Let us now praise famous Bugs. And famous Porky, famous Daffy, famous Tweety, Sylvester, Pepe, Wile E., Roadrunner, and all the other indelible ink-on-paper progeny of Termite Terrace, for decades a home to men who well may qualify as among the century's great humorists. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Mike Maltese, and others who directed and wrote the Warner Bros. cartoons, made an invaluable contribution to the culture that only in recent years has begun to receive the outpourings of appreciation it deserves.
The outpourings will become a gusher in the weeks ahead as the 50th anniversary of Warner Bros. cartoons is commemorated, and one aspect of the hommage is particularly gratifying: New York's Museum of Modern Art, implicitly conceding that art is just what these fine madnesses are, is staging a double exhibition "to salute five decades of Warner Bros. cartoons." Naturally the main attraction will be the cartoons themselves, dozens of them arranged in 17 programs and screened in the Museum's movie theaters from Sept. 13 through Jan. 26.
In addition, the Museum has mounted an exhibit of original cartoon art from the Warner Bros. years, "That's Not All Folks!," in galleries adjacent to the theaters. The exhibition will be kicked off with an invitational black-tie gala on Tuesday, Sept. 10. Jones, Freleng and Mel Blanc, who gave voice to virtually all the characters, are scheduled to attend. It doesn't sound like the kind of party Andy Warhol would dare miss.
Although plans for it are still somewhat sketchy, the "Golden Jubilee" of Warner Bros. cartoons will also be observed with a one-hour, prime-time, CBS special, probably to air in November. CBS owes a real debt to the Looney Tuners; they've been featured in half-hour, holiday-themed specials some 54 times on the network in the past decade, averaging ratings 17 percent better than whatever regularly scheduled fare they replaced, according to a Warner Bros. spokesman.
Lorne Michaels will be executive producer of the prime-time special on CBS. He has hopes of getting someone as tony as, say, Walter Cronkite (they don't come much tonier) to host the program. "The thing we're going to keep in mind," Michaels says, "is that these cartoons were made for adults, not for children. This is adult humor."
True enough, but nevertheless, a few days before the big MOMA party, Bugs and the gang will be opening up shop on the ABC television network as the lead-off for another new fall season of Saturday morning cartoons, except that all the Warner Bros. cartoons shown are old and have aired dozens of times. The menagerie makes the move to ABC after 10 years on CBS, where the cartoons always earned gala ratings. CBS wouldn't cough up enough money for the new season, though, so Warner Bros. took its illustrious stock company across town. "The Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes Comedy Hour" premieres at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 7.
Since children seem destined by fate, or by Madison Avenue, to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings, it is fortunate they can see these chestnuts and classics along with all the contemporarily and cheaply produced dross. But the cartoons are cut for TV, mutilated even; punch lines are sometimes excised and carefully plotted gags truncated, and parental activist groups scream for, and sometimes get, deletions of explosions and crashes and falls off cliffs. Children are only seeing approximations of the original works.
To help right this wrong, Warner Bros. Home Video is also joining in the celebration by releasing nine new videotape collections of Warner Bros. cartoons, each without excisions, and not folded into the continuity of feature-length theatrical compilations, as was done in recent years ("The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie," et al). An absolutely incomparable collection of wisecracking American humor, the "Golden Jubilee 24-Karat Collection" includes most of the acknowledged classics of the genre. Each tape contains eight cartoons, runs about an hour, will retail for a shockingly reasonable $19.98, and will be available in stores by late September or early October.
Having "Bully for Bugs" on a cassette is nearly as exciting as having "Pinocchio" on a cassette. It may be more exciting than having "Gone With the Wind" on a cassette; how many times can you really watch "Gone With the Wind"?
Most of the titles are keyed to particular characters ("Daffy Duck: The Nuttiness Continues") but three are auteurist collections devoted to work of the masters. "A Salute to Mel Blanc" includes the screwball Rossini spoof "The Rabbit of Seville"; "A Salute to Friz Freleng" includes the director's Oscar-winning "Knighty-Knight Bugs"; and "A Salute to Chuck Jones" includes that director's Oscar-winning "For Scent-imental Reasons" with Pepe LePew. Also on the Jones tape are his Oscar-nominated "What's Opera, Doc?" in which Elmer Fudd pursues The Wabbit against a background of Wagnerian threnody; and "One Froggy Evening," the best Warner Bros. cartoon ever made without one of the big-name paper stars in its cast. It has to do with a frog that sings "Hello, My Baby," but only if the vibes are right.
There is an unhappy note to all this merrily melodious hoopla. Although Jones and Freleng and Blanc sometimes earn incidental income from tangential activities, Warner Bros. does not pay them royalties for the cartoons that have been earning money upon money upon money for year upon year upon year. From his home near Los Angeles, Chuck Jones says he isn't bitter about this, but concedes, "I wouldn't object if they gave us a percentage of what they are selling in a new market," the home video one. Jones says Warner Bros. charges his daughter, who sells some of the original "cels" (character drawings) used in making the cartoons, the usual 6 percent royalty it assesses other companies for use of the characters.
