Oliver Wallace (1887-1963) - Classic Era Disney Studio Composer Oliver Wallace was born on August 6, 1887

, in London, England, and died in Los Angeles on Sept. 16, 1963. He studied music privately in England before moving to North America in 1904. There he began his musical career by playing piano for vaudeville and early silent one reelers, commencing at age 16 in a Winnipeg, Canada theater. Wallace became a US citizen in 1914, and is frequently cited as being the first musician to use a pipe organ to accompany motion pictures, in Seattle, Washington, in 1910, later also performing as such famed palaces as San Francisco’s Granada, and Sid Grauman’s Los Angeles Rialto. A Disney studio bio reports that he spent 25 years as a theater organist, musical director, and stage director, as well as publishing an allegorical drama, poems, and a number songs (including the popular “Hindustan”) and musical compositions. In the early 1930s Wallace moved to Hollywood where he worked at Universal and a number of other minor studios before joining Disney’s in 1938. Among his early scoring work is SIXTEEN FATHOMS (Monogram, 1933), THE GIRL IN THE CASE (Duworld, 1934), and MURDER BY TELEVISION (Imperial, 1935). At Universal he co-scored a number of films, including IT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK, ALIAS MARY DOW (both 1935), and SINNERS IN PARADISE (1938) (Note .1), and performed the pipe organ part in Franz Waxman’s score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1935. Personnel records relate that Wallace worked at the Walt Disney Studio as both composer and conductor from February 7, 1938 until his death in 1963. (Note .2). For Disney he worked on both short subjects and features, but became something of a specialist at scoring the Donald Duck series, some of the studio’s liveliest and most entertaining animation. He was also one of the studio’s most prolific composers, scoring shorts, documentaries, features, and television, and appearing (as the circus bandmaster) in the feature TOBY TYLER, as well as on a number of Disney television shows, including “The Story of the Animated Drawing” and “Cavalcade of Songs”. Wallace’s first shorts scores appeared in 1938 and include BOAT BUILDERS, DONALD’S BETTER SELF, DONALD’S GOLF GAME, DONALD’S NEPHEWS, GOOD SCOUTS, and MICKEY’S TRAILER. While Frank Churchill. Leigh Harline, and Paul Smith contributed most of the music for SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO, Wallace made his initial mark on feature scoring with DUMBO in 1941. With the premature death of Frank Churchill, Wallace contributed two songs and most of the underscoring. The latter includes some bombastically authentic circus music, including the frenetic and brassy Main Title, and several equally authentic “source” music cues which back up the various “acts” such as the pyramid of elephants and Dumbo’s performances as a clown in a burning building. (In retrospect, Wallace’s music lends an almost Felliniesque quality to the film). Wallace’s two songs, “When I See A Elephant Fly,” and “Pink Elephants on Parade,” both with lyrics by Ned Washington, back up two of DUMBO’s best episodes, the latter one of the most remarkable and freely fantastic sequences in early feature Disney. Wallace’s song and its ensuing orchestral variations (which underscore Dumbo’s fantastic hallucinations after sipping from a water bucket laced with champagne) becomes a tightly fused visual/musical theme and variations in which, as the song melody undergoes a series of musical variations - exotically oriental, a graceful waltz, finally a scintillating rumba - so the visuals undergo synchronous transformations of the elephant form and the color pink. In a more lyrical mode Wallace also composed a motif for Dumbo himself, a gently rocking melody in 6/8 first heard (in English horn) as Dumbo and his mother enjoy a quiet interlude together before the ensuing and generally ongoing trauma commences. The Churchill/Wallace score for DUMBO received an Academy Award for “Best Score” in 1941, and with the onset of WWII Wallace scored most of Disney’s contributions to the war effort, including a number of propaganda shorts (EDUCATION FOR DEATH, THE NEW SPIRIT) and the rarely seen feature, VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER. WWII also inspired what is perhaps

