November 03, 2018


The 1930s Warner Bros. logo.

            When Walt Disney struck a hit with his Mickey Mouse shorts in 1928 and his music-based anthology series Silly Symphonies, Warner Bros. was looking for a way to compete, as well as promote the sales of music from their recent acquisition of Brunswick Records and four music publishers. WB hired Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons using that music, and he in turn hired Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising to create cartoons for his studio to sell to WB after seeing the test reel of their creation, Bosko.

Bosko character model.

            Bosko, a young “Negro boy”, was conceived by Harman while he was still working for Walt Disney Studios as a way to capitalize on the new “talkie” craze in cinema. He was meant to serve as a version of Al Jolson’s character from The Jazz Singer (1927) while being neither human nor animal. Bosko’s appearance was based on Felix the Cat, but his personality was taken from the popular blackface characters in minstrel and vaudeville at the time. With Ising’s help, he produced a short pilot cartoon in 1929 called Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid. The short showcased their ability to animate and synchronize to sound and became the first in history to feature synchronized speech. Bosko was voiced mostly by Carman Maxwell with Johnny Murray taking over for three years in 1930.

Title card for the Bosko cartoon with Bosko and Honey.

            At WB, Bosko became the lead character for the cartoon series Looney Tunes beginning in 1930. He had a girlfriend named Honey (Rochelle Hudson) and kept company with orphaned cat, Wilber. Over the course of 39 cartoons, one of which wasn’t released, the stories favored music, singing and dancing over any real semblance of a plot. Audiences were enamored with talking cartoons and the shorts had a large library of music to play with. With the success of Looney Tunes, Schlesinger sold another series to WB called Merrie Melodies. Melodies, a play on Silly Symphonies. was pitched as advertising for the studio’s films by using their soundtracks and animating to them. The concept was soon expanded to also include the rest of WB’s musical library in the same manner as Tunes. Launching in 1931, Melodies proved to be as popular as Tunes, although it did so without any recurring character. In 1932, the Melodies short It’s Got Me Again! was the first animation to be nominated for an Academy Award, and by 1934 the series was produced in color.

Buddy, the new star of Looney Tunes.

            In 1933, Harman and Ising left WB over a budget dispute with Schlesinger and took all their creations with them, having held onto their rights. Schlesinger had to negotiate to keep the use of the Melodies name and the ending tag-line, “So long, folks!” (which would be replaced in 1936 with the Tunes slogan of “That’s all, folks!”). Desperate to maintain his contract with WB, Shlesinger hired animator Tom Palmer away from Disney and had him create a new star: Buddy, who was described by animator Bob Clampett as “Bosko in whiteface.” WB rejected the first two Buddy cartoons, resulting in Palmer being replaced by Friz Freleng. Freleng was tasked to re-edit the shorts into a single entry called Buddy’s Day Out. Buddy (Jack Carr), like Bosko, was accompanied by a flapper girlfriend named Cookie (Bernice Hansen) and his dog, Towser.

Porky Pig and Beans the Cat.

            It wasn’t until 1935 when the two series would begin to be populated by the stars most well-known today. The Melodies short I Haven’t Got a Hat saw the debut of Beans the Cat (Billy Bletcher) and Porky Pig (initially Joe Dougherty, later Mel Blanc). Eventually, Porky’s popularity outgrew Beans’ and Beans was phased out, leaving Porky Schlesinger’s only star.  Other characters followed, with characters intended to be exclusive to the Melodies series including Egghead (predecessor to Elmer Fudd, voiced by Blanc), Inki (also Blanc), Sniffles (Margaret Hill-Talbot) and Bugs Bunny (Blanc again), while Tunes saw the debut of Daffy Duck (still Blanc).

The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies titles over the recognizable bullseye background.

