Since its success during the short film era of cartoons, Looney Tunes has become a worldwide media franchise; spawning several television series, feature films, comic books, music albums, video games, and amusement park rides. Many of the characters have made and continue to make cameo appearances in various other television shows, films, and advertisements. The most popular Looney Tunes character, Bugs Bunny, is regarded as a cultural icon and has appeared in more films than any other cartoon character. Several Looney Tunes films are regarded as some of the greatest animated cartoons of all time.
In the beginning both Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies drew their storylines from Warner's vast music library. From 1934 to 1943, Merrie Melodies were produced in color and Looney Tunes in black and white. After 1943, however, both series were produced in color and became virtually indistinguishable, with the only stylistic difference being in the variation between the opening theme music and titles. Both series also made use of the various Warner Bros. cartoon characters. By 1937, the theme music for Looney Tunes was "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin; the theme music for Merrie Melodies was an adaptation of "Merrily We Roll Along" by Charles Tobias, Murray Mencher, and Eddie Cantor.
In 1929, WB became interested in developing a series of musical animated shorts to promote their music. They had recently acquired the ownership of Brunswick Records along with four music publishers for US $28 million. Consequently, they were eager to start promoting this material to cash in on the sales of sheet music and phonograph records. Warner made a deal with Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons for WB. Schlesinger hired Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising to produce their first series of cartoons. Bosko was Looney Tunes' first major lead character, debuting in the short Bosko, The Talk-Ink Kid in 1929. The first Looney Tunes short was Sinkin' in the Bathtub, which was released in 1930.
When Harman and Ising left Warner Bros. in 1933 over a budget dispute with Schlesinger, they took with them all the rights of the characters and cartoons which they had created. A new character called Buddy became the only star of the Looney Tunes series for a couple of years. New directors including Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett were brought in to work with animators in the Termite Terrace studio. In 1935 they debuted the first truly major Looney Tunes star, Porky Pig, along with Beans in the Merrie Melodie cartoon I Haven't Got a Hat directed by Friz Freleng. Beans was the star of the next Porky/Beans cartoon Gold Diggers of '49, but it was Porky who emerged as the star instead of Beans. The ensemble characters of I Haven't Got a Hat, such as Oliver Owl, and twin dogs Ham and Ex, were also given a sampling of shorts, but demand for these characters was far exceeded by Beans and Porky; Beans himself was later phased out due to declining popularity, leaving Porky as the only star of the Schlesinger studio. This was soon followed by the debuts of other memorable Looney Tunes stars; Daffy Duck (in 1937's Porky's Duck Hunt), Elmer Fudd (in 1940's Elmer's Candid Camera), and Bugs Bunny (in 1940's A Wild Hare).
Bugs initially starred in the color Merrie Melodies shorts and formally joined the Looney Tunes series with the release of Buckaroo Bugs in 1944. Schlesinger began to phase in the production of color Looney Tunes with the 1942 cartoon The Hep Cat. The final black-and-white Looney Tunes short was Puss n' Booty in 1943 directed by Frank Tashlin. The inspiration for the changeover was Warner's decision to re-release only the color cartoons in the Blue Ribbon Classics series of Merrie Melodies. Bugs made a cameo appearance in 1942 in the Avery/Clampett cartoon Crazy Cruise and also at the end of the Frank Tashlin 1943 cartoon Porky Pig's Feat which marked Bugs' only appearance in a black-and-white Looney Tunes short. Schlesinger sold his interest in the cartoon studio in 1944 to Warner Bros. and went into retirement; he would die five years later.
The original Looney Tunes theatrical series ran from 1930 to 1969 (the last short being Injun Trouble, by Robert McKimson). During part of the 1960s, the shorts were produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises after Warner Bros. shut down their animation studios. The shorts from this era can be identified by their different title sequence, featuring stylized limited animation and graphics on a black background and a new arrangement, by William Lava, of "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down". The change in the introductory title cards was possibly to reflect the switch in the animation style of the shorts themselves.
