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Animation

Going Looney, on Purpose and in Order (6)

The Golden Year of Warner Animation (1946)

1939 has long been considered Hollywood’s pinnacle for live-action feature films; although you could make the case for other years (1953, for example), I find that Warner Bros. animation reached its highest level of artistry, energy and humor in 1946. In 1946 the best cartoons were masterpieces and the worst ones were still worth seeing. 

Why? For one thing, the war was no longer such a thematic distraction. For another, many of the classic characters had been developed by several directors, and their essential traits refined. It also seems like some of the worst stereotyped humor starts to dissipate (but not disappear) in 1946. And, 1946 cartoons use Edward G. Robinson a lot. That’s always hilarious.

Two amazing facts about this golden year: one, directors Robert McKimson and Arthur Davis each made their Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies debut (McKimson had directed one of the Mr. Hook wartime films earlier), without hurting the overall quality of the year’s output; and, two, Warner Bros. no longer even had the brilliant Tex Avery, who was now at MGM creating his own string of masterworks. Imagine what 1946 could have been at Termite Terrace if Avery were still there.

Since the 1946 films represent such a standard, each cartoon gets its own entry.

Book Revue (reissued as Book Review)

January 5, 1946 / Cartoon 464

Director: Bob Clampett

Ranked #45 in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 2
  • The Essential Daffy Duck
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 2

Three great themes of Warner animation coalesce in Book Revue: book covers come to life, Little Red Riding Hood is lampooned, and the daffiness of a certain black duck is on display. Clampett fills the screen with so much manic delight, such effervescent looniness, that Book Revue is endlessly rewatchable. Bob McKimson and Rod Scribner’s animation and Mel Blanc’s amazing performance as Daffy Duck are legendary. 

Students of animation have long viewed the sequence of Daffy with the Big Bad Wolf, and the wolf’s subsequent prison escape, frame by frame to discover the secrets. The observant viewer will also note the last book in the opening panning shot, the autobiography of Bugs Bunny.

Baseball Bugs

February 2, 1946 / Cartoon 465

Director: Friz Freleng

Listed in “Other Great Cartoons” in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 1
  • The Essential Bugs Bunny
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 1

Bugs Bunny single-handedly takes on the Gas-House Gorillas in this brilliant baseball parody. The cartoon physics of Bugs the pitcher delivering his fastball, outrunning it to the plate, and Bugs the catcher catching the strike all checks out scientifically. The way the cartoon depicts baseball as a series of inane arguments between cranky buffoons makes it quite realistic to us lifelong baseball fans.

Holiday for Shoestrings

February 23, 1946 / Cartoon 466

Director: Friz Freleng

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 5

Freleng’s musical extravaganzas are always well worth enjoying, and this one ranks with (and has much in common with) 1941’s Rhapsody in Rivets and Rhapsody Rabbit later in 1946. The “Eat at Joe’s” gag cracks me up every time.

Quentin Quail

March 2, 1946 / Cartoon 467

Director: Chuck Jones

Currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray

No one would place Quentin Quail near the top of the list for either 1946 or the Chuck Jones filmography, but it has interesting stylized visuals. As a parody of Fanny Brice and her Baby Snooks character (the annoying daughter quail here is “Baby Toots”), it is accurate, in that it is nearly as obvious and dull as the real thing. Tedd Pierce not only wrote the cartoon, he also voices the title character, with Sara Berner performing the Baby Toots character and Mel Blanc as the bad guy bird. It’s badly dated today, what with the Fanny Brice caricature and the weak Frank Sinatra gag that ends the cartoon. But Jones was developing a style and, fortunately, avoiding the type of racial “humor” that taints so much of his earlier work.

Baby Bottleneck

March 16, 1946 / Cartoon 468

Director: Bob Clampett

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 2
  • Storks (extra with 2016 film)
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 1

The hilarious Baby Bottleneck did not quite survive the film censors of 1946, unfortunately. An early scene, in which mismatched offspring are delivered, includes a dangerously sharp-toothed baby alligator approaching mama pig at mealtime. The surviving scene cuts right before mama pig delivers the line, “Don’t touch that dial!” Alas, this joke was too vulgar for the Production Code in the forties and was removed, but the toothy gator approaching mama survives.

This cartoon was far from the only WB short featuring Raymond Scott’s music, but it is one of the most effective (but not the first, contrary to some sources) uses of Scott’s “Powerhouse.”  This theme, actually the “B” section of “Powerhouse,” is instantly recognizable as the music Carl Stalling uses whenever a zany assembly line is depicted.

Hare Remover

March 23, 1946 / Cartoon 469

Director: Frank Tashlin (uncredited)

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 3

Hare Remover is Frank Tashlin’s last animated short for Warner Bros, and his second Bugs Bunny cartoon. A take on the Jekyll & Hyde story, this is an entertaining entry in the middle of the pack quality-wise. Highlights here include the characters’ wacky reactions to drinking the potion, and a particularly devious version of Elmer Fudd.