In 1936, Melodies began using the familiar bulls-eye opening and closing titles, which Tunes would adopt in 1942. By 1937, Tunes gained its recognizable opening theme of “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin, while Melodies’ was “Merrily We Roll Along” by Charles Tobias, Murray Mencher and Eddie Cantor.    In 1943, Tunes began to be produced in color once Disney’s exclusive rights to the Technicolor process expired. By 1944, Tunes and Melodies became virtually indistinguishable, especially when characters began to cross over, ending their alleged “exclusive” status to one series or the other. That same year, Schlesinger sold his interest in the studio to WB and retired. WB would continue producing the shorts until 1969 when they would shut down their animation studios for a second time (the first being in 1963) and outsource all future production to DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. 1969 was also the last new Melodies short, Injun Trouble, as the studio focused on producing strictly Tunes from then on.

Ad for CBS' 1981 Saturday morning schedule, featuring Looney Tunes.

In the 60s, the shorts began airing in syndication on television, although many of them were edited over time to remove what had become more questionable content as society’s views changed; namely portrayals considered racist and particularly violent gags. Other edits included new opening and closing title sequences and Melodies being given Tunes’ title song. While it was the name of the series of shorts, Looney Tunes became the designation for the cast of characters it produced and is how they are collectively known. And, while dozens of characters have emerged from these shorts, there is an elite grouping that has managed to keep their popularity as well as transcend the various forms of media:

Bugs Bunny is a highly intelligent, wise-cracking, carrot-chewing rabbit whose popularity led to him becoming the official mascot of WB. His first official appearance was credited as A Wild Hare (1940) by Tex Avery, although Bugs prototypes did appear in four shorts prior until various directors had him redesigned into the version we know today (however, it took two shorts following Hare for the new design to stick). Mel Blanc’s initial voice for Bugs was closer to his portrayal of Woody Woodpecker until settling into a New York accent. Charlie Thorson, one of Bugs’ designers, had wrote “Bugs’ Bunny” on his model sheets after director Ben “Bugs” Hardaway (one of Woody’s co-creators, incidentally), and press material would come to adopt that as Bugs’ official name.

Daffy Duck is a glory-seeker who is jealous of the attention and fame Bugs gets over him (since, in reality, Bugs DID replace Daffy as WB’s biggest star). First appearing as a bit player in Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937) by Tex Avery, audiences were taken with the assertive and combative protagonist. Initially resembling a real duck, Daffy was altered over time into a more anthropomorphic form. Daffy was originally zany and insane, bouncing all over the place. He was gradually toned down, portrayed as good or villainous as a role required, with varying levels of narcissism. For a time, he was paired up with Porky as his rival, and later his straight man, until settling into the rivalry with Bugs. Also portrayed by Blanc, he was given a lisp due to his belief that the large mandible would make it hard for Daffy to pronounce certain words. The voice was the only constant in Daffy’s evolution, with the lisp steadily gaining more prominence.

Porky Pig was the original Looney Tune, first appearing in 1935’s I Haven’t Got a Hat by Friz Freleng and named after the nicknames of two of Freleng’s childhood classmates: “Porky” and “Piggy”. Porky evolved from a shy little boy to a fat adult to a slimmer, sweeter-looking, cuter young adult. After a brief stint as an antagonist, Porky became an innocent traveler of the world taking in all its wonders, serving as the straight man for more wacky and zany characters such as Daffy. Porky’s stutter was incorporated into the character when Joe Dougherty was cast in the role as he had a stutter himself. However, his inability to control that stutter started making his recording sessions expensive, necessitating his replacement with Blanc. Blanc kept the stutter, but used it for comedic effect; typically by using it to give Porky trouble with a simple word and forcing him to replace it with a more complicated one. Porky’s most prominent role was appearing at the end of many shorts, bursting out of a drum and saying the tagline “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”

