Cartoon Canticles

At one time, I thought about being a musician.  That lasted about thirty seconds, and then I remembered that my ear is worth its weight in tin.  I played flute and piccolo in high school, and you can imagine the fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech when I tried to preform, say, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or even the solo from The Stars and Stripes Forever.  Suffice to say, everyone’s ears were saved from what would have been a disastrous and failed musical career.

Still, I’ve had a life-long love affair with music.  My tastes tend to be pretty all-inclusive, ranging from Richard and Karen Carpenter to Bela Bartok.  Looking back, I have to say that my earliest introduction to music had to come from after-school cartoon shows, and in particular the genius of Chuck Jones.

I can still watch classics like The Rabbit of Seville, set to the tune of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with enjoyment.  In this work Bugs Bunny is barber who shaves Elmer Fudd not once, but three times. There is almost no dialog in this piece; all of the drama and comedy derive from clever sight gags that are perfectly coordinated with the score.  The music itself is remarkably faithful to Rossini’s original, although the tempo is accelerated to match the madcap frenzy of the action and some recapitulation is eliminated.

Igor Stravinsky once said he wouldn’t criticize Disney’s Fantasia since he didn’t want to remark on an “unyielding imbecility.”  Of course, he may have been a bit miffed since Fantasia quoted Le Sacre du Primtemps without paying royalties to the composer.  It was “Russian,” you see, and at the time the US had no copyright treaty with the USSR.  However, who among us can hear Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of  Mickey as the hapless magician?

These short movies are part of our cultural heritage.  There are compositions I can no longer hear without seeing Bugs, Daffy, or Mickey prancing on the screen.  Chuck Jones in particular brought a visual energy, dramatic flair, and biting social commentary to this unique medium.  Four of the five greatest cartoons of all time were directed by Jones.  His One Froggy Evening features not only tin-pan alley classics like “Hello My Baby” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” but also Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville.  Spielberg called this masterwork the Citizen Kane of cartoons.

However, by the 1960s the cost of producing high-quality animation began to cause the visual quality of these films to degrade.  The difference between, say, What’s Opera, Doc? and sixties classics like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Huckleberry Hound are obvious.  It’s not that the latter aren’t clever and well-written, but it’s hard to imagine these dramas succeeding in the absence of dialogue in the way that The Rabbit of Seville does.

That’s not to say that Jones’ heritage doesn’t live on.  In some ways, feature films like Shrek or Ice Age are modern manifestations of his genius.  Even in the sixties, shows with live actors owed a huge debt to the cartoons of the thirties, forties and fifties.  Indeed, last night I re-watched a TV episode from October, 1966 that I hadn’t seen in at least thirty years.  When I saw it was available on Amazon, I jumped on it to see if it was as clever as I’d remembered.  It exceeded my expectations.

The episode was “The Producer” from the third and final season of Gilligan’s Island.  Okay, so your eyes probably just rolled out of your head.  I’ll give you a moment to pick them up and reinsert them.

Ready? Here we go.

Truthfully, this is a show I’ve excoriated whenever it worms its way into my brain. However, I confess that I watched this episode with new eyes last night.  Gilligan’s is a cartoon–one with live actors, but a cartoon nonetheless.  Just watching the zany and frenetic action in this episode confirms this.  Gilligan drives a straw “car” that zips around the island, the camera under-cranked to make him seem to move at lightning speed.  When the islanders put on their musical version of Hamlet, they manage to find appropriate ostumes for the eponymous hero, for Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Laertes.  The Powells play the king and queen–of course!–complete with golden crowns and heavy chains.  Later, guest star Phil Silvers reprises the entire musical play at twice the tempo, playing Ophelia in drag–reminiscent of Bugs’ appearances in drag in The Rabbit of Seville and in many other Chuck Jones’ creations.

Best of all, the musical choices and lyrics are perfection.  We’ve got Gilligan as Hamlet singing “To be or not to be,” to the tune of the “Habenera” from Bizet’s Carmen.  Then Ginger, as Ophelia, advises Hamlet to chill out, singing the melody from Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” in The Tales of Hoffman.  Next, the Skipper as Polonius tells Laertes “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” this time lampooning the Toreador Song, again from Carmen.  The music and lyrics fit together seamlessly and tell the story in just a few short, brilliant minutes.

I could go on with other examples of classical music in cartoons, but this is enough for today.

 Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!




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3 Responses to Cartoon Canticles

  1. lexacain says:

    I adore Looney Toons, especially Bugs Bunny, and I know that Barber of Seville cartoon very well. It was brilliant! I’d forgotten about some of the others you mentioned, so thanks for the trip down Memory Lane. 😀

  2. Amalie says:

    Wow, Max, you’ve actually touched on something that a group of my friends discussed several years ago. We were enjoying an evening in after a day of teaching junior high band camp and somehow got stuck watching old Chuck Jones cartoons. We reminisced about how fantastic it was to hear these full orchestral renditions of timeless works of musical art in such an engaging setting, and we wondered whether some of the difficulties we face in teaching large ensembles today might stem, at least in part, from the lack of experience younger people now have with regard to hearing how a professional orchestra/band is supposed to sound. Those of us that grew up on these old cartoons were constantly assaulted by these works without realizing it, but many people today grow up on cartoons that are almost always accompanied by “rock” or synthesized musical tracks. There’s nothing necessarily WRONG with these new stylistic conventions in cartoons; they just don’t offer the exposure to great works that older works did.

    I no longer teach music professionally, but I still thank the old cartoons for teaching me what a professional ensemble should sound like.

    • Max says:

      We had a faculty member at my University who researched these old scores, the composers who wrote them, and the musicians who played them. Many were refugees from Europe in the 30s who brought to Hollywood what they knew. They also brought social sensibilities and humor that informed these adult dramas. All interesting stuff!

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