October 17, 2016 posted by

Needle Drop Soundtracks In Iwerks Cartoons


Balloon Land holds a special place in the hearts of a certain generation of animation fans.

Before Guild Films brought out their package of black-and-white “Looney Tunes” shorts – with such characters as Bosko, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck – local hosted kid shows had a limited amount of animation with which they could fill time between the antics of Uncle/Captain/Range So-And-So (and the numerous commercials). Package of Ub Iwerks and Van Beuren cartoons–often with their identities masked by new credits, and sometimes new titles, helped fill the bill, as did silent cartoons which had been “goat-glanded” with music and effects tracks.

pincushion-manViewers who looked forward to this short also got repeated exposure to at least two Victor recordings of instrumental music.

Over the opening titles, and in the shots establishing the idyllic life in Balloon Land, is heard “Buffoon”, recorded for the Victor in 1932 by a grou billed as the Victor Concert Orchestra, conducted by long-time Victor house-bandleader Nathaniel Shilkret.

“Buffoon” was written by Eleazar “Zez” Confrey, a Midwesterner who had made a name for himself by writing compositions for the piano that sounded complex, even if they used simple elements. These compositions came as ragtime piano was eliding into “novelty” piano. Proponents of the Scott Joplin school may have seen Confrey’s compositions as bastardizations of the art perfected by Joplin, Lamb, Chauvin and others—but they sold well, both in sheet-music and on records. And pianists who tried to wrestle with such compositions as “Kitten On The Keys”, “Greenwich Witch”, or “Dizzy Fingers” would have had some words for the ragtime purists.

The pieces also orchestrated well, and Shilkret’s recording proves it. Only the first part of the piece–a minor-key melody with some pregnant pauses–is used in the cartoon. The more melodic (and major-key) trio section is not used. (Embed below is the original 1932 recording by Zez Confrey and the New Light Symphony Orchestra):

Some of the incidental music–such as that heard when golf balls are being made in a waffle iron–may be that of Carl Stalling. Or, it might come from a series of discs that Victor leased to theater owners, for use as background or intermission music. The Victor “Pict-Ur Music” library was chock full of generic-sounding pieces, often played by large studio orchestras. Indeed, other iwerks cartoons are believed to use soundtracks drawn from this library.

Nathaniel Shilkret

Nathaniel Shilkret

When the Balloonies gang up on the Pincushion Man, the soundtrack is full of a sped-up (and severely so) version of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”, played by another Victor Records house group, the Internaional Novelty Orchestra, also directed by Nathaniel Shilkret.

Leon Jessel had written this “characteristic” piece back in 1911. However, it gained some popularity around 1922, and was widely covered bu all the record companies of the day. One successful version was recorded early in 1923 by Paul Whiteman, the veritable Leviathan of he popular music world at the time.

When electrical recording replaced the earlier “acoustic” method, Whiteman eventually remade his selection which was still selling in reasonable quantities.

But Shilkret had already cut a version referred to above. This version was not issued in Victor’s general domestic catalogue. Instead, it was issued in various “ethnic” or “foreign” series that Victor maintained, “narrowcasting” their records to various of the hyphenated-Americans that were to be found in any large city, especially in the East. This record would sell to various of these ethnic groups. It would also prove to be popular with elementary schools, which still taught music quite routinely in those days.

In case one wonders if Carl Staling managed to get a note in edgewise, with all these recordings getting used for soundtracks, the answer is , in this case, “Yes!”. We can presume that Stalling wrote the little songs warning the young soldier-balloon of the ravages of the Pincushion Man. Stalling may have written the piano melody head as the”boy” and “girl” balloons are lost in the “jungle”.

And he may well have written the musical setting for the Pincushion Man’s soliloquy–which appears to be delivered by Billy Bletcher, a little man with a big voice, who did plenty of work in cartoons and in live action films as well. I’d like to think of him going to Iwerks’ studio, doing his lines in only a day or two. Then, he gets back to the Arboretum, where The Lost City is being filmed.

Iwerks seems to have had a regular working relationship with RCA Victor. As we will see, Victor records seem to permeate Iwerks’ scorng–at least for a while.

Shilkret (center holding baton) with the Victor Salon Orchestra, c. 1925

Shilkret (center holding baton) with the Victor Salon Orchestra, c. 1925

Ah, classical music!

So stirring, so exciting, so. . . so. . . so. . .

So free of royalty payments!

Many cartoons made use of nineteenth-century classical music themes. And some of them were among the best cartoons made, and entertain folks that get the chance to see them to this day, whether they involve Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry or Heckle and Jeckle.

Ub Iwerks would, at least once, make use of classical music–and a Victor record of classical music–for one of his cartoon soundtracks.

The Air Race was another in the “Willie Whopper” series produced for release by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. And here, somebody at Iwerks decided that they should use the overture to the opera “Zampa” by the French composer Herold, as background music for the actual air race.

Carl Stalling did not have the faciities for a large orchestra – not as he would when he joined Warner Bros., and was able to work a reasonably full-sized orchestra into such cartoons as Rhapsody In Rivets, Rhapsody Rabbit or The Rabbit of Seville (to name just three).

With Pat Powers footing the bill, Stalling was lucky to get a twelve-piece band of moonlighting musicians from one of the hotel bands.

zampa-labelSo, it was back to the Victor record rack. And–fortunately–Victor had a perfectly good, workman-like performance of the overture in its catalogue–and at popular prices,too!

Nathaniel “Nat” Shilkret was Victor’s house orchestra leader up until around 1932. His position had him leading dance orchestras (ranging from sweet to lively), accompanying singers (ranging from crooners through stage personalities to opera singers), to recording salon, concert and even symphonic pieces.

