What’s Up Doc?

The farce that follows is typical of the now-familiar latter-day hunting cartoons with Bugs and Daffy, with Bugs continually eluding his pursuer in much the same way as he eluded Porky Pig in his primeval debut. Elmer is just as stupid as we all remember him to be (BUGS: What’s Up Doc?:
ELMER: I’m hunting for wabbits;
BUGS: Err, what’s a ‘wabbit?;
ELMER: Wabbitsl You know with the long ears;
BUGS (holding out his ears for inspection): Oh, like this?;
ELMER: Yeah, and a wittle white fluffy tail…;
BUGS (waggling his powder-puff): Oh, like this?;
ELMER: Yeah, and he hops awound and awound…) and such routines as the melodramatic death scene (Everything’s getting dark…) and the skunk in the wabbit twap (Confidentially, you know..) all of which have since been abundantly re-used and parodied by the Warner’s directors and gag-men, appear here for the first time.

Avery made just three more Bugs Bunny cartoons (Tortoise Bean Hare – 1941; The Heckling Hare – 1941, and All This and Rabbit Stew – 1941) before leaving the Warner Brothers studio, but Bugs continued to develop into an acceptable star, as star directors Chuck Jones. Friz Freling. Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin each interpreted the rabbit for their own style of comedy, and developed his design and personality towards greater sophistication and subtlety.

My Bugs Bunny was actually quite different from Friz Freling’s. Maybe his cartoons were funnier; and when you think of Sahara Hare (1955) and his others, they were more physical, with things happening quickly. Bugs would cleverly do something at the last moment. My Bugs, I think, tended to think out his problems and solve them intellectually, and I insisted upon stronger provocation. Two or three things would happen before he got mad enough – no, he wasn’t mad, just the logic would move in – and he’d say. ‘Of course, you realise this means war.’ This is not a pugnacious statement, its a logical statement. Von Clausewitz said that war is politics carried a step further. At that point I would say ‘OK, hostilities start here.’ You couldn’t get rid of Bugs then. He was willing to engage in danger, but only because he was put upon. Bugs is a counter-revolutionary, you know. He’s not a revolutionary. He’s not a Woody Woodpecker, which is how Bob Clampett used him. Clarnpett’s Bugs Bunny did not involve the disciplines that we put him in. – CHUCK JONES (in an interview with Joe Adamson)

Bugs continued his life of screwy aggression right through the war years, where he was given the chance to battle such real-life enemies as Adolf Hitler, Hermann ‘Fatso’ Goering (in Herr Meets Hare – Freling: 1945) and the Japanese (in Freling’s infamous Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips: 1944). In these anti-everything that is anti-American cartoons, the aggression and malicious devastation of human-kind that Bugs’ wily mind comes up with reached a pinnacle of nastiness and when these cartoons are viewed today, they often prove just a bit too much: it has been pointed out that Nip the Nips actually comes out more painful for the audience than it does for the grotesquely-drawn celluloid Japanese (see an article on this: Bugs and Daffy Go to War by Susan Elizabeth Dalton-published in The Velvet Light Trap issue 4 (Spring 1972) which was recently re-published in The American Animated Cartoon).
Once the Second World War was over, Warner Brothers’ directors were given a chance to relax in order to continue the development of Bugs Bunny. One director, Robert Clampett actually preferred Bugs as a screwball and left him at that: he left the studio in 1946. But the two greatest exponents of the art of Bugs Bunny were surely the genius directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freling, who, from 1940 to 1964 (Bugs’ entire life-span), directed a wealth of wonderfully funny adventures and escapades which deemed Bugs as Warners’ greatest cartoon star.

As he himself mentioned above, Jones always demanded that there be a reason for Bugs’ torment and ridicule and that he did not tease and torture Elmer Fudd, or any of the rest of his victims insanely. Bugs also has a very large heart: in S Ball Bunny (1950), the star is rudely awakened in the middle of the night when a cute penguin falls into his rabbit hole whilst running to catch up with the circus lorries that have inadvertently left him behind. At first Bugs chides the arctic bird for disturbing his slumber, but when the penguin begins to cry, Bugs concludes that he is lost and promises to take him back to where he belongs. Bugs clearly should have done his homework before making such a sacrifice as, according to his reference books ‘pen-ger-wins’ come from the North Pole! ‘Oooh, I’m dying” Bugs howls in despair. Still, a promise is a promise and Bugs immediately traverses the globe and risks life and limb in order to return the penguin to his rightful home – if only to discover, once in Alaska, that the bird he’s carrying turns out to be the only Hoboken penguin in captivity: ‘Ohhh, I’m dying’ again!’