Daffy Doodles

April 6, 1946 / Cartoon 470

Director: Robert McKimson

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • My Reputation (extra with 1946 film)

Talented animator Bob McKimson had previously directed a short for the US government, but Daffy Doodles was his first full-length LT/MM short after taking over Tashlin’s unit. It’s extremely funny and entertaining, and it’s strange that it is only available as an extra on a Barbara Stanwyck DVD that shares only its year of release. It deserves better. The animation when Porky and Daffy chase each other around the top of a skyscraper is terrific, and the facial expressions, especially exasperated Porky, are hilarious. Identifying the Warner movie stars who get the moustache treatment (along with a certain rabbit) is great fun as well. McKimson made a handful of really good cartoons along with miles and miles of mediocre ones, and this is one of them.

Hollywood Canine Canteen

April 20, 1946 / Cartoon 471

Director: Robert McKimson

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 6

This one’s pretty unusual. Many of the characters are dogs who are caricatures of Hollywood stars; some are dogs with human characteristics; some are just dogs. But Eddie G. opens the cartoon, so it has that going for it. The well-worn tropes (Bing vs. Frankie, Carmen Miranda) are here, along with a very appealing Dorothy Lamour dog.

Hush My Mouse

May 4, 1946 / Cartoon 472

Director: Chuck Jones

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection

A Sniffles cartoon that really isn’t primarily about Sniffles, Hush My Mouse is a parody of Duffy’s Tavern, the popular radio show which also had film and television incarnations. By far the best thing here is Edward G. Robincat, another thick-lipped Robinson character whose cowardice is ultimately revealed. The voice work is all very well done, and the animation is enjoyable; the humor depends on knowing at least a little about the original source material, though, which by now is pretty obscure.

Hair-Raising Hare

May 25, 1946 / Cartoon 473

Director: Chuck Jones

Listed in “Other Great Cartoons” in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 1
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 3 (in What’s Up Doc: A Salute to Bugs Bunny)
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 4 (in Bugs Bunny Superstar)
  • The Essential Bugs Bunny
  • Bugs Bunny’s Howl-oween Special
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 3
  • Bugs Bunny Superstar

One of the most inspired comedic moments in film history? When Bugs Bunny realizes that the way to deal with a large monster consisting of a pile of red hair wearing tennis shoes (Gossamer making his debut) is to give it a manicure. Monsters do lead interesting lives. Hair-Raising Hare also features a fine Peter Lorre scientist and a fetching mechanical rabbit femme fatale.

Kitty Kornered

June 8, 1946 / Cartoon 474

Director: Bob Clampett

Listed in “Other Great Cartoons” in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 2
  • Blues in the Night
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 1

Kitty Kornered might be the funniest cartoon of 1946, which is high praise indeed. Porky is hilarious in this, and the characters are rubbery in the best Clampett style. Sylvester’s speech was never more wetly sibilant. The cats behave in such a depraved manner that their smoking and drinking have been censored from broadcast; one cat smokes four cigars at once. This is the cartoon where the cats each turn into Teddy Roosevelt.

Hollywood Daffy

June 22, 1946 / Cartoon 475

Director: Friz Freleng

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 5

Another in a long line of WB cartoons featuring a line-up of Hollywood stars. Bette Davis is spot-on, the voice so good it could actually be her. Unfortunately Eddie G. does not turn up.

Acrobatty Bunny

June 29, 1946 / Cartoon 476

Director: Robert McKimson

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 3
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 3
  • A Night in Casablanca

For once the pairing of a cartoon with a feature (the Marx brothers’ A Night in Casablanca) makes perfect sense. McKimson’s first Bugs Bunny is really funny, with one of Bugs’ best lines: he looks way down into Nero the lion’s cavernous mouth and yells, “Pinocchio”! Bugs later does a great Pagliacci turn, singing “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.”

The Eager Beaver

July 13, 1946 / Cartoon 477

Director: Chuck Jones

Currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray

The Chuck Jones cartoon The Eager Beaver is an undiscovered gem, quite entertaining despite not being readily available. There’s an early funny gag with the beavers “damming” the river, and the beavers have very appealing personalities and voices. It’s a real disappointment that this good cartoon remains basically unseen.

The Great Piggy Bank Robbery

July 20, 1946 / Cartoon 478

Director: Bob Clampett

Ranked #16 in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 2
  • The Essential Daffy Duck
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 1

Another 1946 Clampett masterpiece, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is Daffy at his very best, and is considered by some professional animators as the best cartoon ever made. There’s not a wasted second. Every frame in this frantic cartoon is great; in fact, going frame-by-frame in the sequence where the villains fall out of the closet is a must. Not only will the viewer wonder where the candy cane came from, they will be introduced to a shapely female villain who had previously remained unseen.

