Surely in all the world and any galaxies yet unknown there was tonight only one black-tie reception held to honor a bunny, a duck, a pig and a puddy tat. Some 800 people gathered at New York's Museum of Modern Art to celebrate 50 years of Warner Bros. cartoons and pay tribute to two of the men who made them, directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng.
Cher was there, in magenta hair, as well as composer Marvin Hamlisch and TV comedy star Penny Marshall as part of an invited crowd that almost snapped its jewelry laughing at six of the cartoons unreeled in the museum's auditorium. Then there were prologned standing ovations for Jones and Freleng, both in their seventies, and for one-man theatrical troupe Mel Blanc, who did the voices for Bugs and Daffy and Sylvester and all the others but who had to stay in Los Angeles because of illness.
On videotape, Blanc greeted the throng in character voices that included the famous lovesick skunk Pepe LePew: "Eh, I say, 'ello to yew!" Blanc sat before the camera in his bathrobe and included in his greetings praise for both Jones and Freleng.
After all the laughter and the applause died down, and there were buckets of both, Jones was asked how it felt to be in a museum. "Well, we feel like artifacts," he said. "I guess the next thing is to be stuffed and mounted and put on permanent display." Then he joined Freleng to pose obligingly for photos near some of the Bugses and Sylvesters Jones had drawn on downstairs gallery walls, where stills and memorabilia from the golden era of Warner cartooning will be on exhibit until January.
Freleng chatted with Lorne Michaels, the once and future producer of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," about his earliest days at Warners in the 1930s, when Leon Schlesinger was in charge of the animation unit. "Jack Warner didn't have the slightest idea what we were doing, and Leon went to the track every day," Freleng said. "And that was great, because we were on our own. It just goes to prove that if you give talent freedom, they'll come up with something."
What they came up with -- wild and irreverent wise guy humor, ingenious physical gags, veritably immortal new American folklore -- was taken for granted by the movie audiences of three decades, who were unaware even of the cartoon creators' names. Twenty-five years of virtually constant television exposure followed, most recently on "The Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes Comedy Hour," which premiered Saturday morning on ABC, a cosponsor of tonight's event. Film buffs, film scholars and people with a low resistance to mirth and wackiness are now giving the cartoons and their authors the honor and glory so long denied them.
Leonard Maltin, guest curator for the exhibit and film critic for "Entertainment Tonight," said in his remarks to the crowd before the screening that the cartoons "still look as fresh as they day they were made," and noted that they were being exhibited in a movie theater as originally intended. "Some of you may remember what a movie theater is -- it's like a VCR, only bigger," he said.
Official proclamations were sent by Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Edward Koch (at that moment winning renomination for a new term), and Freleng and Jones were presented with plaques by Warner vice president Edward Bleier. "I've never been so surprised," Jones said when he saw his plaque, "because mine has 'Mel Blanc' inscribed on it." The plaque problem was quickly cleared up.
On the screen, Daffy Duck rode again as "The Scarlet Pumpernickel," Elmer Fudd once more trailed "wabbit twacks" over a Technicolor glen, Sylvester once more tried his best to conquer an irrepressible addiction to birds ("Birds Anonymous," a cartoon more relevant in this druggy age than when it was made in the '50s by Freleng) and Bugs Bunny foiled every plot to separate him from his earthly shell and dispatch him to eternity, or a crock pot, whichever was closer. In one rarely seen cartoon, "You Ought to Be in Pictures," in which Schlesinger himself appeared, Daffy Duck tries to talk Porky Pig into seeking a career in features. Daffy tells Porky, "Working in cartoons? Phooey!"
"You know, that Daffy was damn funny," Marshall said after the screening. "I remember when we were doing 'Laverne and Shirley,' I said to the director once, 'I want this to be like a cartoon.' I wanted to swing on a rope into a wall and go 'Boink.' So I tried it. I swung on a rope into a wall, but I didn't go 'boink.' Oooooh, my head hurt for a week." Alan Hunter, best of the MTV veejays, and wearing some sort of oversized zoot suit instead of a tux, was asked if he thought the cartoons were funny. "Funny?" he said. "I've seen them 100 times!" His wife Jan said she was amused to learn she was born the same year that the Chuck Jones classic "One Froggy Evening" was made, 1955. A willingness to laugh at a singing frog is one thing that transcends all generation gaps.
Michaels, who is producing a prime-time CBS special about the Warner cartoonists for November broadcast, said he had probably seen "One Froggy Evening" (the moral tale of how hard ill-gotten gains really are to get) about 50 times, "and every time I see it, I laugh so hard it hurts." Marshall and Cher will be among those appearing on the special, Michaels said. It was Michaels who persuaded them to show up for the party. "I know at least 20 other famous people who wouldn't come because the museum people insisted that it be black-tie," Michaels said. Asked to name examples, he cited Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson. Others, he claimed, were on the tip of his tongue.
A few other remarks apropos of something deserve to be repeated. Freleng, apologizing for having no prepared comments, said, "I'm not a speaker, as you can tell; I'm a cartoonist," and that brought forth a huge ovation. Jones, who did prepare a short talk, said, "We always believed that the very best you can do is the very least you owe your craft." And Maltin added a realistic note of melancholy to all the celebratory ebullience when he said, "Well, gone are the days, and I'm afraid we won't see their like again."