Thad K Reviews “Looney Tunes Collectors Choice” Vol. 1

Positive buzz for Looney Tunes Collector’s Choice Vol. 1 from Warner Archive was natural. A selection of twenty cartoons new-to-Blu-Ray (and often new to home video), covering some of the very best Warner animation from the 1940s and 1950s! It’s incredible many of these classics were missed, but it just illustrates how vast and rich the Warner cartoon library really is. To be honest, when the contents list was shared, I swore my mind was read. It’s literally almost everything I would’ve prioritized verbatim myself – am I the collector in question?

Cartoon offerings in the Blu-ray Tunes era have not been generous. We had three Platinum Collections in 2011-2014 that prioritized the “A” classics, the bizarre Mouse Chronicles that showcased the full run of Sniffles the Mouse and Hubie & Bertie, and 2020’s Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection which, similar to Collector’s Choice, emphasized Bugs cartoons never available on home video. Overall, barely over 200, or 20 percent, of the vast Warner cartoon library from 1930-1969 is available in high-definition on physical media. (I’m not counting what’s turned up as extras on various classic movie discs.)

Paltry, yes. The world has changed since the glory days of the Golden Collections in the aughts, when we got 60 restored cartoons a year with relatively few defects. The physical media market just does not exist any more with the studios turning to streaming.

As a lifelong Looney Tunes fan, I can say it’s markedly better in the present as far as the actual characters and posterity are concerned. The original cartoons were not in the public eye for nearly the entirety of the 2000s and 2010s—a whole generation, really. No TV broadcast and isolated to high-priced collector sets. Bugs and Daffy were inching closer to Woody Woodpecker and Mighty Mouse status by the day. Fortunately, the cartoons are currently a flagship of at least two streaming services (HBO Max and Boomerang) and have run daily on MeTV (a channel anyone with a TV, ‘rabbit ears’ or not, can get for free) for close to three years now. With the general public now re-familiarized with these classics of American film, that makes things easier for us die-hards who wanna have it all, and it’s now, miraculously, a reality Warner Archive is allowed to handle this evergreen property.

On the whole, this Collector’s Choice Vol. 1 delivers perfectly fine versions of these films. But… one point that was stressed in the press was these would not be the same restorations seen on HBO Max and MeTV—they would be new, superior transfers. Unfortunately, a quick comparison confirms that’s not the case. With the exception of Beanstalk Bunny and Catch as Cats Can… these are the same earlier transfers. Our Fearless Leader Jerry Beck will explain what happened in due course, but some context is in order. What’s the issue?

With the launch of HBO Max in 2020, many, many Warner cartoons debuted in newly restored transfers on the service. It was a monkey’s paw situation. While it did mean they restored a large percentage of the library in 4K for streaming (and a then pending deal with MeTV), these were farmed out and not done by the same teams responsible for the various Warner DVDs and Blu-Rays. As they stand, it’s quite flabbergasting to see things on HBO Max and MeTV like the ‘30s Merrie Melodies with such clarity and color. Most of the continuing character series were rounded out to completion, too. But, while ostensibly excellent looking, serious issues still plague them.

The bane of this crop of masters, in the hundreds, are what fans have termed the “Photoshop titles”. Actually, they employ a lot of programs in the Adobe Suite, using all sorts of clumsy modern tools that artificially extend the titles by some 25 to 30 percent with bad paint-bucket and cloning. Cross dissolves and fades are redone digitally. Sometimes the special effects, from ripple glass to pans, were recreated, poorly. It remains a bizarre, pointless choice that actually created more work for the post-house than just using the filmed titles as is. To the Warner Archive team’s credit, the worst of these digital horrors were cropped out for this release. (Not quite though, as remnants are obvious on His Bitter Half, A Mouse Divided, and Hip Hip-Hurry!)

To illustrate what exactly is going on with the “Photoshop titles”, here’s an example from A Street Cat Named Sylvester (which is NOT on this disc). Someone was extra sloppy with their work and accidentally proved on the final copy how much they are artificially extending the titles.

Notice the main title (up above) is completely uncropped, showing even the rounded corners on the left side (!!), while the director credit shows the whole of the image filled in with cloning and paint bucket tools.

