How Looney Tunes & Other Classic Cartoons Helped Americans Become Musically Literate

Distance learning experiments on television long predate the medium’s use as a conduit for advertising and mass entertainment. “Before it became known as the ‘idiot box,’” writes Matt Novak at Smithsonian, “television was seen as the best hope for bringing enlightenment to the American people.” The federal government made way for educational programming during TV’s earliest years when the FCC reserved 242 noncommercial channels “to encourage educational programming.”

Funding did not materialize, but the nation’s spirit was willing, Life magazine maintained: “the hunger of our citizenry for culture and self-improvement has always been grossly underestimated.” Was this so? Perhaps. At the medium’s very beginnings as standard appliance in many American homes, there was Leonard Bernstein. His Omnibus series debuted in 1952, “the first commercial television outlet for experimentation in the arts,” notes Schuyler G. Chapin. Six years later, he debuted his Young People’s Concerts, spreading musical literacy on TV through the format for the next 14 years.

“It was to [Bernstein’s] — and our — good fortune that he and the American television grew to maturity together,” wrote critic Robert S. Clark in well-deserved tribute. Much the same could be said of some unlikely candidates for TV musical educators: Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and other classic animators, who did as much, and maybe more, to familiarize American viewers with classical music as perhaps all of Bernstein’s formidable efforts combined.

But Jones and his fellow animators have not been given their proper due, cartoonist and animator Vincent Alexander suggested in a recent Twitter thread. Aiming to rectify the situation, Alexander posted a wealth of examples from Bugs Bunny & company’s contributions to Americans’ musical literacy. Granted, many of these cartoons started as short films in theaters, but they spent many more decades on TV, entertaining millions of all ages while exposing them to a wide variety of classical compositions.

Alexander points out how cartoons like the first Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog (1953) set a precedent for using Mendelssohn’s “Frühlingslied (Spring Song)” in later animated favorites like Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants. He gives obligatory nods to Disney and cites several other non-Looney Tunes examples like Popeye’s “Spinach Overture,” based on Franz von Suppé’s “The Poet and Peasant Overture.” But on the whole, the thread focuses on Warner Bros. classics, especially those in which Bugs Bunny demonstrates his talents as a conductor, pianist, and barber to the bald Elmer Fudd.

“I don’t know who can listen to the famous opera The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini without thinking of Bugs Bunny,” writes Alexander. “The way director Chuck Jones synchronizes the slapstick action to the soundtrack is flat-out masterful.” There are fair questions to be asked here — and Bernstein would surely ask them: How many of those people can appreciate Rossini without the slapstick? How many have heard, and seen, a full performance of his work sans Fudd?

Who can hear Wagner without wanting to sing at the top of their lungs, “Kill da wabbit, Kill da wabbit, Kill da wabbit!” Goodness knows, I can’t. Nonetheless, Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc? has been recognized for its major contributions to “American enlightenment” — deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry. This, Alexander suggests, is as it should be. (Just consider the opera singers Bugs inspired). We should honor animation’s major contributions to our culture literacy: a mass musical education by cartoon. See many more classic clips in Alexander’s Twitter thread here.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content: 

The Evolution of Chuck Jones, the Artist Behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck & Other Looney Tunes Legends: A Video Essay

Kill the Wabbit!: How the 1957 Bugs Bunny Cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” Inspired Today’s Opera Singers to First Get Into Opera

Books Come to Life in Classic Cartoons from 1930s and 1940s

“The Ducktators”: Loony Tunes Turns Animation into Wartime Propaganda (1942)


by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.