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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Eyes A-Poppin'

By Kevin Wollenweber

I just read, with glee, the latest post in Thad Komorowski’s THADBLOG, about his locating, in a student library, the first book of complete filmography and individual shorts examinations of LOONEY TUNES and MERRY MELODIES, from Scarecrow Press, called, what else, THE WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS. In fact, I own both copies of the book, and my hard cover copy is pretty worn out because I had to use a screen-reading device that had to scan the pages and read them back to me. So, I had to push the book flat upon the device unfortunately. But the work it took to read each page was worthwhile, because, yes, that true fan enthusiasm comes out in a book like this. I really wish that Warner Brothers would allow Jerry Beck to be Jerry Beck and let him talk about things like, well, what he originally *THOUGHT* Bosko was saying to the audience when pointing out the villain in “BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW”. I, personally, don’t doubt that Bosko’s creator, Hugh Harmon, was without this kind of sly humor when it came to cartoons, having said that he would rather do more with the art of animation than make commercials or little stories about fuzzy, cute little characters, not that there’s something entirely wrong with that, mind you. I will always enjoy the HAPPY HARMONIES, primarily because of the curious and amazing amount of detail in films that seemed almost to have a bottomless budget.

Originally, I had always thought that the books, WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS (from Scarecrow Press) or the one later given the blessing of the studio, LOONEY TUNES AND MERRY MELODIES, were supposed to be critiques of the cartoons and, so, could be as biting as they wanted to be. Although I understand why the viewpoints had to be softened for the second book (and I ultimately applaud this, because now we have Jerry Beck and company creating some of the best DVD compilations of these wonderful cartoons), I miss the sense of humor inherent in books like the Scarecrow Press book which really does show a real sense of wonder and delight in these cartoons. There are times I remember even disagreeing with the overall viewpoint to a cartoon or two since I’m not always quite as cynical at times, but that is the process of criticism, the ability to get one’s point across and even stun the reader. Certainly, that review of “BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW”, I believe, has made this short a minor classic! Only those who knew Hugh Harmon could tell me whether or not Hugh, himself, would have been appalled to hear that anyone thought that a four-letter expletive was used prominently in a scene in one of his cartoons, but for now, I’m with the writer of that particular plot synopsis as he excitedly wonders just how far the animator was willing to break the common rules to astound his audience into wondering “what did he say?”

Animation was really no different in those days from the live action films, except that live action pre-Code full-length motion pictures were sometimes trying to tackle taboo subjects that needed to be discussed instead of just feared, about political theories that were shunned merely because folks had sometimes false interpretations of them or false interpretations of the times in which *ALL* people were living, no matter what the race and creed, while cartoons were just being…cartoons, with all the barnyard or outhouse humor that one would think would be there, almost the kind of humor omnipresent in “underground” cartoons of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that were circulated in alternative publications. That kind of humor was hinted at and sometimes realized in pre-Code cartoons. After all, as far as I know, cartoons were not yet used as kids-only entertainment, even though they did all somehow get ignorantly shunted over to Saturday mornings on television. Most of us got our first glimpse of BETTY BOOP on afternoon TV, if we were able to get to our sets around noontime to catch the half hour of Fleischer cartoons!

But at least some of us can still consult the Scarecrow Press edition of THE WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS to read all the criticisms therein from folks who watched these cartoons for pleasure.

So what could be wrong with this book that is right with the second attempt, the LOONEY TUNES AND MERRY MELODIES book? Well, the first book is full of many inaccuracies, too numerous for me to mention here and I’ll leave this up to others of you who might respond to this with more detail. Since the second book was done with the blessing and assistance of those at Warner Brothers, yes, the spikier viewpoints had to be excised in favor of friendlier speech so that this would be more a celebration of what the studio has done with the art of animation. Yeah (sigh), we fans know that the Warner Brothers cartoons were done with adults in mind, that Warner Brothers cartoons especially were not fond of doing those cute and cuddly characters and keeping to a cloying formula. They were not Walt Disney and couldn’t conceive of creating theme parks with the LOONEY TUNES characters walking around and greeting customers; and, so, the first book, THE WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS, was more a celebration of this fact and not trying to denegrade the Warner Brothers trademark for their production. It was a keen and clear-headed overview of each and every title in the library or in those vaults and what they meant to us former kids and what they eventually came to mean as we grew up and re-examined the cartoons years later into our adult lives.

. The animators would have been happy enough becoming acknowledged as bona fied filmmakers of the stature of any one of the major motion picture directors of the day. They truly were pioneers and we, now, realize this far too late, but as I’ve said so many times, the problem here is that you’re battling decades of marketing and manufacturing products with these cute little LOONEY characters all over them. Never will you see T-shirts with that pink “naked” Tweetie Pie on it with that funny, wide-eyed expression on his face as he utters the key line: “Ooh, de poor puddy tat. He faw down, go *BOOM*!”

Even as kids, we liked these cartoons because they were violent, and they weren’t afraid to go over the top with that violence. The unabashed humor of these cartoons were what made it easy for the military to adopt them as “mascots” for the war effort. They were equal opportunity offenders and were not afraid to poke fun at just about anything, including military life. The same goes with the Fleischer Studios and, well, any studio that wasn’t Walt Disney Productions, whose characters seemed so out of place in wartime cartoons, save of course for DONALD DUCK who had some of the best of these shorts. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, among others, humanized animal instincts and were seen as protective of their domains, and isn’t that partially what the American experience is all about? Just about every character showed this genuine impression of Americana and, while doing this, also poked merciless fun at the over-the-top bravado of wartime propaganda, so, people of all ages could embrace what they were about so much easier than those of Disney. Oh, I don’t say that Disney films didn’t grab me and take me to that other place with equal amusement, but Warner Brothers cartoons made it all so funny! Somehow, you would so easily get offended if Disney characters attempted to act, in any way, like those brassier characters at Warner Brothers. Caricatures and stereotypes would really seem insensitive if it came from the kitchi-koo cute characters of a Disney cartoon, but LOONEY TUNES and MERRY MELODIES were always poking light fun at accepted norms and, so, you had to know that there were no boundaries when it came to the gag content in any of these cartoons, not that there weren’t attempts to tell some kind of story or convey a view of life from a creature smaller than adult-sized humans. Yet these were cartoons, and the creators made no bones about telling us this through the bizarre gags of a Tex Avery or Bob Clampett cartoon or those rare Chuck Jones cartoons that took jabs at the art form itself, like “DUCK AMUCK”. It was their job to be funny, and they did so for at least three decades with varying results.

Kevin Wollenweber


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