The Looney Tunes series' popularity was strengthened even more when the shorts began airing on network and syndicated television in the 1950s under various titles and formats. However, since the syndicated shorts' target audience was children and because of concerns over children's television in the 1970s, the Looney Tunes shorts were edited, removing scenes of violence (particularly suicidal gags and scenes of characters doing dangerous stunts that impressionable viewers could easily imitate), racial and ethnic caricatures (particularly stereotypical portrayals of blacks, Mexicans, Jews, American Indians, Asians, and Germans as Nazis), and questionable vices (such as smoking cigarettes, ingesting pills, and drinking alcohol).
Theatrical animated shorts went dormant until 1987 when new shorts were made to introduce Looney Tunes to a new generation of audiences. New Looney Tunes shorts have been produced and released sporadically for theaters since then, usually as promotional tie-ins with various family movies produced by Warner Bros. While many of them have been released in limited releases theatrically for Academy Award consideration, only a few have gotten theatrical releases with movies. The most recently released Looney Tunes short was Daffy's Rhapsody in 2012, shown theatrically with Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.
In the 1970s through the early 1990s, several feature-film compilations and television specials were produced, mostly centering on Bugs Bunny and/or Daffy Duck, with a mixture of new and old footage. In 1976, the Looney Tunes characters made their way into the amusement business when they became the mascots for the two Marriott's Great America theme parks (Gurnee, Santa Clara). After the Gurnee park was sold to Six Flags, they also claimed the rights to use the characters at the other Six Flags parks, which they continue to do presently. In 1988, several Looney Tunes characters appeared in cameo roles in Touchstone, Disney and Amblin's Oscar-winning epic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The more notable cameos featured Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird. It is the only time in which Looney Tunes characters have shared screen time with their rivals at Disney (producers of the film)—particularly in the scenes where Bugs and Mickey Mouse are skydiving, and when Daffy and Donald Duck are performing their "Dueling Pianos" sequence.
In 1988, Nickelodeon aired all the unaired cartoons in a show called Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon until 1999. To date, Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon is the longest-airing animated series on the network that was not a Nicktoon (although Nickelodeon does not air Looney Tunes anymore). In 1996, Space Jam, a feature film mixing animation and live-action, was released to theaters starring Bugs Bunny and basketball player Michael Jordan. Despite its odd plot and mixed critical reception, the film was a major box-office success, grossing nearly $100 million in the U.S. alone, almost becoming the first non-Disney animated film to achieve that feat. For a two-year period, it was the highest grossing non-Disney animated film ever. The film also introduced the character Lola Bunny, who subsequently became another recurring member of the Looney Tunes, usually as a love interest for Bugs.
In 2000, WB decided to make the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies library exclusive to fellow Time Warner properties, specifically Cartoon Network. Immediately prior to this decision, Looney Tunes shorts were airing on several networks at once: on Cartoon Network, on Nickelodeon (as Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon), and on ABC (as The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show). The latter two had been particularly long-running series, and the Warner Bros. decision forced the two networks to cancel the programs. In 2003, another feature film was released, this time in an attempt to recapture the spirit of the original shorts: the live-action/animated Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Although the film wasn't financially successful, it was met with relatively positive reviews from film critics and has been argued by animation historians and fans as the finest original feature-length appearance for the cartoon characters.
In 2006, Warner Home Video released a new, Christmas-themed Looney Tunes direct-to-video movie called Bah, Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas featuring a wide array of characters working in a mega-store under the Scrooge-esque Daffy Duck. The movie parodies the famous book by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Other Looney Tunes TV series included Baby Looney Tunes (2002, which had a similar premise to Muppet Babies), Duck Dodgers (2003, starring Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Marvin The Martian), and Loonatics Unleashed, (2005, featuring futuristic versions of the characters). Most recently, the characters have appeared on the Cartoon Network sitcom The Looney Tunes Show (2011, featuring Bugs and Daffy living in the suburbs with their fellow castmates).
Although the classic cartoon shorts are seldom seen on mainstream TV today, thanks to revival theatrical screenings, and the Golden Collection DVD box sets, Looney Tunes and its characters has remained a part of Western animation heritage.
For a more detailed history of Looney Tunes (1997-present), see here.
