We love Tom and Jerry. We think Tex Avery is The Man. We even have a sliver of admiration for those murky old Fleischer Brothers jazz cartoons. But for us, as for so many others, the kings of the cartoon short were always Warner Brothers. But which of the studio’s multifarious output from the twenties to the sixties (The Animaniacs et al, being of a more post-Simpsons, knowing stripe, don’t quite count) is the worst, which is the best? Join us as we don our Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid t-shirts for a trawl through Termite Terrace’s triumphs and troughs.
Let’s get the troughs out of the way first. It’s probably unfair to pick on the really early Harman-Ising musical efforts, but we have to say that their trademark murkily recorded three-part close harmony singing is worse than nails down a blackboard to our ears. Then there’s the infamous I LOVE TO SINGA, in which young Owl Jolson angers his traditionalist dad by forsaking worthy hymns like Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes for a shot at X-Factor-style stardom singing the eponymous David Jacobs-friendly ditty in a TV talent contest hosted by a cigar-chomping rabbit. We’ve got a grudging fondness for this bit of glutinous whimsy in retrospect, although we hated its perennial appearance on Rolf’s Cartoon Time back in the day, taking up valuable space where Claude Cat (of whom more anon) could be doing his thing. Singa was made under the aegis of a nacent Tex ‘Fred’ Avery, who would go on to take the piss out of the ‘wide-eyed woodland folk’ school of cartooning with the likes of Screwy Squirrel at MGM.
Chuck ‘Charles M’ Jones, meanwhile, was drawing painfully cute whimsy such as SNIFFLES AND THE BOOKWORM, in which a wide-eyed mouse inconsequentially arses about with a short-sighted bookworm, with lots of slow, over-deliberate action along the way. Another feature of this sort of cartoon is the episodic chain of visual gags based on pictures in books coming to life, which formed the basis of quite a few cartoons with no main character in the early years, usually under Hugh Harman’s direction. Often a lot of the books or products which came to life were very much of their time, a problem that bedevilled the handful of Warner cartoons featuring caricatures of the studio’s live action stars. When Rolf prefaced one of these with a lengthy preamble explaining who the Ritz Brothers et al used to be, truly the heart sank. Other forgotten references included gags about war bonds and the like, and we’ll draw a veil over the infamous, Jap-baiting ‘here ya go, slit-eyes’ propaganda cartoons of that period, for decency’s sake.
Then you’ve got the awful Seven Arts period, with poor quality Hanna- Barbera clones (Warners copying H-B, for God’s sake!) like Bunny and Claude. Worst of all, though, was the dismal pairing of Speedy and Daffy for a series of pointless chases. Speedy Gonzales was always a pain in the arse, but to see the once unimpeachable Daffy dragged down to that level is painful viewing indeed. So let’s pick MUCHOS LOCOS (it doesn’t really matter which one, to be honest) as the worst WB cartoon, given that the early misfires could at least be argued to have contributed towards later successes (by showing what didn’t work) whereas Speedy and Daffy had no legacy whatsoever, apart from that annoying spinny minimalist title sequence and Bill Lava’s tedious incidental music.
So, what’s the best cartoon from WB’s Golden Age? Well, it’s not DUCK AMUCK or WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? for a start. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course: they really are great. But in a pantheon which consisted of so many greats, they’re not that great. Opera in particular is Chuck Jones at his most indulgent and, more importantly, least funny – yes, we see how you’ve crafted balletic moves for Bugs to prance about, but while that’s going on, where’s the gag? What we want from Warners is a stream of quality wit and slapstick – we’ll go to Disney if we want subtlety and craft for its own sake. A bit harsh perhaps, (after all, what use is an animated gag if it’s not well animated?) but it’s always annoyed us that the whole Warner stable of cartoons has been boiled down to a half- dozen ‘classics’ in this way. One often-bigged-up cartoon that does deserve it, however, is DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24TH AND A HALFTH CENTURY. Beautifully crafted (the backgrounds alone are works of abstract genius) but never forgetting to be funny with it. The jury’s still out on ONE FROGGY EVENING – it’s got a good Tales of the Unexpected-type plot (and how rare is that in the world of the knockabout cartoon?), and great expressions of exasperation on the hapless frog owner’s face during the constant no-shows, but it’s all a bit hermetic for us – where’s the good old Warner’s showbiz roistering atmosphere? We’re fickle like that.
