Dr. Toon looks at the beef fans have with the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD and asks, what, no gravy?
Those of you reading the title of this months column and expecting a culinary twist will find little to nibble upon; the title actually refers to a Chuck Jones opus from 1951 entitled, Chow Hound. In this sardonic short an antisocial dog cheats the aggrieved owners of lost pet cats by passing off a stooge (or rather, slave) cat as their missing meowbag. The relieved owners give the confederate cat generous meals, which he then must turn over to his greedy Fagan. The dastardly dog is a tough employer; rather than proffering a well done he snarls What, no gravy? You forgot the gravy! He then gorges away and plots his next sinister scam. Several times over the past week or two, I have had this cartoon flash through my mind whenever I read about the contention over the recent release of the four-DVD box set Looney Tunes Golden Collection.
If you do not yet own this compilation (and I assuming that virtually everybody reading this does), you have no doubt noticed that the DVDs contain 56 shorts culled from the Golden Age of the studio, several recent cartoons produced well after Warner closed in the late 1960s, the excellent documentary, The Boys From Termite Terrace, excerpts from the TV program The Bugs Bunny Show and several other fascinating features (including a recording session by the late Mel Blanc) guaranteed to keep you prisoner to whatever technology you are viewing the discs on. The shorts themselves have been restored to the point where many of them probably look better than they did upon release, and gone is the hack-and-slash editing and censoring that made so many purists gnash their teeth for lo, these many years. Roughly half of them can be viewed, if you wish, with commentary by Michael Barrier and Greg Ford, who should know a thing or two about the cartoons contained herein.
Yet, some fanatics have responded like the Chow Hound; with this marvelous cornucopia dropped into their laps, their reaction has been, What, no gravy! Controversy abounds on the Web, in the print media, and among the fans. The contention mostly arises from the following gripes: Some of the best Looney Tunes are absent (Whats Opera, Doc and One Froggy Evening seem to be the most conspicuous absentees by fan consensus); some shorts were deliberately withheld so that Warner could soak the buying public at some future date; the shorts are not arrayed according to chronology or director; dust and flaws can still be seen even on the restored shorts; half the cartoons are directed by Chuck Jones and minimize the contributions of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett; the cover art does not look like the classic animation; the sound is mono; and sundry other complaints ranging from the informed to the downright nibby. You forgot the gravy!
In an Associated Press interview with Anthony Breznican, Warner marketing director George Feltenstein (who assisted in the selection of shorts) attempted to mollify those who believed they are being milked: We couldnt release all the best ones at once... what would we do for an encore? Warner Home Video has assured the hungry that they will be fed a set of 60 cartoons annually. Presumably with gravy.
It would be tempting to chide these dissenters. After all, a full collection of the roughly 1,100 Looney Tunes produced would result in something like 20 comparable boxed sets costing, oh, about $1,700. Thats some saucer of gravy to most of us. Before arguing with the selection of shorts, it could be considered that we are fortunate that Warner finally wised up and followed the successful Disney formula in releasing most of their classic shorts on DVD, with more to come.
In fact, most of the history of American animation has yet to find its way to DVD or even video for that matter. Now that Warner has finally opened the spigot, why decry what they have sent us? It isnt as though the selection is a miserable one, and I am sure that most fans will recognize that before they open the package. The extras are sumptuous, and if the restoration isnt crystalline, it surely looks better than your compilation VHS tape, the standard way to collect classic Warner shorts before now. The closest we have ever come to anything like this was the awesome five-volume, $500 laserdisc collection The Golden Age of Looney Tunes that was offered back in the 1990s. Still, how good did the toons look? What extras did you get? By the way, watch any laserdiscs lately?
Yet chide them I will not: As usual, there is more to the story. The fan furor over the Golden Collection has a deeper meaning, one that can be found at the nexus where technology, popular culture and marketing meet. As we shall see, fan contention was unavoidable... and, perhaps, not unwarranted. To begin with, consider the DVD. As we all know, a prodigious amount of cinematic material can be crammed on to one disc, and it is possible that a four-disc set could have held many more than 56 seven-minute shorts with space to spare for the extras. Would there have been room for a selectively singing frog and a Wagnerian bunny? Ehh, you bet, Doc!
Warners counters this argument with some technological terpsichore of their own, claiming that a full collection could have been available sooner but the toons would have been on a par with the worst of the public domain VHS releases faded, unrestored, and dirty. Dorinda Marticorena, Warner Home Video director of marketing, told Breznican that the restoration of so many cartoons is a slow process that takes months. So it is that the humble DVD, with its awesome storage capacity, is pitted against the rigors of DVD-appropriate restoration of several hundred cartoons at least. Of course, there are those who have stated their belief that Warner has clandestinely restored far more toons than they are telling and are deliberately withholding them. Perhaps and perhaps not. The real point is the Golden Collection controversy is, in many ways, a technological one with both sides claiming the high ground. Of course you know, dis means war!
