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Animation

Going Looney, On Purpose and in Order (1)

Overview

I’m viewing all of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies in chronological order and writing notes about the experience here. I’ve been collecting them for years, and I think I’ve seen just about all of them, but never in their proper order.

First, a note about availability. Not counting dead formats like laserdiscs and videocassettes, around 40% of the 1000 or so WB animated shorts (the original canon from the 1930s – 1960s) are available on legitimate dvd and Blu-Ray releases. In addition to animation sets like the 6-volume Golden Collection, 3-volume Platinum Collection, and Porky Pig 101, a fair number of the titles are available as dvd extras on Warner Bros. feature films. For example, the 9-film Busby Berkeley Collection of WB musicals contains 15 Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies, many not available anywhere else. Many of the extras on WB dvds are part of “Warner Night at the Movies,” a feature started back in the VHS era, frequently hosted by Leonard Maltin. A newsreel, a musical or comedy short, a cartoon and a trailer or two would all precede the feature. I own a few used dvds from Half Price Books or eBay just for this purpose, and on some I’ve never bothered to watch the feature. Some of them are highly appropriate pairings, such as the Robin Hood parodies on The Adventures of Robin Hood, or Buddy the Gee Man paired with  ‘G’ Men. Some make strange discfellows; the short Bosko’s Mechanical Man is, oddly, only commercially available paired with Morning Glory, the 1933 RKO drama that earned Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar. (I believe there are more Katharine Hepburn impersonations in 1930s WB cartoons than anyone else, really, I do.)  It’s one thing to add great movies like Bringing Up Baby or The Life of Emile Zola to your film collection for the sake of an extra cartoon, but it takes dedication to add Allegheny Uprising or Dance, Girl, Dance.

None of the sets have the cartoons in order (some have particular characters’ series in order, but these are rarely consecutive), so much of the time expended in chronologically viewing these films is spent changing media or sources. Every time an official WB dvd is inserted, after the tinkly piano blue sky Warner Home Media logo appears, you are warned about piracy, shown a disclaimer about ethnic sensitivity, and perhaps an autoloaded ad or two before getting to the menu. It is a major investment in time and patience, even without fumbling with dvd cases or looking for old James Cagney movies.

The rest of the cartoons (some treasures of film history, some not so much) are not for sale, not from Warner Bros., not at any price. The Warner Bros. Archive Collection, offering hundreds of made-on-demand titles on dvd and Blu-ray, will be happy to sell you the entire Hanna-Barbera television series The Secret Squirrel Show. They will not sell you Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, ranked as #21 in Jerry Beck’s book “The 50 Greatest Cartoons.” If you’d like to purchase the entire cartoon tv series The Biskitts, or Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels, they’ve got you covered. You wouldn’t want to spend too much on the series of Daffy Duck / Speedy Gonzales cartoons from the 1960s, but it doesn’t matter; Warner Bros. won’t sell them to you, even though, as lame as they are, they’re undoubtedly still better than The Biskitts.

Some of this lack of availability stems from concerns over racial and ethnic content, obviously; also, reportedly, ongoing golden era film restoration and release is financed by how well previous golden era releases have sold. (The assumption that fans would only purchase sets if the cartoons were restored broke down in the last several years when two things happened: the “Censored Eleven” were reportedly restored and mastered for a dvd release that never occurred, and the chronological character set Porky Pig 101 was released, containing many unrestored transfers.) Suspiciously, Warner Bros. has shown a proclivity for selling us the same cartoons over and over; I have at least five collections that include Knighty Knight Bugs. But the explanation “buy this so we can make more available” breaks down when one examines some of the material that Warner Archive does put out, along with the huge expense of “new” Looney Tunes productions and projects of wildly varying quality. The 1930s-1960s series of Warner Bros. animated short films contains, by critical and popular consensus, some of the best films ever created. The cream of the crop is available, yes, but the fact that there are still Bugs Bunny cartoons from the classic era that are not available at any price is strange.  

Many of the earliest films, particularly the Bosko series, are in the public domain, and are easily found online and on disc in various forms. The rest, even the infamous handful of the least ethnically sensitive cartoons, can be discovered and viewed online without too much trouble. Some of these online copies are pretty rough; a few seem to be time-stamped reference transfers. Many are dubs from Cartoon Network or Boomerang (and are edited); years ago Turner Classic Movies used to program some rarities from time to time, and even had a regular Saturday morning time slot. These unreleased films exist in kind of a grey area; since Warner Bros. won’t make them available to purchase, it’s hard to make the case that posting them online steals any money from them.

Speaking of Boomerang, that streaming service does rotate some of the classics into their rotation, but as a family-oriented service it steers clear of the riskier content and is not a comprehensive resource of the entire oeuvre in any way.

Second, an endeavor like this needs some kind of a reference checklist. Two essential books are “Of Mice and Magic” by Leonard Maltin, and “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons” by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald. Used copies of the out-of-print editions of these are out there, and well worth pursuing (although some of the asking prices for the Beck/Friedwald book are eye-openers). There are also good online resources available. Note: there is some disagreement among these sources about the correct release order from the earliest years, due to conflicting or missing copyright information, etc.

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