My understanding of animation as something more than a Saturday-morning distraction deserving only half of one’s attention was shaped by my father’s purchasing of two laserdisc boxed sets while I was in the sixth grade. The first of these—a what-was-then high-quality, CAV transfer of The Nightmare Before Christmas, accompanied by a cavalcade of behind-the-scenes supplements—insinuated that meticulous craftsmanship could be, rather than simply influence, cinematic content. (The jaggedly deliberate, but somehow graceful, movements of Henry Selick’s macabre figures both announced and apologized for their painstaking genesis; these herky-jerky fingerprints add as much to the organic milieu as Danny Elfman’s unforgettable leitmotifs.) But the other boxed set was a different kind of reference source entirely, albeit no less hipped to the narrative of technical innovation and stylistic confidence.
The Golden Age of Looney Tunes, Volume 1, the first of five anthologies released by MGM in the early ’90s that escorted Warner Bros.’s most cherished animated shorts into the digital realm, fascinated me with its irreverent yet instructive taxonomy and unabashed historical quirks. The opening cartoon on the collection, “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” from 1931, features inexplicably diegetic, happy-go-lucky big-band music that slyly doubles as a sound effects track, and a short-lived Mickey Mouse knock-off named Foxy who conducts a misbehaving trolley car. It looked strange and lonely, not to mention derivative, beside the exploits of Bugs and that came later. The compendium continued with early efforts from Friz Freleng and Tex Avery, auteurs whose names I’d heard before in passing but had never associated with a particular visual or humor aesthetic. Avery’s “I Love to Singa,” which imaginatively condenses The Jazz Singer into six minutes of cornball drama within a family of studiously musical owls, became a favorite in the Lanthier house.
The set finally introduced the prototypes for the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies pantheon on side two of disc one. Witnessing these etymologies was piquantly disorienting. It forced me to consider that the characters I’d grown to identify on television were developed over time, through various interpretations; Daffy Duck’s miserliness, in particular, though easy to imagine as having sprung fully formed from the red and silver Warner Bros. shield, was the product of decades of trial and error from four animation supervisors. The set’s content also revealed how Warner Bros. characters were often the product of socio-political context as much as idle whimsy. In Daffy Duck’s first official appearance, 1938’s “Daffy Duck and Egghead,” he sings the Looney Tunes theme, “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” with lyrics that expose the origins of his obnoxiously unhindered zaniness. The ballad’s deceptively gleeful pace imparts the “dizziness” of job loss that occurs when the titular carnival breaks down for good with Daffy on it, spinning interminably, wanting the nauseous joyride to end but knowing that the abyss of unemployment awaits him afterward. Daffy, who I’d pegged as an arbitrarily arrogant anxiety-sufferer, began life as the most inspired comedic response to the Great Depression aside from the films of Preston Sturges.
The Golden Age of Looney Tunes, Volume 1 was like an Anthology of American Folk Music for cartoon fans—with entire laserdisc sides devoted to directors like Bob Clampett, or to various “takes” on classic characters like Bugs by different animators, its structure exuded a scholarly authoritativeness that I’d never seen exerted over “children’s” culture before. And it took years for me to realize that in spite of this, the set’s limitations had left the Warner Bros. story far from even half-told. There was no Bosko, no Michigan J. Frog, no “Duck Season/Wabbit Season” banter, and (most inexcusably) no love for Frank Tashlin. (I was shocked to discover later that he’d started his career at Termite Terrace; I’d assumed, of course, that my having studied those laserdiscs had made me a completist.) One expects a “Volume 1” that doesn’t attempt chronological order to be a kind of a primer, a representative sample. And while The Golden Age of Looney Tunes offered the impression of canonical fidelity, further investigation revealed a grating, Porky Pig-esque stutter in the editorial workmanship.
It’s not difficult, then, for me to sympathize with the modest but vocal community of Bugs and Daffy enthusiasts who feel that Warner Bros.’s has botched every attempt they’ve had to tell their animation studio’s story via digital reissue. But it’s equally easy to recognize the impulse to throw up one’s hands after trying to carve a coherent, pan-satisfactory path through over 1,000 six-to-seven-minute short films made by dozens of directors and featuring as many characters, the hierarchical celebrity of whom isn’t clearly stratified. (According to friends who worked in retail at a Looney Tunes-ornamented theme park in my SoCal hometown, the manner in which demand for certain characters’ paraphernalia would explode from season to season was frightfully unpredictable.)