And Shilkret, conducting what was billed as the “Victor Symphony Orchestra”, recorded a version of the Overture from “Zampa”.

The opera “Zampa” is seldom staged these days. But back in the day–generations ago–the overture was one of those pieces that was in the repertoire of every symphony orchestra, concert band, and village band-shell ensemble. And even if the boys in the band-shell sounded like the Hooterville Volunteer Fire Department Band, they HAD to know this piece–or be enough aware of it that they could pick up on it with minimal rehearsal..

Fortunately, Shilkret’s musicians–who included the pride of studio musicians of New York–did not sound like the Guckeneimer Sour Kraut Band, or any other such ensemble.

In the early 1930’s, “hot” jazz was not that different from the popular music of the day. And it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway caorting with Betty Boop; or Duke Ellington or Woody Herman providing music for George Pal’s Puppetoons, or Three Little Bops, jazz and the animated film have proven to be great things that go great together.

Smiles-senterCarl Stalling and the rest of the music crew at the Ub Iwerks studio knew this too. But the hot jazz they used came straight off Victor records.

Allow me to call your attention to two more “Willie Whopper” shorts.

Good Scout makes use of two hot Victor records. Early in the short, the soundtrack uses “Smiles” by Boyd Senter and his Senterpedes (I kid you not about that name!).

Senter was a “novelty” clarinetist, saxophonist and trumpeter–but he often tried to surround himself with good talent. Trombonist Ray Stillwell also sang the occasional vocal (a feature which was excised before it wound up in the cartoon). And the group’s guitarist (and possibly arranger) was Darrell Calker–who would be working as Musical Director for Walter Lantz in the early and middle 1940’s, and whose work helped produce swinging cartoons that made use of such hot musicians as Jack Teagarden and Bob Zurke.

Later on–and apparently not giving Stalling a chance to get a note in edgewise–the mood shifts to another record: “Milenberg Joys” by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. This number, mis-named after a neghborhood of New Orleans (it’s actually “Milneburg”) was considered a jazz standard even in 1928, when it was recorded. Don Redman wrote the arrangement, but it as mosty a strong of solos by the talented members of this Detroit-based band.

Another “Willie Whopper” short, Cave Man, also from around 1934, showed that somebody loved hot jazz–as played by another of the top Black orchestras of the time.

Bennie Moten led what was considered the hottest band out of Kansas City, until such time as he died in 1935. The band broke up into seeral smaller units, and one of them came under the leadership of the band’s pianist, one William “Count” Basie. The rest, as they say, is history!

It makes sense that a cartoon set in the jungles would feature Black music, or a reasonable facsimile of same. Duke Ellington’s music was promoted by his White manager, Irving Mills, as being “jungle music”. And even the most liberal folks of the time made the connection between Africa and the rhythms hat were being played at the Savoy Ballroom or Connie’s Inn (both well-known venues for hot music in Harlem).

Cave Man starts out using Bennie Moten’s 1930 recording of “Somebody Stole My Gal”, which was issued in early 1931 in Victor’s “hot dance” series. It’s an uptempo version of the evergreen, including a “scat” vocal by Count Basie himself (excised from the recording for the cartoon’s soundtrack.) Then, at abut the midpoint of the cartoon, we go from a 1930 hot number to one of the legendary sides from December, 1932–“Lafayette”.

This was one of about a dozen sides recorded on a cold December day at Victor’s studio in he old Trinity Church in Camden, New Jersey. The band was in good form, despite the Depression. And, they were recorded with the newest “high fidelity” equipment. When heard properly, these sides stand out from even those of most other Black orchestras of the same time.

NEXT WEEK: “The OKeh Laughing Record”


  • You can see and hear Zez Confrey with Babe Ruth here:

  • As you probably know, and though not “needle drop”, The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers is also heard in the Noveltoon cartoon Toys will be Toys and is still a popular tune that is preformed during the Christmas season.

    I love how the overture of Zampa was also heard in the opening of the Popeye cartoon Shakespearean Spinach (with Pinto Colvig as Bluto) and in its entirety in Walter Lantz’s The Bandmaster featuring Andy Panda. That music is still being used in cartoons today – portions of the overture are heard in The Happy Tree Friends episode Dino-Sore Days.

  • This business of using canned music works better in some cartoons than in others. “Good Scout” seems very slow-moving and unfunny compared to “Balloon Land”, where some effort is made to match the animation to the tune.

    Small observation: Check the scene midway through “Good Scout” where Willie jumps on the back of a car and grabs a flyer, which at first reads “KIDNAPED – $5000 REWARD”, then the spelling suddenly switches to “KIDNAPPED”. (For the record, both spellings are considered correct, though the double-P is more common these days.)

    • Reminds me the Betty Boop cartoon with the sign that read “Fanny Brice” in one shot and “Fannie Brice” in another… and the “No Wolves Allowed” sign in “The Three Little Bops,” where the word “No” changed position.

  • That’s a very happy Pincushion Man.

  • The music cue during the Pincushion Man’s soliloquy is actually a piece of silent film music entitled “Grotesque Elephantine.”

  • Your link is to cleanest copy of Balloonland I’ve seen – the two strip Technicolor is fantastic!

    • Actually it’s Cinecolor.

      Also of note, now that I know records were used on this, it’s rather uncanny to realize how clear the fidelity gets when it goes to Carl Stalling’s pieces. I’ve never noticed this before and now it’s unforgettable!

  • Fleischer’s Paneless Window Washer, Organ Grinders Swing, and Peeping Penguins have some
    fine needle drops too.

    • None of the cartoons you cite use “needle drops”. All the music in each of these cartoons is original to that cartoon–nothing at all from commercial records.

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