Warner Bros. (WB) created its animation division, Looney Tunes in 1930 in response to Disney’s popular series Silly Symphonies. Soon, a second series titled Merrie Melodies was added to the WB animation arsenal, making the studio ready to break the mold. Well, almost – It was actually in the mid 1930s that WB assembled what is still – for my money – the greatest team of animators and voice talent ever assembled – and a unique brand of cartoons came to be. These talents included legendary animators/directors Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin plus voice artists like Bea Benaderet and Mel Blanc.
The WB animation team would create classic comedies that brought together design, voice, effect, character, timing and unique points of view to create some of the best entertainment the screen had ever seen. Audiences at the time were enchanted by the characters who made them laugh when they needed distractions, delivered messages to further the war effort during WWII or they were simply reminded that cartoons were much more than child’s play. The last perhaps best illustrated by the way the animators at Warner Bros. approached popular fairy tales.
“It certainly helped that the leader of the field, Walt Disney was actually making straight versions of fairy tales and so that just gave the cartoonists at WB more fodder to work with.” (Jerry Beck, author of Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide)
Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons served a style of comedy that’s still entertaining. And the reason for the lasting quality of those productions is that the talent available in the WB animation division, what came to be known as Termite Terrace took every opportunity to break the rules and push the envelope, yet still created complete, two-dimensional characters audiences adore. During the golden age of animation Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were more popular than many movie stars of the time. In addition, there was no subject those animators didn’t tackle – they imitated popular historical figures and Hollywood stars, reworked literary works and reinvented fairy tales.
I couldn’t say exactly how many Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were made featuring fairy tales in one form or another, but there were many. Yet, interestingly Warner’s animation team focused primarily on just a few stories they’d reuse with different characters or spins over and over again. Those most often used were Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Repetition in this case didn’t matter, however. Each director/animator who took on a particular story gave it such a unique perspective or included one of the popular characters to make the old story new again. What these cartoons still do have in common is the Warner Bros. animation trademark “attitude” – the humor. That is, the stories made at Termite Terrace are oft irreverent, sometimes mash-ups of characters from different stories or take-offs on the more traditional and serious Disney fare. The latter best illustrated by the WB take on Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which WB made as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (working title: So White and de Sebben Dwarfs) with an all Black cast, or characters mostly in blackface. This cartoon was later banned due to its negative depiction of African-Americans.
In short, the Warner Bros. animators would do anything to get a laugh, thinking outside the box for each entry, which is particularly relevant when you watch their take on fairy tales. Fairy tales, as the late, great Ray Harryhausen said, are the ideal subject for cartoons – they are stories most people know. The familiarity of the stories allowed the animators at Termite Terrace to concentrate on their characters and stories being funny, rather than concentrating on the details of the narrative. And funny they are!
Following are commentaries on just a few of the classic WB cartoons that are based on popular fairy tales. Trust me, it wasn’t easy deciding on which few to include here. In general terms these productions enchant and entertain as effectively today as they did when first released seven or so decades ago, as I mention above. These cartoons are not only funny, they are often laugh out loud funny. They make you shake your head. They are outrageous. They are a delight and among the greatest entertainment we have to enjoy to this day. And I’ll go one further, these shorts are without a doubt the work of genius, the result of the convergence of a talent pool we will never see the likes of again.
And now, a few Fairy Tales of the Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies variety…
To begin – Merrie Melodies, “Little Red Walking Hood” (1937) directed by Tex Avery. This is one of the several animated tellings of the Little Red Riding Hood tale produced at Warner Bros. This particular entry features the basic plot of Little Red Riding Hood and if you’re familiar with a cartoon titled “Red Hot Riding Hood” that Tex Avery made at MGM a few years after this wherein he focused on a wolf character that is a “wolf” with the ladies, you’ll note an early version of him here. I love that MGM short and the series of others that followed.
While the fairy tale as a form of entertainment had been present in one form of medium or another since the 17th Century, we can (arguably) credit Hollywood movies, particularly Disney films that focused on many of the popular stories with brining the fairy into popular culture to stay. However, many credit the Hollywood animated short subjects, especially the work of Tex Avery at Warner Bros. and later MGM, for modernizing the fairy tale. Avery’s inclusion of memorable gags in each of his animated stories were particularly geared toward adult audiences, but had enough pizzazz to appeal to kids as well. While I can’t say that Tex Avery’s cartoons are my favorite, they certainly lend themselves to laughs and his take on the stories we’re so familiar with is always unique.
Noteworthy in “Little Red Walking Hood” are those Tex Avery gags. For instance, during the part in the cartoon where the wolf is running through the house chasing Grandma she stops to take a phone call and all the action stops. We hear the old lady ordering a few items, including a case of gin, while the wolf waits impatiently for her to get off the phone so he can start the chase again. At the end of the cartoon as the wolf chases Red Riding Hood we see silhouettes of late arriving audience members getting to their seats causing the action in the cartoon to stop again and an annoyed wolf makes a comment.
