Looney Tunes: An Appreciation
Why Bugs, Daffy, Wile E. Coyote et al. are still part of my Saturday morning ritual
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It’s hard to believe that many American children venturing into the theaters to see Happy Feet Two will have their first experience of Sylvester and Tweety Bird on the big screen in a new computer-animated short, “I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat.” Hard to believe, first, that Sylvester and Tweety are back on the big screen — and, second, that these iconic animated characters that defined Saturday morning for decades and were beloved big-screen icons before that have become pretty much strangers to many of the current generation of kids. How did that happen?
I haven’t seen “I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat,” but I saw last year’s “Coyote Falls,” the first in a new series of computer-animated Looney Tunes shorts from Warner Bros. (I can’t think when or where I saw it, since it played before Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, which I happily skipped.) “Coyote Falls” isn’t bad, although it’s one gag after another with no down time: no scenes of Wile E. plotting, pacing back and forth, drawing up blueprints, receiving packages from Acme, and such.
In any case, there’s no touching the classics. Looney Tunes are still part of my Saturday morning ritual: Every week, my kids and I watch a few shorts from the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs. Recently Warner Bros released the first installment in its new Blu-ray Platinum Edition collection. If you didn’t jump on the Golden Collection bandwagon, the Platinum Collection is a good place to start.
In my youth, as with many of my generation and others, Looney Tunes was a key gateway into a larger world of comedy, entertainment and culture. I don’t remember the first time I encountered Charlie Chaplin or the Marx Brothers, or the first time I saw Casablanca, but whenever it was, I came to them with some inkling of what lay in store thanks to Looney Tunes. Before I ever saw a John Ford film, Monument Valley’s buttes and mesas loomed in my imagination thanks to the Coyote and the Road Runner. I’ve never read Of Mice and Men, nor have I seen the 1939 film, but if I ever spot Lon Cheney as Lennie while flipping through channels, I’m sure I’ll recognize it right away.
And music! Wagner, Mozart, Strauss, Rossini, Mendelsohn — I encountered them all on Saturday mornings over Cheerios, along with Raymond Scott, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and so on. How many people hearing the strains of “We’re in the Money” on NPR’s “Marketplace” know it from Looney Tunes? Would “Marketplace” even use that song if not for Looney Tunes? (On the other hand, I can only mentally hear the wrong notes to “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” the song used in the familiar exploding xylophone gag.)
The Looney Tunes brand was launched by producer Leon Schlesinger in 1930, followed a year later by Merrie Melodies. Both brands were obviously inspired by Disney’s Silly Symphonies series, although the felicitously named animation team of Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising added a unique spin with the “Harman-Ising” name. At first the two series had different identities, but by 1943 they were interchangeable.
No one director, writer or artist is ultimately responsible for the brilliant heights that Looney Tunes ultimately reached. Key contributors obviously include Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, but also Friz Freleng, Bob McKimson and others, as well as a stable of unsung gag writers and animators. On the other hand, the entire Looney Tunes output from 1936 on is indebted to three men who all joined Schlesinger’s stable that year, who defined the sound of Looney Tunes for decades.
Composer Carl Stalling, a former silent-film musician and conductor who had helped create Disney’s Silly Symphonies series, brought his penchant for musical “Mickey-Mousing” and on-the-nose musical references to some 600 cartoons over 22 years, averaging one score a week. Sound effects artist Treg Brown created all the shotgun blasts, explosions, anvil crashes, zipping road runners, boinging elastic bands, crackling fires and zizzing saws the studio needed. Brown also hired the chameleonic Mel Blanc, who reinvented the voice of Porky Pig and created Daffy Duck in his first short, and went on to create voices for nearly every major Looney Tunes character (the notable exception being Elmer Fudd, voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan).
Key characters were refined over time, developing from initially one-dimensional players into rounded, flexible characters who could adapt to fit different comic situations and needs. Porky Pig, the series’ first popular star, became a foil for the antics of the more potent figure of Daffy Duck, in some ways anticipating the role of Elmer Fudd. Later, as Daffy developed from a mere capricious screwball into a vain, ambitious would-be star, Porky eased into a straight-man sidekick role, slyly showing up the bigger star in shorts like “Drip-Along Daffy” (1951) and “Robin Hood Daffy” (1958).
Bugs Bunny, like Daffy, started as a troublemaking loon, evolving over time into a nonchalant trickster with an underlying sense of fair play, only messing with those who mess with him first, and often repeating Groucho Marx’s line, “Of course you realize this means war!” As a rabbit, Bugs’s natural foil was of course the hunter Elmer Fudd, and Elmer figures in some of Bugs’s greatest achievements, including “The Rabbit of Seville” (1947) and especially the transcendent “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957) — possibly Bugs’s finest moment.
When “The Old Grey Hare” (1944) assayed Bugs’s life from infancy to old age, Elmer was naturally his lifelong antagonist. But Bugs turned out to be the most versatile star in the Looney Toons pantheon, taking on any and all comers, from lumbering mooks and preening bullies to the indefatiguable little Yosemite Sam, Bugs’s most adaptable foil, with his endless alternate guises: outlaw, pirate, Confederate soldier, Roman centurion, etc.
