If you’re an avid reader of Nostalgic Showcase Presents, you may have noticed a trend so far for this year- early Hollywood. That’s no coincidence, I find this period in film history fascinating- mainly, it proves to be a more difficult challenge to write about, because this era is often forgotten in history books. Since these early studios started so close together, there’s bound to be plenty of Nostalgic Showcase Presents crossovers, foreshadowing, and of course, tons of drama. In this entry, we’re covering the long forgotten Leon Schlesinger Productions- the studio that would become Warner Bros Animation. But I’m getting ahead of myself again, aren’t I? Put on some ragtime tunes on the ol’ phonograph as we turn back the clock to 1928…

Ising and Harman and Bosko and Schlesinger

Welcome back to good ol’ Hollywood, California! Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, and his newly recruited team of animators are working under Charles Mintz, producing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts for Winkler Studios. All seems to be going well for the newly re-located Kansas City natives, until Walt Disney is told that Charles Mintz owns the copyright to Oswald, not Disney or Iwerks. Frustrated, Disney and Iwerks quit, forming Walt Disney Studios, and in less than a year, Mickey Mouse makes his animated premiere, forever altering the trajectory of Walt Disney’s career and legacy forever. Left with an animation studio without the main animators, Charles Mintz scrambled to find local talents to fill in the gaps left behind by Disney and Iwerks. Their replacements? Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman, who had previously worked for Disney’s failed Laugh-O-gram Studio (check out Nostalgic Showcase Presents’ article on Laugh-O-gram Studio!). Tasked with producing the new Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts, Ising and Harman would be staffed under Mintz until 1929, when Universal Pictures, the distributor of the animated shorts, fired Mintz and created their own animation studio, headed by Walter Lantz.

Independently, Ising and Harman had been working, in secret, on an animated short- Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid (1929). Although this experimental short harkens back to Fleischer Studio’s Out of the Inkwell series in concept (check out Nostalgic Showcase Presents’ article on Fleischer Studios), it would never get a theatrical release and was instead sent around to potential producers to show Ising and Harman’s talents as a team. It wouldn’t take long for Ising and Harmon’s pseudo-pilot short to get the attention of studio executives, hungry for competition against Walt Disney Studios theatrical shorts, and Warner Bros was no exception- and they were Despite having a large catalogue of music (purchasing Brunswick Records in 1930, and investing in four music publishers), Warner Bros wanted a entertaining way to market and advertise their records. Warner Bros hired talent recruiter, Leon Schlesinger to find animators that could compete with Disney’s shorts, and impressed by Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, Schlesinger hired Ising and Harman to make more Bosko shorts, with Warner Bros in control of distribution. Unlike Disney, Ising and Harman were quick to copyright Bosko, preventing their original character to be stolen by Schlesinger or anyone else at Warner Bros.

However, by 1933, Ising and Harman decided to go their separate ways from Schlesinger, and the pair were quickly hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) where the Bosko shorts continued, with a slight re-design. Not much is known about this three-year gap, except that Ising and Harman produced 38 original Bosko shorts while under their contract with Schlesinger, and they left due to budget disputes, with Ising and Harman wanting more pay from Schlesinger. Now that his two main animators were gone, Schlesinger rushed to hire more animators in the area to carry the torch- recruiting Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Robert McKimson, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Frank Tashlin. Freleng would be tasked with overseeing production on Schlesinger’s newest series, Looney Tunes1 and Merrie Melodies2. Both series incorporated music, as per Schlesinger’s contract with Warner Bros to help sell their records, and many of the iconic Looney Tunes characters started their careers in these earlier years. Mel Blanc, famously known as the “Man of Thousand Voices“, was also hired by Schlesinger early on, providing the voices for many of the original characters.

