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The works of Termite Terrace are finally coming out on DVD, something that fans have been grousing about ever since the format began. In 1997, some of the first emails I got at MGM DVD Savant alternated between 1) wailing that the four or five $100 laser disc boxed sets of cartoons they'd bought were being converted from collector's items to yard sale giveaways, and 2) where were the DVD versions? The web dialogue was very interesting, with some pundits saying that DVD was inappropriate for animation because there was no one-for-one analog correspondence between film frames and DVD frames. Others decried what compression and digital cleanup did to animation - removing details, blurring action and putting haloes around every dark line.
Discs got better, or at least the digital tricks they use got good enough to fool most of us, because the vintage cartoons on this set look fantastic. And nobody can complain about Disney-style repainting or digital futzing, because we now see all kinds of original animation-cel flaws never visible in the 16mm television prints we watched as kids, before we became a nation of DVD quality-control addicts.
Looney Tunes Premiere Collection is a two-disc set of Warner animation shorts, and a part of a separate release called The Golden Collection that chances are most of you have bought instead of this one. Let me list the cartoon titles and then make some mostly general observations about them.
Disc 2 - All Stars Bunker Hill Bunny, Hair-Raising Hare, Broken Leghorn, Putty Tat Trouble, Kit for Cat, Canary Row, Haredevil Hare, Fast and Furry-ous, Feed the Kitty, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs and Thugs, Early to Bet, Lumber Jerks, Devil May Hare
I chose this set because I knew I'd never get around to watching the more popular cartoons that I've seen 1,000 times each, with Bugs and Elmer singing opera, or Daffy Duck fighting a cartoonist who erases and redraws him. The Premiere Collection has a number of titles I knew wouldn't send me (Pepe Le Pew; the Road Runner) but also a bunch of midrange and unfamiliar cartoons.
As a kid in the 50s, we went to regular Saturday morning kiddie shows at the airbase theater at Hickam field. Our 15-cent admission got us two hours of cartoons and other short subjects, usually some weird quiz show and maybe a Three Stooges one reeler, the kind that even then looked 50 years old. Then, all the cartoons were great. We laughed like the happiest little sheltered idiots in the world.
Now, it's the Warner cartoons that seem to have held up the best. Disney shorts with Donald and Mickey are nice and cute and clever, but they don't have the sass and personality of the Termite Terrace output. The jokers at Warners (I presume Schlesinger's outfit on Van Ness Street, about a mile from Savant central) were closet anarchists and flashers, and I imagine they worked overtime finding ways to sneak wild concepts into their cartoons. Perhaps Tex Avery got the most attention, but Bob Clampett was surely a wild man, and Chuck (make that Charles M.) Jones was a wonderful conceptual comedian almost from the beginning.
Some of the cynicism in these things is mind-boggling, and combined with their genuine wit, makes most modern comedy pale for invention and energy. Everything was forbidden back then, but they got away with sex jokes of all stripes and movie industry insider digs that take the cake - like the flying elephant that dragged a sign behind it saying, "I am NOT Dumbo!" in response to Disney's attempts to enforce copyrights on things like Big Bad Wolves wearing red vests. Before cartoons were dumbed down for televison, and mass production leeched the art out of the animation, the comedy in these things was truly amazing, conceptually way ahead of what was happening in live action. When the three little pigs dance a minuet, pivoting with their fingers on their heads and giving big cross-eyed, tongue-out grins, it's fall-down funny and a rib at everything sacred about the 'cute little furry animals with big butts' over at Disney.
There are plenty of good cartoons here. With the word 'premiere' I thought the set was going to correspond to an early 90s VHS collection that gathered together the first cartoons of individual characters, like Porky going nuts with his speech impediment trying to recite The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. This seems to be a broad round-up of the usual Warners suspects, but I'm not sure they are debut cartoons in every case. Speaking of speech impediments, by the way, I didn't notice any PC Cartoon Network editing at work ... not that I couldn't be fooled. 1
The cartoon I want to point out is a wonderfully cynical and malajusted Gem called The Hypo-chondri-cat, which may or may not introduce those two little wisecracking mice with (Brooklyn?) accents. They usually make trouble for a rather dumb and overly sensitive cat named Claude (is that the right name?) but in this cartoon, the writers really push the envelope. The mice find out that Claude worries about drafts and his health, and concoct a ruse to make him think he's died, complete with paper angel wings and a balloon to make him float to heaven. It's priceless, the torment they unleash on this basically innocent cat, and the clincher is that there's no respite - no backing down. It's the most cynical of the Warners cartoons this side of the one about 'Number One Dog' (Fresh Airdale?) I won't give away the ending, but the cartoon is perfect accompaniment for the cosmically morbid The Seventh Victim. The mice don't relent, the cat (who seems too innocent for such punishment) never gets wise. The writers and director must have thought they were getting away with murder with this one. It must have been glorious to work in Hollywood at a time when the people minding the store would let stuff like this slip through.
Warners' DVD set, Looney Tunes Premiere Collection won't disappoint anyone except those who can't live without the full Golden Collection. There will surely be more of these out every year until every last cartoon makes it to DVD; perhaps they have a master plan for them.
The quality is excellent and fairly consistent. Some earlier collections had cartoons obviously rescued from less optimal sources, but all of these look fine. What may surprise some people with the added resolution of DVD is to see how imperfect the images are. I've seen cartoons where a reflection of the animation camera lens was visible all the way through, and there's nothing that serious here. But the cartoon cels contain all kinds of schmutz and imperfections that flicker through, or hang in place on held cels and some backgrounds. They were always there, and the only recourse for removing them would be to start repainting the cartoons digitally by hand, as Disney has done with some of their work. I'm keeping my un-improved, original version laser of Snow White for this very reason. If anything, the dirt shows that the cartoons were made essentially by hand, by artists and not by computers.
The packaging is bright and exciting. It doesn't explain the policy or the exact theme behind the choice of the 28 cartoons, unless I'm missing something. In tiny print on the back is some lettering, appropriately placed next to a giant falling anvil: 'Disc made in Mexico.' In a few years, Hollywood will be five executive offices and some telephones, and no longer a place where dreams are made.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Looney Tunes Premiere Collection rates:
1. Apparently the big Golden collection includes
a Cartoon Network half-hour show called The Lost Cartoons. This extra getting nothing but negative reviews, as it promises
to show a bunch of censored or unseen animation material from the vault, and then either shows only brief clips or edits out the
questionable material that the show is supposed to be about. I don't want to get into it too deeply, but I was the editor
on this show (gasp), a very frustrating experience. Just leaving the originals raw with a disclaimer that some of them
represented attitudes now deemed undesirable would have been fine, edicts from above made us disembowl the cartoons and (frankly)
make the show a waste of time. My producer and I are the only ones who got to enjoy the raw cartoons and uncut Schlesinger
blooper reels, bad taste and all, and it's a shame.