No one works harder at celebrating the history of the animated short film than Jerry Beck. His 1989 reference guide Looney Tunes And Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide To The Warner Bros. Cartoons, co-authored with Will Friedwald, is one of the books every film or television fan should always have handy on the shelf. His blog Cartoon Brew (shared with historian Amid Amidi) brings together current work and the medium’s rich past in a frequently updated news format with a strong critical point of view. So in theory, a list of the hundred best Looney Tunes should combine the meticulous documentation of Beck’s reference work with his well-informed opinions about relative merit.
But The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons isn’t an argument about the essence of Looney-Tunesness, or even about the aesthetic standards by which these surprisingly tenacious bits of cultural ephemera should be judged. Beck declines to rank the films, offering them instead in alphabetical order, and restricting his own contribution to short plot summaries and little “Jerry Says” callouts. The heavy lifting of critical evaluation is left to a motley crew of guest commentators, who participated in an unscientific online nomination process, or have industry insights, or are just giddy fans.
There’s undeniable pleasure in paging through this nifty book and marveling at the distillation of decades of genius into a decadent all-killer-no-filler format. Beck includes some lesser-known gems like “Nasty Quacks” and “Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs” alongside the Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Friz Freleng canon. He has a real soft spot for the few but distinctive Frank Tashlin shorts; even a dedicated Looney Tunes fan will find some titles that are relatively unfamiliar, and some claims of greatness worth discussing. The problem with 100 Greatest is that it’s more meant to evoke “Remember that gag?” than “Now I see what made that great.” The book comes off as a rather sad collaboration between a publisher in search of a gift book for coffee tables, and a writer/editor reluctant to insist on a prose-heavy tome. What the world really needs is Beck’s 1994 long-out-of-print classic The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected By 1,000 Animation Professionals in a revised, expanded, updated edition. That’s the book that made the case for animated shorts as an essential 20th-century art form, sparking a conversation that could last readers a lifetime. 100 Greatest Looney Tunes, unfortunately, is just aimed at providing a few pleasant hours of nostalgia.