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)


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  • William Ostroff says:

    Well writ­ten piece, Warn­er Bros. car­toons helped with my appre­ci­a­tion of the clas­sics. One neg­a­tive com­ment, you left out Carl W. Stalling who was the music direc­tor for a major­i­ty of the WB car­toons.

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