A handful of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts from the World War II era are no longer aired on American television nor are they available for sale by Warner Bros. because of the racial stereotypes of African-Americans, Jews (especially in the earlier cartoons, despite the fact that all four of the Warner brothers that the studio was named for were Jewish as well), Japanese, Chinese, and Germans (especially during WWII, as in "Tokio Jokio") included in some of the cartoons. Eleven cartoons that prominently featured stereotypical black characters (and a few passing jokes about Japanese people, as was the case with Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and Jungle Jitters) were withdrawn from distribution in 1968 and are known as the Censored Eleven. This has caused dismay among some animation enthusiasts, who feel that they should have access to these shorts. There has been some success in returning these cartoons to the public; in 1999 all Speedy Gonzales cartoons were made unavailable because of their alleged stereotyping of Mexicans, but because the level of stereotyping was minor compared to the World War II era cartoons as well as the protests of many Hispanics who said they were not offended and fondly remembered Speedy Gonzales cartoons from their youth, these shorts were made available for broadcast again in 2002. This would be short lived, however, as Cartoon Network and Boomerang ceased airing Speedy Gonzales (as well as the Warner Bros. cartoons in general) for a while (however the shorts (still majorly excluding Speedy) eventually returned full time after many random appearances in 2011).
In addition to these most notorious cartoons, many Warner cartoons contain fleeting or sometimes extended gags that reference then-common racial or ethnic stereotypes. The release of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3 includes a disclaimer at the beginning of each DVD in the volume given by Whoopi Goldberg which explains that the cartoons are products of their time and contain racial and ethnic stereotypes that these days would be considered offensive, but the cartoons are going to be presented on the DVD uncut and uncensored because editing them out and therefore denying that the stereotypes existed is almost as bad as condoning them.
A written disclaimer, similar to the words spoken by Goldberg in Volume 3, is shown at the beginning of each DVD in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 4 and Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 5 sets:
"The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in the U.S. society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today's society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed."
Warner Bros. has also had controversy over Turner Entertainment's "dubbed version" prints, used on many pre-1948 cartoons beginning in 1995. These versions were actually new ones derived (hence the "dubbed" moniker) from earlier-generation prints of whatever versions of shorts were available, even if they were the altered "blue ribbon" prints. These "dubbed versions" had many alterations. They have a generic end card (with either orange or red rings, depending on the credited producer), with a disclaiming copyright to Turner, thus replacing the original colored cards (a la Blue Ribbon Merrie Melodies). Many animation fans have believed that changing the end card was a bad move on many of the pre-1948 cartoons, especially "The Old Grey Hare", which features a static version of the end card shaking from an off-screen explosion. Because of the generic end card, this ending gag was obliterated in the dubbed version, though there is also a second dubbed version which preserves the gag. In this version, the original end card shakes, and the Turner disclaimer fades up at the end.
In almost all cases, the original end title music was kept, although sometimes an earlier or later version of the closing theme is heard on the titles (some reissued Looney Tunes had their ending music changed to that of the Merrie Melodies series).
In 1998, Warner Bros. began to restore selected post-1948 cartoons for airing on Turner networks, with a similar dubbed card (keeping the original colored rings, and "THIS VERSION" instead of "DUBBED VERSION").
These "dubbed versions", which continue to be shown on cable and broadcast television to this day, are not representative of the original theatrical release versions of the "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" shorts. Despite Warner Bros./Turner's best efforts to include the best available versions of the shorts possible on DVD, several "dubbed version" cartoons have been released on DVD as bonus features, either in special 2-disc editions of the WB/Turner classic films or on their Looney Tunes Golden Collection 4-disc DVD sets if no better version does exist or is undiscovered.
In 1967, the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts company reissued 78 of the black-and-white Looney Tunes in a primitive colorization process. The original prints were sent to South Korea where artists re-traced each cartoon frame-by-frame in color. The quality dropped considerably with the hand-colored versions, to the point where some animation was not carried over.
These cartoons continued to be seen over the decades, and even some of the hand-colored cartoons ended up on low-budget bargain-bin home video labels (the hand-colored versions were copyrighted, but it has been suggested they too have fallen into the public domain).
Then, in 1990, 1992 and 1995, Warner Bros. released the same 78 black-and-white shorts again in color (plus 26 cartoons which were not colorized in 1967), but this time using a digital colorization process rather than re-coloring them frame-by-frame as in 1967. The digital technology allowed for the quality of the original animation to be preserved; thus, these colorized versions could be seen as superior to the 1967 versions.
