Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Last Hurrah

A rather startling layout from Chuck Jones' Bear Feat. The trees are an animated pan, adding even more interest to the shot.
The latest, and last, Looney Tunes Golden Collection has been released. It's the sixth volume in a series that has delivered over 300 restored Warner Bros. cartoons as well as behind the scenes documentaries and commentaries. This edition contains two live action films of the staff made for Christmas parties in 1939 and 1940, several Captain and the Kids cartoons directed by Friz Freleng at MGM, two TV specials, a documentary on Mel Blanc, a generous selection of early black and white cartoons as well as propaganda cartoons made during World War II. All this in addition to a generous helping of the expected Warner Bros. cartoons.

While Warner Bros. will undoubtedly continue to release cartoons on DVD, this may be the last time we see such elaborate extras and relatively obscure cartoons. My guess (and fear) is that we'll be inundated with no-frills sets devoted to the most famous Warner characters, leaving the lesser-known cartoons to languish in obscurity.

There is much to celebrate in this set. While many have expressed disappointment that a whole disk has been devoted to early Bosko and Buddy cartoons, I'm thrilled to have them (though happier about the Boskos than the Buddys). The early Harman-Ising cartoons run on adrenaline. The enthusiasm that created these cartoons, and the speed and anything goes qualities on screen, are a reminder of how exhilarating animation can be even when it lacks polish. There's more animation in a single Harman-Ising cartoon than there is in a whole season of Family Guy. It's ironic to me that a culture that is obsessed with sports and watches reality shows like Dancing with the Stars somehow thinks that motion is an unnecessary frill in animated cartoons. When did animation become a synonym for stasis?

The youthful energy that propels the Harman-Ising cartoons sometimes resulted in great films. Bosko the Doughboy takes a perverse glee in the murder of cartoon characters. It's total war, stripped of politics or ideology. There's no reason for the chaos on the screen except for the pleasure of doing damage. This cartoon is a nihilist black comedy, fit to be run on the same bill as Dr. Strangelove.

Bosko the Doughboy

The two Christmas party films are live action equivalents of Looney Tunes. They show, without a doubt, that it was the sensibility of the entire staff that was responsible for the humour that ended up on screen. Martha Sigall and Jerry Beck provide commentary, and Sigall is one of the few people living capable of identifying so many of the crew, including the secretary and ink and paint women who normally remain anonymous. It's a real pleasure for me to see footage of animators such as Ken Harris and Bobe Cannon.

Ken Harris

Robert "Bobe" Cannon

Bob Clampett's Russian Rhapsody is both a political satire about the relationship between Hitler and Stalin and a catalogue of caricatures of the Schlesinger staff, identified in the commentary by animator Mark Kausler. You have to turn to South Park for anything similar today, and of course, the quality of the Warner Bros. art and animation is far superior.

All the directors are represented by excellent, though rare works. Besides Russian Rhapsody, Clampett's Horton Hatches the Egg is here, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Chuck Jones cartoons include Rocket-bye Baby (a favorite of mine with lovely designs by Ernie Nordli), Chow Hound (a black comedy worthy of an E.C. horror comic) and Now Here This (Jones imitating the Zagreb studio). Freleng has Goo Goo Goliath in the UPA mode and Herr Meets Hare, written by Michael Maltese and an obvious precursor to Jones' later What's Opera, Doc? Bob McKimson not only has mainstream work of his like Crowing Pains in this collection, but also two more experimental films, The Hole Idea, which he animated himself, and Bartholomew Versus the Wheel, a modernistic fairy tale written by John Dunn. Tex Avery's Page Miss Glory is here in all its art deco splendor.

Page Miss Glory

There's more than 30 years of Warner Bros. cartoon history here, but even if you're not particularly interested in animation from a historical standpoint, these cartoons are a treasure chest of artistic riches. There's a wide variety of stories and design approaches. There's great animation by Rod Scribner, Bob McKimson, Manny Gould, Ken Harris, Bobe Cannon, Ben Washam, Art Davis, and Virgil Ross. These cartoons are a textbook on how music can accompany animation and how it can be used to propel animation forward. There is more to be learned from a set like this than from any book written about creating animation. And this set is also an inventory of all the animation techniques that the industry has abandoned or forgotten. Sadly, it may also be the last time the Warner Bros. cartoons are collected with this much love and respect. Enjoy the Looney Tunes Golden Collections because we may not see their like again.

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