The Looney and Merrie arts

Will Friedwald writes about …

There’s a telling moment in the 1940 Tex Avery cartoon “A Wild Hare” when Bugs Bunny sneaks up behind Elmer Fudd, covers his adversary’s eyes with his hands, and instructs him to “Guess who!” The hunter reels off a list of contemporary leading ladies, including, as expressed in his exaggerated speech impediment, “Cawole Wombard.” Yet even though one of the actresses in the list, “Owivia DeHaviwand,” lived until July of this year, the joke has largely been lost on younger generations—because most viewers born after 1970 have barely heard of most of the movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age.

And that’s the most salient fact about this remarkable cartoon rabbit, a venerable Warner Bros. star who is currently celebrating his 80th birthday (at least in human years). Bugs fans can enjoy a three-disc Blu-ray set being released in December by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment; if you don’t want to wait, he’s also featured in an excellent series, developed by Peter Browngardt, of newly produced Looney Tunes cartoons (viewable on YouTube and HBO Max). Although your average millennial scratches his head at the mention of Barbara Stanwyck, everybody knows Bugs Bunny.

Bugs’s durability clearly has something to do with his intrinsic status as an underdog. Even before “A Wild Hare,” which is generally considered the first full-blown Bugs Bunny cartoon, the directors and animators working for (infamously hands-off) producer Leon Schlesinger had experimented with the notion of a hunted animal—the prey—turning the tables on its armed predator in a prototypical series of hunter-and-rabbit cartoons from 1938-40. