Review by KC Carlson
One of the annual highlights of any true animation fan, the Looney Tunes Golden Collections are always a treasure trove of the greatest cartoons ever made. Some are so fondly remembered that they’re just like best friends, while others, dimly remembered from childhood, spark to life as soon as they hit the screen. Still others are as if you’ve never been properly introduced, either being held in the vaults for years, or altered in some unflattering way as to be unrecognizable. But here in these 60-cartoon DVD sets — with scads of extras — they’ve all been restored and remastered to a fine sheen.
It’s sort of a bittersweet celebration this year, as this is scheduled to be the last of the series of Golden Collections — although Warners has promised the restored cartoons will continue to be released in some yet-unannounced format in the future. More than ever, this year’s set is firmly aimed at the collector with a whole disc of some of Warner’s rarest cartoons (from the Bosko and Buddy series of the 1930s), some hard-to-find Friz Freleng cartoons from MGM, uncut WWII-era cartoons that haven’t seen official release in years, and an entire disc — plus 15 bonus cartoons spread over the 4 DVDs — of “Most-Requested Assorted Nuts & One Shots” which includes a lot of old favorites. So, if you’re looking for Bugs and Daffy and all the other WB stars, this might not be the collection to start with, as they are mostly confined to the first disc (and I suspect they’ll be the focus of the new collections coming next year). But if you love animation, and the somewhat unsung work of all the great Warners crew (including the great uncredited voice work of Daws Butler, who’s all over this set), there are hours of great stuff here.
There’s lots to cover, so let’s get to it! I’ll be talking about Discs 1 and 2 here in Part 1, and in a day or two, animation connoisseur Roger Ash will cover Discs 3 and 4.
Many of these cartoons, especially from the WWII era, have been pulled from television for decades or edited due to unflattering ethnic and racial stereotypes and are making their restored and uncut reappearance here. And some parents may be concerned over the level of “cartoon violence” in some of these shorts. Despite disclaimers on the box and all of the discs, parents should be warned that not all the cartoons on this set are automatically kid-friendly. Despite the way that Time Warner markets all the Warner characters directly to kids today, these original Warner Brothers cartoons were made by, and originally for, adults. Many people have forgotten that these cartoons originally were shown in theaters before the main movie feature. This is not to say that kids won’t enjoy them (they will!), but conscientious parents might want to watch along with their kids and be prepared in case some questions pop up.
Disc 1: Looney Toons All-Stars
Disc 1 is the ubiquitous “Looney Tunes All-Star” disc. You would think that after 6 sets, they would have used most of the great cartoons starring the Warner characters, but once again the compilers have managed to unearth some fantastic, unique stuff.
Yosemite Sam Debuts
Hare Trigger (1945) features the very first official appearance of Yosemite Sam, in conflict with Bugs in a Western setting. Sam was developed by director Friz Freleng as a better foil for Bugs than Elmer Fudd, whom Freleng felt was too dim-witted to be believable. Sam’s no great shakes in the intelligence department either. Here, Bugs distracts the six-shooter-wielding midget by telling him that there’s a guy on the train who has a seven-shooter, and Sam stalks off to find him. But Sam turns out to be a remarkably flexible character, as Freleng later uses him in the roles of a knight, a pirate, a Hessian, a Roman soldier, a Confederate soldier, a prison guard, and even a space alien. Sam may even have an secret alter ego as a southern gentleman called Colonel Shuffle, who was used in a couple of Chuck Jones-directed shorts, including Dog Gone South, which is also on this disc. There’s long been speculation that Sam is based on aspects of Freleng — they both are short, red-headed, and have quick tempers — although Friz has always denied that. But most of the staff, including writer Michael Maltese, confirm “Oh, yeah, it’s Friz!” as revealed on the commentary.
Hare Trigger is also cited as the first Warner Bros. cartoon with full credits. Prior to this, only one animator, out of a crew of three or four, was given credit on a rotating basis. This led to animators being credited for cartoons in which they did little or no work, or lead animators not being credited at all. This cartoon also features several instances of live-action stock footage of a barroom brawl, a clever solution to get around Warner’s notorious limited budgets, which restricted the number of animated characters on screen at one time.
The Problems of Blackface
Another standout, 1942’s My Favorite Duck, shows the wacky Daffy Duck tormenting Porky Pig during his “relaxing” camping vacation, and it is notable for the first teaming of director Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese (best known for What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Dodgers, One Froggy Evening, and many others). The battle of wits between the two characters builds slowly but subtly. We see the differences between the two characters in the songs they sing to themselves — Porky stutters his way through the old standard “On Moonlight Bay” while Daffy amuses himself with a weirdly sultry version of “Blues in the Night” (aka “My Mama Done Tol’ Me”). Eventually, Porky unconsciously switches to Daffy’s song, catches himself, looks annoyingly into the camera, and with a big “Harumph!” switches back to “Moonlight Bay.”
