THE NEW YORK TIMES
By DAVE KEHR
Published: December 14, 2003
For just about every American born since World War II, the Warner Brothers cartoons occupy a prime piece of subconscious real estate. Thanks to innumerable television showings, the Warner cartoons mean more to us now than they did to the theatrical audiences they were originally made for in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. They are our true national fairy tales, focused on primal fears and desires and filled with archetypes of human behavior that approach the profundity of the Greek myths.
Such seminal work deserves a scholarly anthology, and while the new four-DVD box set from Warner Home Video, ”The Looney Tunes Golden Collection,” is not quite the Pléaide edition of one’s dreams, it will do until something else comes along.
Though it includes 56 cartoons, most so meticulously restored that the tiny shadows cast by the animation cels on the painted backgrounds are now visible, the set barely scratches the surface of the studio’s output, which could run as high as 40 short films a year.
But the selection that has been made for this edition is both informed and informative. Enlisting some of the leading scholars of animation, including Greg Ford, Michael Barrier and John Canemaker, the producers have come up with a collection that, rather than aspiring to an impossible completeness, concentrates on the work of the three major Warner cartoon directors of the postwar period: Chuck Jones, the master of character and expression; Isadora (Friz) Freleng, the great technician of the group; and Robert McKimson, a bread-and-butter animator who nevertheless contributed several important late characters to the Warner Brothers stable like Foghorn Leghorn and Henry the Hawk.
The first two discs in the package are ostensibly devoted to ”The Best of Bugs Bunny” and ”The Best of Daffy and Porky,” but they are in fact a panorama of some of Jones’s finest work, with a few Freleng and McKimson tossed in. Jones, who joined the studio in 1934 as an assistant, appears here in a taped introduction shot not long before his death last year at the age of 89. By 1939, Jones had been promoted to director, signing first a serious, if somewhat painfully cute, cartoon starring the pudgy early Porky and the cloying, now forgotten Sniffles the Mouse.
The year 1940, however, found Jones working on a new character, a wisecracking rabbit developed by the director Tex Avery for his short ”A Wild Hare.” In ”Elmer’s Candid Camera” (it is the oldest cartoon included in this collection), Jones took the still unnamed rabbit, calmed down a bit of Avery’s aggressiveness and invested him with a brash, all-American optimism and resolution. The character resonated throughout an America on the brink of war, and by the time the country had entered the conflict, Bugs had become a national mascot — perhaps the first and only lasting star produced by World War II.
As developed by Jones and Freleng during the war years, Bugs Bunny became a symbol of American pluck, resourcefulness and determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Elmer Fudd, a prewar character, proved to be too gentle, too dumb and far too benign to provide an appropriate foil to Bugs during the war, and so Yosemite Sam, a creation of Freleng’s, appeared on the scene, to take over the villainous roles with a Hitlerian rage seasoned by a strutting, comic pomposity borrowed from Mussolini (whose body type, a barrel chest poised on tiny legs, quickly became the Looney Tunes model for guest bullies, up to and including McKimson’s Tasmanian Devil).
Perhaps because the rights to the films are spread among different divisions of the Time Warner empire — or perhaps because Warner Home Video didn’t want to risk confusing home consumers with strange, black-and-white cartoons — the ”Golden Collection” concentrates on films made after 1948. War fever had long subsided and Jones, in particular, found himself free to explore other aspects of his characters’ personalities. An automatic identification with winners during the war years — epitomized by the huge popularity of Bugs — shifted in Jones’s case to a deep sympathy for the underdogs.
In 1949, Jones made two transitional films, both included in this set. ”For Scent-imental Reasons” introduced Pepe Le Pew, a skunk with the purring voice and seductive manner of Charles Boyer, poignantly unaware that his powerful smell might compromise his success with the ladies. And in ”The Fast and the Furry-ous,” the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote made their screen debuts, in a cartoon that pushed an already abstract genre into something approaching formalism. The geometric purity of the desert landscapes, the elemental conflict between hunter (the desperate, ravenous coyote) and hunted (the insouciant, omnipotent road runner), the relentless rhythm of the simple, black-out gags all combine to create a kind of comic fable that is both modern and classical, situated somewhere between Sisyphus and Sartre. (Jones went the extra distance with his truly miminal ”The Dot and the Line,” in which the characters are a dot and a line — but it’s not in the collection, unfortunately).
But as Jones was refining the animated cartoon to its absolute limits, he was also building it up, bringing to the form a kind of detailed character psychology without parallel in the medium. By 1950, when Jones was making films like ”The Scarlet Pumpernickle,” ”The Ducksters” and ”The Rabbit of Seville,” he had transformed the Warners stable of characters into a genuine stock company, each character playing his role in an evolving drama of interpersonal relations.
Daffy, who had been Bugs’s predecessor as a force of mad, blind destructiveness, had by 1950 become the most moving of Jones’s eternally frustrated second-bananas, a ”we-try-harder” No. 2 star whose attempts to supplant the reigning bunny rabbit (whose brash self-confidence had by now become somewhat complacent and superior) met with certain humiliation. Jones’s work through the 50’s, much of the best of which is included in this collection, found him developing Daffy, Bugs, Porky and Elmer into some of the most well-rounded, psychologically vivid characters in the cinema; it becomes easy to believe in their autonomy, so fully do they exist in Jones’s imagination.
Among the generous supplemental material on the ”Golden Collection” disc is a two-part documentary from the 1970’s, ”The Boys From Termine Terrace,” in which Friz Freleng twice insists that ”we never made these films for children — we made them for ourselves.” The adult nature of these cartoons was reinforced by Joe Dante’s recent, unjustly unappreciated revival of the characters for ”Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” an often brilliantly funny film that struggled to rescue the Looney Tunes from the cuteness forced upon them by franchising requirements and return them to their anarchic fury and formal sophistication. Mr. Dante’s film is, in itself, one of the finest appreciations of the Warner cartoons offered to date, and a film that needs to be rescued from the Saturday morning audience to which it was mismarketed.
With perhaps 5 percent of the Looney Tunes output represented on ”The Golden Collection,” there should be enough titles remaining to get Warner Home Video up to the Diamond-Encrusted Platinum Collection and beyond. One hopes these future collections will redress the relative neglect of three vitally important Warners directors — Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin — in this first compendium. There is a mountain of material here, perhaps the richest vein in American humor since Mark Twain.