The Chronological Looney Tunes: 1930

I’ve been a big fan of Looney Tunes for as long as I can remember, and although I’m sure the anti-violent cartoon league will get all up in my face, I’ve started letting Karina watch them and she loves them, too. Thanks to the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, I have a wide range of Looney Tunes (and Merrie Melodies, if you want to be specific) available, and since I’ve tended to stick to a few dozen favorites, I decide I’d like to watch through all the cartoons I have in chronological order and get a better sense of the development of the styles and characters over time.

And OF COURSE I’ll document all this here, year by year. The Golden Collection doesn’t contain every Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies short, and I may supplement from YouTube when they’re available, but I don’t promise to do that both because I may not have time and because YouTube is pretty iffy on Looney Tunes. I do promise to watch all of the ones released on disc, and I’ll be picking some favorite things about each one, and highlighting yearly trends and stuff like that. I am NOT doing a lot of background reading on this – I have a couple of books by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald that I’ll likely be referencing, but if you really want in-depth looks at specific cartoons, I recommend Brandie Ashe’s Saturday Morning Cartoon series at The Black Maria.

The Birth of Looney Tunes

After Windsor McCay introduced his animated dinosaur Gertie to the screen in 1914, silent cartoons became quite popular in the form of The Katzenjammer Kids, Bobby Bumps, Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, Dinky Doodle, and many other series from Bray Studios, International Film Service, Van Buren Studios, etc. Disney came on the scene in a big way with Mickey Mouse in 1928, and Warner Bros. wanted something to compete, using their vast music collection and Vitaphone sound technology. They contracted with Leon Schlesinger to produce a series of animated musical shorts. He remained head of Warner’s animation unit until 1944, setting up many of the quintessential Warner Bros. characters and animation directors.

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Schlesinger’s animation team was headed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, with animation done by future great director Friz Freleng (among others), and their first character was Bosko, who is modeled on a young black boy but whose characterization as an African-American is spotty. There’s definitely an element of blackface minstrel show feel to his character that’s a bit troubling, which could be one reason he’s largely forgotten today. In large part, this manifests in his genial broad smile and innate ability to make music out of literally everything, so the cartoons tend to be joyful and visually inventive and almost wholly plotless.

Buckle up, because we have a whole lot of Bosko (and some other early, mostly forgotten characters) before we get to the Porky Pigs, the Daffy Ducks, and the Bugs Bunnys we know and love.

A side note on the series titles “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” – Merrie Melodies were initially created as one-offs to showcase specific Warner Bros-owned songs, often with tie-ins to contemporary Warner films featuring the songs. This distinction fell by the wayside in the late ’30s, and they became the showier, higher-budgeted series featuring two-and-three-strip Technicolor, while Looney Tunes remained in B&W until 1943. After Looney Tunes went color, too, the series became virtually indistinguishable, with characters moving freely back and forth and directors often not even knowing or caring which series would end up housing any specific short. I decided I’m not going to bother caring, either, so I’m titling this whole series after Looney Tunes and not really mentioning which are which.

Second side note: Animation directors and animators are often but not always credited as their full names – Isadore Freleng or I. Freleng, Charles M. Jones, Fred Avery – I’m going to just always use their colloquial names, no matter how they’re credited.

1930 Overview

Warner released only four cartoons in 1930 (I’m also including the 1929 Bosko demo Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid), all of them featuring Bosko. Three of them have unique settings – the jungle, a farmyard, a construction site – while the fourth is a less location-aware love story/chase film. All of them strongly feature music above all else, with only Sinkin’ in the Bathtub offering even a semblance of a story.

Here they are, in casual ranked order of how much I enjoyed them, and how much I’d recommend them.

Sinkin’ in the Bathtub

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Bosko heads out to meet his girlfriend, Honey, with lots of singing both in and out of the bathtub. Their date is not without its obstacles, though – a malicious goat eats the flowers Bosko brings for Honey, a stuck-up cow refuses to move out of the road, and Bosko ends up chasing the car up and down a series of terrifying hills and spills before the whole kit and caboodle ends up in the pond, floating and singing happily. No obstacle is so large it can’t be overcome with singing.

While I didn’t recognize all the songs in these shorts, I did recognize several here that were used for specific scenes/gags – we get “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as the car is, er, tiptoeing through some tulips as Bosko picks a bouquet; “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” when Honey dumps some water in Bosko’s sax and dances her way down the bubbles to him; and “Pomp and Circumstance” when the cow (told you she was stuck-up) finally walks off in a huff. The first two were presumably Warner-owned songs of the time, while the use of Pomp and Circumstance presages the kind of musical cues that Warner would continue throughout the series to underline specific gags or character bits.