            Elmer Fudd is a hapless huntsman who most often goes after Bugs with a double-barrel shotgun. However, depending who you ask, Elmer didn’t start out as Elmer. He appeared as Egghead in Egghead Rides Again (1937) by Tex Avery; sporting a bulbous nose, an egg-shaped head with a bowl haircut, and eccentric clothing. In fact, the name “Elmer Fudd” first appeared on the side of a scooter Egghead rode in A Feud There Was (1938). Eventually, Egghead began a design transition in Chuck JonesElmer’s Candid Camera (1940) that gave way to his more familiar appearance in A Wild Hare; with a slimmer body, rounder bald head, smaller nose, and always wearing hunting gear (unless the plot provided him some other occupation). Initially voiced by Danny Webb in an imitation of Joe Penner, he was eventually replaced by Arthur Q. Bryan who introduced Elmer’s milk-sop voice and penchant to replace the “r” and “l” in words when he spoke with a “w” sound. In fact, for a brief time in the early 40s, Elmer was rendered fatter after Bryan’s appearance, but the change proved unpopular with audiences and the slimmer Elmer returned for good. Beginning in the 1970s, Blanc, who had performed the role sporadically during Bryan’s tenure, would permanently assume the character until his death.

Yosemite Sam is the other prominent male human Looney Tune and the anti-Elmer; exhibiting a fierier temper and violent tendencies, especially towards Bugs. First appearing in Hare Trigger (1945) by Friz Freleng, after an early version appeared the year before in Stage Door Cartoon, Sam is defined by his diminutive height and long red mustache and is often depicted as a cowboy (although he has had other professions when the need arose). Freleng created Sam to be a more worthy adversary for Bugs, exhibiting slightly more intelligence than Elmer but still managing to be a dimwit. Blanc had a hard time coming up with a voice for Sam, until he was inspired by an incident of road rage to try yelling at the top of his lungs. The bigger voice fit Sam, but left Blanc sore, necessitating recording all his lines at the end of a session. Unable to continue performing the role in his advancing years, Blanc handed it off to Joe Alaskey, making it one of the rare instances where a character Blanc originated was done by someone else within his lifetime.

Foghorn Leghorn is a large Southern rooster created by Robert McKimson, first appearing in Walky Talky Hawky (1946). Inspired by the radio character Senator Beauregard Claghorn (Kenny Delmar) from The Fred Allen Show, Foghorn shared all Claghorn’s blustering traits. Blanc patterned Foghorn’s accent after another radio character called The Sheriff from Blue Monday Jamboree. Typical plots involved a bored Foghorn initiating a prank war with a canine nemesis on a farm, or tricking a weasel into helping him against the dog. Foghorn also sought to woo widowed hen, Miss Prissy (Bea Benaderet, who also starred in Jamboree), by babysitting her brilliant son, Egghead, Jr.

Sylvester is a black and white cat determined to catch and devour one Tweety Bird, created by Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett. From 1941-44, prototypes of Sylvester appeared before he made his first official appearance in 1945’s Life With Feathers. In 1950, Sylvester gained the additional role of father when his son, Sylvester Jr., was introduced in Pop ‘im Pop! and was taught in the ways of being a mouser. Blanc used a variation of Daffy’s voice for Sylvester, but without the post-edit speeding up of his recording. Blanc also voiced Sylvester Jr. A frequent gag involved saliva flying out of Sylvester’s mouth as he talked, sometimes drenching anyone nearby.

Tweety is a small yellow bird who often uses his smarts to outwit and stay ahead of cats who want to eat him, particularly Sylvester. Created by Bob Clampett in 1942’s A Tale of Two Kitties, Tweety was originally a wild, featherless bird named “Orson.” He was also decidedly more aggressive, maliciously taking down any foes. Once Friz Freleng took over Tweety’s shorts, he made Tweety cuter and sweeter (although still with moments of maliciousness), and added yellow feathers. Blanc provided Tweety’s voice, sped up in post-production. Tweety, like Elmer, features a speech impediment where certain letters sound like others, most notably in his catchphrase “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”

