Hungarian actor Peter Lorre became a horror movie icon for his bug-eyed appearance and breathy voice. He was so often parodied in classic cartoons that he even shows up in animation today (REN & STIMPY, the maggot in THE CORPSE BRIDE, etc.)
Even if you haven't seen a Mae West movie, you know her sultry voice and "come up and see me sometime" one-liner through cartoon references. West's suggestive innuendos - which she wrote herself - outraged the censors, but cartoonists obviously loved her.
Crooner Bing Crosby was ripe for parody from cartoonists in the 1940s; he was frequently shown competing for attention against his professional rival Frank Sinatra. Animator Dick Bickenbach actually voiced the Crosby rooster in this one, and the impression is spot-on.
French actor Charles Boyer holds an important place in cartoon history: his performance as Pepe Le Moko in ALGIERS inspired the name of the amorous Pepe Le Pew. Many cartoon characters, most frequently Tom of Tom & Jerry fame, would break into a Boyer impression to woo women.
The wacky Marx Brothers were a big inspiration on the Warner Bros. cartoons. Bugs' line, "Of course you know, this means war" was originally a Groucho Marx quote from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Their inherent absurdity made them naturals for cartoon caricature.
Another comedy team that cartoonists of the '30s and '40s obviously adored were Laurel & Hardy, who show up in too many cartoons to name. They were practically cartoons already with their contrasting builds and slapstick pratfalls.
The Three Stooges, with their constant slaps, pokes, and bops to the head, fit the violent world of classic cartoons well. Bob Clampett even turned the Stooges into a bizarro three-headed monster in his surrealist masterpiece PORKY IN WACKYLAND. Observe:
The Ritz Brothers are MUCH less well-known today than the Marx Bros., Laurel & Hardy, and the Three Stooges, but their wackiness inspired some great cartoon bits. Animators Irv Spence and Ward Kimball do some of their zaniest work ever in the scenes below:
Jazz legend Cab Calloway actually provided the soundtrack of several amazing Betty Boop cartoons in the early '30s, but he was also caricatured by just about every other studio. He was memorably transformed into a scatting scarecrow in the Ub Iwerks holiday cartoon JACK FROST.
The ever-classy Cary Grant pops up in several old cartoons. In this animated scene, he rattles off references to three then-recent Cary Grant movies: THE AWFUL TRUTH, MY FAVORITE WIFE, and HIS GIRL FRIDAY, which was based on the play THE FRONT PAGE).
Jimmy Stewart, star of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and countless other classics, has a funny scene in this Tex Avery short where he is teamed with sarong-wearing Dorothy Lamour. He's wonderfully voiced by Kent Rogers, who also played the stammering Beaky the Buzzard.
The great comedy team Abbott & Costello are used/referenced in numerous cartoons, most memorably in 1942's A TALE OF TWO KITTIES, the first short to feature Tweety. They really nailed these guys' personas.
Big-nosed comedian Jimmy Durante - famous for catchphrases like "ah-cha-cha" and "inka dinka do" - might've been parodied in more cartoons than any other star. Durante later did some voice acting himself when he narrated the Christmas special FROSTY THE SNOWMAN.
Classic Hollywood actress Bette Davis was often caricatured in WB cartoons. I always found this direct parody of her 1936 film THE PETRIFIED FOREST amusing, even before I had ever heard of the movie. Leslie Howard is the male lead:
Mustachioed wildman Jerry Colonna was a major source of inspiration in 1940s cartoons (his catchphrases "something new has been added" and "isn't it" show up all over the place). Colonna later provided the voice for the March Hare in Disney's ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Femme fatale Lauren Bacall was the definition of coolness in the 1940s. She frequently appeared in cartoons, and her debut performance in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT was directly parodied here by the great Bob Clampett.
Clark Gable, known as "the King of Hollywood," was routinely drawn by cartoonists with huge ears. This cartoon ends abruptly because Gable originally kissed Groucho Marx and said, "I'm a bad boy." (I guess that was too gay for the '40s and got cut.)
Character actor Ned Sparks is pretty obscure nowadays, but his grumpy, sarcastic persona made him the Squidward of his day. He shows up in countless cartoons delivering a dry or negative quip.
The brilliant comedian W.C. Fields - known for his heavy drinking - was a godsend for cartoonists with his red nose and unique carnival barker-style patter ("ah yes, my little chickadee"). Several Looney Tunes shorts depicted him as a pig, dubbed W.C. Squeals.
Several Looney Tunes have a character play the piano and say, "I wish my brother George was here." This is a reference to pianist Liberace, whose brother was his violin accompanist. When Liberace would play solo, he would often talk about how it would sound better with George.
