The Difference Between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies

Merrie Melodies

Ah, Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, those long-standing pillars of American animation with over 80 (!) years’ worth of fandom. Have you ever wondered, when you watch these cartoons, why exactly there were two series to begin with?

Looney Tunes came first, in 1930. Producer-directors Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising produced the Looney Tunes for executive producer Leon Schlesinger. Schlesinger had a distribution deal with Warner Bros, who sold the cartoons to movie theaters as added attractions. Each of the early Looney Tunes featured a main cartoon star, Bosko, and songs from the Warner Bros. library. 

The first Looney Tunes short was Sinkin’ in the Bathtub, directed by Harman and Ising and released by Warner Bros. on April 19, 1930. The name “Looney Tunes” was a riff on (okay, stolen from) Silly Symphonies, the title of Walt Disney’s popular competing cartoon series.

With the success of Looney Tunes came a second series of cartoon shorts, Merrie Melodies, in 1931. The first cartoon in the series was Lady, Play Your Mandolin! – directed by Ising alone and released by Warners in August 1931.

Although the first few shorts tried to establish characters such as Foxy and Goopy Geer, the Merrie Melodies eventually became a series of one-shot cartoons. Via a contract requirement from WB, each Merrie Melodies cartoon featured at least one performance of a Warner Bros. owned song. This is why so many 1930s Merrie Melodies are named after songs: I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935), She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter (1937), and so forth. These Merrie Melodies were precursors of sorts to the function, if not the form, of the music videos which would become popular on television 40 years later.

Looney Tunes cartoons all featured Bosko until Harman and Ising parted company with Schlesinger in 1933. Later that year, Harman-Ising signed a new deal to make Happy Harmonies for MGM and took Bosko with them. As Harman-Ising produced the previous cartoons at their own Los Angeles studio, Schlesinger was forced to start his own

By mid-1933, Leon Schlesinger Production opened, located on an old Warner Bros. studio lot off L.A.’s Sunset Blvd. Animators and directors such as Friz Freleng and Jack King were hired to continue production of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. The Looney Tunes now starred a character named Buddy, who proved to be unpopular. The Merrie Melodies continued as before and from black-and-white into color production in 1934.

An adjacent bungalow, nicknamed “Termite Terrace”, housed the production unit run by then-new director Tex Avery between 1935 and 1937. “Termite Terrace” later became a nickname for the entire Schlesinger studio. It was during the late 1930s and early 1940s that directors such as Avery, Freleng, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, and Robert McKimson began making a steady stream of classic cartoons. Their Looney Tunes which established the popular cartoon stars Porky Pig (in 1935) and Daffy Duck (in 1937). Meanwhile, their Merrie Melodies introduced recurring stars of their own by 1940: Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.

By 1941, the lines between the two series began to blur significantly. Several 1941 Looney Tunes shorts such as The Haunted Mouse and Joe Glow the Firefly didn’t feature any star characters. Meanwhile, Merrie Melodies shorts such as Tortoise Beats Hare and Elmer’s Pet Rabbit established Bugs Bunny as a bonafide star character. The animators also no longer had to feature a Warner Music song in every Merrie Melodies cartoon. Schlesinger’s musical director, Carl W. Stalling, would still trot out a Warner-owned song or three periodically since he had the rights to do so.

The Looney Tunes finally transitioned from black-and-white to color during the 1942-43 release season. However, due to World War II, Schlesinger reduced his yearly cartoon output from 39 shorts to 26. One way Schlesinger made up the difference was by starting a Blue Ribbon Specials program featuring reissues of older cartoons. He also began charging more for cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, which were sold as their own series, Bugs Bunny Specials. In, 1944 Warner Bros. bought Leon Schlesinger Productions, turning it into Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc. and bringing production in-house.

An original "Looney Tunes" theatrical poster, circa 1940. (Image: Warner Bros.)

An original “Looney Tunes” theatrical poster, circa 1940. (Image: Warner Bros.)

From the point of the sale forward, the differences between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies became minute. Other than their individual opening titles and theme music, they were identical to each other. Looney Tunes opened with “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down”, while “Merrily We Roll Along” introduced Merrie Melodies. Warner began selling the two series as one, with both featuring a mix of star characters stories and one-shots.

The studio continued, of course, to sell Bugs Bunny cartoons from either series at a higher price. I imagine Bugs would’ve preferred it that way.