Humour and Classical Music
9. The Golden Age of the Animated Short
by David Barker
I mentioned in my article on Fantasia that Disney experimented with the use of classical music in a series of animated cartoon shorts called Silly Symphonies which ran from 1929 to 1939. The music tended to be brief excerpts, and more often than not, mixed in with jazz, popular songs and original music. As such, I don’t intend to discuss any of these here. In 1931, Warner Brothers chimed in with its own pair of series called Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes (the main distinction being that the latter began in black and white). Again, most used original music with the occasional extract of an existing work. Fantasia changed all that.
In 1943, Warner Brothers released A Corny Concerto, a very thinly veiled parody of Fantasia. In the Deems Taylor role of presenter is Elmer Fudd, with round spectacles as worn by Taylor, but unshaven and with a misbehaving starched shirtfront which keeps springing up and hitting him in the face. He has another wardrobe malfunction later when his trousers fall down. The action opens at Corny-Gie Hall, and the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is heard. Fudd introduces the first scene, which has Porky Pig (in Fudd’s usual role) and his dog hunting Bugs Bunny. The action is choreographed to Johann Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods. If you have seen any of the Fudd/Bugs Bunny hunt cartoons, then the slapstick will be very familiar, and I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow description here. Fudd returns briefly to introduce the second scene, which uses The Blue Danube. It inverts The Ugly Duckling story, by having a young Daffy Duck trying to ingratiate himself into a family of swans. In my research for this article, I found a poll of animation professionals (from 1994) ranking the 50 greatest animated shorts of all time – A Corny Concerto came in at number 47. My feeling is that it is not as good as that – the relationship of music to action is OK, without being especially inventive (unlike Fantasia).
The original function of the Warner Brothers shorts was to be shown before a main feature film in the cinema; only later did they gain a life of their own. Quickly, the other film studios created their own, among them Universal’s Woody Woodpecker and MGM’s Tom and Jerry. There were others, but these two each have a classical music-related cartoon in their output.
In 1944, Universal released The Barber of Seville, starring Woody, who takes over the Seville Barber Shop from its owner Tony Figaro. While the first four minutes of action has background music, it is only in the last section where Woody begins to sing Figaro’s famous aria from the Rossini opera. The action is manic, as per usual for this character (who isn’t one of my favourites), but the last two-and-a-half minutes are clever and had to be in the minds of the Warner Brothers animators when they turned to this story in 1949. The Barber of Seville ranked at #43, and even with my ambivalence about Woody Woodpecker, it is definitely superior to A Corny Concerto. However, one of the sequences, involving a First Nation character, is definitely politically incorrect today, so I expect that if Woody Woodpecker cartoons are shown on TV any more, this won’t be among them.
Rabbit of Seville was Warner Brothers’ response, and for me, it is the finest animated short ever made (the poll has it at #12). The setting is an idealised Hollywood Bowl, with Rossini’s opera on the bill, which shows the WB creative team credited in “joke” Italian: Eduardo Selzeri (Edward Selzer), Michele Maltese (Michael Maltese) and Carlo Jonzi (Charles M Jones). As the crowd settles in, there are gun shots in the hills behind, and an out-of-breath Bugs Bunny arrives at the stage door, pursued by Elmer Fudd. The latter stalks out onto the stage, unaware of where he is. The curtain rises (activated by Bugs), the conductor (very obviously Stokowski – a Fantasia reference) taps his podium and the music begins. My description will stop there, for I suspect that there will be very few of you reading this who haven’t seen this a number of times. How is it better than the Woody Woodpecker version? Musically, Rossini’s music is used throughout and Michael Maltese, the writer, created new lyrics that match the action perfectly, but fit equally well with the music. The sequence in the Woody Woodpecker version where the hydraulic lift on the barber’s chair is used to inflict damage on his victim is raised to a whole new level here (if you will pardon the pun), with Bugs and Elmer both on chairs. The coordination of the action with the music is simply genius. Number 12 indeed!
Tom and Jerry got into the classical world in 1947 with The Cat Concerto, with Tom as a concert pianist about to play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Jerry (that’s the mouse) is asleep in the piano on the hammers, and the sequence where he is awoken by Tom’s playing is very imaginative. Jerry then mocks Tom, and the rest of the cartoon is the usual Tom trying and failing to kill Jerry slapstick. It isn’t a patch on the cleverness of Rabbit of Seville, but did win the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and is ranked at #42.
Intriguingly, in that same year, there were two other animated shorts, one with Woody Woodpecker (Musical Moments from Chopin), the other Bugs Bunny (Rabbit Rhapsody), where a pianist is continually interrupted by another character. In the latter case, it is even the same piece of music, and led to accusations of plagiarism in both directions.
In 1957, the supposedly “just for children” animated short reached its apogee with Warner Brothers’ What’s Opera, Doc?. It was described by the Library of Congress as meeting the criteria – “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” – for inclusion in the National Film Registry and was the first animated short film to be so (not surprisingly, it is #1 in the poll). In six short minutes, it parodies Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung (with also some references to The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser). As with Rabbit of Seville, it involves Bugs Bunny being hunted by Elmer Fudd, but now Fudd is Siegfried. It features more wonderful song adaption by Michael Maltese, with a love duet between Fudd and Bugs (as Brünnhilde). It is one of only three times where Elmer actually defeats Bugs, though the apparently dead rabbit, whilst being carried to Valhalla, turns to the audience and says “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”. Now I have already nailed my colours to the mast with Rabbit of Seville, but I do accept that What’s Opera, Doc? is a wonderfully inventive creation, and certainly not aimed at a young audience (who undoubtedly would have found the extended love duet boring). It is much less funny than the usual Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies offering, and only an operagoer would understand the Wagner references.
All these cartoons are available on YouTube, but I am unsure of their copyright status, so I will leave you to find them if you wish.