Television

HBO Max’s Great Looney Tunes Purge

Hundreds of classic cartoons vanished without warning. How can you raise your kids on favorites you can’t access anymore?

 In a dark purple room, a TV screen with an HBO Max logo in the bottom right-hand corner plays "That's All Folks!" Looney Tunes outro.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thibault Penin/Unsplash.

When my son was 2 years old and new to screens, we discovered that what he liked to watch the most was Blippi, a hatefully lazy YouTube show in which a reformed but still unshaven video prankster misexplains physics and biology while operating heavy machinery and wandering unaccompanied around children’s museums. Desperate to find something we could both watch without one of us throwing a tantrum, I tried to track down some of my favorite old Looney Tunes shorts online, but that proved harder than you might think: Many aren’t available on YouTube, and there’s no way to search for individual cartoons on Amazon and iTunes. So I bought the first volume of the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection on Blu-ray and put on “The Rabbit of Seville,” the 1950 Chuck Jones cartoon in which, among other delights, Bugs Bunny massages Elmer Fudd’s scalp with his feet. My kid danced—actually danced—through the whole thing. That three-disc set and its two successors played on repeat in our home until a couple of years later, when we got HBO Max and discovered that not just the 50 most interesting but also about half of the 1,041 cartoons in the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes filmography were available to watch, all in high definition. My fancy Blu-rays began gathering dust.

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On Dec. 31, HBO Max, now under the thumb of profit-conscious Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, removed “The Rabbit of Seville” from the streaming platform, along with several hundred other Looney Tunes shorts produced after 1949. Warner Animation and HBO Max are both subsidiaries of Warner Bros.’ new owner, but under the complicated terms of Discovery’s acquisition, its status as a new entity allows it to leave some of its losses off its 2022 earnings reports. If that meant laying off staff, torching films that had already been shot and edited, shutting down an entire streaming service, and amputating half of the Warner Bros. library of historic cartoons, so be it. (My former Variety colleague Joe Adalian has a good breakdown of the process here.)

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In hindsight, this seems inevitable. Beginning in about 2010, big entertainment companies, threatened by Netflix, began trumpeting the imminent arrival of something they called TV Everywhere, a vision of a near future in which your favorite TV shows and movies would be available to stream on your phone, computer, television, or Wi-Fi-enabled toothbrush, and intermediaries like Netflix would be rendered vestigial. The most vocal proponent of this philosophy was Jeff Bewkes, then the head of Time Warner, and his favorite example was HBO. The Warner Bros. library was unequaled, he contended, supplemented by an archival division that kept the studio’s backlog of feature films, cartoons, and TV shows available on whatever technical form was au courant. Warner Bros. would survive the digital age by transcending physical form altogether, with a catalog of masterpieces that existed in the ether and could be beamed to your favorite screen at will, all for one monthly fee.

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Of course, that’s not how it went. Amassing the proper paperwork turned out to be trickier than mastering the technology, and it further turned out that most users didn’t actually want to go spelunking through Warner Bros.’ vaults. The new game was not providing access to everything but finding out how many expensively licensed properties you could cull from your service before people started to question how much they were paying a month.

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The reason people liked Netflix was that it leveraged billions to build a base of direct subscribers using bargain-bin rentals of neglected or undervalued shows and movies that, it turned out, consumers really liked. Once old-media behemoths realized that viewers who weren’t watching linear TV anymore would pay to stream The Office and Friends, they moved to get the rights back and establish their own subscription services. But the idea of having access to the history of a century-old legacy brand was less enticing than they’d hoped—you might have a feel for what a Netflix show is, but if they ever had a sense of what a “Paramount movie” is, it’s long since dissolved—and so another round of culling began. Why keep works of profound genius and tremendous historical import sitting on a server somewhere if no one was watching them?

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As far as I can tell, the only way to watch the painstakingly restored high-def version of The “Rabbit of Seville” right now is to pay $100 for a used Blu-ray on eBay. There are some unrestored ’50s-era Looney Tunes on the Internet Archive, where the video content is ad hoc and questionably legal—occasionally it has clearly been transferred to digital video from a grainy VHS recording of one of the cartoons’ many television broadcasts—but it won’t run on your smart TV or your PlayStation. You can use the Internet Archive to watch a video of Blippi, as Steezy Grossman, doing the “Harlem Shake” challenge from 2013, during which, wearing nothing but a bicycle helmet and sunglasses, he shits immoderately on a professional colleague. This is not a metaphor. (Well, it is not only a metaphor.)

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If you can find it in your heart to wade through the “seasons” of Looney Tunes shorts on Amazon and iTunes, you might be able to find your favorites, but there are massive gaps—Season 27, for example, includes only Episodes 4, 5, 8, and 18—and they aren’t the restored versions that HBO Max had been using. The kid and I compared them (that is to say, I compared them while he yelled at me for not letting the cartoons play uninterrupted) a few months ago, when I forgot which streaming service I had running, and the HBO Max versions were visibly, delightfully superior. The same goes for the Wagner parody “What’s Opera, Doc?,” the surrealist masterpiece “Duck Amuck,” the Star Wars–inspiring “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century,” and “Knighty Knight Bugs,” which won an Oscar in 1958. 