So fickle, in fact, that we’ve just decided that Bugs Bunny isn’t all that great, really. And we’re not playing to the crowd here, we genuinely think his place as the WB figurehead is arbitrary at best. WB characters usually exist on one of two levels – stooges to laugh at (Daffy being the prime example) and smartarses we identify with. Bugs is the latter, natch, and while his asides to camera are often great (“The way I work this thing you’d think I knew something about it!” and of course “You realise this means war!“) he’s too damn invincible – after the initial kickback, it’s a one rabbit show, which isn’t what we like, generally, although Bugs’ invincibility is the ideal element in the triangular seasonal negotiations with Daffy and Elmer in the RABBIT SEASONING trilogy of cartoons, which are, needless to say, high grade fun indeed. Oh, and anything where Bugs is thrown into a properly weird environment (eg. Marvin the Martian, Witch Hazel) is excepted from this admittedly now rather shaky- looking rule. Basically what we’re trying to say is we’re Daffy fans, but again we’re lukewarm about the Daffy and Bugs pairing, rabbit season aside, especially the ones where the pair take a wrong turn at Alberquerque and end up in some mythical place or other (“Hassan CHOP!” and the abominable “I will call you George” snowman notwithstanding) Daffy has to be able to annoy the crap out of his partner, and Bugs is just too damn unflappable, unlike, say, Porky Pig.
Ah, Porky Pig. So often maligned as a dull straight man to the more vibrant Bugs and Daffy, but we think he provides great value when the situation’s right. Think of ROBIN HOOD DAFFY – when the camera cuts away from Daffy’s manic capering to Friar Porky’s wryly amused glance at the audience, it’s a lovely bit of complicity that elevates Porky out of dumb straight man territory (see Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, etc. – there to be laughed at, rather than with) into long-suffering cynic. Often, he’s the responsible, hat-wearing, hard- working adult plagued by the childish antics of the rest of the cast. An early Sylvester and drunken catty pals try to get into Porky’s house in KITTY KORNERED, dressing up as Martians to give Porky the most elaborate double take ever drawn. More drunken singing (it always seems to be Moonlight Bay, doesn’t it?) occurs in TRAP HAPPY PORKY, in which the Porkmeister’s cat constructs one of those fantastic chain-of-events traps out of household objects to sort out interloping rodents Hubie and Bertie (of whom more, as ever, anon) to the inexorable strains of Raymond Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’.
Porky and Daffy being slung together is often good value, notably in DAFFY DUCK SLEPT HERE, with the pair sharing a hotel room, leading to Daffy depriving Porky of much-needed sleep in various ways (the ‘invisible friend’ is genius). Oddly enough, our favourite Porky excursion sees him teamed up with Sylvester, whom we’re usually lukewarm about – anything with Tweety can’t by definition be a classic, nailing planks to a windowsill or no, and the baby kangaroo/giant mouse series is all formula and no fun for us, though we do have a residual fondness for his Of Mice and Men-style Junior companion. But Sylvester as a silent, spineless, catlike cat (no slight to Mel Blanc intended, honest) we love, and CLAWS FOR ALARM, with a gang of mice pretending to haunt an abandoned hotel Porky and Sylv are spending the night in, is gorgeous, especially the brilliant visual mime Sylvester does of a noose coming out of a moosehead’s mouth – you had to be there with this one, we suppose.
Another unfairly dismissed character is Foghorn Leghorn. There is a formulaic repetitiveness in a lot of the Foggy films – a fair few of the Miss Prissy cartoons rely on her “yeeeeeees!” catchphrase to an extent that would make David Walliams blush – but the verbose cockerel is great when paired off with either the no-bullshit dog known only as, er, Barnyard Dog (especially the one with that elaborate trap involving characters being pulled through a hole in a fence on the end of a rope) and the silent Egghead Jr. The way he talks throughout almost the entire picture by himself, to himself, is a triumph for the dialogue writers – and of course Mel B. “Watch and learn, son!”
