Show contents, with start times:
- Series Spotlight: Looney Tunes, Part 1 (1:28)
- Trivia Question: Charlie Chaplin’s Oscar (20:47)
- Film Buff’s Dictionary: Close-Up, Medium Shot, Long Shot (21:11)
- Top 6: Ghost Movies (29:38)
- Film Spotlight: Modern Times (41:53)
- Closing: Trivia Answer, Preview of Next Week (56:23)
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Series Spotlight: Looney Tunes, Part 1
The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series consist of some 1000 classic theatrical short cartoons between 1930 and 1969, plus revival shorts, compilation films, and unending merchandising in the years since. The star character of Bugs Bunny is one of the most recognizable characters in the world, and the series launched many other characters — Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, Tweety, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn, and more — to enduring stardom as well. More than mere cartoons for kids, many of these short cartoons are masterworks of art and comedy and are as popular today as they ever were — as much with adults as with children. The Looney Tunes directors were fond of saying that, no, the cartoons weren’t made for kids; they were made for themselves. That personal investment in the work is apparent in the final products.
In the early 1930s, these cartoons were created as accompaniment to popular music, as a way of selling the songs to theater-going audiences. But when Mickey Mouse became a phenomenon in 1929, gradually the other cartoon studios followed suit and sought out star characters. The Looney Tunes tried out a few, now lost to the ages — Bosko, Buddy, Beans, Oliver Owl, Little Kitty, Ham and Ex, and more — before finally hitting upon Porky Pig (named after director Friz Freleng’s childhood friends, nicknamed “Porky” and “Piggy”) in 1935, who caught on with audiences in a big way. Porky Pig started out as a chunky kid, then gradually aged and slimmed down into the character we know today.
The perfect foil for Porky Pig was found in Daffy Duck, who debuted in 1937, and, in stark contrast to the greedy, scheming duck of the 1950s, was originally an out-of-control lunatic, whose wild antics drove Porky crazy.
Bugs Bunny’s origins are tough to track, as he evolved from another character, Happy Rabbit, before finally settling into his New York tough guy personality. But most people agree that the first time Bugs appeared as a fully developed character was in Tex Avery’s A Wild Hare, co-starring Elmer Fudd. When Bugs casually sidles up to Elmer, munches on that carrot and says, “Eh…(munch munch munch)…what’s up, doc?” audiences went wild.
The cartoon studio that produced the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was set up on the Warner Bros. lot, but Warner Bros. didn’t originally own the studio itself. A shrewd businessman named Leon Schlesinger ran the company until 1944 until he sold his assets to Warner. Schlesinger was smart about hiring great talents, but he didn’t care much about the cartoons themselves. It is said that the speech patterns of Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the Cat were both based on him, and he never seemed to catch on.
When Warner took over, the new producer was Eddie Selzer, a guy who not only didn’t understand what the cartoons were all about but kept trying to interfere in the creative process as well. Stories abound about how Selzer would say how some particular idea wasn’t funny, and that would be the Looney Tunes directors’ cue to use that idea and turn it into a cartoon, which would invariably be successful.
The cartoon studio was set up with several mostly independent units, working simultaneously. Each unit would be headed by a different director, with his own team, usually consisting of one writer, a few animators, and a background artist. Other talents — such as the legendary vocal talent Mel Blanc, musicians Carl W. Stalling and Milt Franklyn, and sound effects editor Treg Brown — were utilized in turn by all the different units.
These cartoons are exceptional for their visual and musical artistry, in addition to their well-defined characters and precise comic timing. We go into more detail in the podcast about the visual and musical accomplishments of the series, but suffice it to say that there was often great innovation in these cartoons, and they may be appreciated for their artistry and craft in addition to their obvious entertainment value.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be talking about each of the seven major Looney Tunes directors and discussing what they each brought to the cartoons and what makes theirs different from the others.
Trivia Question: Charlie Chaplin’s Oscar
Film Buff’s Dictionary: Close-Up, Medium Shot, Long Shot
Shots of people are generally divided into three categories based on the apparent distance of the viewer from the subject. A close-up generally focuses only on the face of an actor, though some people include the tops of shoulders in the definition of this shot (some texts refer to this shot as a medium-close shot). It’s used particularly for conveying emotions and is truly cinematic — stage plays cannot have close-ups.
The medium shot is one of the most common shots, used especially when shooting conversations between two actors. It’s generally from the waist and above. It is an unassuming shot that is used a lot to accurately convey the sense that the viewer is in the room with somebody. Our normal point of view of people in everyday life is probably roughly a medium shot.
Long shots are anything longer than medium shots, meaning that we see an entire person, plus usually much of the environment around that person. Long shots tend to be objective, and they are good at conveying a sort of detached sense of realism, whereas the closer shots are more subjective, more likely to make the audience identify with the characters.
Top 6: Ghost Movies
Film Spotlight: Modern Times
Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times is one of his last films, and it marks the retirement of the Little Tramp character. Not quite a full sound film and certainly not a silent, it does some interesting things with sound, silence, and the last title card in a film from the studio era.
Most of the film features Chaplin’s silent comedy, as the Tramp does not speak despite now inhabiting a noisy world. Much of the comedy comes from the Tramp’s inability to cope with the mechanized world of the 1930s. Equal bits Depression-era satire and classic Chaplin goofiness, the film is funnier and a bit more lightweight than his previous film, the acclaimed City Lights (1931).
It’s famous for several of its set pieces, especially the opening in which Chaplin falls afoul of complicated factory machines, eventually leading to one of the most famous shots of the silent era as he passes through the gears of a giant conveyor belt. The movie is a showcase for Chaplin’s constant inventiveness, though some of its best gags are relatively simple.
Modern Times represents a good starting point for those interested in watching silent films. It preserves the spirit of silent comedies but has enough synchronized sound and dialogue that it isn’t strange to those accustomed to watching modern movies — as its title might suggest, it is one of the most modern-feeling of all the classic “silent” films.