Between 1930 and 1969, the Warner Brothers Cartoon Studio made around a thousand short cartoons. A few are dreadful and some are
simply boring, especially in the early years, when they were still learning what they were doing, and the later years, when they seemed to have
forgotten most of what they'd learned.
But the overwhelming majority — an amazingly-high batting average — was entertaining and funny, even holding up after
umpteen-zillion reruns, decades after they were made. The studio even made some that define brilliance in animation and —
Cut. Hold it. Start over. I just realized I made a mistake that bothers me when committed by others. The studio
didn't make those films. Talented human beings did.
And it wasn't even the Warner Brothers Cartoon Studio for some of that time. At first, it was the Leon Schlesinger Studio, and
Warner Brothers distributed its output. Mr. Schlesinger didn't make cartoons. He left his employees alone and the only thing he drew was
the largest paycheck.
WB later purchased the whole operation and, after that happened, Jack L. Warner didn't start sketching gags or painting cels,
either. Warner, it is alleged, barely knew they even had a cartoon division. In anecdotes so absurd and unlikely that they're probably
true, he is said to have repeatedly spoken of that department as cranking out Mickey Mouse shorts.
Hey, even when I was six, I knew better.
Anyway, the point is that Leon and the freres Warner didn't "make" those films any more than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
was painted by the Pope who hired Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Creative works are created by creative people with creative
talents. Here's just a sampling of relevant names:
Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Rod Scribner, Tex Avery, Ken Harris, Mel Blanc, Robert McKimson, Tom McKimson, Charles
McKimson, Tedd Pierce, Carl Stalling, Friz Freleng, Manny Gould, Phil DeLara, Art Davis, Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, Ben Washam, Lloyd Vaughn, Pete
Alvarado, Robert Gribbroek, Warren Foster, John Carey, Bea Benaderet, Virgil Ross, Hawley Pratt, Stan Freberg and Norm McCabe. There are many
These folks made the so-called Warner Brothers cartoons. Those films are now owned, along with almost everything else in the
known free world, by the Time-Warner conglomerate.
The TV rights were, for a time, bifurcated...or maybe even trifurcated or more. In 1956, some exec at Warner's made a deal which
one of his successors, being charitable, described as "boneheaded." Failing to foresee how long the films would remain popular — and
certainly not dreaming of cable or home video — he sold off all the color Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies that were copyrighted before
September 1, 1948.
An outfit named Associated Artists Productions bought and syndicated them to TV stations everywhere. That's why you see "A.A.P."
logos on the front of some prints. There was another, even dumber transaction that sold a batch of vintage shorts to the Metromedia company for
roughly the amount I spent last week at the Warner Store.
Warner Brothers Television, in the meantime, effectively marketed what they had left. In 1960, they sold the best of what they'd
retained to ABC for a prime-time Bugs Bunny show, which later migrated to Saturday morn. The rest of their library was carved up into
"packages" of cartoons. Some were syndicated to local stations. Others were used in '64 to form a Porky Pig show, also on ABC Saturday
(or Sunday) mornings. Two years later, another package became a Road Runner show on CBS.
Apart from openings, closings and some interstitial segments, no new animation was done. They just ran the same cartoons over and
over. In 1968, when there was some softening in the ratings, ABC bosses concluded that the material had been overexposed and let Bugs and his
CBS pounced like Pepe LePew on a cat with a white stripe on her back. They folded it in with their Road Runner show to make
The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Hour.
Big hit. Most seasons, these endlessly-recycled antiques outrated whatever new/hip/contemporary programming the studios could
cobble together. From 1968 through 1986, they were the spine of CBS's Saturday A.M. sked, and they spawned a series of prime-time outings.
Each year though, CBS was cautious about committing for another season. There was always the fear that, at some point, viewers
would weary of seeing the same cartoons, time and again. They kept saying to WB, "Don't you have anything else we can put in there to freshen
this thing up?" That's when WB began adding in cartoons from other packages, as they became unencumbered by other deals. This meant,
generally, adding weaker and weaker cartoons to the rotation.
