Rarely does one go to a film festival in the hopes of watching something they’ve seen before. And yet that’s often the case with the Brattle Theatre’s Bugs Bunny Film Festival, an early-February hallmark that begins its 23rd annual iteration this week. For as long as I’ve been attending, the format has remained more or less the same: The Brattle usually exhibits three programs of shorts collected from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series, all projected via 35mm prints—and while each program has a theme (like, say, “All Bugs Revue”), the particular shorts contained therein are not usually publicized. As a result, during at least a few screenings that I can remember, the audience occasionally reacts to the title cards just as emphatically as they react to the gags—be it a murmur of recognition for a lesser-known favorite, or an outright pop upon the start of a canonized masterpiece. For that reason and a few others, I won’t be naming most of the shorts playing in this year’s festival. But I can say that I expect the murmurs to continue unabated, for each of this year’s programs includes at least a couple of truly great films. And it makes one wonder about the experience of seeing these shorts back when they were first released, in front of old studio-produced theatrical features. How often were the Looney Tunes better received than the movies that followed them?
Speaking of those original releases: Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts played in front of feature-length films for nearly four decades, but most of what’s playing at Bugs Fest ’18 is from a more specific point in Looney-history. With few exceptions, the shorts playing in the Brattle’s programs—“All Bugs Revue”, “Daffy Duck and Friends”, and “Looney Tunes Revue”—were made between the late 1940s and the late 1950s. And the Looney-films made in that era were directed, with comparably few exceptions, by a small group of men: primarily Charles M. “Chuck” Jones, Robert McKimson, Arthur Davis, and Isadore “Friz” Freleng. By the late 1940s, each of these directors had put in at least a handful of years working at the animation studio—which was then under the control of Warner Bros.—and so had the vast majority of their primary collaborators, who included legendary voice actor Mel Blanc, composer Carl Stalling, and story writer Michael Maltese. This Looney Tunes crew has often been positioned, in retrospect, as the anarchic, troublemaking problem child of the studio lot—a reputation that some of the aforementioned filmmakers, like Jones himself, were not opposed to mythologizing. But problem children or not, history can now see the Looney Tunes as being more like the ideal result of the old studio production system: A group of artists, united by contracts and stuck together for years on end, develop a formula toward perfection—and then bend that formula as far as their bosses and their contracts will allow it to go.
The shorts that bend the Looney Tunes formula beyond its typical setups represent some of the most celebrated works in the whole catalogue, and many of them are scheduled to play during the 2018 festival: “All Bugs Revue” will wrap up with one of Chuck Jones’ oft-celebrated opera-based shorts, and “Looney Tunes Revue” will include his borderline-surrealist, outright-absurdist Duck Amuck (1953), probably my favorite toon of them all. But even those films are hardly unique objects: The working method of the Looney Tunes creative team was defined by the very concept of repetition. Specific bits of wordplay and physical comedy are liberally reused across different films, while musical cues and sound effects are replayed ad nauseam. Even the worthwhile narrative concepts are often recycled, for the sake of other characters—Duck Amuck, that sterling example of originality, would receive a pseudo sequel itself (that’s Rabbit Rampage, 1955, which keeps the “animator vs. character” format but swaps out Daffy for Bugs). One of my other favorites playing in the 2018 festival is Freleng’s Show Biz Bugs (1957), which pits Daffy and Bugs against each other on the vaudeville stage—Daffy tries to win the crowd back from Bugs, and quite literally dies trying. Like so many other great Looney Tunes shorts, very little of it is demonstrably new. One of the “vaudeville routines” (involving an exploding piano) was seen before in Ballot Box Bunny (1951, which played at the Brattle’s 2016 festival), and a number of others (including the suicidal finale) were taken from another vaudeville-adjacent Freleng-directed short, the Porky Pig-starring Curtain Razor (1949). “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”—and perhaps the greatest of all steal from themselves.
Recycling gags and effects was one way the Looney Tunes crew would refashion the old into something new. Another way was just to remake their own films outright. Dough for the Do-Do (1949), which plays this year in “Daffy Duck and Friends,” is a proto-psychedelic full-color extravaganza, and certainly among the most visually expressive pieces in the whole Looney canon; it sees Porky Pig travel to “darkest Africa” in search of the last dodo bird, facing a gauntlet of multicolored shape-shifters on the way there, and a series of Daliesque landscapes on the way back. It’s also a beat-for-beat remake of the black-and-white Porky in Wackyland (1938, directed by Bob Clampett), with the primary difference being the color palette—which, it should be noted, is used to defuse some of the uglier stereotypes present in the monochrome original: The skin tones of many “wackyland” characters are dark-hued in Clampett’s iteration, but they’re rendered vibrant and trippy in the remake, which represents something like a quarter-step toward untethering the piece from the explicit racism of its original context—suggesting yet another reason the Looney crew was often game for re-do’s. Earlier this week I found myself watching both “dodo” films one after the other and then all over again once more after that. With the Looney Tunes, it can sometimes feels like you’ve already seen a given short, even if you actually haven’t—maybe because you’re remembering a recycled gag from another film, or because you’ve seen a remade version of the one you’re watching. But for the converted viewer, Looney Tunes can bear the weight of that familiarity. Which explains the pops.