George Lucas and Star Wars had a hand in keeping classic Looney Tunes alive
The Duck Dodgers sequel was meant to show before a blockbuster sequel.
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George Lucas claims that Looney Tunes drove him to become a filmmaker. As he tells it, the California kid was eight years old when he went into a movie theater and saw Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, the spoof of Buck Rogers with Daffy Duck. That Chuck Jones-directed classic was released in 1953. Lucas was born in 1944, so the math just about checks out.
But Chuck Jones, while flattered, remained a little skeptical. "[Lucas] said that it impressed him so much that he decided he wanted to make movies," Jones explained in an interview with animation historian Jim Korkis. "At least, that's what he said in interviews at the time. [Laughs] Who really knows?"
Lucas loved "Duck Dodgers" so much that, two decades after its release, he insisted that the original 1953 cartoon short be shown before Star Wars when possible.
"I know [Lucas] loved the layouts done by Maurice Noble," Jones said. "Who wouldn’t? They were breathtakingly beautiful."
Lucas and his Star Wars franchise would in turn help awaken the slumbering Looney Tunes empire.
In 1980, the sequel The Empire Strikes Back was finally hitting theaters after three years of anticipation. Lucas, still a Daffy fan, wanted a Duck Dodgers sequel to run before the movie. There was just one problem.
"Warners [theatrical animation] had been closed for years," Jones explained in his chat with Korkis. "Friz [Freleng] and I had been doing some television specials using the characters but I had to work hard to reassemble some of my old team. Fortunately, most of the guys I wanted had not spent too much time doing the Saturday morning stuff and dulled their skills. Some of them had worked on commercials that were fully animated. Top people that I needed like Phil Monroe and Ben Washam and others hadn’t lost their touch, fortunately. Of course, we had Maurice Noble again to design a revolutionary spaceship."
The old band may have been back together again, but there must have been some rust — Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24½th Century was not completed in time to run before Empire Strikes Back. "But an attempt was made to release it theatrically," Jones admitted.
In the end, this new Looney Tunes short aired on television during the holidays as part of Daffy Duck's Thanks-for-Giving Special. The Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies factory had wound down production back in 1969, when the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Animation studio shut down. The final theatrical short from that long original run would be a Cool Cat cartoon.
A decade later, in 1979, some new Looney Tunes shorts were created for TV. Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24½th Century would have been the first theatrical short in 11 years — had it actually found its way to movie theaters, as intended.
Looney Tunes would not make another theatrical short until 1987, when The Duxorcist, another Daffy Duck spoof, hit multiplexes. Thank Star Wars, in some little way, for getting the gears turning again.