Also noteworthy in “Little Red Walking Hood” is that a character named Egghead who is part of the running gag throughout the short makes his second appearance in this cartoon. In the end Egghead is the hero of this story when he knocks the wolf out with a mallet. I believe that brief moment is the only time in this where we hear Mel Blanc’s voice. The great Mel Blanc was still uncredited on these productions Besides that line by the Egghead character “Little Red Walking Hood” is voiced by Elvia Allman and Tedd Pierce. And, by the way, Egghead is said to be the prototype of Elmer Fudd.
Next are two cartoons made up of compilations of gags based on popular nursery rhymes and fairy tales. These collections of cartoon snippets, if you will, were produced by all studios. I remember watching several made at MGM that featured collections of running gags, rather than stories. Anyway, the first from the WB arsenal I recently watched is from 1940, Merrie Melodies “A Gander at Mother Goose” directed by Tex Avery.
“A Gander at Mother Goose” puts to use everything you can think of to get a laugh. Examples: Mary, Mary Quite Contrary talks about her garden doing her best impersonation of Katharine Hepburn, Jack and Jill go up the hill and forget all about the pail of water because they start smooching, Little Miss Muffet sits on a tuffet and frightens the spider off when she turns toward it because she’s so ugly and as the Big Bad Wolf tries to blow the Three Little Pigs’ house down one of them raises a white flag to hand him a bottle of historine. I’ve seen a take on the listerine gag in other cartoons and it never fails to make me laugh.
“A Gander at Mother Goose” is voiced by Sara Berner, Mel Blanc, Robert C. Bruce and Bernice Hanson. Berner and Blanc also voice Merrie Melodies “Foney Fables” (1942) directed by Friz Freleng which also serves a gag-filled recounting of severely abridged versions of some of the most popular fairy tales to make for great fun.
I enjoy this one a bit more than the previous cartoon I mentioned. Among the fairy tales covered in “Foney Fables” are the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, The Boy Who Cried Wolf (the running gag in this one), Jack and the Beanstalk, The Arabian Nights and The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs who changed her strategy in this to help national defense.
The WB cartoon never followed a standard based on realism or common sense. As such many of the cartoons that retold fairy tales would include characters from different stories in the same cartoon. One example of this is “The Bear’s Tale” (1940), which is another Avery-directed entry. In this one Tex Avery takes the story of “Goldilocks” and cleverly incorporates “Little Red Riding Hood.”
The story begins as the traditional “Goldilocks” story with the little girl arriving to the bear’s cabin, eating the little one’s porridge and going upstairs to sleep. Except that as she ascends the stairs the phone rings and it’s her friend Red Riding Hood to warn her about the wolf who got tired of waiting and headed off to eat Goldilocks instead. It’s hilarious to hear Red Riding Hood in this instance sound like a telephone operator with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. Then, breaking yet another rule, Avery has Red reaching through space and showing Goldi the actual note the wolf left behind.
To offer another example of the cross-use (yes, that’s a word as I too am following no rules) of fairy tale characters I’m jumping to 1954 and “Bewitched Bunny” directed by the great, Chuck Jones and starring Bugs Bunny. In this cartoon Witch Hazel, another WB recurring character, takes part in the Hansel and Gretel story. When Bugs Bunny happens by and notices Hazel is about to cook the children he sets out to rescue them. Bugs succeeds, but as a result he ends up on the menu. Bugs is tied up and placed in the cauldron as the main ingredient of rabbit stew when suddenly Prince Charming of “Sleeping Beauty” fame enters unexpectedly, kisses the rabbit’s hand and saves him. It turns out the Prince took a wrong turn on his way to awaken Aurora.
Next up is a Merrie Melodies interpretation of “The Big Bad wolf and the Three Little Pigs” – “Pigs in a Polka” from 1943, directed by Friz Freleng and voiced by Bea Benaderet, Sara Berner and Mel Blanc.
This story opens as we see the Big Bag Wolf dressed in a tuxedo announcing the evening’s program and the evening’s program is the story of the three little pigs set to the music of Johannes Brahms. This short subject features terrific orchestration and perfect musical timing, a specialty of Freleng’s. The tale is the one we’re familiar with – one little pig builds his house of straw, the second uses sticks, in this case match sticks and the last, the smart one uses bricks. Once the houses are completed we see the wolf coming down the path. He’s doing the polka and is dressed in drag.
I must admit I am not a fan of classical music except as used in these WB shorts. In fact, I don’t think I would have otherwise ever been exposed to this type of music at all if not for these cartoons – and this one is a superb example of the use of music coupled with animation. It’s art. And I’m not the only one who’s thought so through the years. “Pigs in a Polka” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject, Cartoons for Leon Schlesinger, producer extraordinaire who was – by the way – largely responsible for putting together the talent that would create these animated masterpieces.
