Though a substantial lack of Daffy doesn't help matters much, Judge Bill Gibron agrees that Warners continues to do its animation heritage proud with these bountiful box sets.
Our reviews of Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume One (published November 25th, 2003), Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Two (published January 24th, 2005), Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Three (published December 12th, 2005), Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Five (published November 14th, 2007), Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Six (published October 21st, 2008), Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume Two (Blu-ray) (published October 22nd, 2012), Looney Tunes Platinum Edition: Volume One (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition (published November 27th, 2011), and Looney Tunes: The Premiere Collection (published November 10th, 2003) are also available.
What a ma-roon! What an Eskimo Pie head!
When it comes to determining the greatest creator of cartoons in the art form's limited lifetime, the argument for No. 1 is always tricky. Everything below is taken up with Harveytoons, standard Saturday morning crap, and a dozen obscure studios that barely deserve a mention. No, the titanic tussle is between Disney and Warners for pen-and-ink supremacy. If you like your animation on the fluid and flowery side, barely breaking an anarchic sweat as it makes its frequently funny points, then Uncle Walt and his House of Mouse merriment get your vote. But it you prefer your humor hokey, hilarious, hazardous, and just a little unhinged, with characters whose names frequently reflect their pandemonium-filled personalities (Daffy Duck?), then the Warners crew wins. Besides, Bugs and his buddies have been getting a lot of support from their parent company's strategy of releasing their timeless titles on DVD. As part of this presentation, the latest installment, The Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 4, has just arrived in stores. But be warned. Along with a strange collection of non-standard characters, this particular collection includes the most famous cultural slap in the face in the entire Warners' catalog. Arriba!
Facts of the Case
Spanning Warners' cartoon output from 1936 to 1966 (when their efforts were actually being outsourced and developed by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises) and barely scratching the surface of their overall animation canon (with four volumes at 60 shorts each, that's about 25 percent of Warners' 1,000-plus titles), Volume 4 focuses each disc on a particular theme. It could be a creative person, a specific character, or a certain overriding concept. Here all three are present, with a true animation icon taking the first slot, a noted director driving Disc Two, and a collection of feisty felines on the final set. But it is Disc Three that raises the most interest. There you will find a few of Speedy Gonzales's adventures in racial intolerance. While not the worst thing you'll ever see, our current pro-PC mindset will have a hard time with these titles.
For those who demand details, here's what's specifically on Volume 4:
Disc One: Bugs Bunny Classics
Disc Two: A Tribute to Frank Tashlin
Disc Three: Speedy Gonzalez
Disc Four: Cats
Warner Brothers isn't stupid. They know the potential firestorm that awaits them. And it's not just over a certain Hispanic rodent. No, back before the content police made sure everything was safe and inclusive, animators and cartoon directors used to use something called "a sense of humor" to mock and mimic the culture around them. Forty years ago, Latinos were a true minority, and stereotypes were fostered by the mainstream media—also known as radio and the movies. Warners wasn't out to belittle an entire race. Instead, they were simply following a trend that kept non-Caucasians in the back seat of the artistic bus. So this time around, the company places a tell-tale disclaimer on the front of every DVD. The good news is that this means many of the shorts offered here are presented without censorship or sensitivity-mandated cuts. Previously, they had employed celebrities to do this bit of definitional dirty work. Now, a few concise words on a single title card does the trick. So if you're a parent who believes that animation offers wholesome values, clean-cut comedy, and life lessons neatly rolled up in bows of well-meaning maxims, then this collection is not for you. Head over to the Mickey Mouse section of the store and load up on a few of those direct-to-video violations of Disney's time-honored traditions.
No, the Looney Tunes and their pen-and-ink compatriots, Merrie Melodies, were Warners' way of unleashing the id of their talented technicians—for both good and, on occasion, bad. Wildly innovative, loaded with inside and subliminal humor, and responsible for a rash of famous and favored cartoon characters, Warners went where Disney would not go, giving its audiences the unspoiled insanity and cornball comedy it so desperately desired. Certainly, the House of Mouse stands the test of time as well, delivering beloved family favorites like Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Donald, and Goofy. But the Brothers bested Walt's world, turning such typical types on their ear. Their bunny was smart, sassy, and occasionally out of control. Their fowl was a freak, spraying his brain-addled bedlam around anyone and anything. From a clumsy, accident-prone pig to a con-artist rooster who regaled his marks like a Confederate colonel recalling Dixie, Warners' icons were incredibly distinct. Thanks to collections like this one, the reasons why are made incredibly obvious. Not just centering on certain stars or studio symbols, The Golden series strives to be a clear corporate overview. The four discs offered distinguish themselves with such a synoptic approach. They highlight how certain familiar faces changed, and how the times frequently dictated a cartoon's content.
Viewed individually, each DVD is different, sending out its own meaningful message. We begin with:
Disc One: Off Model Bunny
The first thing you notice when plowing through this material is how odd Bugs Bunny looks. Sometimes, he's fat and sassy, given some easily identifiable bloat that makes him look dumpy and foolish. Then, in the next installment, our favorite hare will be thin and angular, almost a caricature of himself. Legs will be spindly and his body will be gaunt. In many ways, it's representative of the different directors behind the scenes, but also highlights a change in the perception of animation. Prior to the advent of TV, most cartoons were seen as adult entertainment, with stories and themes aimed at an audience already in tune with slapstick and broad-based humor. Amazingly enough, children were mostly a minor consideration. Thought of as being too unsophisticated for the level of wit being offered by Warners, they represented a demographic best served by Disney, a company whose comedy was more amiable than anarchic. As a result, Bugs is reduced to a proto-punchline here, playing insane straight man to main victims/laugh getters Yosemite Sam, Nasty Canasta, and, most memorably, Wile E. Coyote.
Indeed, "Operation: Rabbit" and "To Hare Is Human" are two of the best offerings on this entire DVD set. Both feature Mr. Coyote in his "super genius" mode, suave, debonair voice hiding an arrogant assurance that no dim-witted bunny will outsmart him. Naturally, Bugs finds ways to circumvent this manic MENSA member, with the results as resplendently violent as anything in the "versus Roadrunner" oeuvre. Whether it's the closing gag of "Operation" (where Wile E. discovers a new name) or the outdated computer Mr. Coyote consults, this is Warners at its best. Equally good, for different reasons, are the installments featuring a favorite villain—the master of the big-ass hat and moustache, Yosemite Sam. With his gravel-voiced drawl and "consarnit" style of swearing, Sam doesn't take evil to ingenious or inventive heights. Instead, he's an ornery cuss, capable of only doing one thing—challenging and chasing his rodent prey. All throughout "Roman-Legion Hare," "Knighty Knight Bugs," and the incredibly un-PC "Southern Fried Rabbit," this miniature madman steals the stage time and time again. Like Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam is an under-appreciated 'toon who deserves much better than his occasional sidekick status.
Disc Two: Peas Porridge Pig
In order to appreciate Disc Two, you have to love Porky Pig. Before you shrug in obvious recognition of such a statement, realize what's missing here. No cat companion, a.k.a. Sylvester. No nutty nemesis as in one Daffy Duck. Very little interaction with other members of the Warners' crew. Just everyone's favorite stuttering swine stumbling through a lot of late '30s/ early '40s efforts by studio fixture Frank Tashlin. The director, who would later make a name in Hollywood with live-action films such as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and his work with Jerry Lewis (from Rock-a-bye Baby to The Disorderly Orderly), has a distinct style, one loaded with sight gags, physical pratfalls, and an overriding sense of silliness. In efforts like "Porky's Railroad," "Porky the Fireman," and "Little Beau Porky," a situation-comedy style set-up is employed (Porky battling a blaze, Porky in the Foreign Legion), onto which a series of setups and jokes are placed. Because of his timing and talent, Tashlin makes most of this work. But it's very odd to see the artistry in these monochrome works. The drawing is outlandish and over the top, the tone wildly shifting between crazy and completely chaotic. Anyone used to the more narrative-oriented shorts of the '40s and '50s will see Tashlin's early efforts as rather strange and slightly surreal.
