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.
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.