The Death of Looney Tunes on Home Video

PorkyPig101When I heard about the Porky Pig 101 5-disc DVD set from Warner Archive months ago via various channels of “insider info,” I literally felt nothing. Having that kind of unfazed reaction to a licensed, complete collection of Warner cartoons is quite odd, yes. But not really, once it was known “the conditions that prevail[ed].”

Beyond having no Blu-Ray version, the bulk of the cartoons, the ones that weren’t featured on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets of 2003-08, are not restored from the original negatives. They are mostly new transfers from 35mm interpositives and nitrate material. (This is also true for the new transfers of the color Warner cartoons of the last six years or so, which explains the very noticeable dip in quality and color.) We were forewarned that the difference would be noticeable, but hey, raw 35mm transfers are better than nothing, right?

When my copy arrived, the first cartoon I put on was Africa Squeaks, a crude little gem highlighting the casual racism of Bob Clampett (he was the best cartoon director of the early ‘40s, but if you want proof of that racism, it’s all over this set). It was indeed uncensored, but I was rather taken aback to see that it was an older master, one made in the analog video era. It didn’t bode well for the rest of the set. Despite the assurances these would be new transfers, several cartoons are sourced from the old Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network era analog masters. Given what transpired, I wish they were all taken from those copies.

One of the older masters used, complete with 4x3 TV safe window-boxing.

One of the older masters used, complete with 4×3 TV safe window-boxing.

How do I put this… Well, let’s just grab a title from each disc. Picador Porky looks okay, but it has the wrong soundtrack over the opening and closing—so Porky says “That’s All Folks!” when he isn’t actually there. Porky the Wrestler is still censored (a blackface gag was cut in 1942), and it’s exceptionally dirty and shaky, with the wrong “That’s All Folks!” card literally spliced on.

Get Rich Quick Porky looks like a soft dupe, with the opening music from Confusions of a Nutzy Spy over the credits. Someone absolutely loved the opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble, as it’s on about six cartoons where it shouldn’t be (on Naughty Neighbors, it’s looped twice). Too many cartoons don’t have the WB shield zoom—it simply abruptly starts, just as so many film prints do.

a coy decoyIt’d be tempting to publish a full list of what’s wrong with every other cartoon on this set, but that would simply give it attention it does not deserve. Make no mistake: the bodies of many of these cartoons look completely serviceable for a barebones release—from another era, that is. If this were a laserdisc set, it’d easily be one of the crown jewels of that format. But this is now 2017, when we have had a full decade’s worth of high-definition classic film restorations and releases. Doing the bare minimum—putting out [mostly] uncut cartoons, the result of five years of lawyers bantering about 75 year-old pickaninny and mammy gags to justify their six-figure salaries—doesn’t cut it any more. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.

If they had simply used the old video masters, at least those flubs could be blamed on bad work twenty years ago and not twenty weeks ago. “Utterly clueless” is an apt summation for these postproduction people; “interns” would be another. They did not do the esteemed Warner Archive label any favors. In fact, in one case, they did a new, poor transfer of the dud Patient Porky, despite the fact that Warners had restored that cartoon from the original negative over ten years ago for the Golden Collection. The “cost prohibitive” argument against doing full restoration falls apart if they spent money to make a cartoon look worse.

As someone who does film restoration and master preparation on a daily basis, I can sympathize with cut corners, gaffes here and there. It’s only human that a set of 101 short subjects would have a few imperfections, and it’d be unfair to blow those few out of proportion. But it is even more unfair when a giant corporation slings hash, knowing the stupid audience will buy the set anyway. If it’s this or nothing, fine. Nothing it is.

porkys last stand The most recent episode of the Warner Archive Podcast with George Feltenstein and my friend Jerry Beck was truly hard to listen to, with pleas to support and buy this collection without hesitation in order to convince the powers that be to release future animation sets of a similar nature. While I’m sure I’ll be given grief for this, what’s the point if they’re not going to restore them and put out something half-assed that makes anyone who actually does care look bad? Does anybody really want to get an unrestored MGM Tex Avery set in standard-definition?

Don’t let anyone kid you. We are living in an era in which restoration and preservation costs are going down—just about every transfer house charges the same for 4K as 2K now—and small companies such as Thunderbean Animation and Cartoons on Film are willing to pick up the slack with their releases of public domain and copyrighted shorts. As I write this, I’m working on the remastering of a god-awful Don and Waffles cartoon animated by Jim Tyer that’s going to look inarguably as good (and arguably better) than any of the new transfers on this set. Think about that: a stupid public-domain Van Beuren cartoon is going to look better than a Warner cartoon on an officially licensed set. It’s utterly embarrassing that we’ll have restored versions of Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper, Felix the Cat, and Ko-Ko the Clown on Blu-Ray, and a behemoth like Warners won’t pony up the cash to do the same for Porky Pig. It’s not that the money isn’t there; it’s that Warners doesn’t want to spend it, and if the sales for this abomination are good, it’s proof they don’t have to do it.

the blow out Which underlies the real tragedy, given what the contents of Porky Pig 101 represent: the historic early works of the medium’s most talented people at the greatest animation studio of all-time, starring an incredibly enduring, timeless character. Doing restoration and preservation is only a good thing because they’ll always be venerable parts of the Warner library. If they’re not worth the extra mile, the “bonus” of proper restoration, what exactly is worth it? And does anyone really think they’re going to go back and do these the right way if it’s proven they can get away with this?