There’s also another issue with the HD transfers of Looney Tunes, one that’s persisted since the Golden Collection days: recycled sound. For how loud people are regarding picture quality, tin ears prevail on the audio, since the pre-1948 cartoons usually reuse the tracks Turner prepared back in 1995 for their “Dubbed Versions”. Even many post-1948 cartoons are obviously sourced from older transfers. It’s a rather lackluster sonic experience on modern entertainment systems. Warner Archive has righted this wrong with the new soundtrack scans heard on the Famous Popeye and most of the MGM Tex Avery discs, but Looney Tunes historically don’t have that benefit. The HBO Max copies, and thus Collector’s Choice, are unfortunately not an exception.

With those issues still present, this disc, as-is, is unavoidably a notch or two below the high standards set by the Popeye, Avery, and Hanna-Barbera discs put out by Warner Archive. Even so, it’s hardly a miss at all, because as I said, they still look pretty spectacular and are better than any version you currently may have (be it VHS, laserdisc, DVD, or streaming rip). They’re just not to the standard we’re used to. (Though they are significantly better than a crop of Warner restorations produced in the early 2010s that graded color without using scopes, wherein everything just looks too dark and obliterates detail.)

On Collector’s Choice Vol. 1, color grading is usually fine, noise reduction is agreeable (if a tad more than we’d like to see, but look at the current Fleischer/Famous Superman disc for it truly done poorly), and errant automatic clean-up (when the restoration software mistakes animation and background pans for film dirt/damage and erases the artwork, still erroneously called DVNR everywhere online even though that process by name has been dead since 2007) is not noticeably present. The healthy encoding bit rate (Warner Archive has always been generous) makes these far more pleasant than they are on streaming or broadcast. Indeed, I don’t think most of the pre-48 cartoons would look much better if they were completely done over, although the post-48s tend to look a bit duller than they should. (How’s that for a historical switcheroo?)

So with the cartoons themselves wholly intact, body and soul-wise, you still have a truly funny assortment of Warner classics in high-definition, even if it isn’t the restoration promised. It’s still the best deal on the limited market. Disney gives you half the number of cartoons (and a quarter the laughs) at the same price looking substantially worse than anything seen here. Offering ten cartoons a pop over three discs, Disney still double dips! No consideration! (In the mouse’s defense though, things are looking up if the incredible 4K restoration job on Cinderella is any indication. Fingers crossed, prayers being said for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs…)

The sturm und drang now out of the way, here’s what’s in store for this disc. Again, this is more or less what I would have prioritized if I had to program a disc of Warner cartoons never available before. Yes, there has been some fan outrage online that it doesn’t include a single Tex Avery or Bob Clampett cartoon. But we just got 60 of Avery’s MGM cartoons on Blu-Ray, and most of the best Clampett cartoons have been available on the Platinum Collections (it would be a slam-dunk if Warner Archive could reissue those, as they now command obscene prices online). You can’t get everything in the first try, and considering there are quite a few of the very best cartoons by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob McKimson, and the neglected Frank Tashlin and Art Davis, there’s zero to complain about as far as selection.

(To answer a question that has plagued many comment threads: if a cartoon has circulated forever as a Blue Ribbon reissue, it’s still a Blue Ribbon reissue here.)

Beanstalk Bunny (1955, Chuck Jones)
The lone straggler from the period in the ‘50s when Chuck Jones was arguably the best shorts director in America that hasn’t shown up on home video in modern times. Supposedly there’s a horror story on the condition of the surviving materials which is why it took so long to get here. It looks better than I’ve ever seen it. Bugs and Daffy invade giant Elmer Fudd’s turf in what’s essentially the cartoon that actually makes the beloved Jones-Mike Maltese series a “Hunting Quartet”. You know it, you love it, enough said. “He’s Jack.”

