The lost and found cartoons

Television: Warner Bros. shows off the early history of some much-loved cartoon characters.

June 10, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Ever wonder where that Wascally Wabbit came from?

Tomorrow night on cable's Cartoon Network, an hour's worth of rare animated shorts from Warner Bros. studios, including several not seen anywhere for decades, will air as a special episode of "ToonHeads," a weekly showcase of classic cartoons. And while much of what can be seen on "The Lost Cartoons" are only pieces of a whole, the hour is still one that animation fans shouldn't miss.

When Warner decided to venture into animation in the late '20s under producer Leon Schlesinger (whose slight lisp was said to be the inspiration for Daffy Duck's voice), the early results weren't promising. Among the animation department's first efforts were a series of Spooney Melodies, an effort to match Disney's success in wedding songs and animation. But the experiment was short-lived; only four are believed to have been made, and the one shown here, featuring singing organist Milton Charles crooning "Cryin' for the Carolines," isn't much. Only 55 seconds long, it features a mix of abstract, art deco-inspired drawings and cutouts - and none of the charm of the early Disney efforts, such as the Oscar-winning "Flowers and Trees."

But Schlesinger and his gang would soon do better. They abandoned the Spooney Melodies in favor of the vastly superior "Merrie Melodies," which still were built around songs but featured recognizable characters and settings. Their first effort, 1931's "Lady Play Your Mandolin," is shown here, and it's a hoot: sort of a cross between Disney (Mickey Mouse lookalikes are everywhere) and Max Fleischer, whose anarchic cartoons of the era included Popeye and Betty Boop.

The Disney influence is no surprise, because the animators responsible for the cartoon - Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman - were refugees from Walt's world. Two other things stand out about "Lady Play Your Mandolin." The 'toon features a character named Foxy, one of Warner's earliest efforts at establishing its own roster of animated stars. And, although released while Prohibition was still the law of the land, it's all about drinking in a bar, which is akin nowadays to drawing a cartoon about smoking joints. Even more successful than the Merrie Melodies were a series of cartoons featuring a set roster of characters. Dubbed Looney Tunes, they became the hallmarks of Warner Bros.' animation and, thanks to such stars as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Tweetie Pie, some of the best-loved cartoons ever made. Pre-dating Merrie Melodies by several years, the first Looney Tune (also by Ising and Harman) featured a character named Bosko, a mischievous little tyke who talked directly to his animators, tapped a mean dance and could disappear into an inkwell. Bosko didn't hang around Warner Bros. for long, as Bugs and his friends soon took over the studios.

Other pieces of animation featured in "The Lost Cartoons" include an Oscar-winning short done for the U.S. Department of Health; a clip from the film "My Dream Is Yours," featuring Doris Day, Jack Carson and Bugs Bunny; an animated recruiting film that seeks to dispel the myths that Army clothing doesn't fit and that all drill sergeants are tyrants; some gag reels featuring Schlesinger and his animators; and snippets from a Roadrunner TV pilot done for ABC but never aired.

The only real problem with "The Lost Cartoons" is its lack of length: expanded beyond an hour, more whole cartoons could have been shown. It would also have been nice to see the early non-animated western shorts Schlesinger produced, many featuring a young John Wayne. But maybe the powers-that-be at Cartoon Network have a sequel in mind.

As Porky Pig would doubtless remind them, "That's not all, folks!'"


What: A `ToonHeads Special: The Lost Cartoons"

Where: The Cartoon Network

When: 9 p.m-10 p.m. tomorrow

In brief: Rare nuggets from the animation vault of Warner Bros. studios.

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