Jones. Composer and cartoonist became real collaborators, since both understood the importance of synchronizing the music with the action. For example, when Freling drew a cat running across a room, he tells us that he would “set it up so that if the cat paused … it happened on the beat.”

Stalling was a master at using popular music for his cartoons, but Bradley was classically trained. Since his favorite composers were Brahms, Bartok, and Stravinsky, classical music became a prominent feature in the cartoons he worked on. In fact, Bradley’s cartoon music has probably contributed more to the classical musical education of American audiences than any other medium. Those screaming kids in that 1950s movie theater didn’t know it, but they were learning some of the world’s greatest music during all those cartoons. So did succeeding generations of children of all ages who enjoy watching Bugs, Daffy or Tweety Bird. Chuck Jones even went so far as to predict in 1946 that “the educational system will one day demand a library for its public schools of just such painless introductions to classic and semi-classic music.” He was wrong, of course, but this didn’t stop Elaine from Seinfeld telling Jerry in a 1992 episode that “all your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

She wasn’t kidding. Watch a cartoon from the golden age of animation and you might hear Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata or Schubert’s “The Earl King” (in “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” 1948). Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Bradley’s own twelve-tone Schoenbergian scale can be heard in Hanna and Barbera’s “Puttin on the Dog” (1942), prompting Bradley to “beg” Schoenberg’s forgiveness “for using HIS system to produce funny music.” Mozart’s famous piano sonata in C major is played frequently in cartoons, as is Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” (e.g., in “Rhapsody Rabbit” of 1946), Chopin’s “Funeral March,” and Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (in too many cartoons to count). Wagner is the all-time favorite. Music from Lohengrin appears in 22 cartoons, his Rienzi Overture is heard in 21, the overture from Tannhauser is used in 16 cartoons and the “Ride of the Valkyries” in 15.

The mother of all Wagnerian-influenced cartoons is the Chuck Jones classic “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957). In this brilliant parody, Wagner’s music is not being used to accompany the cartoon — it IS the cartoon. If you haven’t seen it yet, Bugs Bunny is an unforgettable Brunnhilde, complete with horned helmet, and Elmer Fudd’s portrayal of a doomed Wagnerian hero is too ridiculous to describe. The high point of the cartoon comes when Elmer sings the aria “Kill the Wabbit” to a famous Wagner leitmotif. Almost every other tune from Wagner’s The Ring is heard in this cartoon, plus famous melodies from The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser. Jones tells us that he knew exactly what he was doing: “to keep Wagnerian opera’s sense of grandeur, we used a huge 80-piece orchestra.” It would have been less majesty [sic] to do anything unfair to the music. Although when I visited Wagner’s grave, I did hear a whirring sound.” Mark Twain supposedly said “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” “What’s Opera, Doc?” proves it.

Unfortunately, this golden age of cartoon music is long gone. When Bradley was asked in the 1960s about the current state of music in cartoons, he complained “WHAT music? The TV cartoons of today are 95 percent dialogue.” This is even truer today. The Simpsons and South Park are brilliant satires, but the animation is a far cry from the virtuoso artistry of the cartoonists at Warner and Disney. The same can be said about the music.

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