Thursday, January 15, 2009

What's Up, Doc?

For the past several years, there’s been a new set of Looney Tunes released on DVD each year. The coolest thing about this, of course, is that I now own close to 400 of these classic cartoons that I can watch pretty much any time I want. (Not that this stops me from selfishly complaining that they still haven’t included the Road Runner cartoon Hopalong Casualty in any of the sets so far. That’s the one where the coyote swallows the earthquake pills and, by golly, it’s my favorite from that series. I want it!!!!)

But the extras that come with each set are pretty awesome as well. The commentaries included on some of the cartoons are always worthwhile and the documentaries on various aspects of the animation process and the characters are, without fail, both entertaining and informative.

The latest Looney Tunes set (volume 6) includes a documentary titled Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices. This is, arguably, the best done yet in any of these sets. It takes us through the career of the world’s greatest voice artist and reminds us that Mr. Blanc was a key force in creating so many classic cartoon characters. Yes, it was the writers and animators who came up with the concepts and visuals for these characters, but Mel pretty much had carte blanche in creating the voice. The director of a cartoon would show Mel pictures of a character and the storyboards for the cartoon. Mel would then come up with an appropriate voice. Without him, there’s no way that Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck would have had the same impact or staying power that they do have. (Which does not, by the way, take any of credit away from the directors, writers and animators. Everyone involved had to be brilliant to make the Looney Tunes as good as they are.)

The documentary also does an excellent job of stressing that Mel was not just a guy with a wide vocal range, but a great actor as well. As one of the people interviewed in the documentary suggests, watch any Looney Tunes cartoon in which Mel did any of the voices. Take note of how perfectly he hits every emotional note needed for every single line of dialogue. It’s really astounding work—done (from our point of view) with such seeming effortlessness that we need to think about it to realize just how brilliant it is.

There are also some very nice reminders that Mel was very active on radio, working with Jack Benny and other stars of that medium to produce some classic bits of comedy.

The coolest part of the documentary is learning just how kindhearted and utterly decent a person Mel Blanc was. It turns out that he was a great husband and father. He loved kids and often visited children in hospitals (without publicity) to entertain them. He liked to make people smile and laugh. He was a just plain nice guy who really seemed to regularly think about the feelings and welfare of others.

Often, entertainers we admire for their work in films or other mediums turn out to be real jerks in real life. For the most part, this is really none of our business and it’s easy to discount it and just enjoy the work they produced for what it is.

But it’s really nice to be reminded that—every once in a while—an artist we admire for their work is also someone we can admire even more as a human being. The world is an infinitely better place because Mel Blanc was in it.

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