babykittens-bradley babykittens-bradley

Scott Bradley at Walter Lantz

Yesterday Michael Sporn posted a commentary about how the musical composers at animation studios of the past served as a trademark for a particular studio. Each had a unique style and sound which immediately identify the cartoon to its makers.

Scott Bradley, who composed the music for MGM cartoons from 1934 through 1957, was one of the best. His delightful scores are upbeat and lush sounding, and perfectly capture the right feel of the upscale MGM animation. But what if Bradley had composed a score for a B-Studio like Universal? Well it just so happens that Bradley did take on such a freelance assignment in 1938 just prior to joining MGM full time, where he’d be under contract for the rest of his career. (He had previously been a composer at large, creating music for Ub Iwerks and Harman-Ising cartoons.)

Baby Kittens (1938) is an unremarkable, run-of-the-mill Universal short, directed by Alex Lovy for Walter Lantz Productions. It’s made even more unbearable by the voice-over “thoughts” of the dog character. Print uploaded (embedded below) has time code obscuring part of the picture, but we present it here for its soundtrack not the animation or story. Bradley’s trademark themes and music cues are all there, and are much more sophistcated than what Lantz house composer Frank Marsales was doing at the time. If you close your eyes and just listen to the track (and try to ignore the dog), you might think you are listening to a 40s MGM cartoon – proving Michael Sporn’s point entirely.

  • Ok, so I do admit the Universal logo and series title card sounds like some sort of background music of the MGM lion roaring.

  • NicKramer

    Yeah, the plot was already done Disney’s “Mother Pluto” (1936). Not to mention the studio already tried having Pluto speak in thought in “Mickey’s Kangaroo” (1935) and that was wasn’t so successful either.

  • Not bad, not bad at all, but it makes me wonder if the people at WB/Schlesinger’s recognized how superior Carl Stalling’s scores for them were.

    I suppose they did on a certain level, he stayed there until retirement.

  • The awfulness of this cartoon is hilarious. The off-model animation leads to some very funny looking results. When the dog started talking I burst out laughing, the voice work is probabbly the very worst I’ve ever heard. It sounds like they got the janitor at the studio to come in and read off a few lines and that’s what they put in. What is the deal with the word “Cartune” at the begining of this, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone spell cartoon that way and there have been a lot of awful variartions on the spelling.

  • uncle wayne

    Wow! Being a giant Scott B. fan, that IZZ a holiday Treat, than Q!!! Nothing prettier than a late-30s b&w toon. Methinks FEW people would remember this film recently….for it was never aired on the Woody W. show (it being in b&w!).

  • The voiceover was obviously added since the plotting and animation in the film didn’t tell the story. The audience was confused, so they had to tell us what was going on.

    Kudos to Lantz for using a “Afro American” voice. You can’t find any equal (except in minor or racist parts) in the other studios.

  • The opening titles sound like something to come out of a Disney Silly Symphony. Scott Bradley did score one as a matter of fact (“Merbabies” – done at the Harman-Ising studio).

    Also I think I heard a cue in the titles that was also usd in “The Milky Way (1940).

  • T. Boone

    It’s a shame that such full music is wasted on a weak story and animation that does not build. At the halfway point I nodded off.

  • This is a spectacular bit of animation scoring history, but I think it also proves that those at MGM challenged bradley to vary the tempos of his scores a bit, even in the era of Harmon/Ising, where a lot of folks claim there is no variation and the plots are sluggish. Take the moment near this cartoon’s end, when the kittens snarl and start a riot of sorts. I remembered the dogfight near the close of one of my favorite HAPPY HARMONIES titles, “WAYWARD PUPS”, which used almost the same small bits of scoring, but much brassier and much faster to signify that there was more energy per moment. Also, to my ear, the quality of musician at MGM seemed so much more superior and, so, perhaps Bradley took more chances with more expressive bits of scoring to kind of emphasize quick movements; hey, he had to speed things up once TOM & JERRY and their creators took over and, well, we all know how those scores got a dose of high voltage when a whirlwind like the young Tex Avery made his way to the studio! This is not to take anything away from Bradley’s lush sense of melody; it is the one thing that brings me back to even the dullest MGM cartoon. He could take a simple melody and give it so much audio dimension, especially if there were characters in the moment moving seemingly in time to the piece.

  • Not to go away from the music, but I think the Dog’s voice was by Billy Bletcher.

  • I haven’t watched the cartoon. I’ve only listened to the soundtrack as I type this. Jerry’s right. It sounds like an MGM cartoon the way the strings are scored (Bradley seemed to like using the same keys, too).

    The voice isn’t Bletcher, whose voice dropped down far more than this and who was a far more energetic voice actor than whoever this happens to be. I don’t think he’s African-American, either. My memory tells me he appeared in some other cartoons in the 30s, playing a bad guy.

    I’ll have to watch the animation now but I imagine it’ll be inconsistent like other Lantz cartoons of the day, which had great movement at times, then would suddenly look like unrhythmic, poor tracings.

  • I’ll make a comparison here which (I hope) is interesting. I just watched a DVD of mid 30’s Ub Iwerks cartoons, most of which have scores by Carl Stalling. But the music is so bland and generic that it could be by any one of a dozen or so composers who were writing for cartoons at the same time. The same thing is true of Bradley’s score for this Lantz cartoon. It seems to me that the quality and originality of their music, in both cases, was hugely influenced by who the director was. Stalling really came into his own when he moved to Warner Brothers and suddenly had much funnier and faster-paced films to write for. It also didn’t hurt that he went from conducting a typical 30’s dance-band type outfit to a full symphony orchestra!

    The same is true of Bradley; when the MGM cartoon factory got a major jolt of adrenalin with the arrival of Tex Avery, so did Bradley’s music. There’s no question that both of these men were musical geniuses, but they didn’t really “blossom” until well into their careers. It was a matter of finding the right studio and the right colleagues.

  • zavkram

    I agree that this is a fascinating bit of animation-music history. At one point I muted the sound to see if I ould follow the plot. To some degree I could; but I agree with the theory that the voice-over (possibly the most bland-sounding that I’ve ever heard in any film) was added in order to help clarify the dog’s motivation. It’s a pity that the animators couldn’t have conveyed this without any kind of narration.

    I disagree with the assesment that Carl Stalling’s scores for Ub Iwerks werebland-sounding. On the contrary, I think the music he wrote for such ComiColor shorts as “Jack Frost” and “The Little Red Hen” is charming and inventive and foreshadows his early work at Warner Bros with such instrumental effects as the use of a single chord on the marimba (or is it a glockenspiel) in the last bar of the main-title music.

    Oh, BTW, Jeffrey; the use of the word “Cartune” is not a typo… nearly every Hollywood animation studio in the 1930’s was trying to come up with a clever, music-based title for their respective thearical cartoon series–in direct imitation of Disney’s “Silly Symphony” series.
    At Leon Schlesinger/Warner Bros they came up with “Merrie Melodies” and “Looney Tunes” Harman and Ising were particularly fortunate that their combined names formed a naturally-musical pun. At Charles Mintz/Columbia, they came up with the “Color Rhapsodies”. The Lantz studio was just following suit with “Cartune”.