Kill the wabbit,
kill the wabbit!

Elmer Fudd, "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957)

The next time you catch a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies cartoon on the television, stop and close your eyes and simply listen to the music. For 6 minutes, you will be enthralled with the impossible tempo changes, the subtle compositional plagiarism, the interweaving of sound effects, vocals, and music, and the total ability of the music to tell a story - the modern opera never had it so good.

Oh my gal is a high part stepper
Ginger with salt and pepper
She's a fancy stepper when she dances
Go and see her as she kippers and prances...

Bugs Bunny, "Long-Haired Hare" (1949)

Carl Stalling had for years arranged and produced Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes music, but he felt that his orchestration was very rigid and jazz-y. His favorite moments were when the instruments would act as effects in themselves - the trombone slide representing someone jumping or falling, the bassoons bouncing with the on-screen character's step, or the broken accordion giving semblance to a misstep and its aftermath. To capitalize more on this, he hired Milt Franklyn in 1947 to help with orchestration. All told, Franklyn worked on over 350 Warner Brothers cartoons. His legacy is in that music, full of laughter and warmth and innovation that cannot be described in simple words.

Everybody's doing the Michigan Rag!
Michigan J. Frog, "One Froggy Evening" (1955)

Milt Franklyn was born September 16, 1897. He entered into playing piano and trumpet for vaudeville at 20, and moved into the movie business at 25. He worked hard, doing session work on some of the earlier silent pictures, and finally got a steady job for Warner Brothers, who set him up to orchestrate many of their short films. He was a major contributor to the early challenges of composing music for film and especially in syncing music. It was this contribution that eventually led him to the animation studios, where he met Carl Stalling. Stalling's ingenuity in mixing classical music and jazz astounded Franklyn. He immediately applied to be Stalling's understudy, and was accepted. His first scoring of a Warner Brothers film was "Easter Yeggs" (1947), in which Bugs takes over for the Easter Bunny, and deals with a particularly crabby child in the process. He was already 50 years old, but his best work was yet ahead of him.

To trip, to trip, to trip it up and down.
Daffy Duck, "Robin Hood Daffy" (1958)

Stalling would write most of the synced arrangements on piano and then hand them to Franklyn. Franklyn would go to the orchestra and devise all sorts of crescendos, glissandos, and unexpected twists - xylophones, kazoos, toy pianos, harpsichords, slide whistles, cuckoos, accordions, and bagpipes were all used with equal efficiency to create just the right mood that the scene or cartoon called for. Franklyn also frequently composed original tunes used in the cartoons, the most famous being Michigan J. Frog's loathe-to-repeat "Michigan Rag."

In 1957, Carl Stalling retired, and Franklyn took over as musical director for Merrie Melodies. He helped direct and orchestrate some 100 cartoons, and his cartoons won praise for bucking the tired trends of early Warner Brothers cartoons: from the Brunnhilde-meets-bunny take of "What's Opera, Doc?" (where Franklyn showed his profound love for Wagner) to the inclusion of Tejano and Western stylings for Speedy Gonzales and the first Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons, to the even more esoteric leanings on such classics as the Oscar-winning "Nelly's Folly" (1961), about a singing giraffe, "Drafty, Isn't It?" (1957), about the boy whose dreams are guided in all sorts of directions by the changing winds in his bedroom, and "The Pizzicato Pussycat" (1955), about the cat who played piano (sort of.)

Tonight what heights we'll hit
On with the show this is it!

Bugs Bunny, "The Bugs Bunny Show" (1960-1962)

Unfortunately, Milt Franklyn only served as head musical director for the Merrie Melodies for 5 years. On April 24, 1962, he died suddenly of a heart attack. His loss was palpable, but his memory lived on, as Warner Brothers re-used his old scores for several of their cartoons released after his death. Milt Franklyn is an unsung hero: he was not the first to write music for cartoons, nor was he necessarily the best, but his talent for mixing emotion, exposition, and humor into his scores was undeniable.

Sources

  • Celebrating 75 Years Of Warner Brothers Film Music, New York: Random House. 1998.
  • IMDB - http://us.imdb.com/Name?Franklyn,+Milt

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