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The ending chase scene here is reminiscent of silent comedy, and has some really fun visuals as Bosko and the car are barreling directly toward the screen. That kind of shot is much easier to do in animation (doesn’t require actual camera tracking), and it’s pretty visually arresting the two or three times they do it here. Of course, the chase is also musical, as Bosko, hanging out the back of the car, gets dragged over a series of different-sized rocks, each of which makes a different musical tone. The cycle animation is still in play here, as well, notably in a downhill spiral segment where Honey keeps falling out of the car on one curve, then back in on the next.

This was actually the first of the Bosko shorts to be released, which is interesting because it’s the only one this year that really has any semblance of a plot, with a clear beginning, middle and end to Bosko and Honey’s date, along with a series of obstacles to the date and an escalation of action in the chase sequence. While not all the individual gags are particularly memorable, I did enjoy having a bit more narrative to hang on to in between.

Best Gag
Bosko goes out to the garage to get his car, but it’s empty…then the car blushingly walks (yes, on two hind wheels) out from the nearby outhouse, and has to fasten his trunk. There’s more potty humor in these shorts than I expected, but this one is both unexpected and somehow pretty cute.

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Supervision: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Animation: Friz Freleng
Originally Released: September, 1930
Watch on YouTube

Congo Jazz

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Bosko is a hunter in the jungle being stalked by a tiger, until he pulls out a clarinet and charms the tiger with a tune. Looney Tunes have a reputation for being violent, and that starts early; after soothing the tiger, Bosko kicks him off a cliff at the first opportunity! The rest of the animals of the jungle fare better, however, including an ape who joins Bosko in strumming some chewing gum after getting angry at him for spanking her little ones (note: probably best not to give corporal punishment to other people’s children without their permission). Soon the whole jungle joins in the musical fun.

A lot of the humor in these early shorts is how much you can push bodies in physically impossible ways. When Bosko’s running from the tiger, his head gets ahead of his body for a while, stretching his body into a long noodle, which he then has to gather up and stuff back in his pants. In a later scene, a poor giraffe stands in for a bagpipe-type instrument, with one money pumping its torso while another plays notes on its neck.

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Repetition of visuals is very common in ’30s cartoons, based on the Disney ones I’ve seen, and it looks like the Warner animators also latched on to it. In the beginning, Bosko jumps in fear four times at hearing a noise behind him, with the exact same animation cycle. We see it again when baby monkeys are playing leap frog, performing the same cycle three times in a row. I’m curious to see when this trope dies out, because in later Looney Tunes we see repetition, but nearly always with variation for a gag. There’s no variation here, it’s simply a repeated cycle.

Most Outrageous Visual: A palm tree dancing is very reminiscent of Disney’s landmark Flowers and Trees, but while the coconuts start off looking like eyes, they’re definitely breasts by the end and the way it’s swinging those things around looks pretty painful to me!

Congo Jazz

Supervision: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Animation: Max Maxwell and Paul Smith
Originally Released: October, 1930
Included on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 6, Disc 3
Watch on YouTube

Hold Anything

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The scenario is a construction site, with Bosko riveting away on the upper stories, taking time out to whistle, tap dance, and strum out a tune on everything near him, as he does. Honey provides some distraction from a nearby office, while some tap-dancing mice (looking VERY like Mickey Mouse) and a steam whistle-swallowing goat cause music and mayhem.

The extremes of animation’s ability to manipulate bodily form comes to the fore again here, as Bosko literally decapitates one of the mice while making a saw sing – the mouse’s body and head spend a chorus trying to reconnect as Bosko bends the saw two and fro (don’t worry; they finally do). Later on, Honey dances on the building’s ledge, swinging her hips so high they detach, swing over her head, and reattach at the bottom. Harold Lloyd never pulled that off while teetering on a ledge!

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The poor goat takes the brunt of it, as the steam whistle he swallows blows him up like a balloon and Bosko starts playing him like some unholy combination of a bagpipe and a calliope. When the goat starts to deflate, Bosko falls and smashes into a dozen tiny Boskos on a brick wall, who finally jump back together for Bosko’s big finish. Later Looney Tunes are often violent, but this level of body manipulation largely dies out after the 1930s – at least until Bill Plympton, perhaps!

Best Technology
Bosko takes out some sheet music and puts it in Honey’s typewriter; when he types, the typewriter plays the music, but also turns the notes into words. Pretty nifty.

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Supervision: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Animation: Friz Freleng and Norm Blackburn
Originally Released: November, 1930
Watch on YouTube

The Booze Hangs High

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That is a cow butt. The film basically starts with the camera right up in the cow, then the cow walks away leaving us with a nice view of its butt. Soon Bosko comes along and dances with the cow, then with a horse and carriage, but the title comes into play when he slops the pigs and the piglets find an unopened bottle of booze and proceed to drink themselves into a stupor.