Quality control and preservation on the Warner-owned cartoons are officially dead until they drop the act and sublicense them to someone who does care. Th-th-that’s all, folks!

thats all folks

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Author, Author!

disney_halloweenhexFor some reason, I now have an author’s page on ComiXology. Well, I do know the reason, actually: the entire line of Disney comics published by IDW are being published digitally on February 1st, and since I’m credited as a creator for my “Duck English” scripts of international stories, there be my byline.

As I’ve said many times, it’s been a privilege working with David Gerstein to bring these stories stateside. Despite some hiccups and dud concepts, it’s easily the best curated run of Disney comic books period. Case in point: “The Great Rock of Power-Plus”, by Francesco Artibani and Giorgio Cavazzano, a modern 57-page (!) masterpiece that manages to make the wholly unsympathetic Magica De Spell a sympathetic character. It was an honor to play a small part in bringing it stateside via last October’s Disney Giant Halloween Hex.

More later…

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Toby the Pup: Lost Cartoons Still Lost

tobybluWhile a release of any pre-code sound animation should be worth celebrating, Toby the Pup from Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images should be approached with caution.

The basic background: these are cartoons made in 1930-31 by the three-way partnership of animators Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus (whom Huemer credited with creating Toby, despite what this release implies), and Art Davis for producer Charles Mintz and distributed by RKO. The series was a failure and ended after twelve cartoons, all of which are considered “lost.”

Four of them resurfaced in modern times by way of 35mm French release prints from Lobster Films and Serge Bromberg (not “Bomberg” as the release’s credits have it), and that’s mostly what’s included here; Circus Time is from UCLA Film & Television Archive (not “UCLA & Television Archives”, as seen, again, in the credits). Other Toby cartoons have been found, though I’m not at liberty to say how many (mainly because I’m not sure myself).

It should be telling that three errors seen on the Inkwell release needed to be corrected right off the bat, but even historical inaccuracies and embarrassing typos can be forgiven if the films’ presentation is satisfactory. Such is not the case, by a long shot.

As someone who does film restoration on a daily basis, I sympathize with those who have to work with a meager budget on material that has suffered to this degree. Bearing in mind the Toby cartoons’ history, raw transfers would’ve been just fine. Sadly, as is typical of an Inkwell Images release, Pointer seeks to “improve” the cartoons to the best of his technical abilities, which seem as ancient as the cartoons. Poor title recreations with generic fonts and fake irises pepper the set. Whoever mastered the Blu-Ray (BD-R, not a replicated disc) has no idea how to do so, since the 50 minutes of material is far more compressed than it needs to be, with a botched frame rate to boot (6o fps as opposed to the correct 24fps). The accompanying DVD-R actually looks far better.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release. BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release.
BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

What’s left of the material that is. Another Inkwell trademark is unnecessary censorship, pointed out in the feature-length audio commentary by Mark Kausler. He kindly alludes that cuts in Circus Time may be some long-dead besotted censor’s work, when in fact these were edits made specifically for this release. Compare the version of The Milkman seen here to the one on Tom Stathes’ Cartoon Roots. It’s over a minute shorter! True, the Stathes release reinstates some previously lost footage (taken from a 16mm print), but the Inkwell release is even missing more than that. The random censorship is a long-standing problem that Pointer has never adequately explained, if an explanation is even possible.

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Unsurprisingly, the sole saving grace of this collection is that 30-minute audio commentary by Mark. It captures any afternoon spent with this animation treasure for those not lucky enough to experience one personally: tons of fascinating insight, little-known history, and laughter. It’s just a shame he had his time wasted.

While the Toby cartoons themselves are as hit-and-miss as the Scrappy cartoons the Huemer-Marcus-Davis did for Columbia, there’s also a wonderful charm and life to them. Halloween in particular matches anything done by the Fleischers at their off-the-wall pre-code peak. They deserve better than Inkwell Images has provided. Fortunately the films and character are public domain (the “trademark” information is erroneous—you can’t trademark a public domain property, especially when you haven’t created any new content with said character), so someone can do a better job in the future with what survives. Let’s hope.

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Welcome Back, from Emery Hawkins, too

I’m not sure what the answer is… Should I keep this site up despite next to never having the motivation to update it? I didn’t hear much when it was gone, but since I have to keep up the costs of maintaining a server for actual paying work, it might as well stay.

Devon Baxter has been doing an enjoyable series of posts at Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research about animators who moonlighted in comic books, largely under the former animator’s Jim Davis’s shop. Devon’s most recent post highlighted the only known (for now) comic-book work by those beloved animators Irv Spence and Rod Scribner. As the esteemed and vastly underrated Dave Bennett notes in the comments, comic work suited many animators, but for many it was a hassle. He cites Preston Blair’s only known comic story, and Johnny Gent probably didn’t do more than a handful. I can imagine it was a struggle for many to do satisfying work, for there’s a significant difference between drawing for comics and drawing for animation, as the unremarkable Spence and Scribner comics indicate.

Here, too, is another one-shot from a highly identifiable animator: the only comic book story I know of that was drawn by Emery Hawkins (unsigned, though). The poses and line of action throughout “The Cat and Canary” are unmistakably from Hawkins’ hand, probably knocked out after doing scenes for Shamus Culhane’s Fish Fry at Lantz’s.

Without further adieu, from Giggle Comics #5 (Feb. 1944)…

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