CHARLOTTE, N.C., Sept. 9, 2015 – Anyone over 50 who has even caught a glimpse of our modern Saturday morning cartoons on TV cringes when they see what passes for children’s entertainment these days. Whatever happened to Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn and Tweety and Sylvester?
Recently, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) broadcast the 1939 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men” starring Burgess Meredith as George Milton and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie Small.
Anyone who has viewed the film already will immediately recall the repetitive dialogue of Lennie’s character even if they don’t remember the plot. The reason is that Warner Brothers created cartoon characters who made Lennie’s lines so familiar to audiences they somehow got stored away in the subconscious memories of every person who loved Warner Brothers’ animated stories.
Some of the secret origins of our Saturday morning favorites will surprise you. But, if nothing else, they will return you to those glorious days when cartoons were just plain fun, and slyly subversive to boot.
Lennie: You may not remember the cartoon portrayal in the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck animated shorts, but the dialogue is unmistakable.
What kid could forget lines like, “Which way did he go, George; which way did he go?” or “I will name him George and I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him,” as spoken via the wizardly voiceover talent of Mel Blanc. These lines are as familiar to movie-goers of the day as “Play it, Sam” or “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”
Betty Boop: Little Miss Betty was a controversial creation in her day with her sexy legs, bobbed hair-do and flapper-style image. She was based on real life singer Helen Kane, who became famous as “The Boop Boop a Doop Girl” in 1928.
Betty was introduced in a Max Fleischer series of cartoons featuring Ko Ko the Clown and Bimbo the dog. In the beginning, Betty only vaguely resembled the sex kitten showgirl character she eventually became. Given her sex appeal and her child-like high, pitched voice, the hapless Bimbo was quickly reduced to second banana status and Betty soon had the stage all to herself.
Tom and Jerry: If you got this one you go to the head of the class. The famed cat and mouse team can be traced all the way back to World War II. While the “cat and mouse” idea makes sense, there is more to the concept than that.
Though the United States was not officially in the war at the time of the team’s origin, there was considerable support for Great Britain. whose troops were often referred to as “Tommys.” Once that factoid sinks in, the name for Germans or “Gerries” is easily tweaked, creating a great rationale for converting both names and adversarial relationships to the two main characters of “Tom and Jerry.” Ironically, in the cartoons, the good guy/bad guy roles were reversed.
Porky Pig: You may not remember the name Joe Cobb, but you will probably remember his character “Joe” in the “Our Gang” films, which were later renamed “The Little Rascals.” Joe (aka, “Fatty Joe” in that pre-PC era) was, true to his moniker, the proverbial hapless “fat kid” in these features. Though he did not stutter like Porky, he was the inspiration for Warners’ popular porker. Joe was later replaced by his brother, who appeared as “Chubby” and became a more familiar personality.
The Flintstones: These grizzled 1960s cartoon characters are still around even if the source that inspired them appears only rarely on contemporary TV, most of which regards any show that existed prior to the 1980s as myth and hearsay. The 1966 animated “Flintstones” cartoons are based on Jackie Gleason’s earlier “Honeymooners” comedies, which were insanely popular in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Gleason’s catchphrase, “One of these days, Alice, one of these days…POW right in the kisser!” never translated to Fred Flintstone, but the origins of Fred’s character and grouchy but lovable voice are unmistakable.
Tweety Bird: In a similar vein, the popular little canary of Warner’s Tweety and Sylvester cartoons was derived from a character made famous by comedian Red Skelton. Skelton’s “mean widdle kid” personality was the inspiration of the clever Tweety Bird, who always managed to outsmart his feline archrival, much in the way the Roadrunner would later foil his own mortal enemy, the always-popular Wile E. Coyote, super-genius.
Foghorn Leghorn: The blustery oversized chicken goes back to the radio days of NBC’s “Allen’s Alley” which, unsurprisingly, starred comedian Fred Allen. Foghorn Leghorn is patterned after one of the Alley’s characters, the fictional Senator Beauregard Claghorn of Charleston, South Carolina, who was obsessed with all things “southern.”
Foghorn is better known today than Claghorn, especially when you recall his familiar catchphrases, “That’s a joke, son!” and “Pay attention now, boy!” along with his insertions in the middle or at the end sentences, which were “Ah say…” and “That is.”
Bugs Bunny: Who would have guessed that the wise-cracking rabbit so familiar to us all was based on a scene from the movie classic “It Happened One Night”? If you remember the famous scene in which Clark Cable attempts to teach Claudette Colbert how to “hitch a ride,” you will recall that during that scene, Gable sits on a split rail fence munching a carrot. You got it: that was the genesis of Bugs Bunny.
So just remember, when you watch cartoons, “Be vewy, vewy careful. Heh, heh, heh.”
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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