“Pigs in a Polka” is a hoot and another great example of how WB animators pushed the envelope as far as it could go to make these productions humorous and stay true to the characters they created – consistencies be damned. For instance, in this case it’s hilarious to see that the house made of brick, wherein the wolf chases the Three Pigs at the end suddenly turns into a house with stairs and an elevator. When the Pig first built it the house was a small, brick cottage. Suddenly, the wolf is chasing the pigs through many rooms and several floors. But, who cares! It’s fantastic fun.
Now it’s Looney Tunes “Puss n’ Booty,” directed by Frank Tashlin and voiced by Bea Benaderet and Mel Blanc.
Puss n’ Booty is a 1943 cartoon notable for being the last black-and-white cartoon Warner Bros. ever made, which is why I included it here. But it’s also fun.
As the story opens here we see an empty birdcage and hear a woman desperately calling out to her pet, Dickie Bird, which as it turns out is not the first of her pet birds to go missing. While she’s desperately searching for Dickie Bird, the woman’s other pet, Rudolph the cat burps up feathers, but feigns being sorry to see the little bird gone. Rudolph’s sadness doesn’t last long, however, when to his delight he hears the woman calling the pet shop for a new canary. But Rudolph’s in for a big surprise when he tries to go for the new little, yellow canary named Petey.
This cartoon really only has the title in common with the original “Puss n’ Boots” fairy tale, which features the title character as a smart, deceitful cat. In this story, which many credit for inspiring the Sylvester and Tweety cartoons produced a few years later, Petey the bird repeatedly outsmarts Rudolph the cat.
The next and final two cartoons I mention here are among my all-time favorites. The first is “Beanstalk Bunny” from 1955 directed by Chuck Jones and starring what is for me the cartoon acting trifecta – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.
In this take on Jack and the Beanstalk, Daffy Duck plays the Jack role. Upset that he’s traded a valuable cow for three ththththth-tupid beans he tosses the beans aside and right into Bugs’ rabbit hole where suddenly a humongous beanstalk grows. Naturally Daffy climbs the tree, but as he does so in true WB style he looks right at us and says, “this must be the story about Jack climbing a beanstalk and getting all kinds of gold goodies. And I’m Jack.”
Now vying for the gold both Daffy and Bugs reach the top where they encounter Elmer Fudd as the Giant, “Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the bwood of an Engwish Wabbit.” From there – hilarity ensues as Bugs and Daffy try to avoid the Giant while constantly at odds with each other. As always Mel Blanc voices both Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in this short and Arthur Q. Bryan does Elmer Fudd.
Finally, another send-up of Little Red Riding Hood, Friz Freleng’s “Little Red Riding Rabbit” (1944). Bugs Bunny stars in what is the first cartoon in which Mel Blanc receives a voice credit. I might as well gush for a moment as Mr. Blanc is one of my idols, a true master of a lost art.
What makes “Little Red Riding Rabbit” especially funny is the talent of yet another one of my idols, the great Bea Benaderet. Benaderet’s long and distinguished career included stints as partner in crime to Gracie Allen on both radio and television as well as being one of the all-time great voice artists. Ms. Benaderet voices Little Red Riding Hood in this cartoon, who is depicted as an annoying, loud-mouthed teenage girl with the voice equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
Both Riding Hood and Bugs Bunny end up in Grandma’s house with the wolf, but Bugs gets the best of everybody. The gags and references in this cartoon are hilarious. For instance, when the wolf arrives at Grandma’s house he sees a note on the door from the old lady to Riding Hood explaining she’s working the “swing shift,” a Rosie the Riveter reference. But funniest is how the cartoon ends.
By the end of the story even Bugs Bunny is sick and tired of Red Riding Hood, her constant interruptions, annoying questions and loud mouth. After shifting his efforts from trying to scorch the wolf to trying to scorch Red Riding Hood, we see Bugs and the wolf with arms around each other’s shoulders, sharing a carrot and satisfied the girl is finally silenced.
Like so many others, I grew up watching Warner Bros. animated shorts when they were reintroduced to audiences on television during the 1970s. I adored them then and still do. They are not only fantastic entertainment, but also the highest form of art in my book.
That’s why when Fritzi of Movies, Silently announced the Fairy Tale Blogathon it was the tales featuring Bugs and Elmer and Porky and the gang that I wanted to focus on, the versions of fairy tales that had the biggest impact on me, the ones from Termite Terrace. If I could have been a bug on a wall in any place it would’ve been there.
Be sure to visit the Fairy Tale Blogathon to read a terrific lot of entries on many fairy tale productions in the movies – Once Upon a Time…