Catch as Cats Can (1947, Art Davis)
“Ah, there’s nothin’ like vitamins.” Art Davis closes the recurring Warners theme of casting Bing Cosby as a pure asshole (those cartoonists really did have great insight), this time as a parrot who enlists Sylvester, who’s inexplicably lost his lisp and most of his intelligence, to do in a Sinatra canary. Freleng clearly was impressed by the blackout gag staging, and it no doubt made him eager to snatch up his old friend Davis as an animator on his own cat-and-canary cartoons once the Davis unit was shut down shortly after this film’s release. A personal favorite.

(Sidebar: Comments on earlier posts make mention of the original ending that was cut, hence the abrupt fadeout. We were supposed to see the Crosby parrot’s tombstone with the epitaph, “Came in before his horse.” Since the information originated from me, I’ll elaborate: production documents indicate that was how it was supposed to end, but no print with it actually survives and it was obviously cut before release. Adding to the mystery, the final shot as seen on the disc differs slightly from every other print I’ve seen, too.)

The Unruly Hare (1945, Frank Tashlin)
Bob Clampett got kicked off Bugs for a year, allowing Frank Tashlin a shot at the rabbit. He nailed him and his rivalry with Fudd on the first try, with Bugs sabotaging railroad designer Elmer’s attempts to get a little track laid. The new remaster highlights just how off-kilter the assistant and camera work really could be in the wartime Tashlin unit.

His Bitter Half (1950, Friz Freleng)
A story of greed, and one of the unsung Friz Freleng masterpieces (we forget that the few Daffys Friz did are almost always great). Daffy gets married for the easy life, but finds himself at the mercy of a battleax and her demented son Wentworth. The scene at the shooting gallery (animated by Gerry Chiniquy) is a crowning achievement in Freleng’s legendary timing repertoire, and also responsible for the loudest and longest laughter I’ve ever experienced at a public cartoon screening.

Daffy Doodles (1946, Robert McKimson)
Bob McKimson’s first theatrical cartoon as a director (his first was The Return of Mr. Hook for the Navy), with Daffy as the Moustache Maniac evading Officer Porky. While a timeless classic, the clarity of this remaster emphasizes just how ugly and sloppy Dick Thomas’ backgrounds for McKimson could really be.

Cracked Quack (1952, Freleng)
Does the description “Daffy pretends to be a stuffed duck while Porky does his income tax” sound the furthest away from funny possible? Well, Freleng and Warner Foster sure deliver with one zinger after another. “Oh, Rover, there’s a dog here to see ya.”

Little Orphan Airedale (1947, Jones)
Jones remakes Clampett’s Porky’s Pooch, and it’s the only time he ever succeeded in making a wilder cartoon than his rival with the creation of Charlie Dog, who seeks Porky Pig as his master. Was it bawdy Clampett influence that resulted in the male pregnancy joke?

Hip Hip-Hurry! (1958, Jones)
A rather economical entry in the Road Runner series, with Capitol Library stock music cut together for the track during a Warner musician strike. One of six Warner cartoons affected, it (and the other Road Runner with John Seely music, Hook, Line and Stinker) actually feels like Jones went in himself to find cues that fit the action, some of them cut to mere seconds (mishaps with an explosive slingshot and a boulder work particularly well).

Hot-Rod and Reel! (1959, Jones)
A uniquely unmemorable Road Runner entry, perhaps the weakest cartoon on the disc. Compare the belabored bomb chute gag here with the one in the earlier Zoom and Bored (which may be the best gag in the entire series) and you’ll see Jones was slipping even when writer Mike Maltese was still with him.

Greedy for Tweety (1957, Freleng)
This disc kind of unintentionally illustrates that Sylvester was better without his most famous costar, but this is a fine later entry regardless (and one of Friz’s own personal favorites) with Nurse Granny looking after the incapacitated Tweety, Sly, and bulldog. Laughs include a beating seen from Sylvester’s sleeping pill-laden point of view.

Stooge for a Mouse (1950, Freleng)
Freleng was without a writer for this while he was politicking to get Warren Foster (and hand Tedd Pierce off to McKimson), so this self-written classic shows him at his purest in handling Sylvester, the studio’s resident utility player, gaslit by a mouse and pummeled by his former buddy Mike the bulldog. “I don’t know how ya’s done it, but I know ya’s done it!” The final shot, with the cracking “Home Sweet Home” frame landing in on the carnage just as it irises out, is what separates great direction from really great direction.

