Joel Goldenberg: Some retro recommendations

Warner cartoons director Robert Clampett and friend.

Before we embark on a new series of Retro Roundups listing notable albums by solo artists and groups, here are some retro recommendations for purchase, and some have nothing to do with music:

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Porky Pig 101: I hereby declare the following — Robert Clampett was a genius.

As someone who has spent his whole life in Montreal, my history with Warner Brothers cartoons — Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies — began with the CBC's weekly presentation of the Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Hour, which featured the cartoons considered to be from the series' golden age — around 1947-8 to 1963, when directors like Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson and others reigned supreme with such characters as the two named above, plus Sylvester and Tweety, Pepe LePew, Wile E. Coyote, Speedy Gonzales and others.

On trips to New York City, thanks to WNEW Metromedia 5 (now a Fox channel), I discovered the pre-1948 Merrie Melodies, which Warner Brothers had sold, and which were controlled by some outfit called Associated Artists Productions (AAP). These cartoons included early Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons, and a lot of one-shot characters.

In the 1980s, Montrealers were blessed (or cursed) with the daily presentation of The Porky Pig Show, which featured 1930s and early 1940s cartoon featuring Porky. Some of these were more primitive than I was used to, but they were also very funny. In that way, we were blessed.

But we were also cursed with the presentation of the cartoons. From 1934 to 1943, Warner produced the music-driven Merrie Melodies in colour (first two-strip and then three-strip Technicolor), and the more character- driven Looney Tunes series in black and white.

The Porky Pig Show presented the Porky cartoons in washed out color, converted by a South Korean company. (since then, they have been recoloured to better effect.) And the opening and closing WB identifications were of the terrible late 1960s series of Warner cartoons, not the originals.

These cartoons, and many I've never seen, have been thankfully put together, as they were originally presented, in a 5-DVD set called Porky 101, and the 101 cartoons are in the original black and white, except for Porky's debut (I Haven't Got A Hat, a two-colour Merrie Melodie) and a special patriotic cartoon, Old Glory, another MM from 1939.

Disc 1's cartoons, from 1935 to 1936, are mildly amusing, but are mostly vignettes. Also, Porky was voiced at this time by Joe Dougherty, an actor who had a real stutter and thus took up much time trying to control his voice.

The real fun starts on Disc 2, and continues from there, The first cartoon, Porky's Romance, the last with Dougherty, is both hilarious and a bit shocking. Porky's Duck Hunt, introducing Daffy Duck, was also the first time Porky was voiced by the very versatile Mel Blanc. Now everything was clicking, and perfection was achieved when Robert Clampett concentrated on the series.

The Porkys Clampett helmed were extremely out of the ordinary, and had a sense of the absurd, especially in a masterpiece like Porky in Wackyland, which has to be seen to be believed. Clampett also specialized in hilarious facial expressions, and helped prove that Warner cartoons were not really for children.

One example: Clampett's directing debut, Porky's Badtime Story, in which Porky and Gabby Goat have to get a good night's sleep to avoid being fired for tardiness. At one point, there's a slow leak from Porky's roof, and when the water hits the bed, Gabby has an extreme look of distress on his face.

Nothing is said, but it's clear as crystal Gabby thinks Porky peed in the bed.

Other directors tackled Porky during this period, but none as well as the teams of Clampett and Frank Tashlin, who directed perhaps the funniest Porky cartoon of all, Porky Pig's Feat, from 1943.

This period of cartoons is essential for anyone who appreciates classic animation, and Porky Pig 101 is a must buy (best to order it from Amazon.com). But there is one caveat — some of the cartoons have cringeworthy racial stereotypes. All Warner cartoon DVDs have a disclaimer denouncing the racism.

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These Are The Voyages: There have been loads of Star Trek-related books — fiction and non-fiction. I haven't read that many, but one (or actually three) I'll recommend without hesitation is the three-volume series These Are the Voyages, chronicling in especially close detail what went on behind the scenes as each original series episode was being conceived from 1964 to 1969.

Author Marc Cushman interviewed many of the principles — creator Gene Roddenberry, associate producer Robert Justman, and many directors and actors. Cushman was also given access to memos that went between Roddenberry, his producers, Desilu and later Paramount, and the NBC television network. The book demonstrates that Star Trek was a worthy, and extremely stressful, endeavour.

Next time: Our introduction to the album series.

 

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