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In Real Life, conducting an orchestra is a highly stylized endeavor. A conductor has to make sure the orchestra plays in the correct tempo, and that important soloists come in on time. He or she is also generally responsible for setting the entire tone, speed and style of the piece being played. This he or she does through the swinging of a baton and through the use of meaningful and highly nuanced gestures. It is up to the members of the orchestra to interpret the movements and follow along with the tempo set by the conductor.
Of course, in cartoons, things run a little differently. Conductors, instead of merely guiding an orchestra, have the godlike ability to create sound through the merest flick of their hands—as if THEY were the source of the music, not the orchestra. Instead of using their batons to indicate the beat patterns that an orchestra should follow (as most Real Life conductors do), a cartoon conductor will simply wave the baton around in a spasmodic, dramatic, --and completely random—fashion and music will miraculously appear. If the conductor stops moving, the music will stop abruptly as well (as if someone had hit the "pause" button on the orchestra). Woe betide the concert players if an annoying fly gets in the way.
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of Cartoon Conductor Omnipotence occur in instances where the conductor's sheet music gets switched on him (without his notice) in mid-performance. Within seconds, the orchestra will stop playing "The 1812 Overture" and start playing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," leaving the hapless conductor to wonder what's going on, and why all the notes on his sheet music suddenly look different. Of course, it would make perfect sense for an orchestra to switch songs if all of the sheet music for all of its members had been instantaneously changed, but in most cases, it's only the conductor who gets the old switcheroo pulled on him. How each individual member of the orchestra could possibly know what notes to play just by watching him is never adequately explained.
- In the 1960 Jerry Lewis movie Bellboy he does this without an orchestra present and still creates music.
- The above mentioned sheet music switch to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" takes place in A Night at the Opera, only the original score was for Il Trovatore("The Troubadour") by Verdi (later the Marx Brothers mess about with The Anvil Chorus). Once the boys pull a switch with the sheet music, Chico and Harpo start playing baseball in the orchestra pit while Groucho roams the audience shouting, "Popcorn! Peanuts!"
- Something similar happens in the comedy Brain Donors (Fittingly, as it's a semi-remake of the above film), where changed sheet music (which may just be a distraction) and one of the protagonists lighting the conductor's baton on fire (causing him to wave it crazily to put it out), causes the whole orchestra to rapidly speed up their music like they're a giant record player. Why is this done? To make the ballet dancer on stage throw up.
- The Phantom Tollbooth consciously takes this one Up to Eleven with the idea of a conductor who controls colors. All Hell breaks loose when Milo tries to wing conducting a sunrise.
- And is used as an explanation for the so-called "Missing Week"
- In the Mr. Bean episode "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean", Bean conducts a Salvation Army brass band playing "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" using a highly complex series of gestures, including fast twitchy movements to indicate a light tempo, sweeps for a more Wagnerian feel, and a funky pace to turn it into a jazz number. It culminates in him modifying the volume by making a gesture indicative of turning down a volume dial on a radio, making the band stop playing. He continues conducting, but nothing is heard until he remembers to turn the band on again.
- In the Grand Finale of Chuck Jeffster! takes over an orchestra concert with a cover of A-Ha's "Take On Me." Morgan grabs the baton from the befuddled conductor and starts waving it around, causing the orchestra to join the song perfectly.
- Hundreds of Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny himself was fond of the Omnipotent Cartoon Conductor act. Baton Bunny is a classic example of this and a rare example of a dialogueless Bugs Bunny cartoon.
- The Animaniacs short "Three Tenors and You're Out" subverts this by having Slappy and Skippy switch all the sheet music, and Slappy taking over the role of the conductor.
- The Merrie Melodies short "Rhapsody in Rivets" has a building foreman acting as a conductor, with all the workers laboring to the tune of Listz's Hungarian Rhapsody.
- One Tex Avery short, "Magical Maestro", featured a magician who switched places with a conductor so he could get revenge on a performer during a concert. Since the magician was using a magic wand for a baton, he not only had Cartoon Conductor power over the orchestra, he could also physically change the performer into whatever embarrassing form he wanted.
- There was a late-issue The Fox and The Crow cartoon directed by John Hubley, The Magic Fluke, that used roughly the same format, with a pompous conductor, Fox, getting a baton from Crow, only to discover it is actually a magic wand. As you might guess, the wand keeps changing its shape and the music changes tempo to fit the conductor's angered gesturing. At one point the wand becomes a Yale pennant, and the orchestra immediately switches to playing the Yale fight song.
- One Tom and Jerry short ("Carmen Get It", directed by Gene Deitch) takes the "switching sheet music" gag to ridiculous extremes. As Tom tries to conduct an orchestra, he fails to realize that his sheet music is actually a blank page covered by an army of ants. As the ants repeatedly switch into different patterns, the orchestra correspondingly switches to a random song, causing Tom much confusion.
- The Mickey Mouse cartoon The Band Concert features several variations. First, Mickey's band, playing the William Tell Overture, is distracted by Donald Duck playing "Turkey in the Straw" on the fife, and as the two pieces are similar, they start following Donald instead. Later, Mickey gets ice-cream down his collar, and his attempts to shimmy it out leads the orchestra to play belly-dancing music. Then a bee appears and Mickey swats at it, with the music changing tempo accordingly. For the climax, the entire orchestra is picked up by a tornado (just as the storm section of the overture is playing) while Mickey continues to conduct as if nothing has happened. Mickey then motions the band to stop... and the tornado stops as well, depositing the musicians back on the ground.
- Based on the Literature example above, Chuck Jones' Animated Adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth, Chroma the Great is a conductor who determines not music, but all the colors of the world; when the protagonist Milo uses his baton, he wreaks havoc on the sunrise he is attempting to conduct.
- A The Pink Panther short in which the Panther keeps sneaking into the orchestra pit and playing "The Pink Panther Theme" on various instruments before being ejected by the conductor. Eventually, he switches the conductor's score, and the bewildered man conducts a full orchestral version of the theme. Much to the delight of the only person in the audience: Henry Mancini.
- On SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidward is writing a concert piece but keeps getting distracted by SpongeBob and Patrick making noise next door. He finishes the piece, but when he performs it he discovers that he had inadvertedly written in his neighbors' noises as well. Sure enough, SpongeBob and Patrick are there in the orchestra, reenacting their actions from the day before, as if summoned up by Squidward's music.
- Done in The Fox and The Crow short The Magic Fluke.
- The "Maestro Minnie" shorts from House of Mouse.