Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Disney Film Composers (Part 1)

It’s December 21, 1937. A full house at the Carthay Circle Theater awaits the premier of the world’s first animation feature. As the house lights grow dark, the movie screen light up and displays “Walt Disney Presents Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. The overture begins to play the beautiful melody of “One Song” and over the next 83 minutes the audience is drawn into a world never before seen on screen. Animated characters are so life-like; they portray human emotions such as joy, sadness and true love. The film is an overnight success and paves the ways for several decades of Disney animated features.

Walt Disney could tell a story like no other filmmaker and using the talents of the Disney Animators, he would continue to produce classic films. Much has been written about Walt and his “Nine Old Men” throughout the years, but there is another group of individuals that have put their mark on the Disney films. Very little is written or known about them. They are the Disney Film Composers.

Being a musician and songwriter, I have always had a special regard for the music in the Disney films. Think of any Disney film and even the casual viewer will know at least one song from that film. Yet I can find very little information about these creative men and women. I am writing this series to acknowledge the composers who have given us the classic Disney Film songs we all know. So let’s start at the beginning.

First, let’s take a look at four of the first Disney films. The films are “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Pinocchio”, “Dumbo” and “Bambi” and the composers are Frank Churchill Larry Morey, Leigh Harline, and Ned Washington.

Frank Churchill wrote the music for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Dumbo” and “Bambi”. Frank was born in Rumford, Maine on October 20, 1901. At the age of 15 he started playing the piano for silent movies. He was accepted to UCLA for pre-med but later dropped out to pursue a career in music and ended up working at radio stations and RKO-Radio Pictures. Frank joined the Disney Studios in 1930 scored almost 65 animated shorts including “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf”. The success of that song lead to Walt asking Frank to compose the music for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. After the success of “Snow White” Frank was promoted to Supervisor of Music at the Disney Studios.

Larry Morey wrote the lyrics for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Bambi”. Larry was born in Los Angeles, CA on March 26, 1905. After attending six years of college he began working at Paramount and Warner Brothers studios. Larry joined Disney in 1933 as a story director and was teamed up with Frank to compose the songs for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Together they wrote over 25 songs for the film but only 7 songs were used.

Leigh Harline wrote the music for “Pinocchio”. Leigh was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on March 26, 1907. Leigh was one of 13 children and became a music major at the University of Utah. In 1928 he moved to California and started working at radio stations. He joined the Disney Studios in 1932 and wrote songs for over 50 animated shorts. Leigh also wrote the score for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. He left the Disney Studio in 1941 to freelance at other studios and his career spanned 3 decades and earned 8 Oscars Nominations.

Ned Washington wrote the lyrics for “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo”. Ned was born in Scranton, PA on August 15, 1901. He was one of 9 children who did not study music but wrote poetry instead. Some of his poems were published in local newspapers and magazines. At 21, he moved to New York where he booked vaudeville acts and emceed the shows. He joined the Disney Studios in 1938. After leaving the studios, Ned continued his success writing the lyrics for "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You”, "My Foolish Heart” and "Stella by Starlight". Ned Washington is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The Academy of Motion Picture and Science honored these composers with the following Awards and Nominations:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Music – Frank Churchill / Lyrics – Larry Morey
Academy Award Nomination (Best Score)

Pinocchio (1940)
Music – Leigh Harline / Lyrics – Ned Washington
Academy Award Winner (Best Score)
Academy Award Winner (Best Song – When You Wish Upon A Star)

Dumbo (1941)
Music – Frank Churchill / Lyrics – Ned Washington
Academy Award Winner (Best Score)
Academy Award Nomination (Best Song – Baby Mine)

Bambi (1942)
Music – Frank Churchill / Lyrics – Larry Morey
Academy Award Nomination (Best Score, Best Song – “Love is a Song”)

Disney also honored Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, and Ned Washington in 2001 when they were inducted into the Disney Legends.

So the next time you hear “Some Day My Prince Will Come” or “When You Wish Upon A Star”, remember these creative men who gave us the songs that will last our lifetime.

Next up, the films of the 1950s and the men and women who left a song in our hearts.

All pictures copyright Disney/Disney Legends


David said...

Perhaps the most famous song composed by Frank Churchill was "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."

Tragically, the 40-year old composer committed suicide just over 66 years ago (May 25, 1942, by gunshot).

In the note left to his wife he wrote: "My nerves have completely left me. Please forgive me for this awful act."

A brilliant songwriter who left us much to early...

David Recchione said...

That is really sad. I did not know that. Thanks for sharing.

Carevaggio said...


Carevaggio said...

RE clarifying previous comment:

This is a web version of a major article on the BAMBI score. It was first published in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, the version seen here, and later in the L. of C. book, Wonderful Inventions. (Some people misconstrue the web site name. It's really Michael Sporn Animation).

meao said...

I am agreed with the "by Viagra" that in these days these movies are not following the old path which was really good.

pharmacy said...

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Anonymous said...

Which Disney Lyricist is an Oregon Native

Roger Lucas said...

Thank you for this lovely site.
I googled "Heigh Ho" after hearing "Hi Ho" said in a TV Docudrama - "Castles in The Sky" by BBC Scotland about the contribution/development of RADAR - around 1935.
Being a huge Walt Disney fan writing my own stories for animation I doubted that someone would use those words in an almost sing song way. OK Artistic licence & all that.
It was sad to read elsewhere about the death of FC & hear to read of a sad note.
I wonder if any of the other unused songs are available for reading? What a marvel that SW resulted in the first US Soundtrack & set such a high bar in standard of words,notes,emotion etc etc.
God Bless. Roger Lucas. Altyre. Scotland.

Armando Iswahyudi said...

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