Answering the call of animation historian and Warner Bros. expert Jerry Beck, there is a lively discussion at Cartoon Brew of the best Looney Tunes shorts of all time. Ordinarily I abhor doing rankings and writing up lists, but people read them, and there’s no better way to introduce audiences to the classics of the vast, vast Warner repertoire than to put them on an enumerated pedestal.
Obviously, there is never a consistent set of criteria for determining the “greatest” of anything. I decided to look for shorts that would be somewhat broadly representative of the Looney Tunes brand’s leading directors and staple characters in their finest moments, taking into consideration both historical value and the nuance of the animation itself. As with books, music, and live-action cinema, I like to reward works that show off what the medium can do, but not at the expense of a clear and engaging story. Ties were broken by personal taste.
My list will reveal that I have a strong preference for director Chuck Jones, particularly his legendary unit with background artist Maurice Noble and storyman Michael Maltese. Not to downplay the talents of Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and others, but I think most Looney Tunes aficionados end up gravitating towards one of Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett, since they represent two contrasting ideals of what the animated cartoon should be. Jones is to Clampett as Sonny Rollins is to John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone: one is known for the elegant clarity of his inventions, the other for his unrestrained virtuoso insanities. (On further reflection, the better analogy may be to Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk.) It’s not out of the ordinary to admire both styles, but adore one more than the other.
I came up with a clear and likely interchangeable top four, which I had to shuffle a few times, and limited my list to ten. Without further ado, let’s begin with #10 and work our way down.
10. Birds Anonymous (1957)
I considered three Friz Freleng cartoons for the #10 spot (the other two being High Diving Hare and Knighty-Knight Bugs), but this is the one that has stuck with me the most. Remember the “fish are friends, not food” recovery group of sharks in Finding Nemo? This is where it comes from. From the note-perfect opening scene in shadows to the outstanding voice work of Mel Blanc at the heights of sufferin’, succotashy desperation, Sylvester’s craving for birds makes for a risible allegory of alcoholism. Freleng’s shorts have always represented the more sober side of Looney Tunes, and there’s no better proof of it than this.
9. Rabbit Seasoning (1952)
The second film of the Wabbit Season Twilogy (following Rabbit Fire and preceding Duck! Rabbit! Duck!) is also the smartest. For an eye-opening gander at how much of a role body language can play in a conversation, look no further than the scene where Daffy and Bugs stand side by side and rehearse their “pronoun trouble” one more time. It’s hard to choose just one of the three-way duels between the Bunny, the Duck, and the Elmer, but this is the one I’d pick.
8. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946)
Daffy Duck’s zany Dick Tracy daydream tends to be a favourite among animators, and rightly so. The unpredictable dynamism of Daffy’s solo scenes make for a classic study in character performance at its squashiest and stretchiest. And Dick Tracy’s rogues gallery was strange enough as it is, but their counterparts in the Bob Clampett universe (Neon Noodle?) are a farce to be reckoned with. While Clampett’s penchant for wild surrealism is, incredibly, more restrained here than it is in shorts like Porky in Wackyland, Piggy Bank only benefits from its stronger grounding in conventional notions of story.
7. Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z (1956)
One of the problems with the wild expansion of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner into their own series is that after seeing many of them, they all begin to blur together. Since most of the gags are isolated enough to belong in any Road Runner cartoon, the individual shorts often lack their own sense of identity. Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z may be the pinnacle of Wile E. Coyote’s lifelong chase: it’s a complete primer on Road Runner physics (in particular, the recurring Magritte-like gag of superimposed pictures becoming reality), and plus, it’s the one with the Acme bat-suit.
6. From A to Z-Z-Z-Z (1954)
And while on the subject of Z-Z-Zs, one would be remiss to overlook Chuck Jones’ best effort with a memorable one-off character (that is, apart from the film I’ve placed at #1). Ralph Philips’ cartoon daydreaming should be familiar to anyone who grew up on Calvin & Hobbes, but here we see it in the inimitable Jones style, where every strong character pose is a springboard for the imagination. The scene where Ralph blends into the arithmetic problem on the blackboard and beats off a 5 with a 4 is the icing on the cake.
5. A Gruesome Twosome (1945)
Not to slight The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, but this is the definitive Bob Clampett. Notable for its eye-popping violence and the unforgettable shot of the cats falling up from the bird’s nest to the ground, there’s nary a sequence that isn’t by itself a study in motion. Apart from the early, pre-Sylvester Tweety Bird, the characters in this cartoon should be new to those seeing it for the first time, but they make for perfect foils working towards a common goal—a character dynamic we don’t see very much among the Looney Tunes personalities that have become famous. This cartoon also features one of my favourite musical scores in the Looney Tunes oeuvre: composer Carl Stalling usually strings classical music and the Great American Songbook alike into situational parody, but here he gives us a playful meowing melody right off the bat, snatches it right back, and runs with it.
4. What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
Considered by many to be the epic masterpiece of the Looney Tunes canon, the transposition of the classic formula of Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny onto Wagner’s Ring lives up to its operatic aspirations. The backgrounds are awe-inspiring, and never has music been a more integral party to a cartoon’s success. (Well, almost never; see #1.) The ingenuity of this cartoon is that it doesn’t merely employ Elmer and Bugs to make fun of Siegfried and Brunhilde: it also does the exact reverse. And that’s not to mention its awareness of the history of animated takes on classical music; I speak here of its nods to Fantasia. The animated cartoon has never produced a finer parody.
3. Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953)
This is the best of the Warner Bros. duels. It’s typical enough of a Looney Tunes cartoon to place two characters at odds and have one subject the other to slapstick humiliation, but a real clash of titans goes well beyond letting us sit back and watch the good guy win. Here we see arch-villain Marvin the Martian and perennial fall guy Daffy Duck fight over an entire planet, and the thrill of escalation never stops. I place this classic send-up of golden-age space adventure this high because the gags are phenomenal, be it Daffy’s disintegration-proof suit or the way Marvin pops out of a viewing screen. Along with What’s Opera, Doc?, Maurice Noble’s background work is here at its most grandiose and transporting. Like Don Quixote is to literature, Duck Dodgers is comic take on a genre that works as a superb genre piece on its own.
2. Duck Amuck (1953)
The greatest of the fourth-wall frame-breakers, Daffy Duck’s nemesis in this exemplary demonstration of what animation can do is none other than Chuck Jones himself—the Artist as God. Like all the best work of the Jones unit, this is a short that remembers that sounds are as much a part of film as pictures. The revelation in the final shot is an unexpected bonus. There is no better cartoon about cartoons, and if animation has a Citizen Kane—a proof of concept for the medium as a whole—Duck Amuck is it.
1. One Froggy Evening (1955)
I regard this as the masterpiece of the animated short. Told entirely in song, there isn’t a line of dialogue in this film, leaving the animation to do all the legwork of story and characterization—and boy, does it ever. The recurring Looney Tunes characters play on quirks that were established as convention over time, but among pieces that stand alone and give us a complete window into personalities we’ve never met, there is no beating the singing frog and the man who wishes to commodify its talent. It’s more than a lively song-and-dance: it’s a multigenerational fable of human greed at the intersection of art and capital. But even if we only see it as a lively song-and-dance, One Froggy Evening gives us so much to love.