If I had to name one studio as the king of animation it would be the company with the mouse mascot that is responsible for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Bambi. But that’s largely because of the quality of their feature film output. If I had to choose one studio as the king of animated shorts, without question it would be Warner Bros. and no one else even comes close.
When I look at the list of my favorite cartoon shorts of all time, WB dominates it. Many of their cartoons are widely considered the greatest animated films of all time. And that’s because WB hired the most talented gag writers, film directors, musicians and voice actors to make these films and gave them virtual creative freedom.
When WB hired Leon Schlesinger to produce their animation output, he began with the Looney Tunes in 1930 and then the Merrie Melodies in 1934. The names were inspired by Disney’s Silly Symphonies which ran from 1929 to 1939, and they were originally intended as a showcase for all the music that WB owned the rights to, meaning the shorts functioned simultaneously as entertainment and music videos meant to sell records.
Characters like Bosko and Buddy were the first WB cartoon stars but these shorts really took off in popularity after the introductions of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and when people like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc really started to show their stuff.
The origin of the Warner Bros. cartoons begins with two animators named Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. Harman and Ising first worked as animators in the 1920s when they were hired by Walt Disney to work on the Alice comedies and the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts.
After Oswald producer Charles Mintz ended his partnership with Disney, Harman and Ising continued to make Oswald cartoons for Mintz. However in 1929, Universal fired Mintz, Harman and Ising and put Walter Lantz (future creator of Woody Woodpecker) in charge of the Oswald cartoons.
Luckily the two animators had always wanted to start their own studio anyway. Before being fired by Universal, Harman and Ising had already created their own cartoon character named Bosko. They just needed to find a company willing to distribute him.
The two had financed their own short film to use as a sort of pilot to sell to potential distributors (the short showed Bosko getting into trouble with his live-action animator played by Rudy Ising), and it caught the eye of WB animation producer Leon Schlesinger who was impressed with the short and asked the two animators to make Bosko the star of the Looney Tunes series.
Bosko made his public debut in the very first Looney Tunes cartoon Sinkin’ in the Bathtub released on April 19, 1930. Harman directed the Looney Tunes shorts starring Bosko and Ising would handle the Merrie Melodies which were in color and consisted of one-shot stories and characters, essentially mimicking Disney’s strategy of releasing both Mickey Mouse shorts and Silly Symphonies.
Beginning in 1943, the Looney Tunes cartoons would start being filmed in color as well. After that, the cartoons would be indistinguishable, the only differences being the opening title and theme song (which for Looney Tunes was “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin, and for Merrie Melodies was “Merrily We Roll Along” by Charles Tobias, Murray Mencher and Eddie Cantor).
Harman and Ising eventually left Schlesinger in 1933 over budget disputes to make cartoons for Van Beuren and later MGM, and unfortunately for WB, they took Bosko with them because they still retained the rights to that character. WB replaced Bosko with a new and less popular character named Buddy, but WB would not be in the pit for long.
The three most important people the studio hired around this time were Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett who all directed for Schlesinger in the 1930s and helped establish the style of these cartoons in the coming decades.
The first major cartoon star at WB was Porky Pig, who made his screen debut in a 1935 ensemble short called I Haven’t Got a Hat directed by Friz Freleng. Porky starred alongside forgotten cartoon characters like Beans the cat, Oliver Owl and the twin dogs Ham and Ex who sang the title song during a class talent show. Porky tries to recite Paul Revere’s Ride but struggles to finish the poem due to his stuttering. The stuttering pig was the most popular character with audiences and a star was clearly born. Porky has been a popular cartoon character ever since.
After Porky Pig came Daffy Duck, who made his screen debut in the short film Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937) directed by Tex Avery. Daffy was unlike any other cartoon character at the time and in the thirties he would bring down the house in an explosion of laughter with his wild antics. Daffy became an even bigger star than Porky.
Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny both came in 1940. Elmer Fudd was an evolution of Tex Avery’s character from the thirties Egghead.
Bugs Bunny was an evolution of an unnamed rabbit who appeared in Porky’s Hare Hunt who was basically a Daffy clone, but Bugs would surpass Daffy in popularity after he started to evolve a personality of his own, including his signature catchphrase “What’s up, Doc?” which was hilarious in the forties when it was rare to hear cartoon characters utter such a colloquial phrase (Tex Avery has stated that calling each other “doc” was a common thing to do at his high school in Dallas, Texas).
Beginning in 1942, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were the most popular animated cartoons in movie theaters and deservedly so. To this day, they remain some of the funniest cartoons ever made.
The directors during this period included Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Robert McKimson, and these guys created some of the most popular cartoon characters in the world, including Tweety, Sylvester the cat, Speedy Gonzales, Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian and the Tasmanian Devil.
The best of these shorts were made from the late thirties to the early sixties. After that they were produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (1964-67) and Warner Bros.-Seven Arts (1967-69) with a lower budget and a radical new opening title until they disappeared from theaters completely in the seventies.
Although they have remained popular on television in various formats beginning with The Bugs Bunny Show in 1960, and later in movies with several compilation features like The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Movie (1979), The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie (1981) and Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters (1988) which combined old animation with new animation.
Beginning in the late eighties, new cartoons starring these characters would occasionally be released, and every once in a while they would make feature film appearances like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, although they have been most prominent in the nineties and in the 21st century on Fox Kids, Kids’ WB and Cartoon Network in TV shows like Tiny Toon Adventures, Taz-Mania, The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, Duck Dodgers, Baby Looney Tunes and The Looney Tunes Show.
Recently it has been revealed that Peter Browngardt of Secret Mountain Fort Awesome and Uncle Grandpa fame would be helping develop new Looney Tunes cartoons which will be released to the public on HBO Max in 2020. Warner Bros. Animation first confirmed in 2018 that 1,000 minutes of cartoons that would more closely follow the style of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Robert McKimson than recent reboots were being made, and those who have seen them so far have given them positive reviews.
My most common complaint about modern iterations of Looney Tunes is that they are not similar enough to the older cartoons, so my hope is that these new cartoons will tap into what makes the series so appealing.
Although it doesn’t matter because I will always have a special love for the classic shorts. They were a perfect storm of great humor and great characters that will likely never be duplicated.
But they once came close.
As you will see in my next blog, the Looney Tunes is far from the only great cartoon series from WB. The nineties were arguably the beginning of a looney renaissance.