Porky tries to retaliate, but is stopped by Daffy’s sign (a recurring gag in Jones/Maltese cartoons; see the Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer “hunting trilogy”), which indicates that it is NOT Duck Season and there is a hefty fine for even harming a duck. Eventually, we get to a scenario where Porky gets hit in the face with a frying pan, culminating in a two-second blackface gag, which has kept this cartoon out of circulation or edited ever since. Of course, the gag is awful and regrettable, but when I was a kid watching these cartoons, the actual joke wasn’t the racial stereotype — it was funny because Porky got hit in the face with a pan! (Which is probably another disturbing topic, but I was a weird kid.) The point is that I never learned about racial stereotypes from cartoons. That was a horrible “real-world” lesson that came later, probably from a relative and one in which I immediately rejected. (I also never hit anyone in the face with a pan, in case you’re wondering.)
Duck Amuck and Bonus Cartoons
Back to the cartoon at hand. Porky’s tormenting continues until he gets so mad that he starts to do a slow burn, but since this is a cartoon, his slow burn escalates into a raging fire as Porky bursts into flames and burns up to ash in a couple of seconds. Of course, Porky instantly re-forms, grabs his gun, and goes after Daffy. The duck once again uses his sign, but now it says “Duck Season Opens Today!” leading to a frantic chase which causes the film to break! With the film broken, we’re left with a white screen for a few seconds, until Daffy waddles out to helpfully explain how the cartoon ends — he continues to annoy and exasperate the pig — until a large hook appears from Stage Right and yanks the duck off-screen. There’s a loud clatter and moments later Porky reappears, dragging an unconscious Daffy and carrying his gun — which is now oddly bent in an outline of a duck.
Daffy performing on a blank screen is a forerunner to the classic Jones/Maltese Duck Amuck (1953), where Daffy is forced to “perform” while an off-screen tormentor puts the duck through all manner of physical and psychological changes. Rabbit Rampage (1955), the stylistic “sequel” to Duck Amuck, is offered as a bonus cartoon on this disc. It’s basically the same cartoon, with the very big change that Bugs Bunny is the character being tormented (and the unseen antagonist is different also). Ultimately the film does not work as well, since it’s hysterical to see Daffy put into a position of frustration leading to ultimate rage, but not so much Bugs, who by now has evolved into an unflappable, always-in-control, “cool” character, largely through Jones’ treatment of the character. Seeing Bugs in an out-of-his-control position is disturbing, and seeing him being pushed to the point of ultimate anger is frightening, not funny.
A much better Jones cartoon dealing with imagination and daydreams is the second Ralph Phillips short Boyhood Daze (1957), also offered as a bonus cartoon. Young Ralph breaks a window with his baseball and is sent to his room, where he launches into wonderfully imaginative daydreams where Ralph plays the hero, a fearless explorer rescuing his hapless parents from cannibals, and a jet pilot who saves the Earth from a martian invasion. This one really shows off Maurice Noble’s wonderful layouts and Phil DeGuard’s elegant background designs.
The Road Runner Misses Music
Sometimes a key collaborator has to be missing in order to appreciate them more fully. Composers and orchestrators Carl Stalling and his assistant/successor Milt Frankyn provided the wonderfully inventive musical scores for the vast majority of Warner’s classic-era cartoons. But a musician’s strike in the late 1950s precluded either gentleman from working on a handful of cartoons, including the sole Road Runner cartoon included on this set, Hook, Line and Stinker (1958). At its face, it’s a typical Chuck Jones Road Runner outing, but the unoriginal musical score, reportedly cobbled together from stock music by John Seeley, renders this cartoon almost unwatchable. (It’s one of the least-liked cartoons of the classic era.) One of the running musical passages that is overused in this short is a variation of the theme song from the 1960s Dennis the Menace TV show.
More Highlights From Disc 1
Other notable cartoons from Disc 1 include My Little Duckaroo (1954), the second Daffy vs. Nasty Canasta cartoon, with a great song by Porky “Comedy Relief” Pig and some really unusual wallpaper in Nasty’s hideout. (It looks to be pages from The New Yorker magazine, glued randomly to the walls.) Henery Hawk, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester, and Barnyard Dawg all star in Robert McKimson’s Crowing Pains (1947), and Foggy has a memorable run-in with old college buddy Rhode Island Red in Raw! Raw! Rooster (1956). (Waitaminnute! Foggy went to college?!?) Sylvester dies and goes to hell Satan’s Waitin’ (1954), only to be told by the bulldoggish devil that he can’t be let in until his other eight lives die as well. Apparently, he survives, as later he accompanies Porky Pig in an inadvertent trip to Jupiter in Jumpin’ Jupiter (1955), a gorgeous cartoon from the Jones unit, crammed full of great anti-gravity gags and what looks like giant alien chickens. And my award for funniest sign is “Hit my baby son – 3 shots for 5Ã‚Â¢” in the outrageously funny Bear Feat (1949), where The Three Bears train to become a Trick Bear Act. Oh, that Junyer!
