Animated Shorts: Warners Animation/Looney Tunes Turns 80

Warner Bros. Animation Turns 80

80 years ago, a number of under-employed animators banded together, struck a deal with a title-card manufacturer, and would so go on to make history.

The animators, Hugh Harmon, Rudolf Ising, and Isadore “Friz” Freling, were veterans of the first Walt Disney Studio. In fact, they all initially worked with Walt when he still lived in Kansas City. They had lost their jobs over Disney being robbed of his first true hit series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When Walt hit the lottery with Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie, the remaining three quickly realized that if they were going to stand a chance, they would have to also move into sound cartoons. So they created Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, who was voiced by another animation legend, Max Maxwell.

At that time, one Leon Schlessinger was doing pretty good. He helped the Warner Brothers finance the first sound film ever, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. He also owned the still-existent Pacific Arts & Title company, which made title cards and other sundry artwork for Hollywood. He wanted his own bit of the action Disney was generating with the Mouse and his new series, Silly Symphonies. As amateurs borrow and artists steal, Schlessinger named his new series "Looney Tunes".

So when these band of ex-Disney vets pitched Schlessinger, historical records show it didn’t take the man long to sign them up, and with his connection to Warners strike a distribution deal. Before you know it, Bosko was starring in his own first short, Sing-Ink in the Bathtub. Even though the short didn’t get theatrical release until May, 1930, what’s now called Warner Brothers Animation figured it was time to celebrate the momentous occasion of this historic team-up. So last week they installed this gigantic billboard visible both day and night featuring many of the current animated characters. At an unveiling event stars ranging from Diedrich Bader to Julie Newmar camped it up for the cameras and over 500 hardcore animation fans.

[image courtesy Toon Zone.com]

Not that Looney Tunes earned its glory initially.

“Weirdly enough, my favorites are the ones from the late 30s and early 40s,” Bruce Timm, now supervising producer for D2D releases like Wonder Woman, Batman: Gotham Knight and Justice League: New Frontier remarked. “My favorites were when Tex Avery was still doing Bugs Bunny and Clampett and Chuck Jones were working under him, endlessly experimenting themselves. Those early Porky 'toons are really crude and stuff and full of energy, but I still find them kind of hard to look at. Once they started figuring things out, and there started to be a competition between the various directors as to who could do the most outrageous joke, that was something else. I loved how Rob Scribner, who worked under Clampett, did those bizarre distortions and stuff. Those, to me, are really, really fun. I liked the early Bugs and Daffy, when they were both basically anarchists. I lose interest when Bugs started getting that cocked eyebrow, cooler-than-everybody attitude.”

The simple truth is Harmon-Ising chafed under the rule of Schlessinger and his stingy ways. They would leave within five years, leaving Freling and fellow Disney exile Carl Stalling behind. The studio then hit its stride when a madman named Fred “Tex” Avery put together a team featuring the aforementioned Clampett, Jones, and Tom McKimson. They struck gold when they created a new team called "Porky and Beans". No one remembers the little black cat that was supposed to be the heroes of these shorts. But in co-star Porky Pig Looney Tunes had its first true superstar, especially when he got teamed up as the straight man to another crazed Avery creation, Daffy Duck. A year or so later, Porky would go on a rabbit hunt. His counterpart would be an equally looney-tooney character designed by one Bugs Hardaway. This combination of anarchistic anti-authoritarianism, smart sight and written gags, benign neglect from Schlessinger (and later Warners when the big man decided to retire) and just plain pure genius made Looney Tunes the top animated shorts of the next 40 years.

“The surprising facts about them are that the good ones are masterpieces and the bad ones aren’t a total loss,” critic Manny Farber wrote in Leonard Maltin’s seminal book Of Mice and Magic. “

“What’s more, these films remained fresh twenty to forty years later,” Maltin himself added. “No mean achievement, especially when one realizes how much they relied on topical humor and contemporary themes.”

“I only really got to appreciate them when I worked with John Kricfalusi on Mighty Mouse,” said Timm, who before joining Warners worked with masters like Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi. “He lived and breathed classic Looney Tunes. He was the one who opened my eyes to the different directors, the evolution of the characters, and from there on I was really, really into it. Also, at the time, TNT and TBS were running Looney Tunes daily, so I taped them every day and studied them that way.

Timm protégé and now associate James Tucker got bit the by the WB bug in a much more traditional way. Like most modern Americans, he first caught them on Saturday morning and weekday afternoon TV.

