The so-called “Golden Age of Animation” was actually a pretty hefty swath of time, spanning from the 1930s all the way until the late-1960s. During that time Leon Schlesinger animation studios, which was purchased by Warner Bros for the express purpose of competing with Walt Disney’s staggeringly popular Mickey Mouse shorts, began making what would become some of the most circulated, most widely seen, and best loved comedic shorts of all time, and creating some indelible characters in whom to do it.
There were hundreds upon hundreds of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts in that period, so narrowing it down to a Top 7 is certainly difficult. To do so I’ve based it on the following criteria: 1) How innovative was it, either from an animation or storytelling standpoint? 2) Has its impact and permeation into pop culture been abundantly high? And 3) Above all else, is it funny?
Naturally, there are hilarious cartoons that didn’t make this list. For example, I didn’t include any Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote shorts for the simple fact that, while they’re all hilarious, they’re also very repetitive and I can’t remember one from another. With these in mind, let us begin!
7) The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) dir. Robert Clampett
Bob Clampett was one of the early directors of the WB shorts, and his work was known for being incredibly frantic, very imaginative, and very, very weird. So who better to exemplify that than arguably early-Looney Tunes‘ most hyper character, Daffy Duck? In the short, Daffy is waiting for his new Dick Tracy comic to arrive and when it does, he reads it immediately and begins to wish he could be a famous detective. While pretending to fight bad guys, he punches himself in the face and is knocked unconscious. He then has a very vivid dream about being Duck Twacy, the greatest duck-tec-a-tive in the world. He has to solve a series of thefts of piggy banks, his own included, and ends up running in to a whole cadre of villains, very much in keeping with the Dick Tracy eccentric bad guys of the time.
The color in this short is really off-the-charts, and each time Daffy meets a new nicknamed gangster (like Hammerhead, whose head is a hammer, Snake Eyes, whose eyes are dice, and Bat Man who is a baseball bat with a face) we get a full painting-style portrait of them, and they’re all really gorgeous. While I usually tend to enjoy the later shorts, this one is undeniably ingenious and proves that Daffy is one of the best characters in the bunch.
6) From A to Z-Z-Z-Z (1954) dir. Charles M. Jones
As you’ll see from the bulk of this list, Chuck Jones really made the Looney Tunes his own and created some of the best and most beloved shorts ever made. He made several one- or two-off cartoons featuring none of the iconic characters but are certainly in keeping with the style and mood. This one introduces someone any kid can relate to: Ralph Phillips, a daydreamer of the highest order. While the rest of his class are busy reciting arithmetic chants, he stares out the window and envisions himself in all kinds of scenarios, including flying through the air, being a deep-sea diver who fights a shark with just a knife, being a Pony Express rider, and fighting off numbers on the blackboard with letters as weapons.
Like a lot of Jones’ work, this short is all about taking a look at a simple idea from a number of different angles. What kid hasn’t zoned out at school and wanted to be a hero of the highest order? I do that now and I haven’t been in school in almost a decade.
5) Porky in Wackyland (1938) dir. Robert Clampett
By far the earliest short on the list, and indeed the only one in black & white, Porky in Wackyland was made at time when Porky Pig was by far the most popular character in the lineup (Bugs Bunny hadn’t even premiered in his full form yet) and it again represents Bob Clampett’s penchant for weirdness, but this time in a far more surreal setting. Porky Pig travels to the eponymous Wackyland to find the last remaining Dodo, a creature thought extinct. Upon his arrival, he sees all manner of insanity, including a rabbit swinging on a swing by his ears, a three-headed creature that looks like the Three Stooges, a duck doing the Al Jolson “Mamie” thing (which was used way too much in those days), a CatDog, and other creatures and settings that look like they came out of Salvador Dali’s head.
