April 4, 2023, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Warner Brothers Pictures. Here at the American Heritage Center, we have the papers of some of the creative personalities behind the films for which Warner Brothers is revered.
The Warner boys (originally surnamed Wonsol, before the Anglicization of their names when the family moved to the U.S.) were four Polish brothers, who got their start when they acquired a movie projector and began traveling through Pennsylvania and Ohio showing silent moving pictures. By 1923, they had begun producing their own films and before long they relocated to Hollywood, where they became a veritable powerhouse of film production. Warner Brothers Pictures was an innovator in using Technicolor and was at the forefront of moving the industry from silent films to “talking pictures.” By the 1940s, the company had established itself as a leader in live action films as well as in animated cartoons.
M.K. “Moe” Jerome was one of the many artists that helped bring Warner Brothers movies to life on the big screen. His specialty was composing for movies. He moved to Hollywood in 1934 and within ten years had written more than 350 songs for Warner Brothers. He wrote “Knock on Wood” for the 1942 film Casablanca. That same year, for the film Wild Bill Hickok Rides, Jerome composed “The Lady Got a Shady Deal” which was sung by the film’s star, Constance Bennett.
Jerome often worked with lyricist Jack Scholl. In developing music for a film, the two first read the script. Then they brainstormed song titles. After that, Jerome sat down at the piano and began to improvise while Scholl listened in. The improvising could go on for hours. Once Jerome had the melody for a song worked out, Scholl wrote the lyrics. But Scholl was famously forgetful, so when it came time to present their songs to Warner Brothers’ executives, Jerome both played the music and sang the lyrics.
While Jerome and Scholl were a team working on music for live action films, another pair of artists worked on Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Carl Stalling joined Warner Brothers in 1936 as musical director. It was a position he held until his retirement 22 years later, in 1958. He wrote and conducted musical scores for more than six hundred cartoons. Setting to music the antics of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and more, Stalling was a master of synchronizing tunes to align perfectly with the animation on screen. His music was vigorous, funny, and inventive. He particularly liked to use the sounds of bassoons and trombones for comedic effects and the viola for creating an aura of mystery. In the 1940s, when Warner Brothers was churning out three or four cartoons a month, Stalling was composing practically nonstop. He conducted a 50-piece Warner Brothers’ studio orchestra. Recording the score for a seven-minute cartoon took three hours.
Michael Maltese was one of the mainstays of Warner Brothers’ cartoon making talent from 1937 to 1958. On occasion he worked with Carl Stalling, including on the 1941 Looney Tunes cartoon Notes to You starring Porky Pig.
Maltese employed a story board, populated with his sketches which were pinned to the board with thumbtacks, to convey the story line of each cartoon he wrote. He walked, story board sketches in hand, to Stalling’s office to brainstorm with him about the music to accompany each scene. Maltese used the story boards to pitch his ideas to Warner Brothers executives. He acted out the scenes on each story board himself, complete with character voices. Maltese explained, “You have to make an idiot of yourself when you act it out – and I loved it.” He believed that the secret to Warner Brother Pictures success in animated films was that “we wrote cartoons for grownups”. Characters were often sarcastic and irreverent. The cartoons were filled with gags, slapstick, and puns. Maltese took inspiration from the Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies he loved as a child. His most famous cartoon was the 1957 What’s Opera, Doc? featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. It is considered by animation aficionados to be one of the best cartoons of the 20th century.
But it was Maltese’s story about Tweety, a little yellow cartoon bird, who starred in the cartoon Tweetie Pie, that won him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1947. Another Academy Award soon followed in 1949 with For Scent-imental Reasons, which starred the skunk Pepé Le Pew.
Maltese is also co-credited with originating the characters of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, whose madcap adventures featured among the 1,027 cartoons he created for Warner Brothers.
The cartoon character creations of Mike Maltese and the music of Moe Jerome and Carl Stalling live on in streaming services and television reruns today. For greater insight into the creative processes behind the scenes at Warner Brothers Pictures in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, visit the American Heritage Center, where you can see the Michael Maltese papers, the M.K. Jerome papers and the Carl Stalling papers.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.