The digital color versions have aired on the Turner networks (Cartoon Network and Boomerang except on the programming block Late Night Black And White). Incidentally, the 1967 hand-drawn color versions continued to be seen on the Turner networks until Looney Tunes were pulled from the airwaves in 2007.
In the early 1950s, Warner Bros. sold its black-and-white Looney Tunes (plus the first Merrie Melody, Lady, Play Your Mandolin!, and the B&W Merrie Melodies made after Harman and Ising left) to Sunset Productions. Warner insisted that the opening and closing titles be changed to remove all references to Warner Bros. The cartoons were distributed by Guild Films until it was sold to Motion Pictures for Television. In the 1960s, Seven Arts Productions bought that company. In 1967, Seven Arts merged with Warner Bros. to create Warner Bros.-Seven Arts thus putting those films back in Warner's ownership.
In 1957, Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.) acquired for television most of Warner Bros.' pre-1950 library, including all Merrie Melodies (except for those sold to Sunset) and color Looney Tunes shorts that were released prior to August 1948. Unlike the sale to Sunset Productions, a.a.p. was allowed to keep the Warner titles intact and simply inserted an "Associated Artists Productions presents" title at the head of each reel so each Merrie Melodie cartoon had the song "Merrily We Roll Along" playing twice (while each Looney Tune had both opening songs each playing once). a.a.p. was later sold to United Artists, who merged the company into its television division—United Artists Television.
In 1981, UA was sold to MGM, and five years later, Ted Turner acquired the MGM library—which also included U.S. rights to the RKO Pictures library, in addition to its own pre-1986 material, the classic Warner Bros. library, and some of UA's own product, in an attempt to take over MGM. Turner's company, Turner Broadcasting System (whose Turner Entertainment division oversaw the film library), merged with Time Warner in 1996, thus the classic library was once again under ownership of WB (although technically they are owned by Turner, with WB handling sales and distribution).
All the while, starting in 1967 WB was able to retain the rights to "Lady Play Your Mandolin" and the black-and-white Looney Tunes, even though a number of them fell into the public domain (WB holds the original film elements)—a majority of these public domain shorts have been released on many low-budget independent home video labels. As of 2006, all WB's animated output (including the post-'48 shorts WB also kept) are under the same Time Warner umbrella of ownership.
UA (under the pre-WB/Turner-merger management of MGM/UA Home Video) officially released numerous compilations of the classic pre-8/48 cartoons on VHS and LaserDisc, most of these under the title The Golden Age of Looney Tunes. Today, Warner Home Video holds the video rights to the entire Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies animated output by virtue of WB's ownership of Turner Entertainment—this is why their Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD box sets include cartoons from both the pre-8/48 Turner-owned and post-8/48 WB owned periods.
Quality of prints used for television and video
When the Looney Tunes were shown on TV, WB and a.a.p. prepared 16 mm "dupes" of the original prints for the syndication market; these prints faded over time, causing them to look "inferior" to what was being shown on the networks. Meanwhile, prints with better material especially for the networks that showed post-7/48 were created periodically to continue appearing fresh. a.a.p. and its successor companies never had any access to the original negatives of the cartoons a.a.p. bought.
As a result, when the cartoons entered local syndication, there would be considerable difference in quality of the WB-owned and a.a.p./UA/MGM/Turner-owned shorts. The former package had new prints prepared for the cable networks that aired them, whereas the latter package, when shown on the Turner networks, looked dull and faded, even after 2 separate remasters in 1987 and 1995. This was a problem even on the official video releases in the VHS/laserdisc era prior to 1999: WB's compilations used the original negatives, while MGM was limited to 16 mm "dupes".
The recent Looney Tunes DVD & Blu-Ray sets (especially Looney Tunes Golden Collection) are all derived from the original negatives, restored to pristine condition, creating an experience similar to when the shorts were first shown in theaters.
"That's all folks!"
"That's All Folks" is a coined phrase that has appeared in nearly every Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies short film to date. Originally, when the Merrie Melodies series started, it used the phrase "So Long Folks!" to distinguish itself from Looney Tunes, but eventually adopted "That's all folks!" as well. Characters such as Bosko, Buddy, and, for the most part, Porky Pig, have had the job of ending the cartoon with this phrase.
NOTE: "LT" stands for Looney Tunes; "MM" for Merrie Melodies.