Once Porky finds the Dodo, it’s like if the Road Runner and the craziest version of Daffy Duck got together then went insane. What makes this short important is just HOW wacky Wackyland is, and that, while it was the one and only appearance of the Dodo, it was popular enough for Warners to mount a color shot-for-shot remake in 1948 entitled Dough for the Do-Do. In 2000, this film was selected to be entered into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
4) One Froggy Evening (1955) dir. Charles M. Jones
This is a really, really deep cartoon if you think about it that way, on top of just being a really funny dialogue-free eight minutes. A guy on a construction site finds a hollowed out cornerstone in a building being torn down. He looks in and finds a shoe box containing a frog which immediately gets up and begins singing and dancing with a top hat and cane. Seeing a goldmine, the man attempts to sell tickets to people to come and see it, but the frog will only perform in front of him, and whenever anyone else is watching, the frog is beyond boring. Eventually, the man is destitute and puts the frog back in the cornerstone. Decades go by and in the future, another Schmoe opens it and finds the frog, thinking he’ll be rich.
This is an insanely dark and depressing cartoon on top of some really terrific physical humor and a dynamite and weird premise. This man is cursed by greed and pays for it. There’s also some weird supernatural stuff involved, if you think that in the ’50s, this man finds the frog which sings all ragtime numbers from the turn of the century AND an old Italian opera. How old is this frog?! How long has this been going on?! Despite only being in this one cartoon, the frog became so popular and people wanted to know so much about it that Chuck Jones gave him the name “Michigan J. Frog” (after the song “The Michigan Rag” that he and writer Michael Maltese wrote for him to sing) and he became the spokesman for the fledgling WB TV network. Also selected to National Film Registry, in 2003.
3) Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) dir. Charles M. Jones
This is one I’m sure you’ve seen a million times, but watch it again, it holds up. There were only five shorts in the Golden Age that featured Marvin the Martian and the first two and last two had Marvin facing off against Bugs Bunny. While those were great, it’s his one fight against Daffy Duck, in the guise of Duck Dodgers, that most people remember, as both are dispatched by their respective governments to claim the uncharted Planet X. Along for the ride is Porky as Dodgers’ sidekick, Eager Young Space Cadet, made in a period of time with Jones where Porky was the zenned-out foil to the uptight and arrogant Daffy.
The spacey layouts in this short were done by Maurice Noble whose work for the shorts cannot be over-appreciated. Before working for Warner Bros in the ’50s, Noble worked on the first five Walt Disney animated features. Fun fact.
2) What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) dir. Charles M. Jones
Chuck Jones was a huge fan of opera, and wanted to bring it into his work whenever possible. What’s Opera, Doc? was the follow-up to 1950’s very popular Rabbit of Seville in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny onstage and the two take part in the opera The Barber of Seville. In this one, Jones and writer Michael Maltese used Richard Wagner’s epic “Ride of the Valkyries” from The Ring Cycle for the now-iconic moment of Fudd in full horned helmet glory singing “Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit!” It also directly mocked Disney’s Fantasia, contemporary ballet, and even the tried formula of having Elmer chase Bugs.
Fun story: The reason this cartoon looks particularly gorgeous is because Jones took far longer on it than he was supposed to. The hard and firm rule in those days was each one-reel short took no longer than five weeks, and no shorter either. Five weeks, the end. But Jones knew he wanted to make this one something special so he had the animation team agree to take only three weeks on another Road Runner cartoon (since those were very easy to turn out) and devote seven weeks to What’s Opera, Doc?. The result was one of the best cartoons ever, one that was selected to the National Film Registry in 1992, the first cartoon to receive the honor, and the WB brass was never the wiser.
1) Duck Amuck (1953) dir. Charles M. Jones
Yeah, I’m a big Chuck Jones fan. Not gonna try to hide it. Why? Cuz he was a genius, and his versions of the Looney Tunes characters are pretty much why we remember them. This is such an easy and straightforward premise but through characterization and gags, it becomes so much more. While beginning like one of Daffy Duck’s usual epic adventures, the animator decides to have a bit of fun and changes things randomly. Daffy, as was his way during this time in his existence, was easily angered and slowly began lashing out at the animator. Daffy would go along with whatever curve the animator threw but just as quickly, it’d change to something else to make Daffy get hurt or look silly. And, surely you’ve seen this, but if you haven’t, it has one of the best Shyamalanian endings of all time.
With this film, which was also chosen to go into the National Film registry, in 1999, Jones became the only director to have that distinction for animation. Quite a feat, and there’s a reason. They’re all three amazing. This is without a doubt my favorite 7 minutes of animation ever.
I hope you enjoyed my list of favorite Looney Tunes shorts. Like I said, there are hundreds, so share your favorites in the comments below!