Warner Bros. Cartoons

Tagged: Film | TV

A lengthy sequence of short (about seven minutes) animated cartoons produced for Warner Bros. Pictures between 1930 and 1969. Initially made by Harman and Ising studios; then by Leon Schlesinger Productions from 1933; bought by Warner Bros. in 1944 and renamed Warner Bros. Cartoons; DePatie-Freleng Enterprises briefly took over in 1964; the name reverted to Warner Brothers Cartoon Studios in 1967. Issued as either Merrie Melodies or Looney Toons – the former initially being built around songs owned by Warner Bros, but gradually this distinction faded – both began as black and white cartoons, but later moved to colour: the former from 1935, the latter from 1943.

In their early days the Warner Bros. Cartoons were a poor cousin to the Disney and Fleischer studios, but the arrival of Tex Avery in late 1935 gradually transformed the previously rather dull output of his fellow Directors (then called Supervisors), so that by the end of the decade they were beginning to produce some of the finest ever cartoons. Avery himself made fast-moving screwball shorts; his most obvious influence was on Bob Clampett (though he had his own distinct style); the other great Director was Chuck Jones, less obviously influenced by Avery, but clearly inspired to greater artistic ambition by him. A step below was Frank Tashlin, who treated cartoons like live action movies (and went on to direct many successful Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis films); the other Directors of note were Friz Freleng and Bob McKimson. All but Freleng, Jones and McKimson had departed by the end of 1946. Their staff also played vital roles: the artists, the writers (particularly Mike Maltese, Warren Foster and Tedd Pierce) and voice actors, the latter uncredited until Mel Blanc (who voiced most male characters from the late 1930's) was given a "voice characterization" credit instead of a raise in 1944; Bea Benaderet and June Foray, amongst others, provided female voices.

The shorts named below were directed by Jones (and usually written by Maltese), except where the Director is identified in square brackets.

About one thousand shorts were produced in this period, most of them fantasy if only by way of featuring talking animals [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. About 3% might be considered sf stories (i.e. featuring frequent sf elements) plus about 5% with brief sf moments such as one-off gags featuring Robots or – like "One Froggy Evening" (1955) – having the final scene set in the future. Neither count includes the handful set in prehistoric times featuring cavemen (see Apes as Human; Prehistoric SF) and/or Dinosaurs – such as "Prehistoric Porky" (1940) [Clampett] – unless they involve a Lost World as in "Buddy's Lost World" (1935) [Jack King], where our hero finds an island with friendly dinosaurs and less hospitable (and peckish) cavemen. The Wile E Coyote cartoons – forty versus Roadrunner and four versus Bugs Bunny, plus one overlap – include occasional sf scenes; in many of the Roadrunner shorts, Acme products of a borderline sf nature are deployed (earthquake pills, dehydrated boulders, tornado kit), whilst in the Bugs shorts the Coyote is an inventor who sometimes uses advanced Technology, as when in "Operation: Rabbit" (1952) his flying saucer that hunts designated animals goes after Bugs – who scribbles "coyote" upon it and moves the control pointer from "rabbit" to this new target. In the same cartoon Coyote proclaims himself a "genius", later upgrading this to "super-genius!" moments before becoming aware of the oncoming train.

The most frequent sf trope is the Mad Scientist; Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) being particularly influential, with characters being transformed into or trying to avoid becoming Monsters. Examples include "The Case of the Stuttering Pig" (1937) [Tashlin], which has a lawyer turning himself via a chemical potion (see Drugs) into a monster to kill off Porky and other heirs to a fortune; there are also variations on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831), with characters being chased by a manufactured monster as in "Hair Raising Hare" (1946); at other times protagonists are targeted as potential test subjects or ingredients as in "Hot Cross Bunny" (1948) [McKimson], where Bugs tries to prevent his mind being swapped (see Identity Exchange) with that of a chicken. "Water Water Every Hare" (1952) manages to include a mad scientist wanting Bug's brain for his giant robot and therefore sending a monster after him, with Bugs using the scientist's vanishing fluid to turn himself invisible (see Invisibility) and reducing oil to shrink the monster (see Great and Small); an ether-induced penultimate scene runs in slow motion (see Time Distortion).