Edward Bleier, president of Warner Bros. Cartoons and executive vice president of Warner Bros. Inc., is sympathetic but says of Jones and the other surviving alumni of Termite Terrace (their name for their ramshackle headquarters on the Warners lot), "They did their greatest work way back when -- when they worked for the company. Two things we have very consciously done in the past five or six years is give them new work to do. Friz did three movies, Chuck did his, and for the specials, Mel does brand new voices. Chuck has an ancillary business with the artwork, and we take a very modest royalty. Whether they get direct income or indirect income, we have made a conscious effort to make sure they benefit from the renaissance of the material."
Leonard Maltin, the "Entertainment Tonight" movie critic and devoted film buff, is the curator for the MOMA exhibit. He says the fact that Jones and Freleng aren't reaping royalties now hardly flies in the face of Hollywood tradition. "It parallels, of course, the fate of almost anybody who worked in Hollywood all those years," Maltin says from Los Angeles. "The Three Stooges didn't get any money when they were rediscovered through television, nor did Laurel and Hardy. I wouldn't single this out as a lone injustice, although in a better world, they would be getting more money from Warner Bros."
And Jones has faith in Bleier, company man though he be, at least "compared to the other Warner Bros. management" he has dealt with in the past. "Ed cares about animation, which is more than the people who preceded him did. He's been very nice to us," Jones says. Before Bleier came to the rescue, Warners would commit such heresies as throwing out cartoon prints and negatives to conserve storage space. It was like throwing out Mark Twain's own manuscript of "Huckleberry Finn."
Bleier says, "I'm making no excuses for those days. But they're over. The nurturing and care and feeding of Chuck and Mel and Friz is a high priority for me. I'm the inheritor of this legacy, and I don't want to do wrong by them. Also I don't want to be the butt of one of Chuck's stories about studio executives." Jones says that neglect of the cartoon unit goes way back to the founding Warner brothers themselves, and suggests some of it was benign: "Jack Warner never even knew our names," he recalls, "and Harry Warner thought we did Mickey Mouse."
Maltin, the author of "Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons," says his affection for the Warner Bros. work is passionate.
"What do I love about them? I love everything about them," he says. "I loved them when I was a kid because they were just funny. They crept into my brain and stayed there -- the jokes, the topical references, the music. These cartoons were the first place I heard a lot of classical music. They mesmerized me on every possible level. When I got older, I found I still loved them and I found new reasons. As a film buff, there is so much in them. They're the highest plateau of cinema, really, because they cover every aspect of filmmaking -- great direction, writing, camera angles, editing, scoring -- just compressed, that's all."
Maltin's personal favorite, he says, is the late Bob Clampett's "Wabbit Twouble," but he's also happy to report that, because he had some say in the Warner Home Video series, it will include the rarely shown black-and-white gem, "You Ought to Be in Pictures," a 1940 outing for Daffy and Porky that takes them onto the real Warner lot and features live-action appearances by Leon Schlesinger, founding producer of the unit, and the late Michael Maltese, brilliant writer and story editor.
"What a cartoon!" Maltin exclaims. "What a cartoon!" It's included in the volume called "Porky Pig's Screwball Comedies."
As one surveys the cartoons to be made available in the home video series, the pun-packed titles alone suggest the ingratiating nature of antic impudence that marked the work of the Warner crew: "Fast and Furry-ous," "To Beep or Not to Beep," "Cat-Tails for Two," "Cannery Woe," "Tweet and Lovely," "Hyde and Go Tweet," "The Last Hungry Cat," "Mouse-taken Identity," "Who's Kitten Who?," "Zoom and Bored," and Jones' hilarious sky-high sci-fi farce, "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century."
Immersing oneself in this proudly quixotic literature isn't just an escapist undertaking. Many of these films are as worthy of study as the works of Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch; they can be as effectively manipulative as Hitchcock. The breakneck economy of the storytelling is a model for moviemaking even now; references may be dated, but the cartoons from the best years, 1945-1962, do not look dated. Jones, still active -- at work on a children's book, among other projects -- continues to be bemused by the fervent interest and the impassioned accolades that his work, and that of his fellow artists, inspires.
"I've never gotten used to this," he sighs. "When we made these pictures, we thought that if they lasted three years, we'd be doing fine. Nobody knows anything about a golden age when you're in it."
There is one other attraction to the great cartoons of Warner Bros. It's the least significant, but it is not without significance if you are of a certain age. You plop one of these little beauties on the old Betamax and at the sign of the concentric orange circles and the appearance of the Warner Bros. "WB" shield, and at the sound of Carl Stallings' unmistakable musical theme "The Merry Go-Round Broke Down," you can have one of those quick time-warp flashes and fleetingly see yourself much younger, much freer of care, much more hopeful about things to come, standing at the very imposing candy counter of the old Rialto on, let's say, Main Street. And you're preoccupied with the choice to be made among Jujubes and Mason Dots and Milk Duds when suddenly somebody -- your little sister, the kid next door, your older brother -- bursts through the doors to the auditorium and exhorts you and summons you with what now seem immortal words. Immortal words. Irresistible words. Magic words.
"Come on! You're missing the cartoon!"