Jiminy Christmas, hard to believe we’re already halfway through Shortstember. I’ve honestly been having a blast with these reviews and I hope you have too. The downside of focusing on only one short per decade, though, is that we’re now halfway through the twentieth century and I’ve already missed two chances to talk about Bugs Frickin’ Bunny and the Goddamn Looney Tunes and that shit ain’t right. The Looney Tunes series of shorts and its sister series Merry Melodies began in 1930 and 1931 respectively, as a naked attempt by Warner Bros to ride Disney’s coattails in the wake of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies Shorts. In case you’re wondering, the different between Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies originally was that the ‘Tunes were in black and white and the Melodies were in colour (kinda, Disney had Technicolour exclusively at the time) and certain characters were exclusive to each (Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny both started out in a Merry Melody despite now being the quintessential Looney Tune characters). By the forties though, both series were being done in colour and characters were freely crossing over from one series to the other and there wasn’t really any appreciable difference between the two. So, if I say “Looney Tunes” from here on in, just assume I’m talking about a Warners Brothers short that could have been either a Looney Tune or a Merry Melody. Makes no difference. They’re all beautiful, man.
Broadly speaking, (and I rarely speak any other way), the Looney Tunes started out as Poor Man’s Disney in the thirties, had become the sassy, irreverent anti-Disney by the forties but by the fifties Disney were completely out of the equation. Warner Bros had established an artistic and comedic sensibility that was entirely their own and was beholden to nobody. And we talk a lot about how funny these shorts were (and make no mistake, a top-tier Looney Tune is nothing less than the Platonic ideal of comedy itself) but less discussed is just how beautiful the shorts of this period had become, with special credit due to the absolutely stunning backgrounds of Maurice Noble.
As for the animation, by the fifties the Looney Tunes characters had evolved from rubber limbed, bug-eyed loons to comic actors with the poise and timing of a Carey Grant or Peter Sellers. The phrase “Looney Tunes” conjures images of anarchic, bombastic violence but the fifties-era shorts are possessed of a wonderful sense of subtlety and comedic restraint. Forties era Bugs Bunny might turn to the audience and yell “Crazy, ain’t it?!”. Fifties era Bugs Bunny does the same gag with a single, perfectly raised eyebrow. This is the era where you get shorts like “One Froggy Evening”, “What’s Opera Doc?”, “Duck Amuck” and the hunting trilogy (“Duck Season! Wabbit Season!”). Every element just came into its own here, the direction, the voice acting by the incomparable Mel Blanc, the animation, the writing, the music…
To watch Looney Tunes shorts from the fifties is to be in the hands of masters at the very top of their game.
I’m not going to review one of the really big name shorts like the ones I’ve already mentioned because I try to go a little off the beaten track with this series (Steamboat Willie was an exception because its influence is so vast I knew I’d have to talk about it anyway) so instead, let’s take a look at 1953’s “Bully for Bugs”.