John Schaefer on Tunes for Toons

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There’s a good reason for devoting some time (in our case, this week) to music from cartoons: for many of us, it’s the first strong musical memories we have.  My 6-year old self knew the theme from Winnie The Pooh because it was the first movie I’d ever seen, and therefore made a huge impression.  I knew nothing about classical music, but courtesy of Bugs Bunny cartoons I became familiar with the idea of an orchestra, and a conductor (an intimidating figure of authority in a couple of toons, and so all the funnier when lampooned by Elmer Fudd in a later episode).  At least three generations of us have grown up hearing numbers sing on Sesame Street – an early, intuitive example of how setting something to music can make it easier for young kids to learn.   

The idea of music as part of the animation experience seems a natural one.  And when you think of it, the music in cartoons has often been pretty forward-looking.  Maybe that’s because animation, freed from the restraints of the real world, allows composers to similarly indulge in flights of fantasy.  In a world where you can run off a cliff and hang suspended in mid-air while contemplating the puff of dust you will shortly become, there’s simply no need to bow to musical conventions. 

We’ll look at how this plays out in various ways during our Animating Music week: in the Disney films, in made-for-TV-cartoon bands, in The Simpsons, etc.  But today, looking at Betty Boop cartoons, it strikes me how quickly the animation studio of creator Max Fleischer looked to the hip jazz musicians of the day to give the animation its swing.  This would probably have been shocking to older viewers, appealingly cool to the 20- and 30-somethings in the audience, and absolutely natural to the toddlers they brought to the theater with them.  It was only when I became a dad and bought the Winnie the Pooh movies for my kids that I realized just how psychedelic some of the Sherman Brothers’ music was.  (Just check out the “Heffalumps and Woozles” song from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day – seriously, what were they smoking that day?)    

Do you have an early memory of cartoon music?  Leave a comment.