Tasmanian Devil is a lean, mean, ravenously hungry spinning machine. Taz is ferocious and dim-witted, always driven by finding more food to feed his never-ending hunger. He travels by spinning in a tornado-like fashion, which allows him to bore through almost any surface. Created by Robert McKimson in Devil May Hare (1954), Taz’s character traits were based on the real-life animal for which he was named. However, his appearance featured references to various kinds of devils; such as his horned hair in regards to the horns the mythological Devil is always depicted as having and his spinning modeled after a dust devil whirlwind. Taz’s career was almost cut short when head of WB Edward Selzer shelved the character, believing him too violent for children. Later studio head Jack Warner had the decision reversed upon receiving tons of requests for more adventures with the character. However, his popularity would only come from television appearances as the WB animation studio closed after producing just five Taz shorts. Blanc provided Taz’s voice through 1983, which mostly consisted of intelligible sound effects with brief moments of savage-like dialogue. Taz’s next appearance wouldn’t come until after Blanc’s death.

Pepe Le Pew is a French skunk always looking for love. Created by Chuck Jones, he loosely based the character of fellow WB staffer Tedd Pierce, who was a self-styled “ladies’ man” that believed his interests were always reciprocated. As a result, Pepe’s shorts usually featured him chasing after a female skunk (or another animal who was accidentally given a white stripe to resemble a skunk), professing his undying love. Also, there’s Pepe’s obliviousness to the fact that, as a skunk, he stinks. Jones described Pepe as a bit of wish fulfilment on his part, being that he was always shy with women. Pepe first appeared as Stinky in Odor-able Kitty (1945). Blanc based Pepe’s voice on Charles Boyer’s Pepe le Moko from Algiers (1938), which was also a variation on his “Professor LeBlanc” voice from The Jack Benny Program.

Speedy Gonzales is the fastest mouse in Mexico. Initially created by Robert McKimson for Cat-Tails for Two (1953), Speedy was more of a generic-looking mouse character; sporting a crop of black hair, buck-teeth and a red t-shirt. The name came from a joke about a Mexican man named “Speedy” because of his tendency for premature ejaculation or quick copulation. Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt redesigned Speedy in 1955’s Speedy Gonzales to further resemble a Mexican archetype, giving him white clothing, a neckerchief, and a sombrero. Originally, Speedy’s rival was Sylvester, but eventually became Daffy in the 1960s. Blanc provided the voice, utilizing a Mexican accent and some Spanish phrasing. Over the years, criticism about Speedy’s embodiment of offensive stereotypes have resulted in the character’s diminished use, and the lack of rotation of his shorts on television.

Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, debuting in Fast and Furry-ous (1949), are a pair of rivals created by Chuck Jones as a parody of the cat-and-mouse series of cartoons. Wile E. always pursues the extremely fast Road Runner in order to eat him, using a variety of contraptions and gadgets (which usually malfunction) provided by the ACME Corporation. Jones based Wile E.’s appearance on the description of a coyote from Mark Twain’s Roughing It as an allegory of want, and early model sheets had his name as “Don Coyote” after Don Quixote. Road Runner’s appearance was based on animator Ken Harris. Traditionally, Wile E. is always silent, sometimes communicating by holding up a sign, while Road Runner says only “Beep, Beep!” There have been instances where Wile E. has talked, voiced originally by Blanc.

Granny is the third prominent human in the franchise. She is often depicted as the owner of Tweety, and occasionally Sylvester. After several prototype characters had appeared in earlier shorts, Granny was formalized in 1950’s Canary Row by Friz Freleng. She often foils Sylvester’s plots to get Tweety, although she has made appearances in shorts without either of them. Initially voiced by Bea Benaderet, June Foray assumed the role in 1955 and had been her primary voice for the next six decades. Despite Granny’s advanced age and sweet nature, she was deceptively spry and clever.

With the rise of television, the Looney Tunes gradually made the transition; first in rebroadcasts of their theatrical shorts in syndicated packages, and eventually in their own all-new programs. And some of those programs ran on Saturday mornings…

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