The best known sf series features Marvin the Martian (actually named decades after his first appearance), a large ant from Mars dressed as the Roman God Mars, who appeared in five shorts: four with Bugs and one with Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. The first is "Haredevil Hare" (1948), where Bugs is unwillingly put on the first Spaceship to the Moon: here he finds Marvin about to blow up the Earth; realizing that "all the people I know are on the Earth" Bugs tries to stop him, resulting in the Moon exploding, leaving Bugs and Marvin hanging from the upper tip of a crescent moon. The next short, "The Hasty Hare" (1952), has Marvin visiting the Earth to collect an inhabitant – unwisely he opts for Bugs. But "Hareway to the Stars" (1958) is the masterpiece, featuring futuristic Maurice Nobel layouts, most notably a marvellous setting of platforms in space, where a stranded Bugs asks a busy Marvin for a way back to Earth: Marvin assures him this will be a waste of time as that planet will be gone in a few seconds, explaining "I'm going to blow it up, it obstructs my view of Venus." The weakest is "Mad as a Mars Hare" (1963), which has the reluctant Bugs landing on Mars to claim it on behalf of Earth. The excellent "Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century" (1953), which also benefits from Maurice Noble's layouts, is a Parody of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, with Daffy as Duck Dodgers and Porky as an "eager young space cadet". Daffy and Marvin arrive on Planet X, both wishing to claim it for their respective nations: Marvin threatens Daffy with his Disintegrating Pistol (see Disintegrator); Daffy laughs "little does he know, I have on my disintegrating-proof vest!", Marvin fires and Daffy disintegrates, save for his vest (but fortunately Porky has an Integrating Pistol); Daffy threatens Marvin with his Disintegrating Pistol, squeezes the trigger ... his pistol disintegrates.

There are a number of one-off sf stories, including "Robot Rabbit" (1953) [Freleng], with Elmer Fudd buying a robot to rid his farm of Bugs; "The Hole Idea" (1955) [McKimson], has a scientist inventing portable holes, which are stolen by a thief who knows how to make bad use of them; "Jumpin' Jupiter" (1955) where Porky and the cat Sylvester are abducted by Aliens, but circumstances conspire so that only Sylvester is aware of this; "Rocket Squad" (1956) is a parody of the then popular cop show Dragnet, but set in the twenty-fifth century and starring Daffy and Porky; "Stupor Duck" (1956) [McKimson] is a Superman parody with Daffy; "Rocket by Baby" (1956) has a pair of Martian and Earth infants erroneously delivered to the other's parents (we learn Martian children are considerably smarter than Earth ones); in "Lighter than Hare" (1960) [Freleng] an alien Yosemite Sam and his robots try to abduct Bugs; "Martian Through Georgia" (1962) has a bored but kindly Martian travelling to Earth, where he is called a monster – though it takes a while for him to realize he is the monster everyone is talking about; in "Nuts and Volts" (1964) [Freleng] Sylvester uses robots to stop the mouse Speedy Gonzales; in "Solid Tin Coyote" (1966) [Rudy Larriva] Wile E Coyote builds a robot to catch the Roadrunner; "See You Later Gladiator" (1968) [Alex Lovy] has a Time Machine taking Speedy and Daffy to ancient Rome.

Additionally there are shorts that should be classed as Fantastika for their sheer surrealism. The classic "Porky in Wackyland" (1938) [Clampett] – whose title invokes Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), though it is untroubled by that work's logical underpinning – might be the answer to the query "what if Salvador Dali had worked in animation?" "The Big Snooze" (1946) [Clampett] has Bugs chaotically Dream Hacking the snoozing Elmer. "Duck Amuck" (1953) is a Godgame, with god (actually, Bugs) being the malicious animator and Daffy his victim. A scene in "Fast and Furry-­ous" (1949) has Wile E Coyote painting a tunnel that manifests as real when the Roadrunner uses it, but reverts to a painted cliff when the Coyote rushes in to follow (subsequent shorts used variations of this conceit).

The rule of funny always takes precedence over scientific accuracy, which does not so much come a poor second as collapse in the starting blocks. Thus, when not on Earth, characters will only be troubled by a lack of atmosphere should a gag require it: so a pedantic definition would classify these shorts as Science Fantasy. It should be noted that these cartoons sometimes make use of racial, ethnic and other stereotypes common to the media of their time; there is also a conspicuous shortage of female characters (despite having a voice actress in Foray who was acknowledged as the equal of Blanc).

The sf tropes in these cartoons are usually inspired by the visual media: in the early days this was Cinema, mainly Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde films; but by the mid-forties a wider range of subjects was being drawn upon, increasingly from Television; written and Radio sf seem to have exerted less direct influence. While the heyday of the Warner Bros. Cartoons overall was probably 1938-1946 (but maintaining a high standard until 1959, with a steep decline in overall quality after 1964), the peak era of their sf animation would be a little later, from 1946 to 1958. [SP]

further reading

  • Will Friedwald and Jerry Beck. The Warner Brothers Cartoons (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1981) [nonfiction: hb/nonpictorial]
    • Will Friedwald and Jerry Beck. The Warner Brothers Cartoons (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1998) [nonfiction: rev of the above: hb/nonpictorial]

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