Wallace’s most famous work, the title song for the famous Donald Duck short, DER FUEHRER’S FACE, for which he wrote both words and music. The tune became a considerable popular success in a RCA Victor recording by Spike Jones and his City Slickers and may still be heard on Jones CD anthologies. With the death of Churchill and the departure of Leigh Harline, Wallace and Paul J. Smith became the Disney studio’s major musical holdovers from the Golden Age of the 1930s and early ‘40s. Throughout the 1940s Wallace continued to score shorts in both the Mickey and Donald series. One of his key Mouse scores is THE LITTLE WHIRLWIND (1941), in which Mickey harasses the title character, only to in turn be routed (in a spectacular sequence reminiscent, both visually and musically, of THE BAND CONCERT) by the little whirlwind’s very large mother, an aggressive cyclone with attitude. A highlight of the score is a wonderfully droll march in which the mischievous whirlwind pipes away the suddenly animate leaves which Mickey is trying to rake up in Minnie’s front lawn. LITTLE WHIRLWIND also demonstrates Wallace’s characteristic use of the Novachord, a Hammond organ-like predecessor of the modern synthesizer which is often used to sonically represent the title character. The instrument is also clearly heard in DUMBO’s surreal “Pink Elephants” sequence, and Wallace scored one entire cartoon, DUCK PIMPLES (1945), a parody of suspense radio, with the Novachord. Another classic Duck score is 1948’s TEA FOR TWO HUNDRED with another humorously atmospheric march for the tribe of ants which attack Donald’s woodland picnic. When in 1949 Disney returned to feature production after the anthology features of the post-BAMBI early 1940s Wallace served both as musical director and composer for the background orchestral scoring. By this time most of Disney’s songs were being written by nonstudio commercial songwriters, but Wallace sometimes contributed secondary songs as well. During this time Wallace also contributed the atmospheric orchestral underscoring for the one of Disney best late ‘40s sequences, the Headless Horseman Chase in 1949’s two-part, half-length feature ICHABOD AND MISTER TOAD. While there was a “Headless Horseman” song (along with two other tunes written by the successful pop team of Gene De Paul and Don Raye) Wallace’s music for the final sequence is entirely original, climaxing with a furious chase (introduced by whooping French horn glissandi at the first shock appearance of the Horseman himself). Wallace also sets up the scene with some eerie and suspenseful musical atmosphere. Frank Thomas, who animated Ichabod and his horse for this sequence, noted: “When we were doing ICHABOD Ollie personally did the whistling for poor Ichabod riding into the haunted dell. I’ve received much credit for doing the animation there, but it was Ollie’s whistling that set the timing and mood and made it easy to do.” (Note .3). The English-born Wallace was an appropriate choice for the animated installments of Disney’s early ‘50s Anglophile phase, ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951) and PETER PAN (1953). Though again providing background scoring for an eclectic assortment of popular songs, Wallace also developed a unique style of scoring for these two features, both of which reply heavily on spoken dialogue. In both films Wallace often underscores the on-going dialogue much in the manner of operatic recitative, his music both imitating and punctuating the rhythms of the spoken phrases and exclamations. This technique (no doubt honed over his long career adhering to the split-second timing demands of the Donald Duck shorts) is most obvious in the first Captain Hook scene in PETER PAN, and at many points throughout ALICE, notably the Caterpillar, Mad Tea Party, and Queen of Hearts sequences, (the latter especially illustrating how Wallace’s music also picked up on the often schizophrenic nature of Disney’s ALICE adaptation!) Wallace also wrote the song (and droll/dreamy underscoring) for the wonderful Caterpillar scene, and other secondary tunes for both films. Wallace also dabbled in live-action scoring during this period, his feature scores including DARBY O’QILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959), TEN WHO DARED (1960).and THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1963). He also contributed to the nature and anthropological (travel) documentaries that were produced by the studio during the late ‘50s. His score for the “People

and Places” short, SAMOA (1956) was actually released as an original soundtrack LP (Disneyland Records WDL 4003, coupled with Paul Smith’s “Switzerland” music), and he scored two feature-length True Life Adventures, WHITE WILDERNESS (1958), and JUNGLE CAT (1960). Wallace’s last major work on a Disney animated classic was for LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955. While on the two preceding animated features (ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PETER PAN) the composer did contribute a number of original cues he also spent a good deal of time developing the song melodies into the orchestral background scoring (particularly on ALICE, in which the melody of Sammy Fain’s title song becomes an important orchestral motif). But perhaps due to the somewhat lackluster nature of the songs by composer Sonny Burke and lyricist Peggy Lee much more of Wallace’s original work is heard in LADY AND THE TRAMP. After a brief choral opening using two of the Burke/Lee songs Wallace’s underscoring alone covers the first quarter of the film, first with a theme for Lady, the demure Cocker spaniel, and then cues for the introduction of the footloose mongrel, Tramp. Lady’s theme, a gentle but jaunty motif, was also published as a song, and was later paraphrased, pretty much note for note, in Danny Elfman’s score for PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (in the scene just preceding Pee Wee’s traumatic discovery of the theft of his beloved bicycle). The song arrangements in LATT are extremely concentrated, and so Wallace’s original scoring continues pervasively through the end of the film, climaxing with a violent cue for Tramp’s fight with the rat in the darkened nursery. The best sampling of Wallace’s work currently available commercially is on the recent original soundtrack CD of this charming, Americana-flavored score for LADY AND THE TRAMP (Walt Disney Records), and the scores to both ALICE and PAN have been released in this series as well. While much attention has (deservedly) been paid to the animation music of Carl Stalling, very little note indeed has been taken of Wallace’s equally accomplished contributions to the medium. Like most animation scoring Wallace’s music is somewhat paradoxical. His lyricism is gracefully formal and concentrated, yet freely improvisational, almost effortless (though anyone who has worked in animation knows better). Likewise his musical humor ranges (as in his sophisticated background score for ALICE IN WONDERLAND) from subtly droll to bombastically manic while always remaining superbly timed. His scores for the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse scores span over a decade and collectively provide a virtual, though still largely unread textbook in animation scoring. Stemming from his lengthy career as an improvising accompanist for silent films, Wallace’s animation music is a also a direct connection to the very roots of music in American cinema. Animator Frank Thomas who frequently worked in close contact with the composer offered these comments about Wallace and his music: “Ollie was a madman, funny, eccentric, noisy, unexpected, and loved by everyone. He was caustic, satiric, looked like a little Bantam rooster, and never let anyone get the best of him. He was primarily an improvising musician with a great sense of music, and from his years of playing organ to silent movies he was able to match music to any piece of action. He also did the great piano (harpsichord) playing for Captain Hook when Hook was trying to win Tinkerbell’s confidence in PETER PAN. He was a genius at that type of thing and responsible for many unique musical moments in our pictures.” (Note .4.) Ross CARE

FootNotes: 1. title) McCarty, Clifford, NEW BOOK (Revised edition on Hollywood composers ? Verify

2. 3. 4.

Smith, David, Letter from Walt Disney Archives, Feb. 11, Thomas, Frank, Letter to the author, Oct. 9, 1977 Ibid

1985

COPYRIGHT Ross B. CARE

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