Bacall to Arms

August 3, 1946 / Cartoon 479

Directors: Bob Clampett (uncredited, unfinished) / Art Davis

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 5
  • To Have and Have Not

Bacall to Arms is an entertaining melange of colorized footage from She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter, a mostly-rotoscoped parody of the Bogart-Bacall feature film To Have and Have Not, and new animation featuring a rip-off of Tex Avery’s Wolfie character from his MGM cartoons. Clampett left this unfinished when he left the studio, and Art Davis took over his unit, further adding to the lack of continuity. Considering how much this Frankentoon has going against it, it’s remarkable how entertaining it is, especially for the viewer familiar with the original Bogart-Bacall film.

Of Thee I Sting

August 17, 1946 / Cartoon 480

Director: Friz Freleng

Currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray

Using much reworked and colorized footage from the wartime short Target: Snafu, Of Thee I Sting is far and away the least distinguished WB cartoon of 1946. At least when the mosquitoes were attacking Pvt. Snafu, there was an interesting and funny character involved; here the mosquito maneuvers involve no characterization whatsoever and are simply “insects at war” sequences. Don’t judge the golden year of 1946 by its weakest entry.

Walky Talky Hawky

August 31, 1946 / Cartoon 481

Director: Robert McKimson

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Warner Bros. Animation Academy Award Collection
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 3
  • Bugs Bunny Superstar
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 4 (in Bugs Bunny Superstar)
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 3

Two new endearing WB characters are introduced in the Oscar-nominated Walky Talky Hawky, Barnyard Dawg and Foghorn Leghorn. McKimson’s two new characters were perfect co-stars with Chuck Jones’ Henery Hawk. Very funny, and it’s great to watch the freshness of what would become formulaic.

Racketeer Rabbit

September 14, 1946 / Cartoon 482

Director: Friz Freleng

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film

This great cartoon is currently available only as an extra on a DVD featuring a gangster film documentary. Is that because of four frames of Edward G. Robinson’s bare backside? The topic deserves a thorough investigation.

This hilarious gangster cartoon features over-the-top portrayals of Eddie G. and Peter Lorre; some fans of Warner Bros. gangster spoofs prefer the later characters of Rocky and Mugsy, but I love these more. There are many highlights here: the way Hugo, the Peter Lorre character, laughs; the way he disappears, unexplained, early in the cartoon; Dick Nelson’s vocal performance as Robinson, especially when he finds the curtains “adorable;” the best instance of Bugs’ “hide the villain” routine; and, of course, Robinson’s bare butt as he scrambles away from Bugs at the end.

Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film is worth seeing, but it’s not nearly as good as any of the gangster-related cartoons included as bonuses on the DVD: I Like Mountain Music, She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter, Racketeer Rabbit and Bugs and Thugs

Fair and Worm-er

September 28, 1946 / Cartoon 483

Director: Chuck Jones

Currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray

Another of 1946’s rarely-seen undiscovered gems, Chuck Jones’ trip up and down the food chain (worm, bird, cat, dog, dog catcher, dog catcher’s wife, mouse) is entertaining and nicely paced, but what a horrible title! The endless permutations of hair/hare throughout the years are perhaps forgivable (and of course they all involve Bugs), but Fair and Worm-er is a reference to a play (Fair and Warmer) introduced in 1915 that was likely forgotten even in 1946! With almost any other title this cartoon would survive beyond the rare Boomerang or Cartoon Network showing, but it is worth seeking out.

The Big Snooze

October 5, 1946 / Cartoon 484

Director: Bob Clampett (uncredited)

Listed in “Other Great Cartoons” in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 2 (in What’s Up Doc: A Salute to Bugs Bunny)
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 3
  • Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 3
  • Night and Day

In which Elmer Fudd rips up his contract in exchange for west and wewaxation, has an acid trip courtesy of Bugs Bunny’s nightmare paint, and becomes the sexiest drag queen in Warner Bros. animation. Clampett’s last WB cartoon is another endlessly rewatchable masterpiece, and is another one that repays frame-by-frame analysis. Pure gold.

The Mouse-merized Cat

October 19, 1946 / Cartoon 485

Director: Bob McKimson

Currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray

I’m of the age and disposition where I enjoy the many animal-based parody versions of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello more than encounters with the real thing. It always sounds strange to me when the real Lou yells “Hey Abbott!” instead of “Hey Babbitt!” This is the one where Bud uses an eyeball-ray version of hypnotism on Lou, the household cat gets involved, and chaos ensues. An official collection of all the Babbitt and Catstello permutations would be tiresome to watch in succession, and other than this one some of them are already anthologized.

