WARNER BROS. CARTOONSPrimary Product: Animated cartoons
Producing Since: 1930
Noted For: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Road Runner, and much, much more
Please contribute to its necessary financial support.
Amazon.com or PayPal
direction from the "illusion of life" motif fostered by Disney. How ironic — considering they started out as a near-slavish Disney imitation.
In 1929, Ex-Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising found themselves unemployed when Universal Studios took Oswald the Lucky Rabbit away from the producer they worked for and assigned the series to Walter Lantz. They formed an animation outfit of their own, put together a three-minute cartoon to show what they could do, and tried to peddle their services to movie companies. Since Disney had had such success with Steamboat Willie, the first animated "talkie", their sample cartoon, titled The Talk-Ink Kid, was designed to show how well they could handle sound. (The fact that their studio name — Harman-Ising — suggested good sound was, of course, a happy accident.)
Money man Leon Schlesinger saw this as his cue to get into the animation business. He sold Warner Bros., one of the few major Hollywood studios that wasn't yet releasing cartoons, on the idea of starting to. Warner liked the idea of doing sound cartoons, if only as a way of promoting their vast music library — each release, they stipulated in those early years, must highlight one or more of the songs they owned. As the deal came down, Warner would release cartoons produced by Schlesinger, and Schlesinger would farm out the actual work to Harman-Ising.
The basic job description seemed to be "imitate Disney". Bosko, the main character both in the sample reel and in the early cartoons released by Warner, was designed very similarly to Mickey Mouse, but without the ears. Bosko's style of barnyard humor was also very similar to that of the early Mickey. Many of the gags — whole story lines, in fact — were lifted from the old Oswald cartoons Harman and Ising had worked on at Disney. In fact, the name of the series itself, Looney Tunes, was a blatant swipe of Disney's Silly Symphonies.
The first of the Looney Tunes was Sinking in the Bathtub (1930). They came out at a rate of one per month. Warner was so pleased with the product that, in 1931, they commissioned a second monthly series, whose title came from the same fertile ground — Merrie Melodies. The Looney Tunes, directed by Harman, continued to star Bosko, while Ising's Merrie Melodies featured lesser stars (such as Foxy, who looked even more like Mickey than did Bosko), or, more often, no stars at all. The relatively starless Merrie Melodies were the first Warner toons to switch to color, which they did in 1934.
In 1933, Harman and Ising left in a dispute over money, and went to work for MGM (where many of their cartoons were released under the rubric "Happy Harmonies") — and that's when Warner's break with the Disney style began (despite the fact that one of the new directors, Jack King, had held that post at Disney). Several animators were promoted to director, including Isadore "Friz" Freleng, who remained in that position until the 1960s. It was Freleng who introduced such classic characters as Sylvester Pussycat and Speedy Gonzales.
Harman and Ising owned the Bosko character, so Schlesinger's crew had to come up with new ones. The first, Buddy, inspired little enthusiasm, although for some reason they kept making cartoons about him for two years. In 1935, a star snuck up on them, as a stuttering pig named Porky caught the public's fancy. Within months, Porky Pig was the Looney Tunes star.
1935 was also the year Tex Avery came to work for Schlesinger — and that's when the break with the Disney style really happened. Avery took on a couple of animators who later became Warner directors in their own right — Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett — and animation has never been the same. That triumvirate is responsible for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Tweety Bird — to say nothing of Marvin the Martian, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Pepe LePew, Elmer Fudd
The classic Warner cast was completed in 1936, with the arrival of musical director Carl Stalling — another ex-Disney man and voice actor Mel Blanc, who was versatile enough to do practically the entire menage single-handed. Both remained with Warner Bros. cartoons for decades.
Leon Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Bros. in 1944, and retired, cutting out the middle man. By that time, the Looney Tunes had switched to color, just like the Merrie Melodies. Since the characters, too, were likely to appear in either, there was little, besides their theme music, to distinguish the two series. Today, all are collectively referred to as Looney Tunes.
The Warner cartoons won four Academy Awards — Tweetie Pie (1947), For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), Speedy Gonzales (1955), and Knighty Knight Bugs (1958) — and were nominated for 17 others — A Wild Hare (1940), Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (1941), Rhapsody in Rivets (1941), Pigs in a Polka (1942), Greetings, Bait (1943), Life with Feathers (1945), Walky Talky Hawky (1946), Mouse Wreckers (1948), A to Z-z-z-z (1953), Sandy Claws (1954), Mexicali Schmoes (1959), High Note (1960), Mouse and Garden (1960), Beep Prepared (1961), Nelly's Folly (1961), The Pied Piper of Guadalupe (1961), and Now Hear This (1962).
These successes were achieved almost exclusively through the use of their own characters. Unlike most studios, Warner delved into character licensing only twice — once in 1940, with Jimmy Swinnerton's Canyon Kids and once in 1944, with Dr. Seuss's Horton the Elephant. In both cases, the characters were used in only one cartoon.
By the early 1960s, theatrical cartoons were a dying art. The old gang had largely broken up — retired, dead, or simply moving on to other ventures. In 1963, Warner closed its cartoon studio's doors, and the remaining staff went their separate ways. Freleng and Warner executive David DePatie got together to form a studio of their own, DePatie-Freleng, and leased the old cartoon headquarters (affectionately referred to since the late 1930s as "Termite Terrace"). A year later, Warner decided to start releasing cartoons again, and commissioned new ones from DePatie-Freleng. These continued until 1967, when Warner briefly started producing them again. They ended once and for all in 1969.
The Warner characters were licensed to comic books in 1941, and appeared regularly under the Dell imprint until 1962. After that, Gold Key Comics published them until 1984. Later, DC Comics, which by that time had corporate ties to Warner, picked them up. DC continues to publish a monthly Looney Tunes comic book today.
The cartoons started showing up on television in the 1950s, usually in packages sold to local stations, which ran them as kids' show fillers. In the early '60s, they were compiled into a half-hour prime time series, The Bugs Bunny Show. It lasted only one season in prime time, but the old Looney Tunes found a permanent home on Saturday morning. At various times in the ensuing decades, Bugs, Daffy, Porky, the Road Runner and Speedy Gonzales have all been title-featured in that time slot.
In 1990, Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, in association with Warner Bros., began producing Tiny Toon Adventures. In this half-hour TV series, the Looney Tunes characters have retired from acting and are instructors at Acme Looniversity; and their students, who include Plucky Duck, Hamton Pig, Babs & Buster Bunny and others, are the stars of the show. Warner and Amblin got together again in 1993 to produce Animaniacs, in which characters called The Warner Brothers (Yakko and Wakko) are among the stars, along with the Warner Sister (Dot).
Today, Warner Bros. has an entire TV network to program, and new animation for the small screen is coming thick and fast. Occasionally, one of the new shows, e.g., Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, will feature some of the classic characters. In fact, a character resembling Michigan J. Frog, star of the one-shot cartoon One Froggy Evening, has been used as the network's host. Also, most of them have been the subject of renewed interest since they appeared with Michael Jordan in Space Jam, in 1996.
As for the classic cartoons in which those classic characters first appeared, they, too can still be seen on TV, rerun endlessly as children's programming.
Warner Bros. Cartoons articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: