What’s the hot new animation that young people are talking about on social media? Oh, just a cartoon from 1942, taking place in the 1890s and parodying a children’s book series that nobody has read. The Warner Brothers “Merrie Melodies” cartoon The Dover Boys at Pimento University, directed by Chuck Jones, has no recurring characters and no funny animals, and its source, The Rover Boys, is forgotten today except as source material for The Dover Boys. And yet this unpromising material recently exploded in online popularity, with many lines becoming memes on Tumblr. The cartoon is constantly referenced there, and message boards build threads around lines from its villain, Dan Backslide, particularly his loud announcements of his villainous intentions: “I’ll steal it! No one will ever know!” Nor was this the film’s first spike in popularity. Earlier in the decade, the lines “Confound those Dover Boys!” and “They drive me to drink!” took off among, of all things, My Little Pony fans.
The irony is that when Warner Brothers actively tries to get people interested in its old cartoons, it struggles. The company has reportedly been worried that kids aren’t familiar with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the once-valuable Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies gang. It’s tried redesigning them, turning them into cartoon sitcom characters, even trying to launch a sequel to Space Jam with LeBron James.
So how did a relatively obscure Warner Brothers cartoon become a favourite with the very young people who didn’t seem to care about the franchise, with no promotional money behind it? It helps that The Dover Boys is a very funny and influential cartoon: known for its innovations in stylized animation, it was selected as one of the 50 greatest North American cartoons of all time by a poll of experts. But it helps even more that people are free to watch it on YouTube, because it’s one of only a handful of old Warner Brothers cartoons in the public domain. People are watching The Dover Boys not because of Warner, but because Warner doesn’t own it.
Most WB cartoons are hard to find online. Warner tends to discourage illegal posting, and it hasn’t made most of them available for legal streaming—meaning that if you want to search YouTube for What’s Opera, Doc? or Rabbit of Seville, you won’t find much. But since the copyright on The Dover Boys was never renewed, anyone can post it anywhere. Along with a handful of other public-domain shorts—including the first Tweety cartoon, where he fights two cats based on Abbott and Costello—The Dover Boys is one of those classics delivered straight to a new generation of viewers.
This wouldn’t be the first time the public domain helped turn an obscure film into a classic. Originally a box-office failure, It’s a Wonderful Life became a TV mainstay after its studio forgot to renew the copyright. Because anyone could show it, it saturated the airwaves at Christmastime, and then was released on home video in many cheap versions. This didn’t make the creators any money, but it did provide them with incredible publicity. Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life has been under copyright again since the 1990s; the studio claimed it owns the rights to the short story the film was based on. And Warner Brothers may have ways to stop the sharing of its cartoons.
But the popularity of The Dover Boys may raise the question of whether it’s in a studio’s interest to crack down on YouTube uploads. Joe Dante, who directed the 2003 film Looney Tunes: Back in Action, told Blastr that it failed at the box office because “they took the cartoons off television and the kids didn’t know who Bugs Bunny was.” If Warner Brothers made the cartoons easily available, the way they once were on Saturday-morning television, it might help to rebuild the value of these characters. Until then, the public-domain cartoons will carry the flag for the entire franchise—and leave parents wondering what people are talking about when they say, “Unhand her, Dan Backslide!”