“Steamboat Willie,” the third cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, was the first cartoon produced with sound, and its theatrical release in 1928 transformed motion-picture theater patrons from readers of captions into true audiences, listening to characters speak, hearing background music and sounds. The short animated feature also launched the success of Walt Disney, Mickey’s creator. Within a decade, the Disney Studio had developed and perfected the technology to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), one of the most detailed and “realistic” animated films ever made.
Disney’s success set the style and established the generally accepted guidelines for the animated film: realistic drawings, well-constructed story lines with a heavy underlacing of sentiment, even sentimentality, and a close relationship between the soundtrack—especially the music—and the action. For much of the rest of the two decades that followed, other studios sought to imitate the Disney formula, only to discover that they lacked the financial and artistic resources needed, not to mention Walt Disney’s unique artistic vision; the novelist John Gardner once noted that Disney was one of the true geniuses of American art.
The Warner Bros. studio had its own animation department, and in its earlier days it tried to follow the Disney formula and even was staffed by former Disney artists. Eventually, however, a canny entrepreneur, Leon Schlesinger, brokered a contract with the Warner studio to provide it with cartoons under the generic title “Looney Tunes,” and later added the companion series “Merrie Melodies.” (Walt Disney had “Silly Symphonies”; the resemblance was not accidental.) Schlesinger, who was no artist himself and who is remembered as a hard and humorless boss, somehow managed to assemble the most remarkable collection of artistic talent ever present in the animated film—and arguably equal to the talent found anywhere in the entire motion-picture industry.
These included voice expert Mel Blanc, music director Carl Stalling, and directors Fred “Tex” Avery, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Charles “Chuck” Jones. Ensconced in a rickety, isolated bungalow, nicknamed Termite Terrace, on the Warner Bros. lot, this aggregation of individuals (they were too idiosyncratic and quirky to be properly labeled a team) redefined the animated cartoon and established a defiantly different set of conventions and expectations for viewers. As noted literary and cultural observer Hugh Kenner points out in his short but brilliant study Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, almost certainly the key figure of this group, and perhaps of modern American animation, was Chuck Jones.
The central realization made by the members of this group was that since animated cartoons were not bound by the laws of the physical world, there was no reason that they should be conceived, created, and produced as if so bound. As a matter of fact, there were excellent reasons not to allow the everyday, physical world to intrude into the realm of the animated cartoon. In coming to this realization and then acting upon it, these artists set animation free. Of this group it was the directors, especially Avery, Clampett, and Jones, who both understood and articulated that an animated cartoon had no other laws it was bound to obey than those which it and the medium created. “The world of the transcendent Jones Cartoons,” Kenner remarks, “has no firm connections with any world outside of itself.”
Rightly so, the residents of Termite Terrace would agree. They wanted no part of the “illusion of life” that ruled at the Disney studios, and Kenner correctly points out that it became a central tenet of Warner Bros. that “what can easily be done in live action, such as human behavior, is specifically not the domain of animation.”
That was the breakthrough that, in the hands of these artists, created the celebrated cartoons at Warner Bros. They differed from the cartoons of Disney and other animating studios in content, character, and style.
In content, they were, at their best, “about” only themselves. There were, it is true, the fake newsreel shorts, just as there were the wartime propaganda and morale-building cartoons; these, however, were seldom among the better efforts of the Warner studio. The true classics from Termite Terrace are divorced from external reality, and their content is, to a greater or lesser extent, purely internal. The acme, so to speak, is reached with Jones’s own “Road Runner” series, which has one basic situation extended, eventually, over four hours, and that situation refers only to...
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