The technological aspect of the controversy is less interesting than the cultural aspect. Why, indeed, should there be such a row over the selection and number of the Golden Collection cartoons? When Disney released the DVDs Mickey Mouse In Black and White and Silly Symphonies under the aegis of Walt Disney Treasures, it could quickly be ascertained that not every short in those respective categories were inside the tins. The excellent Fleischer compilation Somewhere in Dreamland is a representative, but certainly not inclusive collection.
Yet, no one seemed too angry that Mickeys adventures as The Plow Boy or The Jazz Fool were not on his DVD, or that Santas Workshop or Old King Cole did not make the cut for Silly Symphonies. Certainly, no one has burned up the Web with vitriolic complaints that the Fleicher compilation did not contain the complete manifest of Hunky & Spunky shorts. Granted, Whats Opera Doc does occupy a higher place in the pantheon of American animated shorts than the cartoons listed above, but the dynamics go beyond one or two classic toons.
There was a time, not very long ago, when deeply knowledgeable animatophiles were rare. Cartoons were cartoons, and only a handful of historians and writers paid them any heed. Most of the classic studios were moribund or defunct, and our most beloved characters, while not extinct, were little more than corporate symbols. The end of the 1980s saw a renewed interest in animation and its history; the proliferation of books, tapes, and programming spawned a boom that exists to this day. While many historians point to the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit as the progenitor of the boom, the causes were multifactorial. The advent of cable programming, the Internet and the sudden availability of archival cartoons fed the flames, and the revival of classic characters intersected with an increase in the amount of original animated programming. Suddenly, not only animatophiles, but animation scholars were everywhere.
These were not necessarily academic scholars by any means. Thanks to the Web, print media and the increased availability of animated material, the general public now boasts more knowledgeable animation fans than at any time in the history of animation audiences. The proliferation of historical and technical bonus features that are now typical of DVD releases has further educated these fans to graduate student level.
In speaking with everyday toonheads from Boston to Los Angeles, I have come to realize that if you show them a portion of any WB classic cartoon, most can accurately identify the director, the production date within three or four years, and can carry on a discourse about the studio and its luminaries both human and animated. Virtually all of them can snap off a list of favorite shorts by title and recite strings of dialogue on demand. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and it is into this arena of heightened sophistication that Warner released the Golden Collection.
Along with more educated cartoon fans, we also have the issue of cultural capital. The Warner cartoons have it. Few other cartoons do. The venerable Disney characters are iconic and Betty Boop may still be one kewl grrl, but it is Bugs, Daffy, Taz, Tweety and Yosemite Sam that truly cemented WB cartoons as popular culture in America. Warner directors seem to be more identifiable and revered than those of other studios, and if anyone defined cartoon humor and style from the late 1940s through the 1970s it was likely Chuck Jones.
WB generated the wild and brash cartoons that buoyed America during WWII, led the field in the postwar popularity and continued to generate new characters and visual styles long thereafter. Thanks largely to Jones, it was proven that long-established characters like Bugs, Daffy and Porky could be have their personalities overhauled and redefined, thus making them amenable to resurrection time and again. There is no doubt that to be hip, conversant and literate on the subject of animation, one must speak classic Warner. The most devoted animatophiles, the one that the Golden Collection is aimed at, are fluent beyond compare.
Thus, Warner Home Video has released a collection that is fated to come under the scrutiny of expert critics, people that define the Looney Tunes shorts as the high point of achievement among American animated shorts. In perusing the Internet critiques, it is interesting to note that these critics do not simply grouse; some of them proffer lists of what should have been included in the Golden Collection. It is one thing to simply complain; it is another to come up with an informed and well-chosen selection of alternative shorts that could have been integrated into the boxed set.
If Warner Home Video is somewhat bemused by the criticism aimed at what they consider to be a fine presentation to the fans, they shouldnt be. After all, it was their studio, their imaginative directors and their immortal characters that created this situation in the first place. Apart from releasing every Looney Tunes short ever made, there was no way to please them all. They know gravy when they taste it, and theyre going to want more.
So kudos to Warner Home Video for the excellent release, kudos to the fans for their sharp perceptions and dedication to the classic Warner toons, and let peace reign until the controversy over Golden Collection II, when fans will probably be tasting sour persimmons over the exclusion of Goldimouse and the Three Cats or I Got Plenty of Mutton. As Porky might say, cant we all just co-op, eh, co-op, eh, co-op, uh, bdah, get along?
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.