Screening Report: Looney Tunes at BAM

While you were gorging yourself on turkey this Thanksgiving weekend, I was consuming a steady diet of rabbit. And duck, pig, and coyote. Thanks to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s three-day Chuck Amuck series, saluting the centenary of Academy Award-winning animator Charles M. Jones, I got a chance to see 29 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons on the big screen in good quality, 35 mm prints with enthusiastic, capacity crowds. Short of the sainted Mr. Jones (who died in 2002 at the age of 89) being there with us, I can’t imagine a better way to revisit some of my most beloved childhood memories.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the BAM Rose Cinemas screened twice-daily programs featuring ten shorts (nine on Friday) directed by Jones between 1949 and 1961, with one from Friz Freleng – the 1956 backstage satire A STAR IS BORED – thrown in for good measure. Each installment featured a deftly programmed mix of marquee headliners like Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and “Brooklyn’s own” Bugs Bunny, and lesser-known supporting players like Claude Cat, Junyer Bear, and Marvin the Martian. All three screenings I attended were jam-packed with kids, who didn’t seem to mind that these films were not made in 3-D or on a computer. They were funny, and that was all that mattered.

They were also violent, and delightfully so. And that seemed to please the kids to no end, while occasionally inspiring some of the parents to bury their faces in their politically correct hands. Many of these shorts have been sanitized extensively over the years for TV broadcasts, but BAM had the good sense to present them unedited– complete with hilariously extensive (and obviously satirical) gun violence. Jones was the director of the infamous “Hunting Trilogy,” the three shorts in which Elmer Fudd encounters Bugs and Daffy in the woods and proceeds to repeatedly rearrange Daffy’s beak with his shotgun, and all three were screened this weekend: RABBIT FIRE (1951) on Friday; DUCK! RABBIT, DUCK! (1953) on Saturday; and RABBIT SEASONING (1952) on Sunday. For the record, I grew up watching these films unexpurgated, as God and Chuck Jones intended, and I didn’t end up shooting my little sister in the face, so I’m not particularly worried that Brooklyn will see an outbreak of firearm violence perpetrated by 8-year-olds.

The biggest shock of the weekend for me was how much the kids preferred Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote to any other characters in the Warner Bros. canon. While all the shorts were accompanied by giggles and applause at the end (which I love), the Road Runner cartoons were met with roars of approval and a steady stream of screaming, infectious laughter. Ironically, these were among my least favorite of the Warner Bros. cartoons growing up. As a bookish smartass, I found the predictable physical slapstick of Road Runner somehow less evolved than the sharp sarcasm of Bugs. But now, as an adult with a deep admiration for silent film comedy, I see how these shorts function as an homage to both the violently funny Keystone comedies and the highly physical, deadpan antics of Buster Keaton. Plus, the laugh per minute ratio is way higher than just about any piece of classic animation I can think of. Watching with a group of kids hopped up on caffeine and carbs, I developed a new appreciation for these characters, created by Jones himself for 1949’s FAST AND FURRY-OUS. Each daily program featured two Road Runner shorts, and my favorite among these was READY SET ZOOM! (1955), which featured some truly inventive demises for the hapless Wile E. My least favorite was OPERATION RABBIT (1952) in which the Coyote pursues Bugs for the first time and talks (also for the first time, courtesy of Mel Blanc) in a voice that resembles Ronald Coleman on helium. My response to the speaking Coyote is similar to my reaction to Keaton in early talkies: it just doesn’t feel right.

A note about voices in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: although BAM was saluting Chuck Jones, the series paid equal tribute to Mel Blanc, who’s vocal characterizations were featured prominently in 23 of the 29 cartoons (he didn’t appear in the non-talking Road Runner episodes). The Man of 1,000 voices (actually 1,500 by his son Noel’s count) began voicing Warner Bros. shorts in 1937 (when they were still produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions) and continued performing the iconic characters he created until his death in 1989 at age 81. Blanc (who was a longtime cast member of The Jack Benny Program and also had his own radio show) never received an Oscar for his work, which is one of the great travesties in movie history. (You can listen to episodes of The Mel Blanc Show for free here.)