The boys of Termite Terrace continue to resist all structures and stereotypes; they were iconoclastic, cannibalistic (Clampett’s departure from the studio has the stench of a schoolyard gang-up), and generally apathetic toward changes in management and ownership, challenging the animator persona that the public has been spoon-fed by Disney. We imagine the members of the Nine Old Men as one-third magician, one-third caricature peddler, and one-third assembly line worker; Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones were more like one-fifth doodler and the rest pure prankster. The far more organized mythology and back catalogue of Disney additionally lacks the problems to which Warner Bros.’s more haphazard annals readily succumb: Walt, ever the expert brander, neatly compartmentalized his Mickey and Donald vehicles and his one-shot “Silly Symphonies.” And, maybe most importantly, characters like Pluto and Goofy don’t have capriciously human flaws. Failing to represent them properly might stir the fabled cryogenic tomb of their faux-progenitor, but it hardly inspires defensive, childish outrage the way that insults to Daffy and Wile E. Coyote do.
Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume One is Warner Bros.’s most recent attempt at beginning a coherent cartoon history. It’s also the first in high definition, which should mean that more content can fit on single discs, though the set only contains about 50 classic shorts. And since a streaming media free-for-all will be the next frontier for video, the Platinum Collection will likely be the final chance Warner Bros.’s has to guide viewers through their vaults with the shadow of an official thesis. But unfortunately, from the perspective of a moderate fan who was raised on the postwar crowd-pleasers—the Bugs and Daffy crossovers, the delectable Mozart spoof “The Rabbit of Seville,” and anything with the giant, furry, heart-shaped beast Gossamer—and then got hooked on the oddball black-and-whites from the ’30s, the grouping is not only a far cry from the putative scholarship of the Golden Age laserdiscs; it’s practically frothing at the mouth with revisionist zeal. There’s still no Tashlin, and precious little Clampett, though his masterfully nightmarish Dick Tracy goof “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” is, thankfully, here. There’s only a single Avery. Even Freleng, the proper father of many classic characters, is underrepresented.
The problem is that volume one of the Platinum Collection is neither a sketchy exordium to a Looney Tunes argument, as the first Golden Years set was, or a noble shot at placating every conceivable fracture of the Warner Bros. partisanship, as the first Golden Collection DVD was. (To give a sense of what’s at stake in these decisions: The company received such a torrent of hate mail for having neglected “One Froggy Evening” on their first DVD release that they issued a press-release defense.) It feels rather more like a scramble to stuff Termite Terrace screwiness into Disney-like simplicity through hero worship that downplays the confusing committee of talent to which credit is truly due.
So who’s the hero? Though his name isn’t scrawled anywhere on the glossy, metallic-colored keepcase of the Platinum Collection, you’d think after perusing the set’s titles that Chuck Jones invented the Warner Bros. Animation studio. Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew, acting as editor-in-chief, leads us through a small gaggle of Jones’s high-profile accomplishments on disc one, including “Hare Tonic,” “For Scent-imental Reasons,” and “Fast and Furry-ous”…with works from a few other directors thrown in for good measure. Disc two rounds up some great one-shot shorts, such as Freleng’s “The Three Little Bops,” and every cartoon featuring Marvin the Martian (most by Jones), Marc Anthony (all by Jones), Ralph Phillips (all by Jones), Witch Hazel (all by Jones), and Tasmanian Devil (created by the highly Jonesian Robert McKimson). Disc three contains the documentary “Chuck Amuck,” and several off-the-beaten path shorts that Jones produced in the ’40s and ’50s, such as the geometric love story “The Dot and the Line.”