Schlesinger was first, and foremost, a hands-off producer. Although his animators had to work in less-than-standard conditions- working on shorts in Termite Terrace, a dilapidated shack in the back corner of the Warner Bros Studio lot- as long as shorts were being finished by the deadlines and fulfilled Schlesinger’s contracts with Warner Bros, Schlesinger allowed the animators to be as creative and eccentric with the stories and characters as they pleased. Since most of the protagonists were cartoon animals, they tended to get away with a lot more and gained a reputation for bending (and outright breaking) many of the rules established by the strict Hays Code3 in future years. It was within the walls of Termite Terrace that Friz Freleng, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett were able to come up with some of the best animated characters and some of the best animated theatrical shorts of all time…

A Stuttering Pig, a Daffy Duck, and a Rambunctious Rabbit

It wouldn’t take long for Bosko to meet his match with Schlesinger’s newest lead character, the aptly named Porky Pig. While Porky pre-dates Bugs Bunny (by five years) and Daffy Duck (by two years), his design has virtually remained the same throughout the years unlike his rabbit and duck co-stars. He starred originally in Merrie Melodies’ I Haven’t Got a Hat, a shy and stuttering younger Porky, releasing in theaters in 1935. As noted earlier, Daffy Duck would make his appearance soon after, and as the middle child of the main trio, Daffy filled his role as the trouble child. Originally created, as his name would imply, as a daffy4, wild and often unrestrained character, a nonsensical antagonistic trickster causing havoc and chaos everywhere he goes. One moment, he has a reserved and calm demeanor, the next, Daffy is absolutely uncontrollable. His first appearance, Looney Tunes’ Porky’s Duck Hunt, was the first of many shorts that Daffy and Porky would headline together, and would foreshadow the quick-paced, zany slapstick comedy to come in the later Looney Tunes shorts. Yet, Schlesinger’s biggest, and most culturally significant star, would be good ol’ carrot-chomping Bugs Bunny. Originally a foil to Elmer Fudd (who’d been established as a re-occurring “running-gag” character since 1938), Bugs would premiere in Looney Tunes’ A Wild Hare, with most of his iconic personality taking root in his first short. Similar to Daffy’s and Porky’s semi-antagonistic partnership in theatrical shorts, Bugs and Elmer were partnered as instant rivals, with Elmer playing the role as the “straight man” and Bugs’ hijinks usually causing Elmer’s plans to go horribly astray.

Within a decade, the world of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was turned on its’ head, made daffy, and created impressive, wacky and timeless theatrical cartoon shorts for the world to enjoy. The residents of Termite Terrace fueled a gold rush of expression, exploration, and ingenuity- and became Walt Disney’s longest-running competition, creating characters that quickly became household names over the last century.

The Best Laid Schemes of R-R-R-Rabbits and Men…

The history of animation, especially American theatrical cartoons, cannot be told without the impact of World War II. The United States government commissioned animation studios to produce propaganda cartoons against the Nazi party, and Warner Bros Studios was no exception. While Disney produced shorts of Donald Duck having night terrors of being a Nazi soldier, Leon Schlesinger Productions decided to produce a series of informational and comedic shorts starring a brand new character, Private Snafu. Created by Theodore Seuss Geisel (yes, the same author that would go on to write Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat and the Hat) and mainly directed by Chuck Jones, Private Snafu was favored amongst the G.I.’s and funding focused on producing an astounding 25 shorts, released between 1943-1946. The Private Snafu shorts impacted Leon Schlesinger Productions back in the Homefront, too; the animators got a full buffet all-you-can-eat tasting of what they could create without the worries or constraints of the Hays Code. This lead to more Looney Tunes theatrical shorts bending the Hays Code rules going forward, pushing the envelope with minimal repercussion.

Back tracking, just a few years prior, to 1940’s life action-animated short You Oughta Be in Pictures– the only Looney Tunes short featuring not only Daffy and Porky, but most of the animation crew hired at Termite Terrace and Leon Schlesinger himself. In this (nearly) ten-minute long short, Daffy tricks Porky into quitting his job at Leon Schlesinger Productions, hoping to score a raise as top billing star. After some brief (yet humorous) attempts to show his portfolio to other animation studios, Porky realizes his mistake, crashes into Schlesinger’s office and begs him for his job back. Schlesinger reassures Porky, his first official star, that his contract is still intact, and Daffy and Porky return to the world of cartoons. Daffy gets his comeuppance in the end, with a tomato thrown in his face by an off-screen Porky. You Oughta Be in Pictures is the longest Looney Tunes short from the Golden Age of Animation, and has been named as one of the best animated shorts of all time.