Mouse Menace

November 2, 1946 / Cartoon 486

Director: Art Davis

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Super Stars: Porky & Friends – Hilarious Ham

In Art Davis’ first full-fledged debut as director, Porky wears a bowtie nearly the size of an entire shirtfront. A very resourceful mouse is driving Porky crazy, and the plot involves Porky hiring various forms of extermination, in vain. 

Rhapsody Rabbit

November 9, 1946 / Cartoon 487

Director: Friz Freleng

Listed in “Other Great Cartoons” in The Fifty Greatest Cartoons

Included in The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4 (in Bugs Bunny Superstar)
  • Bugs Bunny Superstar

In what is one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries, Rhapsody Rabbit is not only a great Bugs Bunny / Warner Bros. cartoon, but it’s also a great Tom and Jerry / MGM cartoon called A Cat Concerto, which won an Oscar. The order in which that occurred has never been publicly established, as well as who was involved and who stole what from whom. 

Two different studios preparing such similar cartoons independent of each other would be a coincidence of massive proportions, but in the opinion of some within the realm of possibility. One interesting theory holds that the key to the mystery lies in the rivalry between Shura Cherkassky, who purportedly played for Tom, and Jakob Gimpel, who played the piano as Bugs. While it would be considered a high honor these days, in the 1940s classical pianists would never have risked their careers by being outed as having played the piano on behalf of animated characters.

Each studio accused the other of plagiarism. Another theory holds that Technicolor sent pre-production footage to the wrong studio during the pre-production phase. At any rate, Rhapsody Rabbit is another great Freleng musical. The two competing cartoons should be viewed together; they share a few similar gags, and they certainly share the same premise and musical source material (Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2). MGM’s Joe Barbera claimed at the time that it was unusual to pair Bugs with a mouse, and that is a good point. However, since I prefer Bugs Bunny to Tom and Jerry in a landslide, and since the Warner Bros. version is much funnier, I say Hanna and Barbera stole from Friz.

Armchair detectives should stop wasting time on Jack the Ripper, O. J. Simpson and the like, and concentrate their efforts here where they belong.

Roughly Squeaking

November 23, 1946 / Cartoon 488

Director: Chuck Jones

Current DVD/Blu-ray availability:

  • Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection

Every fan of WB cartoons has a phrase or two deeply embedded in their subconscious mind: one of mine is the voice of Bertie the mouse saying into Claude the Cat’s ear, “You’re a gazelle.” Roughly Squeaking is a very funny cartoon, and closes out 1946 nicely.

There you have it: the golden year of the Looney Tunes, 1946. These 25 cartoons, taken collectively, mark the pinnacle of animated cartoon humor and style.

Categories
Animation

Going Looney, On Purpose and In Order (5)

The War Years Cartoons (1942-1945)

The WB cartoons from 1942-1945 can be divided into three categories: (a) films that make no mention of the war; (b) films that don’t mention the war until either a cameo appearance or patriotic, buy-war-bonds ending; (c) wartime themes from start to finish. There are great, good and mediocre entries in each category.

Highlights

There are classic masterpieces from this era. Horton Hatches the Egg, the longest Looney Tune of the golden age, contains fabulous voice work from both Kent Rogers (Horton) and Sara Berner (Mayzie). It also contains the most memorable fish suicide in motion picture history, unless you view the censored broadcast version.

The Dover Boys at Pimento University, or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall, heralded a new, influential visual style in both smeared movement and background design. Three of the first four cartoons released in 1943 are unequivocal classics: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Pigs in a Polka, and Tortoise Wins By a Hare.

Other essential classics of the period (although you could make a case for more) include Little Red Riding Rabbit, The Aristo-Cat, Porky Pig’s Feat, the Fantasia parody A Corny Concerto, and The Old Grey Hare. I could watch Little Red Riding Rabbit every day for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it.

Lesser Lights

Among the cartoons of this era I found a handful I don’t remember ever seeing and which seem to belong to a different studio. That could be due to two different reasons: one, that a fair amount of voice work is done by Pinto Colvig, better known as the voice of Disney’s Goofy; two, that director Norman McCabe’s style seems to stand out as different from the other directors. A cartoon like Hop and Go, from 1943, features a jumping kangaroo, two Scottish rabbits and the explosive destruction of Tokyo, but only contains vague hints of what is generally considered to be the WB golden age style and humor.

Private Snafu and his Friends

Being an insane completist, I’m also viewing all the Warner Bros. animated films made for the US military in the correct order. Most of these feature the character Pvt. Snafu, but also include Mr. Hook and Grampaw Pettibone in addition to straightforward informational films like Chuck Jones’ Point Rationing for Foods. It may not be necessary to mention that Point Rationing for Foods is neither as funny nor as entertaining as One Froggy Evening. The character-driven films featuring Pvt. Snafu, on the other hand, are uproarious, given that they were trying to catch the attention of wartime servicemen and didn’t need to worry about the Hollywood Production Code.