“It made me realize that Warner Brothers was the kind of place I wanted to work at. Just by their work, from almost the very beginning, I knew I would fit in well with them. No other studio has the aesthetic they have. Inside is very much like what they produce. They focus on the outsider looking in. The anarchy and anti-establishment attitude, that whole idea, is in here and that’s why Looney Tunes endures. They look good on a t-shirt, but Looney Tunes and Warner Bros. Animation represents independent thinking. It was a little mean, but that’s also an American trait I think.

“At the time, they did a lot of stuff that was of the time but they made them so they are still relevant today,” said Tucker, who now supervises Batman: The Brave & the Bold. “They made characters that were timeless. As a kid, I picked up on the rudeness of everything. Everyone was also smart. They expected you to keep up with them. If you didn’t know what they were talking about, they encouraged you to look it up. If it was the case of using some old movie star, sooner or later you see that movie star and get it. A good example there was Humphrey Bogart met Bugs Bunny.

“I related to that much more than the more well-mannered cartoons that were also out. They were beyond being just funny and rude, they were also very culturally educational for me. I think it shows in a lot of the things I do now.”

“My favorite director is Rob McKimson,” says Tucker. “He was the draftsman of the originals and that appeals to me. I also think his cartoons were the rudest of the rude. I mean Clampett’s were wild, zany and inventive, especially with the sight gags. Avery was also kind of rude, too, but he didn’t do his best until he moved on to MGM.

To me though, McKimson really got to the heart of the characters. They weren’t cute. John Kricfalusi called his characters ‘rude Americans’ and it fits. Bugs was a bit of a con man, very loud and obnoxious. McKimson even drew his mouth extra large to help him convey that.”

Yet there was a time that the Looney Tunes studio nearly didn’t make it. Over time, Avery would move on to MGM and the peak of his career. Clampett would leave in the 40s, soon to make a new name for himself in the new medium of television and the show Beanie & Cecil. Stalling would retire in 1958. Chuck Jones would jump in the 60s, eventually to form his own studio through MGM. Oddly enough, the last man standing was one of the first ones in, Friz Freling. He would set up his own shop, DePatie-Freling, and soon be back on top with the Pink Panther.

But by this time, the Looney Tunes bug had its impact, particularly among two up and coming Hollywood super-producers named George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. One day, when it was time to release his latest Star Wars blockbuster, Lucas decided to dust off a classic Chuck Jones short, “Duck Dodgers and the 24 ½ Century” as an opener. Spielberg upped the ante by including the Looney Tunes character in his production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, then he helped resuscitate the studio with the sponsorship of Tiny Toons.

Then Tiny Toons made some key hires, one Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Eric Radomski, and Alan Burnett, among others. Together, this incredible team-up of talent would get to work on an animated adaptation of another hit Warner Brothers film, Tim Burton’s Batman.

“By 1992, Tiny Toons was still on the air and Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain were starting,” Timm recalls. “There was also Tazmania. We were still kind of the odd duck. We were the only superhero unit. The studio was about 75% comedy/25% action adventure.”

What’s interesting is since that time, what’s now called Warner Brothers Animation has swung to almost pure action-adventure programming with such products as Timm’s D2D releases and Tucker’s new tales of the Caped Crusader.

“I mean, yeah, I’m doing a Batman show because there was a Batman movie,” says Tucker. “But anyone who’s seen my Batman knows it has almost nothing to do with what the movie was like. I was given the freedom to make my show the way I thought it should be. I also have the freedom and latitude to decide if I want to stick to the DC Comics if I want to. The rules that apply to a regular Batman series don’t necessarily apply to Brave & the Bold.”

“The pendulum will swing the other way, too,” says Timm. “We got some comedy stuff in the works. It will be announced really soon. I personally enjoy doing comedy, not of the big foot variety, but I’m much more comfortable in the action-adventure arena. I like putting humor into that, but I think I’d be lost doing a straight-up comedy show.”

“I think we’re still fairly diversified,” says Tucker. “I think Bruce planted the flag for action-adventure. Before him, there wasn’t any. We certainly weren’t known for that. Now we’ve made our mark in action-adventure. I think Warner Bros. has and continues to produce some of the best work out there because we stay professionally under the radar. We are still not the prize jewel at our studio. Warner Brothers itself is about the big blockbuster, so they leave us alone. I know it’s spoiled me. I think Bruce will tell you the same thing. We have a lot of autonomy most directors never have, especially at other studios. All the other studios are about synergy, synergy, synergy. You’re given directives from the top down. When you do something, it's fit into this gigantic corporate puzzle. You are confined to what you are doing and nothing more or less.

“I’ll just put it this way. Lately, we’ve gone through a low period [for comedy], but you will see a lot more. Anything can happen, and it probably will.”

And that’s the way the fans love it at Warner Brothers Animation, and more than likely for a lot more years to come.

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