But there is more to the man than just hogs and hilarity. Tashlin had a wild imagination, and it's a mind that's put to good use in "Now That Summer Is Gone," "You're an Education," and "Booby Hatched." The first piece sees a silly song about squirrels gathering nuts turned into a big-budget musical production number, with gambling and hard work battling it out as subtexts to the storyline. "You're an Education" has the brochures from a travel agency coming to life, with a few racially insensitive moments along the way. Finally, "Booby Hatched" sees a mother foul trying desperately to warm her eggs for hatching. The extremes she goes through in order to save her brood, as well as the way in which Tashlin handles the wintry elements makes for some wonderfully exciting cartoon comedy. Not everything is top-notch—the wolf vs. super sheep of "I Got Plenty of Mutton" and the pre-Sylvester storyline featuring a cat named Rudolph who can't stop consuming the other household pets ("Puss n' Booty") are old-fashioned and obvious. But for a unique glimpse into Warners' earliest days, as well as a chance to catch up with one of its original talents, this second disc is an excellent overview.
Disc Three: Holy Frijole!
Oh, boy. Here it comes. Like the inevitable firestorm that will accompany a re-release of Song of the South (if and when that ever happens), Warners' decision to dig into this Mexican mouse franchise is bound to stir some considered controversy. Why, you may ask? After all, what could be wrong about a little rodent who's the fastest of his kind South of the border? Well, not very much, actually. Sure, Speedy Gonzalez has a voice that only Bill Dana could love, and long-time Warners' voiceover talent Mel Blanc is not beyond stringing along a few stereotypical sayings to amplify the racial insensitivity. But in general, Speedy is fine. He's a hero. He outwits the bad guy. He uses his energy and his abilities to thwart all manner of menaces. No, as a character and as a representation of Hispanic hilarity, he's really rather charming. Just don't pay attention to his sidekicks and you'll be okay. Indeed, the worst part of any Speedy Gonzales cartoon is the horribly inappropriate characters the mouse must commingle with. They are the elements that reduce an entire racial group to lazy, stupid slobs who can't work up the energy to do anything but whine and waste the day away, hoping their pal Speedy will come along and save them.
Granted, in the original short "Cat-Tails for Two," the initial design of Speedy is about as close to a hate crime as animation gets. Sinewy and ratty, with a bowl haircut and large gold tooth sticking out of his English-slurring mouth, this early version is miles away from the milder take Robert McKimson created for his shorts. But for some reason, everyone around Speedy—including his Stepin Fetchit-like cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez—has to be viewed as sloppy, drunk, and horny. These womanizing rats, with their minds stuck on senioritas, cervesa, and food, attack everything noble and nuanced about Spanish-speaking culture, reducing it to a series of stupid shorthanded slights. As a result, it's hard to get a handle on most of these 'toons. A few, including one featuring Daffy and another offering the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote as companions, do avoid most of the problematic material. But whenever the local pest population requires a champion to thwart a villainous cat or countrymen, Speedy is guaranteed to be surrounded by symbolic insensitivity. It is safe to say that in the long lineage of Warner Brother characters, Speedy Gonzalez is a subjectively second-tier sort of fellow.
Disc Four: Cat Calls
Our final disc does something rather daring. Instead of focusing on the most famous feline in the Warners catalog—a certain lisping load named Sylvester—the archivists have gone back and located other short subjects where a cat protagonist/antagonist was featured. Then they've lined them up, allowing us a chance to see how, sans a running gag or consistent character trait, the company created its four-footed frenzy. Sometimes, the kitten simply complements the narrative. In "Kiss Me Cat," big bulldog Thomas must protect the tiny little mouser from being booted out by his owners. In other installments, a lazy, good-for-nothing fleabag named Dodsworth causes trouble for its owner, either by being spoiled ("Kiddin' the Kitten") or by trying to catch a woodpecker for breakfast ("A Peck o' Trouble"). There's even an odd episode involving a stray, adopted by an eagle and taught to fly by spinning its tiny tail in a circle ("Go Fly A Kit"). In combination, they prove that Warners could work beyond the parameters of Sylvester, Tweety, and the kooky catchphrase "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!"
