Bugs Bunny Signs Up
By Antoinette Moses
Warner Bros were committed to attack the German Nazi party before any other Hollywood studio. After their representative in Berlin had been kicked to death by storm troopers they had broken off all dealings with Germany, and, as supporters of Franklin Roosevelt since 1932, they backed him against the isolationists.
This political commitment meant that everyone was called up to help make propaganda films and that included their cartoon stars Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Elmer Fudd was forgotten; now Hitler and the Japanese were the enemy and where previously one felt that Bugs had a certain wry affection for Elmer, now the humour became acid and the violence took on a new meaning.
Robert Clampett, one of the top animation directors at Warners found that Bugs Bunny reached his apogee of public acceptance during this period. In an interview in Funnyworld (No. 12), he explained how Bugs had become:
“…a symbol of America’s resistance to Hitler and the fascist powers … we were in a battle for our lives, and it is most difficult now to comprehend the tremendous emotional impact Bugs Bunny exerted on the audience then. You must try to recapture the mood of a people who had seen the enemy murder millions of innocent people, … blitzkrieg defenceless citizens, sink our fleet in a sneak attack, and threaten our very existence.
Psychologists found that the public subconsciously identified the stupid little man with the gun and his counterparts with Hitler, and strongly identified the rabbit – unarmed except for his wits and will to win – with themselves. They further advised that justification was already established and that the sooner and more often the audience’s alter-ego (Bugs) could get back at the Hitler symbol, the greater the therapy.”
But if Bugs was hard on Hitler, this was nothing compared with the manner in which he and the other studios’ cartoon characters attacked the Japanese.
Plane Daffy contains some typical Warner’s humour with Daffy taking off the heroics of World War 1 fighter pilots and trying to outwit the spy Hatta Mari (you can tell she works for the ‘Nutzies’ by the swastikas on her garter). The message that Daffy eats, revealed on Hatta’s X-ray machine, states mildly ‘Hitler is a stinker’. However, when Bugs and friends take on the Japanese in films such as Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips and Tokio Jokio, it is racism in all its crudity. ‘Here y’are, Slant Eyes’ snarls Bugs as he hands out ‘Good Rumour’ bars containing hand grenades.
Bugs, of course, was not alone. The feeling in America at this time was viciously anti-Japanese and permeated every medium. An extraordinary article in Time magazine in December 1941 entitled ‘How to tell your friends from the Japs’ gives a few rules at thumb to differentiate the Chinese – friends – from the Japanese. This makes particularly ironic reading today although even then some of the attributes must have seemed excessive if not inaccurate. The Chinese, for example, says the article, are not as hairy as the Japanese and it goes on to point out that the ‘Japanese are nervous in conversation, and laugh rather loudly at the wrong tine’.
It was against this background of general abuse that Bugs Bunny went off to war. Luckily his enlistment was short-lived and directors Freleng, Tashlin, Chuck Jones and Clampett were all soon pitting him once more against his long-suffering adversary Elmer Fudd.
Printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 6 (Autumn 1983)