That’s All Folks!

In 1944, Leon Schlesinger sold his assets and the copyrights to the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters and theatrical shorts to Warner Bros., which re-named their new animation studio Warner Bros Cartoons, Inc. Schlesinger was replaced by Eddie Selzer, as head executive producer for Warner Bros Cartoons. For the next five years of Schlesinger’s life, he worked as the head of merchandising for the animated characters at Warner Bros., until his untimely passing at the age of 65 in 1949.

While most animation fans don’t associate Warner Bros cartoons with Leon Schlesinger, his role in the beginning of the studio’s animation endeavor should be recognized. Although Schlesinger had his faults as an executive producer, he also valued the untapped creative talents of his crew of animators and wanted his employees to have as much time having fun as they did working. If it wasn’t for Schlesinger’s encouragement and involvement, we might not have ever been introduced to the despicable Daffy Duck, stuttering Porky Pig, suave Bugs Bunny, or the artistic styles of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett or the rest of the Termite Terrace’s original talented team. His legacy may only be a blip in the history of film, a line in the credits of hundreds of early Warner Bros cartoons, but his mark is impossible to ignore.

Join us next month as we cover the first entry of our Summer Saturday Morning Cartoon Studios: DiC Entertainment!

Disclaimer: Some of the films created in this era may depict outdated and harmful stereotypes, messages and story lines.

Looney Tunes Materials at WPPL

Golden Collection- Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6

Spotlight Collection- Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6, Volume 7, Volume 8

Platinum Collection- Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Center Stage- Volume 1

Super Stars- Pepe Le Pew, Sylvester & Hippety Hopper, Tweety & Sylvester, Foghorn Leghorn & Friends, Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Porky & Friends

The Essential: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck

Miscellaneous Movies/Shows- Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters, Best of Bugs Bunny, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, Bugs Bunny’s 1001 Rabbit Tales, Stranger Than Fiction, Reality Check, The Movie Collection (1001 Rabbit Tales and Bugs Bunny/Road Runner), Musical Masterpieces, Cupid Capers, Bah, Humduck!, Back in Action, Space Jam, Space Jam: a New Legacy

100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons (book)

Other Referenced Materials at WPPL

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Sources

https://www.kansascitycomics.com/?page_id=1572

https://travsd.wordpress.com/2022/05/20/of-leon-schlesinger-and-warner-brothers-cartoons/

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0772266/bio/

https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2014/03/04/uncle-sam-i-am/

https://www.cartoonbrew.com/classic/leon-schlesingers-obituary-6088.html

Footnotes

  1. The Bosko series produced under Leon Schlesinger Productions (1930-1933) were branded as Looney Tunes; when Ising and Harman left with Bosko, the new wave of Looney Tunes shorts needed a new cast of characters to keep the series running. ↩︎
  2. Merrie Melodies (1931-1997) was named to spoof Disney’s Silly Sympathy (1929-1939) series; both series featured musically driven animated theatrical shorts. ↩︎
  3. Did you really think I was going to go a full article without talking about the Hays Code? For those uninformed, the Hays Code was a strict guideline of what could and couldn’t be released to theaters, and it impacted nearly all of Hollywood’s productions from 1934-1968. Such rules prohibited: nudity, suggestive dances, discussions of sexual perversity, superfluous use of liquor, ridicule of religion, miscegenation, lustful kissing, and scenes of passion. Private Snafu, released privately and produced by the US Government, could get away with breaking most- if not all– of these rules in the series. Bugs Bunny is also guilty of breaking many of the rules, under the guise of his trickster archetype. ↩︎
  4. According to Dictionary.com, the definition of daffy is “silly; weak-minded; crazy.” This adjective perfectly summarizes Daffy Duck’s original personality as established under Leon Schlesinger’s produced cartoon shorts. ↩︎

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the WPPL team since 2022, and writes the "Cat's Picks" and "Nostalgic Showcase Presents" series; she enjoys researching defunct and not-so-defunct studios and reading graphic novels in her spare time.