1. “I Love to Singa” (1936). In which jazz crooner Owl Jolson (voiced by Our Gang bully Tommy Bond) runs afoul of his classical musician father and performs on Jack Bunny’s amateur radio show. The characters’ eyes are profoundly expressive—the little triangles of white light that reflect in their pupils rotate a full 360 degrees and add to these deceptively cheery protagonists a sobering touch of the manic-depressive. “I Love to Singa” is about stalwart determination, not to mention the simultaneous insanity and importance of artistic pursuit (and Owl returns as a genius sight gag in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.”)
2. “Russian Rhapsody” (1944). In which Adolf Hitler, after spewing his way through a fiery Reichstag speech about deli condiments, sets out to bomb Moscow and comes face to face with musically inclined “Gremlins from the Kremlin,” not to mention a very stern-looking mask of Josef Stalin. That the cartoon manages to both viciously lampoon Hitler (whose portrayal here complicated my childhood perception of him as a demonic historical bogeyman) and also make him something of a sympathetic protagonist is a tribute to the oft-unsung talents of director Bob Clampett, whose every hand-drawn frame is a virtuoso, stand-alone grotesque.
3. “Rabbit of Seville” (1950). Jean-Luc Godard described Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar as “life in 90 minutes.” Chuck Jones’s “Rabbit of Seville” (in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd square off to a brilliantly mangled Rossini libretto/accompaniment) is life in seven.
4. “Three Little Bops” (1957). The Big Bad Wolf’s deliciously cruel dispatch by dynamite “to the other place” takes Friz Freleng’s jazzy masterpiece (lead vocals by Stan Freberg, one of the few Warner Bros. voice artists besides Mel Blanc to receive an onscreen credit) to a whole new level of complexity. To this day, I can’t decide if the Three Little Pigs’ final declaration (“You gotta get hot to play real cool”) marks them as friend or foe.
5. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). Joe Dante’s magnum opus (the antidote to the atrocious Space Jam) resurrects the Warners cartoons even as it sounds their death knell. As shown by Bugs and Daffy’s jaunt through a Salvador Dalí landscape in the film’s justly celebrated Louvre sequence, there’s no room left in the world for Termite Terrace’s concentrated greatness. All that remains is present-tense anomaly and the persistence of a fond, half-remembered memory.
1. “Swooner Crooner” (1944). The guys at Termite Terrace loved to parody the people, places and events of their time. “Swooner Crooner,” a wartime cartoon, takes place in an factory populated by chicken equivalents of Rosie the Riveter. The chicks work for Porky Pig, laying eggs on an assembly line to the tune of Raymond Scott’s “The Powerhouse.” (You know—dun-dun-dunnn-da-dun-da-da-dun-dunnnn-dadada-dun-dunnnnn-dun!) The eggs stop coming when my fellow Hudson County native Frankie Sinatra shows up. Frankie appears as a bow-tied rooster who’s so skinny that he disappears behind his microphone stand. He sings “As Time Goes By” and “Wrong,” two of the numerous Warners-owned songs Carl Stalling was always sneaking into the pictures.
To combat Frankie’s sway over his swing shift, Porky auditions several singing roosters to help him do what roosters are supposed to do—increase egg production. After seeing parodies of the top singers of the day (Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Cab Calloway), Porky gets assistance from rooster Bing Crosby, who engages in a cock-blocking battle with Frankie over who can get the most eggs out of their audience. Tashlin shoots all this with angles and camera setups not normally seen in cartoons (foreshadowing his career in live action films) and creates for Porky his only Oscar nominated short. The ending is notoriously disgusting, if you really think about it.
2. “For Scent-imental Reasons” (1949). In Chuck Jones’ book, Chuck Amuck, he says that cartoon scribe Tedd Pierce was the Termite Terrace inspiration for that smelly symbol of sexual harassment, Pepe Le Pew. “[Pierce’s] devotion to women was at times pathetic, at times pathological, but always enthusiastic,” wrote Jones. “Tedd could not really believe that any woman could honestly refuse his honestly stated need for her.” Nor could Pepe. With his Charles Boyer-style delivery, his butchered French (“le petit femme fatale du skunk!”), his slobbery attempts to woo, and his failure to realize he’s funkier than James Brown, Pepe is the perfect persistent male on the hunt. It doesn’t matter if his prey is really a cat with a white stripe on her back. It doesn’t even seem to matter if said prey is female, either. In “Odor-able Kitty,” which precedes this feature, Pepe has a little episode of “Le Montagne Brokeback” when he mistakes a male cat for a skunk. His horniness knows no boundaries, and Oscar awarded him for it.
3. “Tortoise Beats Hare” (1941): Tex Avery, back when he was Fred Avery, directs Bugs in a rare turn as victim. Disney used fairy tales and parables for good, but the Looney Tunes used them for evil. Cecil Turtle robs Bugs Bunny in a ten dollar bet by getting his lookalike buddies to help him win the race. All of Avery’s trademarks are there, the exaggerated double takes, the self-aware characters breaking the fourth wall, the speeded up takes, and the risqué humor. (Pepe Le Pew’s famous theme also appears here, when Cecil starts running.) Bugs is completely outsmarted, but manages to keep his attitude when dealing with “that blankety-blank toitle!” Bob Clampett’s sequel, “Tortoise Wins by A Hare (1943),” is better, but this has one of my favorite Bugs Bunny lines: “And I hope ya choke!”
4. “Rabbit Seasoning” (1952). Michael Maltese was Chuck Jones’ favorite cartoon writer, and this, the best of the Bugs vs. Daffy vs. Elmer trilogy (“Duck Rabbit Duck” (1953), “Rabbit Fire” (1951) and this) is hands down the most brilliantly written Looney Tune ever produced. The dialogue is fast, furious and infinitely quotable. Bugs and Daffy repeatedly run through the “Would you like to shoot me now, or wait ’til you get home?” routine with razor sharp comic timing, altering it on every turn but leading it back to the same conclusion every time. We even get an English grammar lesson in the process. “Pronoun trouble,” says Daffy at one point, catching Bugs in his attempt to trap him into getting his beak blown off for the umpteenth time by Elmer. It’s Schoolhouse Rock, Abbott and Costello and Sam Peckinpah rolled into seven minutes of animated bliss.
5. “Birds Anonymous” (1957). Mel Blanc gets lots of credit for his work with Looney Tunes, all of it deserved. But in “Birds Anonymous”, Blanc, as Sylvester, has an Oscar-worthy addict’s breakdown of Ray Milland style proportion, breaking your heart with its intensity. Sylvester has joined an AA parody called Birds Anonymous, but finds that quitting bird-eating cold turkey has its price. After one last failed attempt to swallow Tweety, Sylvester cracks. “I gotta have a bird,” he cries. “I’m weak! But I don’t care! After all, I am a pussycat!” Blanc’s dramatic delivery makes you feel sorry for the bad ol’ puddy tat, and director Friz Freleng must have realized this was Blanc’s vocal masterpiece. After Freleng won an Oscar for “Birds Anonymous”, he gave it to Blanc.