Classic cartoon fans never had it as good as they did in the first decade of the twenty-first century. From approximately 2001-2008, the most prominent home video companies opened their vaults and shared riches with the unsuspecting public with high-profile animation collections with literally hundreds of cartoons.
Shortly before the big economic bust, DVD sales began to dwindle, and the vault doors closed. Warner Home Video still occasionally tosses fans a bone and Steve Stanchfield’s Thunderbean Animation label has more than picked up the slack in releasing the ‘unimportant’ public domain gems, but there are still droves of great cartoons in limbo.
Most of the accepted masterpieces from the Warner Bros. cartoon library have been released (and then some) in the prolific Looney Tunes Golden Collection line, the subsequent Blu-Ray releases, and even as bonuses with classic live-action features.
Here’s a list of the ten best Looney Tunes cartoons that you won’t find on any ‘legal’ release in the digital era.
Tex Avery was arguably the most important figure in the history of the Schlesinger/Warner studio, contributing more to the house style than any other individual. Any trademark was done by him first and then aped by one of his fellow directors (Friz Freleng and Frank Tashlin) or one of his young prodigies (Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones). This entry, with spectator Porky Pig forced into the ring against an opponent who’s more silly than ferocious, is where Avery first used the concept of pursuing a ridiculous idea as far as he possibly could. In this case, accidentally swallowing a cigar is grounds for transforming the entire arena into a fully functional train.
[This is also one of the only Warner cartoons I have never seen uncensored. Whatever was cut was snipped as far back as prints dated 1942. (Thanks to David Gerstein for this information.)]
Porky’s Tire Trouble (1939, Bob Clampett)
Bob Clampett put the “Looney” in “Looney Tunes” and expanded Avery’s foundation the most successfully, creating characters that were not just superficially crazy, but humanly crazy. He ran on autopilot for a few years when he grew bored making only Porky Pig (and likely jealous of his former friend/rival Chuck Jones getting to make high-budget color Merrie Melodies), but his first year-and-a-half of black-and-white Looney Tunes are wildly inventive and well-acted for the time and money allotted.
Of the many still unavailable, the high concept Tire Trouble is probably my favorite, mainly for how Clampett used it as an excuse to experiment with how rubbery (literally!) he can get that animation of Flat Foot Flookey.
The Henpecked Duck (1941, Clampett)
Around the same time Bugs Bunny was becoming the biggest sensation of the theatrical short subject, Daffy Duck was being scaled back from deviant hellspawn to an intelligently insane character. Friz Freleng gave the duck an ego in You Ought to Be in Pictures, and here Clampett gives him a dubious conscience, one that lets him think passing time performing magic tricks on his unborn child is acceptable behavior.
[A sepiatoned, low-pitch version is embedded below, but at least the original animation is preserved. The Korean colorized version can be found online, but no link here – find it at your own risk.]
Life with Feathers (1945, Friz Freleng)
It’s relatively unheard of to come up with an iconic character in full-form on the first try, but it happened fairly regularly at the ’40s Warner studio. In fact, Friz Freleng and writer Mike Maltese did it twice in one season, with Yosemite Sam in Hare Trigger and Sylvester the Cat in Life with Feathers.
When the first words out of Sly’s mouth are so perfectly delivered that they went on to become an international catchphrase, you know some kind moviemaking magic is at work. The cartoon is also as morbid as you could hope for, with the Loveless Loverbird seeking self-destruction to escape his shrew wife.
What’s Brewin’ Bruin? (1948, Chuck Jones)
Most of the prime Chuck Jones cartoons have been formally released on DVD, but a few have slipped through the cracks. Jones and Mike Maltese (now working exclusively together) brought back Bugs Bunny’s one-shot opponents the Three Bears for their own short-lived series.
In the first entry, Papa tries to keep things quiet for a long winter’s nap while contending with the “challenged” child from hell and a trigger-happy wife. In an era of squeaky-clean, loving families populating the theaters and airwaves, Jones and Maltese created the first dysfunctional family sitcom and made spousal and child abuse genuinely funny.
Reviewers of that time disagreed – the cartoons were routinely panned and effectively cut the series tragically short.
A-Lad-In His Lamp (1948, Bob McKimson)
“OH, HEAVENS TO GIMBLES, NO!” You know this one. So why no DVD release of it? It’s quite possibly the most popular of the many great Bugs Bunnies directed by Bob McKimson, who had a flair for coming up with offbeat costars for the rabbit (often more memorable for the voice work, though in this case it’s an exception). Here it’s Smokey the Genie, voiced by Jim Backus (before Mister Magoo) and almost entirely animated by Manny Gould.
Two Gophers from Texas (1948, Art Davis)
Art Davis inherited Clampett’s unit in 1945. He kept that exaggerated animation style alive and well for the three years he had it but did little else to emulate the former head’s spirit. Davis’s work occasionally hits the bulls-eye but more often is interesting for how the cartoons feel like a weaker studio’s attempt at aping Warners (not a surprise, as Screen Gems, Davis’s former employer, spent its last ten years of existence being just that).
Two Gophers from Texas is arguably his best film, which takes the character layout and animation to an extreme abandoned by the other units and meshes it with a wittily constructed story and characterization.
The ambiguously gay Goofy Gophers are funny enough, but it’s the dog, largely animated by Emery Hawkins, that steals the show, serving as one final fireworks display of the kind of animation that would soon be verboten in the last fifteen years of the Warner studio’s existence. “Egad, what a book!”
A Fractured Leghorn (1950, McKimson)
For a star that appeared in many cartoons, Foghorn Leghorn is the most neglected of the Warner characters in the realm of home video. You can count the number of his cartoons on the Golden Collections on one hand, and they split his Barnyard Bigmouth single with “friends.” A Fractured Leghorn, the first Foggy short sans Henery Hawk, has the rooster and a cat competing for a worm (Foggy needs food, cat needs fishing bait).
It’s a tour-de-force for McKimson, Mel Blanc, and writer Warren Foster, for until the very end, Foghorn carries all of the film’s dialogue singlehandedly. Even underwater.
Rabbit Every Monday (1951, Freleng)
Before settling into a comfortable maturity, the continuing battle of Bugs Bunny versus Yosemite Sam produced bona fide classic after classic. Freleng was without a regular writer briefly in 1949, when this cartoon was in production, and wrote its deceptively simplistic story himself.
Rather than the rapid fire gag-after-gag format that was the norm for Freleng, only a few absurd sequences are executed: Bugs stakes out in Sam’s hunting rifle, Sam gets caught in a web of bubble gum, and we witness the phenomenon of a gala party taking place inside a stove. “I don’t ask questions, I just have fun!”
Tree for Two (1952, Freleng)
Compared to that of Jones and Mike Maltese, Freleng and Warren Foster’s grasp of humanity is severely underrated.
In a single film, they created the epitome of sycophantic hero worship with the dogs Spike and Chester. If you’ve seen this cartoon, can you honestly listen to a pathetic toady fawning over his/her overlord without hearing it in Stan Freberg’s voice?
Both Tree for Two and its almost equally uproarious sequel Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide remain unavailable in the digital era, but I’m giving the edge to the original, simply for the scene of Sylvester running into the dogs in a dark alley while singing “Charleston,” one of Freleng’s crowning achievements in musical timing.