Loony 'Toons on Display in Rochester

The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons
George Eastman International Museum of Photography
Rochester, NY
Through October 6, 2109

The George Eastman House in Rochester is a designated National Historic Landmark. It’s on the must-do list for visitors to Rochester. Eastman (1854-1932) was the founder of Eastman Kodak, once the powerhouse name in popular photography. Eastman made a fortune bringing roll film and inexpensive cameras to the masses and his home is well appointed, though aside from its main court, it’s not as grand as one might think for such a titan of industry. Beware if hunting and taxidermy offend you, as Eastman’s biggest vice was a fondness for shooting big game. The grounds are actually more lavish than the inside of the house. Speaking of interiors, Eastman was something of a mystery on the personal level. He never married, had no known girlfriends, and went into semi-mourning when his mother died in 1922. Such a sketchy biography has led some to speculate that he was gay, but there’s not much evidence for that; asexuality might be the safer bet. But, really, who cares?

If historic houses aren’t your pleasure, the grounds also contain a photography museum and archives. There are only small exhibits on the history of photography and the archives are not open for casual browsing. However, if you catch it right the changing exhibits are often amazing. That adjective is scarcely adequate for the current exhibit, The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons. If you came of age during the years in which cartoons ruled Saturday morning television, this exhibit is a veritable trip back in time.
The Evolution of Bugs Bunny

I was never a fan of the Mickey Mouse or the sanitized Disney lineup; my ‘toon heroes were Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of Warner Brothers' Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies crew: Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweety, the Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner, Pepe Le Pew…. Loony Tunes–especially Bugs and Daffy–had an edge to them and a propensity for nastiness that today’s helicopter parents wouldn’t allow Little Buffy to watch. I loved it all: the anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head, Elmer shooting himself instead of Bugs, Tweety handing Sylvester a bomb, and so on. Bugs was basically Groucho Marx with long ears and minus the hubris, and my love of puns definitely began with Warner Brothers. Bugs Bunny episodes came with titles such as “Hare-um Scare-um,” “Hare Force,” “Hot Cross Bunny,” “Hyde and Hare,” and “Now Hare This.” Just reading the episode names made me chortle my way through the gallery.

Did any of the violence and wordplay do me harm? Well… I’ve never wielded a weapon stronger than a pun. I also heard a lot of classical music and opera through Bugs Bunny, who did through animated cels what the Marx Brothers did on the big screen in Night at the Opera; that is, take a wrecking ball to pretense and make the music fun in the process. (Nearly all of the cartoons released as Merrie [sic] Melodies featured music.) The Eastman House show is loaded with funny clips, cels, storyboards, and drawings. Warner Brothers hired legendary talent that must have had a ball putting a bomb to bombast; among them: Tex Avery, Mel Blanc, Bob Clampett, Fritz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Leon Schlesinger. If these names don’t ring any bells, your history of animation education is woefully incomplete.

The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons reminds us that cleverness is more than surfaces and gadgetry. Today we have technological marvels of computer-aided design, special effects, and sophisticated animation programs, yet there are no Saturday morning cartoons. I’ve been impressed by contemporary animation, but little that I’ve seen matches the wit, magic, and edginess of Loony Tunes. The geniuses on display at the Eastman House wove their spell at 24 frames per second. Given that the average cartoon was about eight minutes long, it took more than 11,500 individually drawn frames for Bugs to outwit Elmer and take the piss out of opera, theater, and everything else under the sun.

That, my friends, is true artistry. And, as Porky Pig out it,  tha… tha… tha… that’s all folks.

Rob Weir

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