1929 was a good year for Walt Disney: his seminal creation, Mickey Mouse, had just broken out as a huge star in the wake of the immensely popular short Steamboat Willie (1928). That cartoon’s success led to a series of sound-synchronized Mickey cartoons being released to theaters, two of which (Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho) had been made before Willie. Mickey was a hot commodity, and audiences couldn’t get enough of his manic, musical adventures.
One of the composers who worked on Disney’s early shorts was a young man named Carl Stalling. He, like Disney, was from the Midwest; the two met in Kansas City, where Disney had formed his first animation studio with longtime cohort Ub Iwerks. Stalling’s first composition for Disney was the score to the 1929 Mickey cartoon The Opry House, and from the start, Disney and Stalling argued about the direction of the music. In truth, Walt had no real sense of music and could not understand why Stalling could not miraculously make the music “fit” whatever his animators had concocted onscreen. According to longtime Disney animator/director Wilfred Jackson (as quoted in Michael Barrier’s book The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney), the pair ultimately reached a compromise: “‘[I]f Carl would make his damned music fit the action Walt wanted in this Mickey, Walt would make a whole series … where the music would have its way'” (68).
The result was a series called Silly Symphonies. And though Walt later (predictably) claimed credit for the idea of the series, it was in fact based on an earlier suggestion from Stalling, who saw the possibilities of putting animation to music as opposed to the other way around. Stalling’s initial proposal was for something he called a “skeleton dance,” and Disney ran with the idea, writing to his brother Roy about his vision for the cartoon: “‘I think we could Cartoon the Skeletons … and double print over a real background … Also use Stuffed OWELS [sic] … BATS … and other spooky things'” (69).
The Skeleton Dance, animated almost entirely by Iwerks (who used Stallings’ musical bar sheets as well as a detailed scenario outline from Disney to craft the cartoon), premiered in August 1929. In composing the music for the short, Stalling went in a deceptively simple direction. In a 1971 interview with Barrier, Stalling explained that while Disney had originally wanted to set the cartoon to Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1874 tone poem Danse Macabre, he could not get the rights to use the music–not that Disney wanted to fork over money for the privilege, anyway: “Walt never wanted to pay for music; he wanted me to just make up something [similar].” So instead of the familiar classical tune, Stalling used a foxtrot, setting the music in a minor key, which created a suitably spooky, yet strangely jaunty soundtrack for the short.
Though some theaters refused to show The Skeleton Dance, claiming that the concept was simply too grotesque, the cartoon soon became a hit, kicking off a long line of award-winning, precisely synchronized musical cartoons in the Symphonies series. But the series continued without the contributions of its two main creators, Iwerks and Stalling. When Iwerks quit Disney in 1930 to open his own studio, Stalling left a day later–and it was an acrimonious split on all sides. After working for Iwerks for a while (and after a brief return to Disney on a freelancing basis, during which time the composer worked on 1933’s Three Little Pigs), Stalling moved with Iwerks to Warner Bros. Iwerks later returned to Disney for good, but Stalling remained at Warner Bros., finding his greatest success as the prolific composer for the studio’s Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series.
Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Barrier, Michael, Milton Gray, and Bill Spicer. “Carl Stalling.” Funnyworld 13 (1971). <http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Funnyworld/Stalling/Stalling.htm>