A heart Bugs might have, but he can be a little devil if he has to, and this is ultimately proved in Jones’ musical extravaganza Long-Haired Hare (1949). This time, Bugs declares war on a pompous opera singer, by name of Giovanni Jones, when he maliciously mutilates Bugs and his musical instruments (banjo, harp and tuba) after being disturbed from his practice of Largo Al Factotum by Bugs’ bizarre choices of music. So, the undaunting bunny decides to ruin the baritone’s reputation by disguising himself as Leopold Stokowski for Giovanni’s performance that evening. Bugs leaves the bewildered baritone with no hope as he encourages the all-deserving villain to sing a random variety of strategically performed notes, the pitch of which finally cause the theatre’s rafters to splinter, thus bringing a ton of wood down upon Giovanni’s head. As Patrick McGilligan has written: ‘Bugs the magnificant and, when provoked, nobody rottener.’

As for Friz Freling, well he created the loudmouthed villain Yosemite Sam as a foil for Bugs Bunny, who, despite his strong southern accent, appeared in a variety of guises and period situations, yet still remained loyal foil to Bugs, for more than fifteen years (first film: Hare Trigger in 1945). Freling created a wealth of funny cartoons, which equal Jones’ cartoons in their strong sense of comedy and timing (credit must go to Michael Maltese and Warren Foster who wrote many of Jones and Freling’s best scripts and contributed a great deal to Bugs’, and the other Warner Brothers characters, success) and are what made Bugs the hero of millions that he is today.

Filling out the release schedule was Robert McKimson. a director rarely praised for his achievements with Bugs, despite the fact that he drew the first Bugs Bunny model sheet for Tex Avery in 1940 and, according to historians Will Friedwald and Jerry Beck directed ‘one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons ever’ with his first attempt: Acrobatty Bunny (1946). This disregard for McKimson’s work is probably supported by the fact that his efforts with Bugs were never really very good, although there have been exceptions. McKimson’s best work can be found in his early attempts (1946-49) and his Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. He sadly died in 1976.

By the sixties, Bugs had achieved his comedy objective and had no need to prove himself any further, as valuable members of the crew left for so-called ‘greener pastures’ and the Warner Brothers cartoon rot set in, Bugs became weaker and weaker, relying on his audiences fond memories and the audiences bad memories for gags (so that the old ones may be re-used). Bugs Bunny made his last appearance in the theatres on July 18 1964 in Robert McKlmson’s False Hare. By this time the Warner Brothers cartoon department no longer existed.

BUT! – Bugs still lives on! In recent years Chuck Jones has brought the carrot-chomping rabbit back to our television and cinema screens in a series of half-hour TV specials, a new-and-old-footage compilation feature (The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Movie – 1979) and a proposed series of brand-new fully-animated cinema shorts of which the first film (Duck Dodgers and the Return of the Twenty-Fourth and a Half Century) was completed and shown in 1980. And the old original shorts live on also: television screenings may be irregular, but at least in Britain the cartoons are shown and are still enjoyed by young and old alike. Bugs Bunny is dead – long live Bugs Bunny!

Sources: Among the best sources of information on the Warner Brothers cartoons and animators are: a collection of articles published in The American Animated Cartoon edited by Danny Peary and Gerald Peary (Dutton Paper-backs: 1981) including Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, Robert Clampett. Mel Blanc, Pronoun Trouble, Meep Meep and Bugs and Daffy Go to War; an excellent history of the Warners’ studio in Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin (McGraw-Hill Book Company: 1980); a series of character and film references in The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoon Series by Jeff Lenbury (Arlington House Publishers: 1981), and The Warner Brothers Cartoons a handy filmography with plot synopsis and interesting tidbits on each of the cartoons produced by Warners by Will Friedwald and Jerry Beck (Scarecrow Press: 1981).

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Originally printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 8 (Spring 1984)