They also tossed in some previously-withheld cartoons. Saturday morn animation has its restrictions and they were uncommonly
harsh in the late-70's/early-80's. (I'm being nice; actually, they were uncommonly stupid and based on the premise that children were even
At first, some cartoons were excluded because they were deemed "unacceptable," which usually meant that someone shot someone else
— or themselves — or there was a reference to sex or beer. As CBS became more desperate to include something that the kids might
not be sick of, they began pulling cartoons off that "unacceptable" list and chopping scenes as necessary to make them, at least in one sense,
Don't we all love this practice? Isn't it just dandy to watch cartoons with the funny stuff cut out? Some of the excisions
were really cerebrum-numbing...leaving in the set-up, omitting the punch line. The deletions became more and more obvious. It's a tribute
to those who made the cartoons that they still attracted large audiences even after this kind of sabotage.
They attracted so many that, in 1976, CBS broke out a batch of the films to make The Sylvester and Tweety Show. After a
year, they folded those films back into The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Hour, renamed it The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Show and expanded it to
ninety minutes. I think it even went to two hours for a time, always pulling big numbers.
NBC coveted those digits. In 1978, they went to the Warner people, waved hefty bucks and said, "Give us one of those." The
result was a Daffy Duck show, made up of almost everything in color that the studio still owned that wasn't already licensed to CBS or
elsewhere. In other words, the bottom of the barrel was scraped.
This angered CBS. They wanted those cartoons, however frail they may have been, to bolster their Bugs/Road Runner show.
When Daffy's show was dropped in 1982, they snatched up those films, as well.
Eventually, in 1986, the suits at CBS made the not-unprecedented error of assuming that all those Bugs-Daffy-Road Runner cartoons had
been rerun into stagnation. They dropped the franchise and, to the industry's shock, ABC immediately snapped it up. Ratings were terrific
for The Bugs Bunny-Looney Tunes Comedy Hour and, later, The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show.
In fairness, letting the wabbit go was not quite as ill-advised a move as it might seem. The show's audience was "skewing older,"
as they say, and CBS was then basing its advertising rates wholly on the 2-12 age bracket. If five million pairs of eyes were fixed on Bugs and
half belonged to folks aged 13 or over, that was 2.5 million viewers, insofar as the commercial buyers were concerned. ABC, on the other hand,
had a whole different rate formula — one that was a bit more favorable to shows that drew an older audience.
Two quick stories about the transition from one network to another: One is what CBS did when they found out that ABC was grabbing the
show they were dropping. The program still had around six months to go on CBS so they took out all the weak cartoons.
I don't know if anyone noticed but this was quite deliberately done. CBS yanked all the later, poorer films out of rotation, as
well as most of the heavily-laundered (and therefore, less entertaining) ones. For the last half-year, they ran only the primo stuff. An
exec at the network actually said to me — and, I swear, this is a quote — "By the time ABC gets hold of this show, those kids are gonna
be absolutely sick of What's Opera, Doc? and One Froggy Evening."
That's the first story. The second will probably be denied by anyone who was involved but, as reporters say, we stand by our
When ABC got the show, WB offered to make all new prints of the cartoons...to go back to the negatives and strike off, on tape,
spanking-fresh copies of all those cartoons. This was so ABC wouldn't have to run videotapes that CBS had run dozens and dozens of time, to
their eventual decay.
ABC said no. "Give us the CBS prints."
At the time, the Standards and Practices Department at ABC (read: censors) prided itself on having the strictest standards and
practices in the business. This was probably true.
The folks there didn't want to do all the work to go back and cut all the stuff that CBS had slashed. They also didn't want to be
caught leaving in anything that CBS had omitted. The second reason was probably more important than the first but the solution to both was to
requisition the reels that CBS was going to discard. Then they made a point of chopping further. They removed bits that CBS had aired,
ad nauseam, without reported damage to the youth of America.