Tokyo Woes, Bob Clampett’s Mr. Hook short for the US Navy war bond effort, depicts some pretty offensive Japanese stereotypes; at the very end, it also features the sexiest female walk-on in Warner Bros. animation history.

New Classic Characters

 A Tale of Two Kitties (cartoon #387) introduced Tweety, and Life With Feathers (cartoon #451) introduced Sylvester. They seem so inseparable now it’s hard to believe they didn’t appear together until 1947’s Tweetie Pie (cartoon #495). 

Pepe Le Pew made his debut in the first cartoon released in 1945, Odor-able Kitty. Those who are unfamiliar with this first Pepe Le Pew cartoon are due for quite a surprise at the end.


Yosemite Sam made his first appearance (Hare Trigger) just two cartoons after Sylvester’s debut in 1945. That four such indelible cartoon characters were introduced in such a short period is a testament to the astonishing creativity happening at Termite Terrace during the 40s.

Categories
Animation

Going Looney, On Purpose and in Order (4)

A Birthday for Bugs: The Pre-War Cartoons (1938-1942)

The next era runs roughly from Porky in Wackyland to 1942’s Crazy Cruise, the first WB cartoon (#359) clearly acknowledging the wartime theme. Once Bugs uses his ears to make the “V for Victory” that closes Crazy Cruise, the cartoons have gone to war (several months after Pearl Harbor, given the lag time in production and release), and they were all in. (1941’s Meet John Doughboy and Rookie Revue have military life as subject matter, but are not Allies/Axis WW2 specific. You start to see a bit of wartime commentary in Who’s Who in the Zoo in early 1942.)

Overall, these years can be summed up with Bob Clampett speeding things up with Porky, Chuck Jones slowing things down with Sniffles, and Bugs Bunny being birthed by committee. 1940’s A Wild Hare (cartoon #294, reissued with a slight name change as The Wild Hare) is the first official Bugs Bunny cartoon, although if you ran Elmer’s Candid Camera from earlier in the year to just about anyone, they would tell you they just saw a Bugs Bunny / Elmer Fudd cartoon. The only differences? Elmer brandishes a camera instead of a rifle, and the voice and appearance of Bugs are still evolving.

If ethnic sensibilities are removed (which is an impossibility), the cartoons of this era, especially starting with 1940, range in quality from amusing to delightful. The Clampett Porky Pigs are reliably hilarious. The color Merrie Melodies of the time look a bit old-fashioned and stodgy compared to the lightning-fast black-and-white Looney Tunes, but the gorgeous background work and fluid character animation go a long way towards making up for it.

Ethnic Sensitivity

Confederate Honey, a Gone With the Wind parody from 1940 (cartoon #280, with Elmer Fudd as the romantic male lead!) is a case study in the problems of censorship. It is currently available as an extra on the Erroll Flynn western Virginia City DVD, but with all of the scenes with black characters removed (or pan-and-scanned to remove said characters). The problem with this approach is that the missing scenes establish the set-up to the film’s punchline gag, and the cartoon makes no sense without them. And that’s not even discussing whether the best way to rectify the use of black stereotypes is to merely erase all the black characters regardless of how they were portrayed. If you watch Confederate Honey, view the uncut original.

On the other hand, encountering the sixth official Bugs Bunny cartoon, 1941’s All This and Rabbit Stew, is a deeply unsettling experience. Not only is the hunter protagonist the worst example of the lazy, shuffling ethnic stereotype, but Bugs ultimately distracts and defeats him with a pair of dice in a craps game. There’s hardly a shred of humor left in this cartoon when viewed with anything resembling a modern sensibility. This is the only Bugs Bunny short on the Censored Eleven list.

Contemporary References

Many of the usual suspects are rounded up as caricatures during this period, especially comic and dramatic actors under contract to Warner Bros. It apparently was a huge deal in popular culture during the late 30s and early 40s that popular entertainers Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor only sired male or female offspring (respectively). Were the incessant references to the Crosby and Cantor families big audience crowd pleasers back then?

Bugs

Watching A Wild Hare now, especially in a high-def, restored version, is an unalloyed pleasure. It’s gorgeously drawn and animated, it’s hilarious, and all the pieces are there, including a dramatic death scene for Mel Blanc’s voice. The flat-out funniest moment is when Bugs halts Elmer’s point-blank firing upon him under the tree, not because he’s afraid of being shot, but because he’s standing directly beneath a couple of birds that might poop on him. He takes a couple steps to his left before giving Elmer the go-ahead, because of course he knows the brave hunter will miss anyway. 17 cartoons later, Elmer’s Pet Rabbit would be the follow-up, with Bugs as his official name, but with a strange voice, an aggressive personality and Chuck Jones as director.