A Mouse Divided (1953, Freleng)
Did they really not put this one out before? The drunken stork (in his first appearance) erroneously delivers a baby mouse to Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester. Endlessly funny and genuinely touching, it’s one of the true tour de forces of Warner character animation. “I’ve become the father of a breakfast!”

A Fractured Leghorn (1950, McKimson)
McKimson’s cartoons were by and large the talkiest, but it’s not a problem when it’s Foghorn Leghorn (and Mel Blanc) at his most bombastic, this time fighting with a cat over a worm. “Mah pa used to tell me shut up and I’d shut up!”

Plop Goes the Weasel (1953, McKimson)
Foggy and Barnyard Dawg both evade a chicken-obsessed weasel whose addiction issues obviously go well past poultry. McKimson has more or less tied down his animators at this point, but Rod Scribner refused to be completely tamed.

Tale of Two Mice (1945, Tashlin)
Blanc and Tedd Pierce reprise their roles as Abbott and Costello caricatures, this time as mice trying to raid a refrigerator and evade a cat. Maybe it gets lost since it’s in the shadow of the legendary A Tale of Two Kitties that gave the world Tweety, maybe because the story itself is nothing remarkable. But it’s all about execution. It’s a slight remake of a cartoon Tashlin wrote (and Art Davis, who was also the main animator on this, directed) at Screen Gems, The Great Cheese Mystery, so it was obviously material he felt worth revisiting. And it’s riotously funny and exciting, with an incredibly satisfying ending. Arguably the most underrated Warner cartoon of the mid-1940s, perhaps the whole decade. (Animation director Bob Jaques and I dissected this one on our old podcast Cartoon Logic).

The Foxy Duckling (1947, Davis)
Maybe tied with Hot-Rod and Reel! as the weakest on the disc. Most un-Warner-like, with an insomniac fox trying to stuff his pillow with fresh duck down. The violence is particularly savage and unsettling, an easy observation to make since the rest of the cartoons here do it so well so often.

Two Gophers from Texas (1948, Davis)
“Egad, what a book!” My favorite of all of Davis’ cartoons, with the too-polite Goofy Gophers pursued by a psychotic, contemptuous dog. A last hurrah for the kind of animation (particularly that of Emery Hawkins) the theatrical cartoon would no longer be able to sustain with declining budgets and the films coming back to “earth” after the energy of wartime. (Again, Bob Jaques and I broke this one down in a Cartoon Logic episode that you can listen to here).

Doggone Cats (1947, Davis)
Davis’ other Sylvester cartoon, with him and a fellow alley cat tormenting their tormenter Wellington the dog as he tries to make a delivery to Uncle Louie. The first Warner cartoon ever written by Warner cartoon fans, the young Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner, and another delight for those who love the work of Emery Hawkins. (And, yes, this cartoon, the only one here with any racial gags, is indeed uncensored.)

What’s Brewin’ Bruin? (1948, Jones)
The first in Jones’ Three Bears series after a four-year absence following their debut in Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears. This one gets a little lost given the high octane of the latter three entries in the series, yet Papa Bear’s struggle to hibernate in spite of domestic issues remains a hidden gem. A substantial upgrade in transfer, as it looked absolutely poor on the old laserdisc.

The Bee-Deviled Bruin (1949, Jones)
Closing the collection is maybe the most sickeningly comic cartoon Jones directed, with Papa Bear trying to raid a beehive for honey, [dis]ably assisted by Junyer. Proof that dead bees are funny.

While it is irritating this disc is not all-new transfers as advertised and just mostly preexisting ones with slight modifications, there’s still really no reason to pass on this—beyond misguided principle and stubbornness. The new restorations of the long-neglected Beanstalk Bunny and Catch as Cats Can being finally available makes it worth the price of admission alone. With physical media dead and so many labels not putting any effort or interest into making their classic film libraries available, why would you not pick up a disc of the world’s funniest cartoons that still is an upgrade over anything that’s been available before? I think all collectors will agree, given the choice.