Eventually, those tapes wore out, the political climate changed, "standards" were eased...and the personnel at ABC changed. New
prints crept in and some punch lines returned.
The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show is still on ABC on Saturdays, still doing well. Nevertheless, many assume it won't be
there much longer. Disney now owns the network and can't be wild about paying cash to a competitor and promoting characters that vie with
Donald and Mickey in the marketplace. The WB people would probably prefer to see the WB cartoons on the WB Network. They now seem to have
the broadcast rates to everything else.
Remember those cartoons that were sold to A.A.P.? Well, Dick Tracy in his prime — or even Duck Twacy — would be
hard-pressed to track custody of them through a flurry of sales and acquisitions. Eventually, M.G.M.-U.A. wound up with the early color
films. Then Ted Turner wound up with M.G.M.-U.A. Then Ted Turner folded his empire into Time-Warner. Somehow, the Metromedia films
came home, as well.
They really don't need to sell to anyone outside the building. They can put them on the WB Network and the Cartoon Network and on
Turner Classic Movies and TNT and all the other outlets that Time-Warner owns. (I recently found out that my gardener has been acquired by
Time-Warner. But that's okay because my cleaning lady is a division of The Walt Disney Company.)
So once they reclaim the ABC package, it'll all be under one roof. Eventually, you'll be able to turn on those Time-Warner
channels and see every last Looney Tune, every Merrie Melodie, right?
Maybe not. The programmers are still, like most TV programmers, timid about old, black-and-white film.
Well, maybe "timid" is the wrong word. There does seem to be empirical evidence that younger viewers are less open to watching a
good black-and-white cartoon than a mediocre color one. The vaults of the Cartoon Network are crammed with both but those that lack hues only
turn up at non-prime times, most often on a series entitled Late Night Black & White.
(It's no different at Toon Disney, Nickelodeon during the day, and any channel that runs animation. They all have great
black-and-white cartoons that they treat like a baseball manager treats his worst pinch-hitter.)
This is not a new problem. In the sixties, the studio tried to solve it by "colorizing" the early WB cartoons — mainly
those featuring Porky Pig, their first recurring star. This was before the computer process was invented. The films were shipped to Korea
where they were hand-traced into color by minimum-wage laborers, many of them not even artists. I hate to think what minimum wage was in Korea
It was the cheapest possible way to do it and they got what they paid for. Wonderful fully-animated cartoons were converted into
ugly, badly-animated cartoons. They just look cheap. Any time there's a title card or sign in these films, you can tell it was rendered
by someone who didn't know English.
But people still watch them.
And the removal of punch lines and supposed violence continues. It's not nearly as bad as it was once was, but scenes are still
omitted, jokes are still tempered, humor is still lessened.
And people still watch them.
Not next week, but in some future column, I want to expand on the black-and-white issue, and the "editing." I also want to talk
about the dozen-or-more cartoons that never turn up anywhere, at any time, in any Time-Warner venue, because of racial stereotypes.
What I want to close with for now is this point: You can't kill these films.
They've sure tried. They've cut them and hidden them and traced them and chopped them into little pieces. Over and over,
business-types have given up on Bugs; over and over, they've been proven wrong. Like Lazarus, Jason or even Bill Clinton, he keeps coming back,
ever stronger. And always will.
The WB cartoons may be the most lucrative things ever put on celluloid. They returned their initial investments when they were
first exhibited, and all the thousands of reruns since have yielded almost pure profit. That's not even looking at the billions (with a "b")
grossed from toys and comics and other merchandise featuring Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweety and the gang.
Whether you measure success by income or critical acclaim or just endurance, the Warner Brothers cartoons have been phenomenal
successes. How did this come about? How did magic happen? Easy...
They hired talented folks like Clampett and Jones and Avery and McKimson and all the rest. Then they gave them money to do a good
job, and they left them alone to do it.
Sometimes, that's all it takes.