The third official Bugs Bunny cartoon, Tortoise Beats Hare, is a brilliant subversion of a formula that was just getting started, and the first of a magnificent trilogy with Cecil Turtle. It’s amazing that in the three Cecil vs. Bugs films, the always unflappable good guy Bugs Bunny becomes the bad guy, is vanquished and humiliated, and we love every minute.

Highlights

The prenatal Bugs cartoons are worth viewing in order: Porky’s Hare Hunt, Prest-o Change-o, Hare-um Scare-um, Elmer’s Candid Camera. Other highlights from this era include a couple of change-of-pace Chuck Jones non-comedies, Old Glory and Tom Thumb in Trouble. The exact opposite, Clampett at his unhinged best, may be found in The Daffy Doc, The Lone Stranger and Porky and Porky’s Last Stand. Friz Freleng returned to Termite Terrace after a stint at MGM, and his credits include the Who Framed Roger Rabbit inspiration You Ought to Be in Pictures, the endlessly delightful Rhapsody in Rivets, and his Bugs Bunny film Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt. Tex Avery, in addition to A Wild Hare, also directed the hilarious classics Thugs With Dirty Mugs, Dangerous Dan McFoo, and Porky’s Preview

I find the Chuck Jones of this period hard to reconcile with the later director of Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening; he slows everything down and cutesifies it all, as if to show he could be working for Disney. A good example is Porky’s Prize Pony, one of a couple of Porky Pigs Jones made in 1941. Clampett’s series of Porky Pig cartoons are unsurpassed in their frantic pace and unhinged humor. Once Jones gets hold of Porky and applies his super-slow-motion frustration humor approach, the whole series stops dead in its tracks. Despite Porky’s Prize Pony’s horse race story line, which by definition should involve speed and dynamism, Jones finds a way to insert an endless, maddening sequence with the horse trying to arrange its own tail. 

A few cartoons later, the Chuck Jones style suits the material much better in Porky’s Midnight Matinee. Here you have Jones going from strength to strength: the world as seen from the tiny pygmy ant’s perspective, and Porky’s facial expressions as he tries to capture the ant. Unfortunately, as so often during this period, the cartoon ends with a blackface gag.

I liked Sniffles when I was 6 years old, but now not so much; the Inki films are memorable mostly due to their brilliant use of Mendelssohn’s music. For my money Jones didn’t really hit his stride until he gave us the Dover Boys and Hubie and Bertie later on.

1941’s The Cagey Canary is a forgotten treasure. Not readily available, the cartoon was started by Tex Avery and finished by Bob Clampett. Avery was fired in a dispute with Leon Schlesinger over the ending of The Heckling Hare. The Cagey Canary, despite the change of directors, shows no seams and moves like lightning. To modern eyes it seems like the genesis of Tweety, Sylvester and Granny (without the eventual look and sound of those three characters) and appears to be the blueprint for dozens of cat vs. the canary films later on.

Lesser Lights
In the Complete Illustrated Guide, Jerry Beck refers to Chuck Jones’ 1940 cartoon Good Night, Elmer as “one of the most irritating cartoons ever made.” Even considering that animation history includes the likes of Little Lulu, Baby Huey and Ren and Stimpy, he’s right. Also in this period you’ll find several “spot gag” cartoons like travelogues, trips to the zoo or jungle, and spoofs of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” These are, by definition, exactly as entertaining as the jokes they contain.

Categories
Animation

Going Looney, On Purpose and in Order (2)

The Bosko and Buddy Era (1930-1935)

The first Looney Tunes “stars” were Bosko, then Buddy. Bosko had a girlfriend named Honey, and Buddy had Cookie. There isn’t much that distinguishes the two characters; Bosko is dark-skinned and Buddy is light-skinned. They’re each pretty dull. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen one Bosko or Buddy film, you’ve sort of seen them all. To quote Leonard Maltin in “Of Mice and Magic,”  “These cartoons seem pleasant and somewhat imaginative — until one watches three in a row.”

What to Look For

For animation buffs, among the things to look for are instances of rotoscoping (tracing live action), which become obvious once you spot them. As the early animators learn to effectively convey quick movement, it’s fun to go frame-by-frame to learn the secrets. And it’s quite interesting when the action has some perspective; instead of left-right scrolling, as in a primitive video game, the early renderings of action coming towards or away from the viewer perspective are notable. There are some gags of which the animators seem so proud they show up in nearly every cartoon. The popular effect in this early era? Let an approaching character’s mouth form a dark jump cut to the next scene.

