Caricatures scribbled everywhere. Firecrackers tossed in peopled rooms. An alarm system letting everyone know the boss was coming — just so everyone could run back to work. The artists of the Warner Bros. cartoon studio were notorious for their practical jokes and spirit of camaraderie. All the in house fun paid off. The cartoons produced by Warner Bros., among them the academy-award winning “Merrie Melodies” and “Looney Tunes,” are now widely considered the finest, funniest and most culturally significant animated shorts to come from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Warner artists were innovative in innumerable ways. For inspiration, they looked close to home: elsewhere on the Warner lot, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney were starring in the live-action films that were the studio’s signature in the 1930s and 1940s. The cartoon division, with deliberate intent, picked up on the snappy and street-smart tough-guy attitudes cultivated on the sound stages right next door.
“We wrote cartoons for grownups, that was the secret,” said longtime Warner story-man Michael Maltese. In addition to developing the first “adult” sensibility in Hollywood animation, the Warner cartoonists also embraced the kinds of freedoms – often using bizarre, surreal, free-associative images – that were put to rest with the rise of Disney’s literalism. In the Warner cartoons, mental maturity was coupled with a youthful ebullience, which insisted that, come what may, anything goes.
The Warner studio employed up to two hundred artists, divided into units headed by directors, who guided the efforts of all the artists working with them. These would include four or five animators; as many assistant animators; a “layout” artist, who conceived each cartoon’s overall design and colour scheme, drew in pencil the elaborate settings in which the animated action took place, and planned camera movements; and a “background” artist, who rendered the layout artist’s scenic sketches in paint. This involved a vast amount of work, for the Warner cartoons were made in “full animation” – using many thousands of drawings for each short, to endow their characters’ movements with grace and subtlety and flowing expressiveness.
If it’s true that in comedy it’s all in the timing, then here the Warner directors excelled above all others. Warner cartoons are often little miracles of crispness and concision.
The stronger directors – Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery – imposed their visions and personalities on their films to a degree that makes them unmistakably the product of an individual sensibility. All are now considered unrivaled titans in animation history. Under their hands, cartoon stars like Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Sylvester the Cat, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, The Tasmanian Devil, Daffy Duck, Pepé Le Pew and Yosemite Sam – to name a few – came to life. The leading Warner players were endowed with complex, richly nuanced psyches, a key advance in the realm of cartoon character, previously limited to onedimensional character types. Thus, Bugs Bunny was witty and self-assured and always in control, as well as a master of the one-liner. The Warner characters could also be deeply conflicted: how else to explain a desert coyote’s unquenchable – yes, even neurotic – need to punish himself in the pursuit of a scrawny, oblivious bird that it has become unavoidably clear he will never be able to nab?
At once vintage and ageless Americana, the Warner characters are still internationally known celebrities and smile-bringers, the cornerstones of what amounts to a library of modern folklore. “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” have infiltrated the fabric of our lives. Steve Schneider understood early the importance of cartoons in folk culture and, in the 1970s, started to build what became the largest collection of original Warner Bros. cartoon art. Recognition came in September 1985, when Warner became the first animation studio to be given a full-scale retrospective by New York´s Museum of Modern Art – for which Schneider provided 95% of the work on display. For four-and-half months, the ultra-prestigious MoMA opened some of its august gallery space to drawings of stuttering pigs and libidinous skunks.
Critical response was rapturous: Time magazine called the Warner cartoonists “some of the top film artists and pleasure givers of the past half-century… What the front office dismissed as program filler and kid stuff was, in reality, the greatest sustained burst of American movie comedy.” And TV Guide, the American pop-culture bible, said: “The best of these cartoons are as funny, and as enduring, as the film comedy of Chaplin and Keaton, Capra and Sturges. They are classics.” Schneider’s collection has been on tour ever since. It shows how the Warner cartoons are an important and joyous corner of contemporary cultural history, as rich and rewarding in their way as any part of cinema. The brand of humour hatched at Warner’s still has repercussions in film, television and other contemporary art forms.
And that’s not all, folks!
By Valerie Reinhold
Photographer: Ari Karttunen/ EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art