This is not as visually inventive as some of the other shorts, but it is actually even more whacked out in a lot of ways. I mentioned there being some potty humor in Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (what with the car using an actual potty), but it is nothing compared with The Booze Hangs High. From the opening cow butt to a baby duck desperately needing a jon to the dancing cow’s pants falling down (udderly ridiculous [sorry]) to the drunk daddy pig puking up a corncob, this one had my jaw dropping every other second – not so much in a good way, really.

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There are also more reused animation in this one; not just an extra gag cycle here or there, but there’s a whole several-second segment with Bosko driving the carriage while the horse dances that’s repeated verbatim after the ducks do their business (pun intended). It’s a fun little dance, but it feels pretty lazy the second time through.

It is intriguing that both the cow and the pig have male-sounding voices (there’s no dialogue, really, but they kind of sing along a bit here and there); presumably the pig could be the daddy, but a cow with an udder like that? Is no bull.

According to the Will Friedwald, who wrote about the 1930s films in A Complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons, the music in this short is all taken from a now-forgotten Oscar Hammerstein French Revolution-set operetta called Song of the Flame (which Friedwald describes as “rather bourgeois,” which I take to mean something like “middlebrow,” or “Oscar bait-y”), so a large part of the humor appears to be based on taking the piss out of this operatic work by juxtaposing it with this squalid barnyard. That’s lost on me and I suspect most modern audiences.

Gag That Actually Made Me Gag
I did not expect to see a pig horking up a corn cob. I’ll admit it was clever when he opened a door in his stomach to return it, though. Apparently this segment is cut in a lot of TV prints. Interesting.

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Supervision: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Animation: Friz Freleng and Paul Smith
Originally Released: December, 1930
Included on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 6, Disc 3
Watch on YouTube

Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid

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This is the test footage created in 1929 to pitch Bosko as a character; it was never actually released theatrically, but does appear on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 6. Animator Rudolf Ising draws Bosko, who then comes to life, talks, dances, etc. It’s very obvious inspired by the Out of the Inkwell/Koko the Clown series of shorts, even down to Bosko being sucked back up into the pen and dumped in the inkwell at the end.

There’s no music or throughline or narrative here, as it’s basically just a proof of concept. The concept of Bosko as a black boy comes across WAY stronger here, though. The first thing out of his mouth is “Well, here I is, and I sho feels good!” Wow. He’s basically drawn the same as he is in the commercial cartoons but his voice is much more pointedly, um, racist. The studio said to tone that down, and it’s a good thing they did. As it is, Bosko still comes across as problematic, but this version of the character is downright horrible.

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We do already see the body-stretching humor, as his tongue falls loose and he pulls it back in by yanking on the single curl on top of his head, and later his head spirals up on a spring, and he has to twirl up on his piano chair until it’s fixed. There’s also some foreshadowing of the kind of fourth-wall breaking that Looney Tunes would perfect later on – Bosko talks to the animator, until he notices the audience and asks the animator about us. The animator tells him to make us laugh, and that’s pretty much stayed constant throughout Looney Tunes history – the goal has always been to make the audience laugh.

So in a way, this is a quite offensive and very slight unreleased tech demo, but it already has elements that would define Looney Tunes of both the 1930s and beyond.

Best Gag
When Bosko sits down to the piano and starts to play, some of the notes don’t sound right – they’re in the wrong place on the keyboard, so he has to rearrange them. It’s a total break with how a piano works, but somehow it seems right within the world of Looney Tunes.

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Supervision: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Included on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 6, Disc 3
Watch on YouTube

Well, so long folks, see y'all later!

Well, so long folks, see y’all later!

  • Brandie

    So, to say that I am completely psyched about this series is an understatement (and not just because you were so kind to give me a shout-out–thanks, btw!). I think I may have let out an excited yelp when this post came across my Feedly this morning. Though I must admit Bosko is far from my favorite, I really enjoyed reading your perspective on this handful of cartoons. (Also, the palm tree gif? Made my freaking day.) I can’t wait to read more! :)

    • Thanks, Brandie! Your series kind of inspired me to do this – no way I can do individual write-ups as good as yours, but something like this, broader and less in-depth, I might be able to handle! Of course, this year is cake compared to the later ones, which have tons more cartoons. We’ll see how I hold up! I might have to split them out in into multiple posts for ease of both writing AND reading…

      I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a Bosko cartoon before. I’m a bit worried about getting through the 1930s, as my favorite Looney Tunes really start in the ’40s, but I’m also intrigued by seeing a different style of animation than I’m used to.