Time-Warner has deployed its considerable media forces to make sure that as large a share as possible of the reading and viewing population is aware of the 50th birthday of one of its biggest, most reliable stars -- Bugs Bunny. The big year has been commemorated with an ongoing celebration and merchandising effort on the various pages and screens controlled by Time-Warner. But it turns out that Bugs had company in the cartoon nursery 50 years ago -- a bird, a cat and a mouse whose current corporate parents have been quieter thus far about their progeny's estimated anniversaries, but will begin their own semi-centennial celebrations in earnest next month.

It's been 50 years since cartoonist Walter Lantz's honeymoon was disrupted by a noisy woodpecker -- who, at wife Grace Stafford's urging, became the inspiration for Universal Pictures' biggest animated star. Next month, Woody Woodpecker returns to the screen with a two-volume 50th Anniversary Edition retrospective from MCA-Universal Home Video. Featuring animated shorts never before released on videocassette, the tapes each offer four vintage Woody cartoons. Among the highlights are Volume 1's "Cracked Nut," which introduced screen audiences to Woody Woodpecker in 1941 -- the transition from honeymoon to Hollywood taking about a year -- and 1942's "Ace in the Hole," which finds the redheaded bird doing the red-blooded American bit by signing up for the Army Air Corps. The half-hour tapes are priced at $12.95 each.

Meanwhile, MGM/UA Home Video is commemorating the 50th anniversary of "Puss Gets the Boot," the short animated film that marked the screen debut of Tom & Jerry, with a two-tape collection of "Tom & Jerry's 50th Birthday Classics." Each 45-minute ($12.95) tape offers six Tom & Jerry shorts; included are two winners of the Best Animated Short Subject Oscar, "Johann Mouse" and "Mouse Trouble." MGM-UA is also releasing four $12.98 compilations of animated shorts starring that other birthday boy -- Bugs Bunny -- that have ended up in MGM-UA's hands. In the corporate cartoon battles, it seems that birthday cheer is too good to pass up no matter what the source.

Time at the Top

Next week will also mark an anniversary in the making -- the point when Time-Warner's market share becomes the industry's largest. The occasion is Warner Home Video's planned absorption of the HBO Video sales force into a single unit. Although the two companies will retain separate corporate offices and identities, the sales merger will give the combined Time-Warner video arm an estimated 15 percent of the market, unseating current leader Walt Disney.

The last tape released under the old HBO Video umbrella, due in stores next week, won't even contribute to the Time-Warner wealth; HBO has pledged that all proceeds from the Academy Award-winning documentary "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt" will be donated to the NAMES Project Foundation, the force behind the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The filmmakers, duplicators, designers and distributors will likewise be contributing their profits to the NAMES Project. The 79-minute tape, which aired on HBO last year, is priced at $25.

Letter-Box Love

The message that Steven Spielberg sent to the video community by insisting that "Always" be released on tape exclusively in letter-box format has not gone unnoticed. Fans of the letter-box format -- which replicates the wide-screen ratio of the film image by blacking out portions of the television screen -- have two high-visibility victories to look forward to in the coming months. When MGM-Columbia Pictures Home Video releases "Glory" next month, tape renters will be able to choose between the standard "pan-and-scan" version and a letter-boxed edition that shows the film's Oscar-winning cinematography as best the small-screen can. And Vidmark is offering a letter-box option on its October release of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" -- although the big-screen treatment will only be available on the 123-minute unrated version. The R-rated edition, which lost 28 minutes' worth of material to qualify for its rating, is available only in pan-and-scan. Make that pan-and-scant.

See Them in September

Low-priced new-to-video blockbusters are already beginning to steal some of the rental market's fall thunder, but the month is not without some rental arrivals. Some highlights: Sept. 5: "The Handmaid's Tale," "House Party," "Rosalie Goes Shopping." Sept. 12: "Impulse." Sept. 13: "Crazy People," "Cry-Baby," "Opportunity Knocks." Sept. 19: "Glory," "A Shock to the System." Sept. 26: "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Sept. 27: "Vital Signs," "Martians Go Home."