Of Leon Schlesinger and Warner Brothers’ Cartoons

We’ve had many an occasion to mention Warner Brothers cartoons here over the years, as of course we would. They are the favorite Golden Era animation studio of most cartoon buffs. I grew up watching their decades’ old products on television Saturday mornings and after school on weekdays in the 1970s and early ’80s. Indeed, although I didn’t know it at the time, and as I’m sure will be true for many, my first exposure to many old time movie stars, radio personalities, comedians and singers came in the form of parodies in Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s. On countless occasions, years later, I would encounter the source material (Lew Lehr, for example) and a light would dawn. And there was the opening of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, which was no doubt one of the first visual references to vaudeville I was ever exposed to:

Why no post on Travalanche dedicated to Warner Brothers cartoons until now is pretty easy to articulate. My modus operandi is usually to work off of birthdays and anniversaries, and occasionally, deaths. In the cases of the studios of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, knowing when to post was a simple call. Those were studios founded and run by artists, who then distributed their products through major studios (Disney through RKO, Fleischer through Paramount). But at Warner Brothers, it worked the other way ’round. The creation of the studio began with producers. While we know and appreciate many of the Warner Brothers’ artists and directors, no single one of them can be said to represent the entire studio, as Disney and Fleischer did theirs. (And to clarify, we realize that both of those studios also relied on many hands to make their movies; they were collaborative ventures no less than Warner Brothers, even if they were ruled with tighter fists). Warner Brothers didn’t have an artist at the head of the organization. But it did have a producer, and that too is a creative art. And so we belatedly realized that the one man to peg this post to is Leon Schlesinger (1884-1949). Schlesinger’s name is not as well remembered as a lot of the talent that he hired, but there is much to be said for the vision of the man who did the hiring.

Schlesinger’s background is a good deal similar to those of most of the early movie moguls. A distant relative of the Warner Brothers, the Philadelphia native had worked as an actor, theatre usher, song plugger, box office attendant, theater manager and manager of touring shows, a film distributor, and the head of the Pacific Art and Title Studio (which produced titles for silent films on a subcontractor basis). In 1930, the Warner Brothers hired him to produce their cartoons. That may sound like a backwards way to go about it, putting the cart before the horse, as it were, but it clearly worked. I find an interesting analog in the great amusement parks of Coney Island. First came Steeplechase, the brainchild of George Tilyou; then Luna Park, the creation of Thompson and Dundy. The third park, Dreamland was cooked up by businessmen, borrowing the visions of the other two.

And borrowing was the initial strategy at Warner Brothers. The names of its two famous cartoon series, Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes, are obvious variations on the name of Disney’s Silly Symphonies. And his initial subcontractors, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, were Disney veterans. After they departed in 1933, Schlesinger built his own studio with his own talent stable, which would come to include such legendary names as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, and others. The composer Carl W. Stalling was a key part of the team, as were voice-over actors like Mel Blanc, Billy Bletcher, Bea Benaderet, June Foray, and others. This team was so strong that it outlived its founders tenure. Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Brothers in 1944, and it was to stay in business, under a variety of forms, until the end of the 1960s. Schlesinger’s team was permitted much more creative freedom than those at Disney and Fleischer, and what emerged was a product that was much less sweet and saccharine, much more clever and biting and appealing to grown-ups.

Porky Pig made his debut in 1935. Bugs Bunny evolved during the late 1930s, finally taking his familiar shape and personality by around 1940. Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd (originally known as Egghead) appeared at around the same time. While there had been earlier cat characters, Sylvester debuted in 1945. Yosemite Sam, and Pepe Le Lew, the rapey skunk based on Charles Boyer, debuted that same year. Foghorn Leghorn, based on Kenny Delmar’s Senator Claghorn, first appeared in 1946. The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote originated in 1949. Michigan J. Frog, the amphibian Tin Pan Alley singer in the vein of Al Jolson and Harry Richman, and who later became the mascot of the WB television network, made his first bow in 1955. Most of the characters were voiced by the great Mel Blanc who had a knack for investing them with so much personality that they seemed real. Early Bugs Bunny reminds me quite a bit of Milton Berle; later he evolved into a distinctly “Brooklyn” character, which audiences especially embraced during World War Two. Arthur Q. Bryan is the fan favorite of the many who voiced Elmer Fudd (the character was originally modelled on Joe Penner).

Unlike Disney and Fleischer, Warner Brothers never took the risk of producing animated features during the classic era. That would follow many decades later with very unsatisfactory results, with the exception of 1999’s truly excellent The Iron Giant. But all of the attempts to revive the old Looney Tunes characters have been painful to die-hard fans, lacking true wit in the scripts, visuals, and voice-overs. The difference, I believe is one between the visionary style of producing vs. the corporate one, which merely moves assets around and milks them. The former mint classics; the latter debase the coin.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.