The first disc is rounded out with the all-original TV specials Bugs Bunny in King Arthur’s Court and Daffy Duck’s Easter Egg-citement and several bonus cartoons including kangaroo (or is that a giant mouse?) Hippity Hopper’s very first appearance and an early Sniffles cartoon.
Disc 2: Patriotic Pals
Disc 2 largely covers WWII-era cartoons, and it starts off with a doozy. Commentator Greg Ford indicates that Herr Meets Hare (1945) hasn’t been available for years, and it’s obvious why — it stars Bugs Bunny and a caricature of Nazi leader Hermann Goering, as well as a cameo by Hitler himself (“Heil me!” he says). Bugs also impersonates Hitler and Joseph Stalin. It’s unfortunate that this cartoon was suppressed for so long, as it also features two Bugs firsts: The first time Bugs says “I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque” and an amazing sequence with Bugs in drag as Brunhilde, dancing with Goering in a scene highly reminiscent of the classic What’s Opera, Doc?, 12 years before that famed cartoon. (Both cartoons were written by Michael Maltese, although Herr is directed by Friz Freleng and Opera is directed by Chuck Jones). An amazing cartoon!
Jones also directs The Draft Horse, a 1942 cartoon featuring a horse that’s desperate to get drafted into the service to serve his country. It’s also something of a turning point for Jones, in that this is one of his early cartoons where he felt confidant to break away from the “cute” cartoons that he had been doing and embrace wild comedy more fully. Perhaps the free-wheeling style of many of the other war-era cartoons inspired him, as the Warner cartoons became major morale boosters for the duration. Pvt. Snafu, the character created for a series directly for the U.S. Army, makes a brief cameo in The Draft Horse. It’s unfortunate that there couldn’t have been a few Snafu cartoons included on this disc, as they would have fit in nicely with the theme.
More Highlights From Disc 2
Alas, some of the great war-era cartoons, such as Falling Hare and Draftee Daffy, were on previous Golden Collection sets, but there are still plenty of wonderful cartoons to choose from. Russian Rhapsody (1944), a Bob Clampett tour-de-force starring the gremlin from Falling Hare and his pals, is one of the best. Originally titled Gremlins from the Kremlin, it was changed at Walt Disney’s request because his studio was working on a different (and ultimately abandoned) gremlin project. A song featuring the aborted title is one of the high points of the film, sung by the gremlins as they bedevil Adolf Hitler himself. Many of the visuals of the gremlins are based on the Warner staff including Clampett, Jones, Freleng, Maltese, and studio boss Leon Schlesinger, among others.
Daffy the Commando (1943) features an aristocratic German officer and his simpering, idiotic assistant Schultz, eerily foreshadowing Hogan’s Heroes by several decades. There’s also an obviously rotoscoped Hitler, who is clobbered with a hammer by Daffy. There’s an embryonic version of Tweety in Clampett’s Wacky Blackout, issued in 1942 about five months before Tweety’s first “official” appearance. In fact, there’s a lot of “blackout” cartoons on this disc, featuring strings of largely unrelated gags about a common theme, including a rare Jones/Maltese misfire The Weakly Reporter (1944). The blackouts feature gags on the life of a soldier as well as depicting life on the homefront during wartime. But the creepiest scene of all has to go to Norm McCabe-directed The Ducktators (1942) for the scene in which an expectant duck couple “gives birth” to a black egg which hatches a Hitler-like duckling, complete with mustache and Nazi armband. Funny and unsettling all at the same time! There are two more McCabe cartoons in the bonus section, including Hop and Go (1943), featuring a kangaroo character voiced by Pinto Colvig, best known as the original voice for Goofy in the Walt Disney cartoons.
Beyond World War II
But not all the cartoons on Disc 2 are WWII-related. In 1953, The Sloan Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic organization, commissioned Warners to include basic lessons in economics in three of their cartoons, all directed by Friz Freleng and all featuring Sylvester the Cat. All of these cartoons are included as the last three selections on Disc 2. By Word of Mouse (1954) talks about basic economics and mass production in a story of a European mouse visiting his American relative. Heir Conditioned (1955) is the story of Sylvester inheriting a large sum of cash with the help of a strangely competent Elmer Fudd as his financial advisor talking about investments. And Yankee Dood It (1956) also stars Elmer as the head elf recalling his worker elves from the shoemaker while extolling the virtues of modern production techniques. Schoolhouse Rock they’re not. I recalled seeing all three when I was a child and remembered nothing of the educational lessons, although the magic words from Yankee Dood It, Jehoshaphat (which turns the elves into mice) and Rumpelstiltskin (which restore them to elves), fused themselves into my brain for seemingly forever. Fascinating to learn about this after all these years.
Also not WWII-related, but also directed by Friz Freleng, are five of the Captain and the Kids cartoons that he directed for MGM in 1938-39, as bonus features. Not an exceptional series, but there is some great animation in these and I’m glad they’re here. Wish there would have been a mini-documentary or commentary for at least one of ‘em. Guess I got spoiled by the thoroughness of the previous sets.
Stay tuned for Part 2! (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)