Adult Themes

These films were shown before a feature meant for a wide audience, so the time-honored tradition of sneaking in some pre-Code entertainment for Mom and Dad and Grandpa is in effect. There are lots of outhouse and bedpan gags. Despite Bosko’s girlfriend Honey spending her every appearance both topless and flat-chested, her clothesline always has a brassiere hanging on it. When a telephone or alarm clock rings, the two front-mounted bells often put on a display of mammalian pendulousness. In 1930’s Congo Jazz, (cartoon #2), and 1932’s Pagan Moon, a dancing coconut tree has coconut eyes that descend to become coconut breasts that are wildly gyrated and released as missiles! 1931’s Bosko the Doughboy has a surprising amount of wartime carnage. One recurring gag from this era features characters sliding down banisters only to have the rail removed by an enemy and the victim being pounded in the crotch by the exposed uprights. And, of course, early animation from many studios featured kicks, bites, stabbings and other indignities visited upon the rear ends of characters. The discovery that barnyard animals have underwear beneath their fur is also made during this time, although that doesn’t apply to the cows that appear to be 50% udder. And there’s a lot of drinking in these films.

Topical References

Hollywood caricatures feature during this era, as in so many cartoons later on. Greta Garbo always has huge feet and “vants to be alone;” Jimmy Durante is mortified; Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Oliver Hardy, W.C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers make multiple appearances. 

Voices

Late in the era one starts to recognize Bernice Hansen and Billy Bletcher doing voice work, but the voices before 1935 are for the most part bland and undistinguished. Bosko was usually voiced by Carman Maxwell in the early years, Buddy by Jack Carr.


The films of this first era lie squarely at the intersection of melodrama and vaudeville. Particularly in the Merrie Melodies series, here’s the formula: (a) 1 or 2 choruses of the title song; (b) the bad guy’s entrance and kidnapping of the leading lady; (c) the hitherto timid hero’s rescue of his gal. If you only watch a few of the 1930-1935 films, some of the better ones include Bosko the Doughboy, How Do I Know It’s Sunday, Bosko’s Mechanical Man, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (cartoon #1) and Red-Headed Baby. If you want to be astonished or shocked by what passed for family entertainment in the early 1930s, check out Buddy’s Circus, One Step Ahead of My Shadow, and Buddy of the Apes. For a strange, unexpected surprise ending, watch Ride Him, Bosko.

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Animation

Going Looney, On Purpose and in Order (3)

The Dawn of Porky and the Birth of the WB Style (1935-1938)

Starting in 1935, several milestone cartoons were released that pointed toward the recognizable Warner Bros. style. 1935’s I Haven’t Got a Hat introduced the first enduring WB character, Porky Pig. Gold Diggers of ‘49 (1936) was director Tex Avery’s debut (with Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones as lead animators) and shows the sense of pace, timing and humor that was to come. The 1936 Jazz Singer spoof I Love to Singa is beloved, and later in 1936 Porky’s Poultry Plant marked the debut of both director Frank Tashlin and music supervisor Carl Stalling. 1937 brought 3 major milestones in quick succession. Picador Porky started Mel Blanc’s WB career in voice characterization, and a few cartoons later he would take over as Porky Pig. She Was An Acrobat’s Daughter is, in my opinion, the first WB cartoon that is pure, uncut Warner Bros. energy and humor from start to finish. Then in the very next release, Porky’s Duck Hunt, the comedic hunter character is established in Porky (which is later taken up by Elmer Fudd) and Daffy Duck as his nemesis makes an indelible debut. 

Voices

Porky had a recurring sidekick (Gabby Goat) and pet (Lulu the Ostrich) for a few films in his early days; that no one remembers this is a testament to how memorable these characters are. Porky was originally voiced by Joe Dougherty, who actually did stutter and whose vocal recording sessions were reportedly endless and problematic as a result. The story of how Dougherty went from attending the University of Nebraska medical school to serving as the voice of a stuttering cartoon pig in southern California seems to be undocumented, but might make interesting reading. Porky lost a lot of weight when he changed voice actors, so Blanc’s Porky is the one we are familiar with, while Dougherty’s Porky elicits more sympathy and irritation than humor.

Character Origins

Endless (pointless?) debate continues about whether Egghead, who made his debut in 1937’s Egghead Rides Again, is Elmer Fudd, Elmer Fudd’s brother (at one time an official WB publicity claim), or a different character altogether. Upon viewing the debut cartoon again, I was struck by Egghead hinting at not only Elmer’s origins, but also those of Yosemite Sam. As with discussions of prenatal Bugs Bunny appearances, a full-blown origin story seems for some to require the complete confluence of character design, behavior and voice. For others the appearance of one or two out of three will suffice.

What to Look For

Questions emerge when one views cartoons from this era. Is the fact that hens sit on unhatched eggs to keep them warm the wellspring of all comedy? If minor Hollywood comedians such as Joe Penner, Lew Lehr and (later) Jerry Colonna live on merely in their WB animated versions but not their actual body of work, are they nevertheless successful? How does it become so normal to watch naked quadrupeds depicted as clothed, English-speaking bipeds? The appearance of a normal human character in any of these films is genuinely disorienting.

