Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cats vs. mice & muttering sailors: cartoon classics

On November 18, 1928,  the first animated cartoon with its own synchronized soundtrack was shown in New York City. It was Walt Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” starring Mickey Mouse (Disney himself provided the rodent's pipsqueak voice). As John Zech writes in American Public Media's Composer's Datebook:
The music was actually provided by a quiet, unassuming theater organist out of Kansas City named Carl Stalling, who was soon lured to Hollywood by Disney to work on subsequent Mickey Mouse and “Silly Symphony” cartoons. In 1936, Stalling joined the Warner Brothers studios, and for the next 22 years was the music director for virtually all the classic Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck cartoons. Stalling’s wonderfully wacky and endlessly inventive music was usually ignored by “serious” music critics as beneath notice. Ironically, his scores feature the same dizzying shifts of mood, tempo and instrumentation as the most complex avant-garde scores of the post-war period: Stockhausen and Boulez meet Tweety and Sylvester?
I have always had a soft spot for old cartoons. A particular favorite of mine is Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat. This loveable rogue debuted in 1919 with the delightful and inventive "Feline Follies" and was the world's most popular cartoon character until the advent of Mickey. The music for this one was provided by Richard White. We should all hold up so well after nearly a century!

Another true original is Popeye, especially Max and Dave Fleischer's early stuff! (We have 1938–1943.) The gravelly voiced sailor with the sotto voce comments was the most popular cartoon character in the country in the 1930s. As Popeye, Jack Mercer improvised a great deal of clever wordplay. He and the other voice actors would record ad-libbed lines while watching a finished copy of a cartoon. Mae Questel was the voice of Betty Boop when she began playing Olive Oyl, and she based the character's voice on ZaSu Pitts. Except for a five-year hiatus, she was the voice of the gangly Olive until the series' end in 1957. Below is an episode I thought supremely weird and wonderful as a kid.


  1. I will forever be a kid at heart, and will forever love cartoons. I also love learning about the history behind cartoons. Thank you for this informative article! I did not know that Mae Questel was the voice of both Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. It must have felt pretty cool to play the voice of two prominent female characters who definitely left a mark on society.

  2. According to the reports, domesticated these pets have appeared about 8,000 years ago. The findings that date back to this period of time show that bones of humans, cats and mice were buried together on Cyprus. Most probably cats and mice were brought together to Cyprus at that time.

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