Andy Devine is best known to people my age as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney's ROBIN HOOD, but his crackly voice made him a sought-after character actor in classic movies, especially westerns. These cartoon parodies of his voice never fail to crack me up:
Swedish star Greta Garbo was a Hollywood legend for her exotic style and often tragic performances. Cartoons caricatured her big feet, her GRAND HOTEL catchphrase "I vant to be alone," and her deadpan approach. Harpo Marx gives her the hotfoot in this great scene:
Monster movie icon Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy, was memorably parodied as an evil scientist in a classic Bugs Bunny short. That cartoon's director, Chuck Jones, would later have the real Karloff narrate HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS.
Comedian Lew Lehr's catchphrase "monkeys is the cwaziest peoples" was parodied so often in old Looney Tunes that, as a kid, I assumed he was some massive star that all adults knew. Turns out, nope! Nobody knows him except nerds like me who research obscure references in cartoons.
Katharine Hepburn's distinctive mid-Atlantic accent ("really, I do") was frequently used in WB cartoons by aspiring actresses and divas. This is back when you could literally murder a celebrity caricature in a cartoon and they (presumably) didn't get mad:
Character actress Edna May Oliver was great as regal old spinsters in movies like LITTLE WOMEN and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. She obviously struck the Looney Tunes animators as funny, and she shows up frequently, even winning the big race in PORKY'S ROAD RACE.
Lionel Barrymore was a respected actor of stage and screen, who played both the wise old Grandpa in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and the villainous Potter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Knowing his acting style makes Bugs Bunny's impression of him that much funnier:
Vaudevillian Eddie Cantor was a major star in musicals in the early '30s, and his bulging eyes and swishy hand movements were prime cartoon material. Here's a gag that only makes sense if you're familiar with Cantor:
Silent comic Charlie Chaplin was a big influence on cartoon slapstick. This bit from MODERN TIMES, where he goes crazy with some wrenches, was directly referenced in a Porky Pig cartoon (look for an appearance from another classic comedian, W.C. Fields).
English actor Charles Laughton was often parodied in cartoons for his tyrannical performance as Captain Bligh in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. When Bugs Bunny or some other character says, "it's mutiny, Mr. Christian," they're referencing Laughton.
Few people know effeminate comedian Joe Besser by name, but his catchphrases "ya craaazy" and "not so faaast" show up in countless old cartoons. It's exciting to finally watch these clips and see what they were riffing on.
Entertainer Al Jolson starred in the very first talkie THE JAZZ SINGER back in 1927. Cartoons parodied him constantly, and the Merrie Melodies classic I LOVE TO SINGA is a direct parody of THE JAZZ SINGER.
French musical star Maurice Chevalier is best known today for supporting roles in films like GIGI (and for singing the title tune of Disney's ARISTOCATS), but he was a popular leading man in his day. Here's Betty Boop, voiced by Mae Questel, doing a dead-on impersonation.
The sophisticated voice of Oscar-winning English actor Ronald Colman was often invoked in cartoons for urbane characters. I'm sure Colman never could've predicted he would be turned into the bumbling stepfather of a stammering buzzard.
Crooner Frank Sinatra shows up in tons of cartoons, usually with girls swooning over him and usually bizarrely skinny. These running gags got progressively absurd with every film.
Radio star Jack Benny was frequently caricatured in WB cartoons, and he even lent his voice to one! Despite his popular cheapskate character, he didn't want any pay and only asked for a print of the film. Note that in this live-action clip he shares the screen with Mel Blanc.
Red Skelton's radio show, particularly his Mean Widdle Kid character, spawned numerous Looney Tunes references. "If I dood it, I get a whippin," "Let's not get nosy, bub," "He bwoke my wittle head," and "He don't know me very well, do he?" all come from Skelton.
One reference I always wondered about as a kid was when cartoon characters would ask, "How do you dooooo?" in a silly accent. Turns out they were imitating Bert Gordon, known as "the Mad Russian" on the Eddie Cantor Program. Here's a rare screen appearance of Gordon:
Jewish comic Fanny Brice was a huge star from the Ziegfeld Follies and even inspired the 1964 biographical musical FUNNY GIRL. Her "Baby Snooks" character on radio was a source of inspiration for cartoons of various studios.
Comedian Harold Peary was extremely popular on the radio as the pompous character the Great Gildersleeve. His distinctive voice was used for several cartoons, most notably as a sniveling antagonist for Bugs Bunny. (Bugs calls him "the Great Gildersneeze" here.)
Duck-loving goofball Joe Penner is hardly remembered by anyone today, but he was a sensation in the 1930s. Penner's persona inspired the Looney Tunes character Egghead, and his catchphrases ("oh, you nasty man," "don't ever doo that," etc.) show up in countless shorts.
Last one for now: The phrase "mmm... could be" is in about a million Looney Tunes. It comes from the incredibly obscure comedian Artie Auerbach, who played Mr. Kitzel on the radio show AL PEARCE AND HIS GANG. After some digging, I found Auerbach saying the line:
P.S. Here's Artie Auerbach in action as Mr. Kitzel on the Jack Benny Show, singing with the great Mel Blanc, who imitated him so often in cartoons! His "pickle in the middle" song is in my head now, so I pass it along to you people:
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