The famous Censored Eleven cartoons banned from broadcast in the late 1960s are, of course, not the only examples of racially / ethnically sensitive stereotypes in the WB canon. A good example is the 1937 short Sweet Sioux. A modern viewer may well decide that the title itself is sufficient deterrent, but upon viewing the cartoon, which is pretty funny, one finds the satiric targets are not generally the indigenous nations. 

I am emphatically not maintaining that the Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies cartoons from 1930s – 1960s are devoid of harmful racist depictions of indigenous North American nations; there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (although, interestingly, not represented extensively in the Censored Eleven).

Most of the gags in Sweet Sioux are pretty mild, such as the mother / papoose flipping over so the baby can do some of the walking, and the attacking braves encircling the lone covered wagon forming a functional merry-go-round complete with brass ring. The actual satirical targets of Sweet Sioux are the conventions of two Hollywood genres, the western and the college sports comedy / musical. A very funny gag cuts from the attacking braves to the bench, where the second string, wearing numbered warm-ups, sits behind the nervous, pacing coach / chief. 

The strangest section of Sweet Sioux involves, of all people, singer / comedienne Martha Raye. Raye was a big-mouthed, brassy and loud supporting presence in b-pictures. She served in the 1930s a similar function to what Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter did to the 1940s and 1950s, in that frequently she was the best (or only) thing a motion picture had to offer. Anyway, in mid-cartoon a Raye impersonator depicted as a shapely Indian maiden hijacks the picture, just as the real Raye usually did. The effect is much like the Clutch Cargo series of ultra-cheap cartoons which used a live-action human mouth superimposed on a cartoon body.

The most insensitive and nonsensical aspect of Sweet Sioux may come from comparing its weak-punned title with its weak ending; the Sioux and Mohican tribes are different nations, distinct in many geographical and historical details, but the comedy conventions of the day (as elucidated in several cartoons) involved being “The Last of” the latter. Thanks a bunch, James Fenimore Cooper.

Other interesting cartoons of this period include Streamlined Greta Green, a take on anthropomorphic automobiles that predates Tex Avery’s later MGM efforts and Pixar’s Cars films; A Sunbonnet Blue, whose cute mice are familiar but the overnight setting of a millinery shop is unique (and which would make a good double bill with Bugs’ Bonnets from 1956); and the terrific The Case of the Stuttering Pig, which manages to serve as both Porky’s genealogy and a fully-functioning mystery thriller.

One cartoon from late 1937, Little Red Walking Hood, features a classic Tex Avery fairy tale parody but also a very unique look. Instead of solidly painted backgrounds, the surrounding scenes and settings (and even moving details like the automobiles) are rendered in beautiful colored pencil. The effect is so striking it’s surprising the technique wasn’t used more often.

It’s strange how in February 1938, the studio could produce the bright and funny Porky at the Crocadero, two weeks later release something as offensive, unfunny and dull as Jungle Jitters, then bounce right back the next week with the breathlessly fleet-footed What Price Porky. There were different units under different directors, but it’s still the same production studio. Sometimes it makes sense that Warner Bros. is selective about what it makes currently available.

Cartoon #198, 1938’s Porky’s Hare Hunt, features the first appearance of the rabbit character that is considered to be proto-Bugs Bunny. These continuing evolutions into the greatest cartoon character of all time make an interesting study; here the bunny has Woody Woodpecker’s voice, helicopter ears and an aptitude for jumping around in a Daffy manner. Those who (rightfully) equate Warner Bros. cartoons with Bugs Bunny might be surprised to learn that nearly 200 cartoons went by before he showed up, and even then he wasn’t yet quite himself.  

If time travel were an option, landing somewhere in a movie theater on September 24, 1938 just to watch a group of people encounter Porky in Wackyland for the first time would be a revelation. Even now its power to turn the human brain inside out is undiminished.

Watching the films in order, one can see Bob Clampett gearing up for his surreal trip to Wackyland; the previous Clampett cartoon, Porky and Daffy, features a pelican climbing out of his own mouth. Before that, Porky’s Party depicts an incredibly productive silkworm working in birthday party ice cream. Still, nothing prepares the viewer for the overwhelming adventure of Wackyland. It takes a minimum of 3 viewings just to take it all in. To date Porky in Wackyland is the earliest WB cartoon in the Library of Congress National Film Registry, and is a regular inhabitant of every list of animation’s masterpieces.

The end of 1938 had the studio operating in high gear, as the Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin units were creating cartoons that are as funny and creative in their own way as Clampett’s. And at the tail end of the year, another animator, Chuck Jones, was promoted to director when Tashlin left the studio for a few years.

Categories
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.