Saturday, August 7, 2010

Classic toons on demand

Should have mentioned this before, but if you have Comcast cable TV, take a look in On Demand / Kids / Kids WB / Looney Tunes. There you'll find several Golden Age Warner Bros. cartoon shorts. The highlights currently include Along Came Daffy and Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears, both ending 10 Aug 2010; other classics include Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, Little Red Riding Rabbit (one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons ever, courtesy of the underappreciated Friz Freleng, and featuring an uncredited Billy Bletcher and Bea Benadaret sharing vocal chores with Mel Blanc), and an entirely unexpected but welcome Merrie Melodie from 1938, Katnip Kollege.

If you have time for only one, check out the latter: like most '30s cartoons it is rarely, if ever, shown on television because of its relatively antique look and feel compared to the better-known shorts from the '40s and '50s, yet it boasts a terrific soundtrack. Stalling was still hewing closer to sweet rather than hot jazz and the recording loses much of the higher frequency sound that would give later cartoons, especially those of the '40s, their distinctively brassy tone. As was common in his '30s work, there was not much in the way of abstract orchestral accompaniment: rather, the music consists almost entirely of brief quotations of well-known themes, including a verse or two, plus the chorus, of Let That be a Lesson to You, better known to later audiences from 1951's Hare We Go (remember Bugs singing, "Oh, Columbus was the discoverer of America"?). Lots of singing by male tenors, solo and choral, are another characteristically '30s-ish touch that disappeared when the Merrie Melodies were no longer required to plug Warners songs.

Katnip Kollege is a delightful trip back to a time before Warners had perfected its house style and it was still acceptable to make a cartoon that served as our great-grandparents' version of a music video.

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