In fact, it's interesting to see where most of the comedy comes from. In several of the shorts here, the humor is purely physical, with a contrast between cute and conniving thrown in for good measure. For example, when Thomas must teach his small kitten friend how to capture and kill mice, the dynamic between the sweet and gentle brutish bulldog and the sneaky little rat who's constantly one-upping the cat is very well done. We sympathize with the powerful pup, knowing that it's not up to him, but the miniature ball of fur, to prove its meaningful mantle. Similarly, when a buffoon like Dodsworth is learning his valuable life lessons, we recognize that the animators are playing both against and with type. Instead of making their cat a menacing, powerful hunter (as they are in the wild), they urbanize—and as a result, de-animalize—the creature, turning it into a perfect comic punching bag. From moments of the broadest slapstick to instances of poignant interplay, this final DVD shows the range of the Warners' universe, and proves there was more to the studio than Bugs, Daffy, and a collection of decidedly loony 'toons.
As with previous box sets, the extras offered are just as important as the overall tech specs. Thankfully, Warners has done a terrific job with both. To list everything on each DVD would take up a whole other review. Besides, there are plenty of places on the Internet were content-specific geeks have gorged on the inclusions here. Let's hit the highlights, shall we:
Disc One features the first part of a documentary called Bugs Bunny, Superstar. This wonderful look at the Termite Terrace (the building where Warners housed its animation department) provides lots of insight into the entire Looney/Merrie methodology. Even better, it contains nine more animated shorts. In addition, there is a "Behind the Tunes" featurette, a look at Bridging Sequences from TV's The Bugs Bunny Show, commentaries, and much, much more.
Disc Two offers the rather unexciting Porky and Daffy in "The William Tell Overture" (a new cartoon that certainly suffers by comparision), 10 commentaries, some uncompleted efforts by Tashlin, and a few more titles from the vault, all featuring Private Snafu, a World War II favorite.
Disc Three starts off with a biographical profile of the legendary Friz Freleng, even more commentaries, and a pair of particularly interesting efforts from Warners immense collection.
Our final DVD presents a series of featurettes—"The Art of the Gag," "Looney Tunes: A Cast of Thousands" (a character overview), "One Hit Wonders," "Sing a Song of Looney Tunes," and "Wild Lines: The Art of Voice Acting." Almost an hour in total, they give a great summary of the Warner Brothers style. Add in another collection of commentaries (these discussions are uniformly informative and quite good), some storyboard reels, and a long-lost "classic" from the studio's annual blooper reel, and you've got a sensational digital presentation. Even better, the cartoons themselves are almost faultless in their visual remastering. So bright they practically leap off the screen, the 1.33:1 full-frame transfers are just terrific. Add in a clean and crisp Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix, and you've got a delightful digital presentation.
It's hard to appreciate the impact of these cartoons, especially when you consider the current state of media. Just head on over to YouTube or Google the word "animation" and you'll get dozens of sites hawking all kinds of lower-end cartooning. Back before TV took over as the reigning medium for most entertainment-seeking individuals, the cinema was a place for feature presentations, the occasional B-picture, a newsreel or two, and, of course, a cartoon short. Over at Disney, the House of Mouse's new head honcho, Pixar's John Lassiter, has stated his desire to return to the days of short-form animation. Sadly, it will only be part of a Walt-approved accompaniment, not a generalized leap back into the fray. Still, one can reconnect with the glory days of the art form by picking up these amazing collections. Sure, the Speedy Gonzales material will be slightly problematic, but he's a reliably funny character with a genuineness that's hard to beat. So forget all the PC-thuggery, reject the rationale that, somehow, these old shorts are detrimental to today's audiences, and pick up the series. It will make you wonder why anyone argues over who's No. 1 when it comes to cartooning. From this perspective, the winner is rather obvious.
Not guilty! As a famous duck might say, "it is to laugh" if anyone even considered this set to be anything but great.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary on "Rabbit Hood" by director Eric Goldberg
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