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Wednesday, January 19, 2011


When the Warner Brothers animation department was at its peak in the 40s and 50s, they consistently churned out some of the best and funniest cartoons ever made.  One of their most memorable comedy teams was the cute little bird Tweety and the always-hungry cat Sylvester, whose catchphrases ("I taught I taw a putty tat!" and "Sufferin' succotash!") are part of cartoon history.  With Warner Home Entertainment's LOONEY TUNES SUPER STARS: TWEETY & SYLVESTER, fifteen of their classic shorts have been collected on DVD--some uproariously funny, others not quite hitting the bullseye.

The team, who had already appeared individually in several Warner Brothers shorts, scored an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) with their first pairing, 1947's "Tweetie Pie" (sic).  This initial outing, in which homeless Tweety is taken in by a household whose cat sees the tiny bird as a mouth-watering meal, seems to be an answer to MGM's Tom and Jerry.  The cat who would later be known as "Sylvester" is referred to here as "Thomas" just like the MGM character, and is similarly harangued by a generic housewife seen only from the waist down. 

With Tweety's cage suspended from the ceiling, he sits in his swing warbling a strange little tune ("I love little putty, his throat is so warm...And if I don't hurt him, he'll do me no harm").  Meanwhile, Sylvester devises a series of ingenious methods of attaining his prey, giving the writers a chance to come up with some pretty funny material while establishing the basic formula for the series.  Sylvester causes more and more chaos and destruction with each attempt, either by his own ineptitude or the playful deviousness of the little bird.

Next comes "Bad Ol' Putty Tat" (1949), the classic situation in which a cartoon cat lays siege to a bird perched high up in a birdhouse, and "All Abir-r-r-d!" (1950), with similar antics taking place in the baggage compartment of a passenger train.   These initial offerings are mid-level Warner Brothers stuff, well-drawn and animated but not all that outstanding. 

With "Canary Row" (1950), the characters have come into their own and the gags are snappy and clever.  "Friz" Freleng's direction also gets progressively sharper and more inventive.  As always, musical maestro Carl Stallings' score plays a major part in making the action a lot funnier as Sylvester tries to sneak into a hotel to get Tweetie.  Thanks to voiceover legend Mel Blanc, we hear the cat speak for the first time as he impersonates a bellboy: "Your bagth...madame?"

Blanc's speeded-up voice is charmingly funny as Tweety sings his theme song over the titles:

"I'm a sweet little bird in a gilded cage
Tweety's my name but I don't know my age
I don't have to worry and that is that
I'm safe in here from that old putty tat

Tweety's kindly old protector, Granny (first voiced by Bea Benederet, later by June Foray), makes her first appearance as well, thus rounding out the cast and giving the series a more distinctive character.  Thankfully for us cat lovers, it's not as painful seeing Granny whack Sylvester with her umbrella as some faceless harridan beating him with a broom.

1951's "Putty Tat Trouble" opens with Tweety shoveling snow out of his nest ("This is what I get for dweaming of a white Chwistmas!") and catching the attention of two housecats, Sylvester and a roughhousing rival, who go at it tooth and nail over the tiny bird.  This is the first real laugh riot of the collection and had me guffawing out loud several times.  (Look for the cardboard box with the words "Friz--America's Favorite Gelatin Dessert", a self-reference by director "Friz" Freleng.) 

The all-out hilarity continues in "Room and Bird" (1951), with both Granny and Sylvester's owner sneaking their pets into a "No Pets Allowed" hotel where they're joined in mischief by a belligerent bulldog, causing the house detective a huge headache.   "Tweety's S.O.S." (1951), in which Sylvester spots Tweety through the porthole of his cabin on board a docked ship, gives the cat another rare early line of dialogue: "Hell-o, breakfast!"  Later, when Granny catches him and he puts on an innocent act, Tweety exclaims "Ooh, what a hypocwite!"

"Tweet Tweet Tweety" (1951) takes place in a national forest with Sylvester trying to cut down the tree in which Tweety's nest is perched.  We hear his catchphrase "Sufferin' succotash!" for the first time here as he grows increasingly more talkative.  "Gift Wrapped" (1952) is an amusing Christmas-themed story.

In "Ain't She Tweet" (1952), a pet store delivers Tweety to Granny, who also keeps a hundred or so vicious bulldogs fenced in her yard.  The sight of Sylvester repeatedly falling into this roiling mass of teeth and claws in his attempts to get into the house are somewhat nightmarish. 

"Snow Business" (1953) is the first time we see "Tweety & Sylvester" billed together as a team.  They start out as friends this time, until they get snowed in up in Granny's mountain cabin with nothing to eat but bird seed.  While a starving Sylvester tries to trick Tweety into a boiling stew pot, he must also avoid a hungry mouse who's after him.  For some reason, the cat never thinks of eating the mouse.

"Satan's Waitin'" (1954) suffers from an unwieldy premise--Sylvester gets killed while chasing Tweety, goes to Hell, then finds that his punishment will be delayed while his other eight lives are snuffed out one by one.  An unfunny bulldog-Satan eggs them on in a series of tepid gags, each climaxing with another death.  Geez, getting hit with a broom is bad enough--I don't really want to see Sylvester being cast into a fiery lake of devilish bulldogs for all eternity.

1961's "The Last Hungry Cat" shows the more modern influence of later WB cartoons with angular backgrounds rendered in an appealingly creative way.  High concept strikes again in this spoof of "The Alfred Hitchcock Show" in which Sylvester thinks he has "murdered" Tweety and is sought by the police.  The guilt-ridden cat suffers a torturous, sleepless night, constantly needled by the Hitchcock-like narrator, until he discovers Tweety is still alive and reverts back to form.  While this short is nice to look at, it just isn't funny.

The trend of over-thinking these stories continues with "Birds Anonymous" (1957).  Sylvester is initiated into an "AA"-type group for bird-crazed cats, who are presented as helpless addicts.  ("I was a three-bird-a-day cat," one of them testifies.) 

Increasingly preoccupied with being clever, the writers of these later cartoons sometimes forget to pack in the funny, fast-paced gags that made this series so popular in the first place.  Here, Sylvester endures yet another mental ordeal, with a grotesque bloodshot-eyes closeup that's almost a duplicate of the one from "The Last Hungry Cat."  Why the heck has Sylvester suddenly turned into Ray Milland?

The final short in the collection, "Tweety and the Beanstalk" (1957), is a fun take-off on the old fairytale (June Foray can be heard as the unseen woman who throws Jack's magic beans out the window).  The idea of Sylvester running around the giant's castle trying to nab a Tweety who's the same size as him, while eluding a monstrous bulldog, sounds tiresome at first but actually manages to generate some old-style sight gags with an outrageous ending.

The DVD is in standard format (no choice of matted widescreen this time) with Dolby Digital English and Spanish mono sound, and subtitles in English and French.  The titles on this disc have appeared previously in other Warner Brothers DVD collections.

While uneven in quality, the fifteen shorts in LOONEY TUNES SUPER STARS: TWEETY & SYLVESTER are examples of some of the finest theatrical cartoons ever produced by one of the top animation studios of its time, in an era when such fare was designed to be enjoyed and appreciated by audiences of all ages. 

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