Another artist who’s work was on prominent display at BAM this weekend was Michael Maltese, who wrote all but four of the shorts in the Chuck Amuck series. Maltese, who joined the Warners cartoon unit in 1941 and remained for two decades, was frequently paired with Jones, and their best work was on display this weekend: THE RABBIT OF SEVILLE (1949), a parody of Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville;  ONE FROGGY EVENING (1955) starring Michigan J. Frog, which Steven Spielberg called “the CITIZEN KANE of animated film;” and WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957) and DUCK AMUCK (1953), voted the two best cartoons in history in Jerry Beck’s seminal book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons.

There was one minor drawback to the weekend, however: the auditorium in which BAM screened the Chuck Amuck series was their second smallest (of four screens), seating only 150 people. Tickets for the Sunday 2 p.m. show were sold out before noon, and it pained me to witness adorable little kids excited to see these films I love turned away at the door. But this is easily rectified. BAM should schedule an additional Looney Tunes program, perhaps over the Christmas break, and screen in it in the beautiful 265-seat auditorium that is home to the BAMcinématek events. It would be a setting befitting these iconic classic films, and an opportunity for which we all would be thankful.

A complete list of all shorts screened at BAM, in order of their initial theatrical release, follows after the picture. 

Friday 11/23/12 Program #1 – 9 shorts  (1949- 1960)

FOR SCENT-I-MENTAL REASONS (1949)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Pepe Le Pew)
Release Date: November 12, 1949

RABBIT FIRE (1951)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck) Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd)
Release Date: May 19, 1951

WEARING OF THE GRIN (1951)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig)
Release Date: July 28, 1951

DUCK AMUCK (1953)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck)
Release Date: February 28, 1953

DUCK DOGERS IN THE 24 1/2th CENTURY (1953)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Marvin the Martian, Dr. I.Q. Hi)
Release Date: July 25, 1953

READY SET ZOOM! (1955)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Paul Julian (Road Runner)
Release Date: April 30, 1955

ALI BABA BUNNY (1957)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Hassan, Sultan, Genie)
Release Date: February 9, 1957

ROBIN HOOD DAFFY (1958)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Daffy Duck, Porky Pig
Release Date: Match 8, 1958

FASTEST WITH THE MOSTEST (1960)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Uncredited
Cast: Mel Blanc (Wile E. Coyote), Paul Julian (Road Runner)
Release Date: January 19, 1960

Saturday 11/24/12 Program 2 – 10 shorts (1949-1961)

RABBIT HOOD (1949)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Sheriff of Notingham, Little John)
Release Date: December 24, 1949

DUCKSTERS (1950)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig)
Release Date: September 2, 1950

RABBIT OF SEVILLE (1950)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny), Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd)
Release Date: December 16, 1950

CHEESE CHASERS (1951)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Hubie, Claude Cat, Dog)
Release Date: August 25, 1951

A BEAR FOR PUNISHMENT (1951)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Bea Benederet (Ma Bear), Billy Bletcher (Pa Bear), Stan Freberg (Junyer Bear)
Release Date: October 20, 1951

OPERATION: RABBIT (1952)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote)
Release Date: January 19, 1952

DUCK! RABBIT, DUCK! (1953)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck) Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd)
Release Date: October 3, 1953

STOP! LOOK! AND HASTEN! (1954)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Paul Julian (Road Runner)
Release Date: August 14, 1954

A STAR IS BORED (1956)
Director: Friz Freleng • Writer: Warren Foster
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam)
Release Date: September 15, 1956

ABOMINABLE SNOW RABBIT (1961)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Tedd Pierce
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Hugo the Abominable Snowman)
Release Date: May 20, 1961

Sunday 11/25/12 Program 3 – 10 shorts (1948-1958)

YOU WERE NEVER DUCKIER (1948)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Tedd Pierce
Cast: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck, Henery Hawk)
Release Date: August 7, 1948

THE SCARLET PUMPERNICKLE (1950)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Daffy, Porky, Sylvester, Elmer)
Release Date: March 4, 1950