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The Looney Tunes cartoons are beautiful and witty, but the best of them are also nested history lessons far more thoroughly integrated than any modern work about the politics or mores of the era could possibly be. I was walking to the playground with my son, now 5, the other day, and he said, in a voice that demonstrated that he knew he was telling a joke, “I wish my brother George was here.” He has no idea who Liberace was, but he had a sense that there was somebody funny who played a piano and whom Bugs Bunny had imitated in a particularly good Friz Freleng short, 1955’s “Hyde and Hare.” The same cartoon features Bugs playing Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” and, of course, travesties Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it’s not “educational.” (It’s actually quite a bit less didactic and preachy than Blippi.) Freleng knows we’re all here to watch a green monster chase Bugs with an ax; Chopin and Stevenson and Liberace are included because Freleng thinks they’re fun.

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Carl Stalling’s scores didn’t just teach kids about Beethoven and Mozart and Wagner, they quoted vastly influential songs from his own lifetime that have now vanished down the memory hole, and that inclusion forces conversations about those songs. Parents may differ on whether that’s a good thing, but I think it is. I can avoid Speedy Gonzales, but other forms of bigotry sneak up on me. I don’t relish explaining to my son why he can occasionally catch me absent-mindedly whistling Stephen Foster’s “Shortnin’ Bread” but will never, ever hear me sing the lyrics. If we don’t talk about that, though, I risk letting the attitudes of the past seem incomprehensible and stupid to him, which weakens his resistance to their contemporary descendants. A full appreciation of old cartoons prevents us from reducing their authors to caricature. Stalling loved catchy, racist old minstrel tunes; he’s also single-handedly responsible for the preservation of terrific songs like Raymond Scott’s classic “Powerhouse,” whose name you might not know but whose tune I promise you can hum.

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There are two reasons Zaslav et al. ought to rethink this desecration of our cultural heritage, though admittedly neither of them are likely to hold much appeal to anyone whose sole concern is his 10-K filing to the SEC. The first is a mnemonic familiar to tech dorks the world over: LOCKSS, for Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. No form of media is eternal, which is why the ability of everyone from the artist to the consumer to easily and losslessly duplicate and distribute it ought to be such good news.

Much of the history of American film has been lost to the kinds of accidents Discovery is now courting. When Fox Film and Twentieth Century Pictures merged in 1935, they rented a warehouse in New Jersey to store old reels of film. That warehouse burned to the ground in 1937, destroying 75 percent of the features the studio released before 1930. A vault fire in 1965 destroyed nearly one-third of the MGM library; a fire in the RKO vault destroyed the negatives for Citizen Kane. Another fire, at the National Archives, destroyed all the newsreels from 1940 to 1945. To the extent that the work held in these vaults still survives, it is because individual movie lovers held on to the prints. The decentralization of the internet does not protect it from this kind of disaster. You can look up a handy list of the vault fires that destroyed so much of Hollywood’s history, but you’ll have to do it through the Internet Archive. The original page no longer exists on the website of Warner Bros. Discovery subsidiary Turner Classic Movies.

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The other reason to zealously preserve and distribute Looney Tunes to the American public is that they are, at least in part, ours. The Private Snafu cartoons—and many others—were made at the classic Looney Tunes studio, nicknamed Termite Terrace, as part of a contract with the Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit. The unit was commanded by an Air Force captain and produced cartoons at an incredible pace, one every six weeks. (That captain’s name, incidentally, was Theodor Geisel.) The American taxpayers paid Warner Bros. to have these cartoons made, and to sell war bonds with Bugs Bunny as pitchman and draft Daffy Duck. (Bugs didn’t enter the armed services until 1953.) Taxpayers are responsible for the success of the entertainment industry, directly in several cases, but also indirectly. Warner Bros. takes its goods to market on publicly maintained roads, sells its sitcoms and movies to networks that broadcast on public airwaves, and distributes its movies to theaters and homes through fiber-optic cables that run over and under public land. The company is bound up in our shared history, and it has produced a great deal of art that is essential to that history.

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It also shares in some blame. There are vile ethnic caricatures and slurs in those patriotic cartoons from the Second World War, and to its immense credit, Warner Bros. has often worked to contextualize and preserve those shorts. In several cases, it has included those works in separate subsections on home-video releases, so that they won’t autoplay with the rest of the cartoons. Some important shorts are contaminated with expressions of anti-Blackness that are truly beyond the pale, and even those are occasionally screened for film buffs with context from Black animation scholars. This kind of responsible preservation work is in stark contrast to Warner Bros.’ historic competitor, Disney, which has chosen the far more popular strategy of simply pretending that features like Song of the South and shorts like “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” never existed.

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But all these cartoons did exist. In fact, they were very popular. They are a problematic, essential part of the fabric of American life, and of the world that came before the one in which we’re now trying to raise our children. More than nearly any other cultural product, Looney Tunes makes it possible for children to have a sophisticated conversation with the past, because its entertainment value is undimmed by its continuity with the parts of that past that are disposable, unprofitable, or embarrassing. These films must not simply vanish in an ecstasy of corporate bean counting. They belong to history, and they belong to us.

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