But for us, the best stuff lies in the pictures that don’t rely on a cast of big hitters, and surprise surprise, Chuck Jones came up with a good many of these. That hopping mynah bird, morosely plodding along to the Fingal’s Cave Overture in various otherwise dodgy early cartoons, was as hypnotic to us as it was to the ‘delightfully un- PC’ bushmen hunting it. A later Jones gem was soft-as-shite bulldog Marc Anthony, whose breakdown when he thinks his beloved kitten Pussyfoot has been turned into biscuits in FEED THE KITTY can melt all but the sternest soul. Another Jones creation which began as foils for Bugs but came into their own were dysfunctional ursine nuclear family the Three Bears, with meek Maw and oversized oafish Joonyer unwittingly heaping agony after agony on pint-sized pissed of dad Henry. Best of their efforts was A BEAR FOR PUNISHMENT, in which Henry’s incredulity at Maw and Joonyer’s belief-beggaring Father’s Day costume song and dance show is shared by the viewer tenfold (that complicity factor again).
It wasn’t all Chuck creations, though. No-one who saw Bob Clampett’s masterful freak-out PORKY IN WACKYLAND is likely to forget it in a hurry, especially not The Dodo (“A-do-do-diddy-o-do!”), easily the most bizarre character ever to appear in a Warners short. Similarly, you don’t hear many appraisals of Mac and Tosh, the Goofy Gophers, these days, but Clampett’s ultra-polite rodents of mayhem (launching dynamite attacks with unerring etiquette – “May I?” “Please do!” “Why, thank you!”) are wonderful creations, especially when paired with the plummy-voiced English dog that guards the vegetable patch in their eponymous debut cartoon. Anything in which the Warner voice artists are let loose on ‘English’ accents is always great fun (“Cook! Where’s my Hossenfeffer?” and so on), and the insane good manners of the gophers (“Shall we?” “Surely!”) as they methodically go about their vegetal destruction is pretty near perfect cartoon entertainment.
Even closer to perfection, however, are wisecracking mouse duo Hubie and Bertie, who are more rounded as characters – the smartarse Hubie (“Psst! Hey, Bud!”) and the thicker Bertie (“Yeah yeah, sure sure!”) – yet still an invincible source of anguish for whichever antagonist they may be teamed up with. And if that happens to be the neurotic yellow hypochondriac Claude Cat, well then, we think we’ve hit the jackpot. He never had a catchphrase or speech defect like Sylvester (who as we’ve seen is best when he shuts up anyway), but his clawing-the-ceiling routine and rather touching nervous gullibility makes him the perfect foil to H&B’s relentless scheming. With the characters sorted, Chuck Jones then piles on the bizarreness, as H&B relentlessly torment the hapless Claude with psychological torture. In MOUSE WRECKERS, their attempts to convince Claude he’s going mad – nailing furniture to the ceiling, sticking fishtanks on the windows, etc. – produce the requisite teeth- grinding panic.
Better yet is HYPO-CHONDRI-CAT (ah, you can just hear dear old Rolf introducing that one, can’t you, followed by a trademark cat screech) where Claude becomes so convinced he’s sick he lets H&B operate on him. As he goes under, there’s a marvellously scary bit of abstract weirdness with malevolent windows and scalpels. Then, at the end, the mice dress poor old Claude up as an angel, tie some balloons to his back, and leave him floating off into the sunset, convinced he’s dead. There’s no realisation on Claude’s part when a cardboard wing falls off, nor a Tex Avery-style “Sad isn’t it?” sign to deflate the situation – that’s how it ends. And sod it, we’ll admit we’re never too far from welling up when we see it. The fact Claude seems to be finally, weirdly, comfortable with the fact he’s dead is an amazing situation for a cartoon to try to get away with, let alone succeed. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you (well, us at least) cry – HYPO-CHONDRI-CAT is, after much deliberation, our pick of the WB canon. And, as the pig (eventually) put it, that’s all, folks!