DRIP-A-LONG DAFFY (1951)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig)
Release Date: November 17, 1951

LITTLE BEAU PEPE (1952)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Pepe Le Pew)
Release Date: March 29, 1952

RABBIT SEASONING (1952)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Bugs Buggy, Daffy Duck) Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd)
Release Date: September 20, 1952

NO BARKING (1954)
Director: Chuck Jones • Writer: Michael Maltese
Cast: Mel Blanc (Tweety, Frisky Puppy, Claude Cat)
Release Date: February 27, 1954

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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14 Responses to Screening Report: Looney Tunes at BAM

  1. idawson says:

    I love watching films at BAM! This looks like it was quite enjoyable!

    • willmckinley says:

      It really was. And the best surprise was the quality of the prints. All but one of them was in pretty good shape. The clunker was READY SET ZOOM! (1955) on Friday, which was pretty heavily scratched.

  2. Aurora says:

    OH, I’m so jealous!! I adore Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies. And, may I add political correctness and ultra-violence sensitivity be damned. These are art and the ultimate entertainment. Our generation grew up watching these on TV – how lucky we were – and I doubt we’re more violent than any other group. Great post and thanks for sharing, Will!

    Aurora

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Aurora. It’s ironic that, in those days before DVDs and even VCRs, Looney Tunes were far easier to see than they are now. As you know, in NY/NJ they were on six days per week – Monday through Friday on WNEW Channel 5 (sometimes 2x per day) and Saturdays on CBS, as part of “The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show.” I know kids are still familiar with the characters today, but you can’t beat the ubiquity of daily airings.

  3. Sarah says:

    God I love this. Like Aurora, I’m SO jealous. It sounds like the perfect time to me! I’m so glad you wrote about it :)

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Sarah. If you grew up watching Looney Tunes, seeing a little kid in a movie theater chair dance to the theme song in 2012 is just the best thing ever.

      • Sarah says:

        I’ll bet it is, yes! I did grow up watching Looney tunes…they were the thing Dad and I did together. He was a huge fan. Good times, Have you seen the “Speechless” lithograph? I have it hanging in my office. But what I’d really like is a theater that did things like this. FUN! :)

  4. I would love to have seen these classics on the big screen with a theatre full of young, impressionable minds. I have shared my Looney Tunes DVD with many kids over the years and they’ve always asked if they could keep them. No, they are just for sharing.
    Like you, it took me years to fully appreciate Road Runner and Wily E. Coyote. And you’re right, it’s probably because of my love of silents.
    Wonderful post, Will!

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Maureen. It was also fascinating to watch how the different sexes reacted to the gags. Both the little boys and their fathers ALWAYS laughed hardest at violent gags, the females less so. I know this is news to nobody, but it’s still interesting to see it play out live.

    • willmckinley says:

      Also: I couldn’t believe how much the Coyote’s fourth-wall-breaking deadpan reminded me of Buster Keaton. These are the things you miss as a kid.

  5. 3 special faves of mine on this list: Ali Baba Bunny (“Hassan chop!”), Cheese Chasers (“If I give you something nice, will you GO AWAY!”) and The Ducksters (“Eagle Hand Laundry” and Daffy spoofing Ralph Edwards). Getting involved in classic film has made me appreciate the WB cartoon lineup even more (if that were even possible). In so many cases the cartoon unit would be sending up, or even subverting, the stars and the features the main studio was promoting.

    • willmckinley says:

      You are so right, Alan. It was via Bugs Bunny and friends that I was first introduced to the conversational cadence, fashions, architecture and overall visual sensibility of classic film. By the time I hit nine years old or so, I transitioned to Marx Bros comedies, oldtime radio shows on LP and cassette and, soon after, to classic live action movies of all types.Looney Tunes are like a crash course in classic film!

  6. WOW I wish I could have seen this. I adore Chuck Jones

    • willmckinley says:

      Andy, it was one of the best screening experiences of the year so far for me. So great to see kids in 2012 like the same stuff I liked in the ’70s, and my parents liked in the ’40s and ’50s.

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