It was Chuck Jones who first realized the comic gold to be mined from pitting the two biggest stars, Bugs and Daffy, against one another in “Rabbit Fire” (1951) — and, in a stroke of genius, he added Elmer Fudd into the mix, creating a comic triangle unlike anything else in the Looney Tunes world. Revisiting the three-way scenerio in “Rabbit Seasoning” (1951), Jones anticipated another side of the Bugs and Daffy tension in an incipiently self-aware scene in which Bugs and Daffy take a perfunctory run through their dialogue (“Shoot him now, shoot him now”) — foreshadowing Bugs and Daffy’s professional rivalry as show-biz stars.
This self-aware quality — cartoon stars who know that they’re cartoon stars — was a key element of the Looney Tunes sensibility, going back at least to “You Ought to Be in Pictures” (1940), with Porky shaking hands with a live-action Schlesinger. (The Fleischer Studios’ “Out of the Inkwell” series had done similar things.) Bugs and Daffy’s rivalry, though, took the conceit to new meta-heights — never more brilliantly than in “Duck Amuck” (1953), one of the most formally inventive cartoons ever made, with Daffy interacting with an unseen animator as well as all the elements of animation and filmmaking: background art, line and color, sound effects, camera shot types, the image frame, the closing iris, the filmstrip itself and even his own animated status.
The triumvirate of Bugs, Daffy and Elmer went on to star in a number of cartoons, from “A Star is Bored” (1956) to their last hurrah, “Person To Bunny” (1959). To be sure, Bugs and Daffy’s rivalry didn’t need Elmer — shorts like “Ali Baba Bunny” and “People Are Bunny” are proof of that — and for that matter Daffy and Elmer had their own moments without Bugs. But there’s something magical about the three of them together that isn’t matched anywhere else. Nothing is closer to the center of gravity of Looney Tunes genius than this trio.For sheer technique, I’m not sure anything in the Looney Tunes world beats the Coyote-Road Runner cartoons, which began in 1949 with “Fast And Furry-ous.” There is a purity to their dialogue-free world, like that of the silent clowns, Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and in the simplicity and consistency of their cat-and-mouse game. Wile E. Coyote’s various traps and schemes for catching the Road Runner, running the gamut from simple snares to elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions, are a playground for exploring the relationship of physical principles — gravity, speed, mass, momentum, leverage, magnetism, jet propulsion and so forth — and the stylizations of animation.
The Coyote-Road Runner shorts are master classes in timing, a key element in both physical and verbal comedy. In particular, they highlight the crucial role of anticipation: of the pregnant moment before the punchline, or the punch, or whatever the payoff is. Like the exaggerated pratfalls themselves, with characters stretching, smooshing, flying, unraveling, and being blasted into cinders before bouncing back to normal for the next gag, animation allowed the filmmakers to exaggerate the moment of anticipation, from the signature gag of characters walking off cliffs or out of windows and not falling until they notice the empty space below them to physical contortions such as the Coyote’s panicked reaction shot lingering briefly in the frame while the rest of his body suddenly accelerates in a new direction.
Comic anticipation can also be something as simple as a line that a character hasn’t yet reacted to, or a realization that hasn’t yet sunk in. (“You know what? I think that was the rabbit!”) Often Bugs or Daffy buffalo an opponent with fast talk and enthusiasm, and the humor often comes not only from watching the bewildered opponents going along with an imaginary situation but also from the expectation of the penny dropping.
Such tricks can be a fleeting gag, like Bugs in “Super-Rabbit” (1943) getting Cottontail Smith and his horse chanting “Bricka-bracka, firecracka, sis-boom-bah! Bugs Bunny, Bugs Bunny, rah rah rah!” without knowing why. Other times the light bulb takes longer to click. I think my favorite delayed reaction is in “Rabbit Hood” (1949), in which Bugs turns the Sheriff of Nottingham’s reverence for the King’s Royal Rose Garden on its head by adopting a real-estate agent schtick and persuading the Sheriff to “buy” the highly desirable Garden grounds to build a “six-room Tudor.” Cut to the Sheriff, possibly months later, happily constructing his house on the King’s ground … and then it sinks in.
Sometimes the penny never drops, and the gag takes over the rest of the cartoon. “Hillbilly Hare” (1950) is a good example: Bugs is pursued by a pair of hillbilly brothers until he suddenly turns square-dance caller, and the brothers spend the rest of the short dancing in obedience to Bugs’s calls, ultimately pummeling each other senseless.
I enjoy picking things apart to figure out why they work, though of course ultimately what makes something “funny” or “classic” can’t really be explained. Perhaps that’s why one of the most memorable Looney Tunes shorts, “One Froggy Evening” (1955), is also one of the most inexplicable. A stand-alone short about a man who finds a singing, dancing frog, “One Froggy Evening” is a dialogue-free parable about human nature, happiness and circumstances beyond our control or analysis.
Chuck Jones has called Michigan J. Frog, as the character is unofficially known, his favorite of all the characters he created, “because I don’t understand him.” I always resented the Kids WB network using a singing, dancing Michigan J. Frog as their mascot. If they had been true to his character, every time they cut to a station break he would have been squatting stonefaced, croaking. It’s an iconic example of how latter-day appropriations of the Looney Tunes legacy have seldom if ever really honored their source material, let alone lived up to it.