Summertime is often characterized as a time for escape. Escapism pervades the season’s music, movies and literature. Sometimes that’s fun, as with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and sometimes it’s just dumb, as with any song featuring Iggy Azalea.
One of the greatest vehicles of escape is the animated cartoon. Drawings that come to life on the screen practically invite rational thought to disconnect for a few minutes at a time. Arguably the first modern cartoon premiered one hundred years ago; a short film called “Gertie the Dinosaur,” animated by newspaper comics artist Winsor McCay and an inspiration to, as he put it, “Any idiot that wants to make a couple of thousand drawings for a hundred feet of film.” Walt Disney was just one of the many gifted idiots who took up McCay on the offer.
Cartoons became a significant part of the motion picture industry after the advent of “talking” pictures in 1927, stretching out to feature length with Disney’s classics, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. Most often, the cartoon was part of a reel of short films that preceded the main attraction at a movie theater. Depending upon which studio was animating it, the cartoon was frequently imbued with more imagination and creativity than the feature film it accompanied.
Television ultimately became the legacy for vintage animated cartoons. Especially in the early years of TV broadcasting, networks and local stations relied heavily on stockpiles of movie cartoons to fill empty hours of airtime. Saturday mornings in particular were devoted to indoctrinating impressionable young minds into the signal joys of animation.
There was a pretty significant range of quality as far as the art was concerned. Cartoons created for TV by Jay Ward (Rocky and Bullwinkle) and Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Yogi Bear) were so cheaply animated as to scarcely move at all, paling by comparison to the carefully drawn theatrical efforts of Max Fleischer (Popeye, Betty Boop) and Disney (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck). For quantity and consistent excellence, though, the cartoons of the Warner Brothers studios, the legendary Looney Tunes, set the standard.
In these pictures, popular characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd dwelt in a realm ungoverned by physical laws of nature. Directors Tex Avery and Friz Freleng started creating cartoon anarchy in the mid-1930s, which was ably enhanced by the many voices of Mel Blanc and the music of Carl Stallings.
The dialogue in Warner Brothers cartoons was always smart and sassy, frequently pulling laughs from contemporary pop culture, but the purest product of WB’s efforts was the cartoon series with no dialogue at all, featuring the Coyote and the Road Runner.
Animation director Charles M. “Chuck” Jones usually gets credit for its creation, but it would not have happened without the contributions of storywriter Michael Maltese. Jones said he intended the cartoon as a parody of traditional cat-mouse chase epics (like Tom and Jerry), with the coyote designed after a “sick, sorry skeleton” described in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.
The exploits of the Coyote and the Road Runner seem derived as well from Buster Keaton and Moby-Dick. Each episode takes place in the desert Southwest (echoing the locale of another classic comic creation, George Harriman’s Krazy Kat). The hungry Coyote, sometimes called Wile E., spots the speedy bird and decides to chase it, catch it and eat it. Introduced with phony Latin classifications in the manner of a science documentary — the Coyote is variously “Carnivorous vulgaris,” “Eatibus anythingus” or “Famishus fantasticus,” while the Road Runner is “Accelerati incredibilus,” “Tastyus supersonicus” or “Speedipus Rex” — the former is always outrun by the latter. The Coyote then starts thinking. This is where the real fun begins.
Utilizing the finest hardware available from a company called Acme, the Coyote constructs outlandish mechanical enhancements of his speed or impediments to the Road Runner’s. It might be something as simple as a large rubber band stretched across a roadway, or as complex as the contraption in “Going! Going! Gosh!” comprised of a weather balloon, a street cleaner’s bin, an electric fan and an anvil. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the Coyote tries is doomed to spectacular failure, because the will of the Road Runner trumps physics. The Road Runner can stand still in mid-air; the Coyote never can. The arc of an explosive thrown by the Coyote inevitably returns to him. Train tunnels painted on flat rocks magically open to accommodate the bird’s escape, yet disgorge locomotives when the Coyote tries the same tactic. The silence of the terrain is broken only by explosions, an occasional yowl of pain and an always-infuriating “Meep meep.”
For a logical viewer, the series of 40 classic toons raises questions. How did the Coyote acquire so much TNT? Why does he never repeat an experiment? Doesn’t he realize he can defy gravity as long as he doesn’t look down? Where does he get the money to buy all these Acme products, and why doesn’t he spend some of it on food much tastier than a scrawny road runner?
To ask such questions is to miss the point. The best company for watching the exploits of the Coyote and the Road-Runner is a five year-old kid, and I had that experience just the other week. I am pleased to report that these cartoons still bring the funny more than half a century after their creation. Mick responded to the antics the way Chuck Jones would have liked best: belly laughs, and lots of them. For the time these two critters occupy the screen, he embraces an irrational universe.
There is something life affirming about watching a kid “get” comedy, something liberating about his paroxysms of laughter. It is a hopeful thing to think that, no matter how much logic the world seeks to impose, Looney Tunes will forever offer a temporary means of escape.