That the studio continues to gravitate toward Jones is unsurprising. Unlike the other man-children of Termite Terrace, he was likable, dry-witted, and generous in person; I met him at a book-signing when I was five years old, and he crisscrossed his arms to shake both my hands at once. His brand of abstract comedy, furthermore, was more accessible and forward-thinking than the Dali-inspired Clampett or the manically slapstick Tex Avery. The exaggerated designs, movement smears, and non-sequitur gags of “The Dover Boys of Pimento University,” easily one of the funniest cartoons of all time, point the way to Adult Swim’s bubbly desultoriness—though the short’s weirdness nearly got Jones fired. His artful, Wagnerian “What’s Opera Doc?,” with its distressed glass backgrounds and curvy equines, provided Warner Bros. Animation the hitherto un-achieved sophistication of artisanal parody. His existential “Duck Amuck,” which pits Daffy directly against his own animator, implied the metaphysics of the Looney Tunes universe. When Daffy is erased by a mammoth, deified pencil, he can still vocally lament his plight—suggesting that his essence lies not in any single drawing or cell.
But Jones was not a first-generation animator like Clampett or Freleng, nor was he infallible. His later designs, it must be said, have a shaggy, over-stroked quality that seems unduly determined to complicate the cleanliness of the Bugs and Daffy look. And starting the story with Jones, with the studio’s streamliner and most recognizable name, aside from dancing around the suggestion that he’s the only Warner Bros. animator with which one need absolutely acquaint himself, will likely inform massive organizational problems for future Platinum Collection releases. How can you even get into Bosko or Private Snafu without establishing a foundation of Schlesinger incunabula early on? Will Tashlin’s literary-themed tour-de-force “Have You Got Any Castles?” be presented sacrilegiously as a supplement rather than a canonical short?
We must ultimately, of course, forgive the seeming lack of foresight and vaguely conspiratorial agendas that seem to govern the decisions made by Warner Home Video in regard to its own ’toon catalogue. Platinum Collection, Volume One still offers the vibrant anachronism “Katnip Kollege” in piercing 1080p, and the opportunity to observe with unprecedented clarity the studio’s transition from cheeky earth tones to a garishly modern palette in the ’50s. (Compare the first two Tasmanian Devil shorts, in particular: They’re nearly identical aside from the ugly brightness of the latter.) But the willy-nillyness of the digital releases is, in a way, also apropos of the futile numbskull-ism that defines the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies ethos. The boys at Termite Terrace knew from narrative traditions to provide their new universe with a self-assured rascal and an unhinged pest. Their genius was rounding out those tropes with a bottomless supply of village idiots.
In the era of YouTube, the only real benefit to buying an official release of cartoons is the audio/visual quality. That said, you’ll have a hard time returning to your browser embeds after these high-def masters. Low-grade codecs have always had a difficulty with the striking color choices and rapid, extreme posture changes of Warner Bros.’s animation, which scoffs in the face of keyframing. It’s hard not to fetishize the economical fluidity of the original film prints in 1080p, managed through painstaking labor that maximized the kinesthetic control one had with this 24-frames-per-second art form. The telecine work is so uniformly inspired that singling out any few examples here feels dubious—maybe "Duck Dodgers," with its pointillist spray rayguns? "The Dover Boys," with its cavalier range of fleshtones? (Some characters are pale, some are seasick green.) "The Bear That Wasn’t," with its shaggy, homely faces? I could go on. The sound’s restoration was equally successful, allowing one to focus as one wishes on Carl Stalling’s vital contributions to the shorts.
What counts as an extra here isn’t entirely clear, thus my tackling of much of the set’s content in the blurb above. Either way, the collection is teeming with material, supplemental or not: "Bonus" cartoons, commentaries by Jerry Beck and others, documentaries on Jones, on Raymond Scott, on the birth of specific characters, and etc. Most of these, unfortunately, even "Chuck Amuck," were all produced and mastered in standard definition for the Golden Collection DVDs, and thus appear here un-upgraded. (Thankfully this doesn’t apply to Jones’s war shorts, such as the ingeniously federal healthcare-mongering "So Much for So Little.") The commentaries mostly provide historical background and production notes and very little analysis, though Stan Freberg’s discussion of "The Three Little Bops" is quite welcome.
The ridiculous emphasis on Chuck Jones aside, this set gives the Region 1 world the gift of Looney Tunes in high definition. As Daffy might say, "It’s all mine! I’m a happy miser!"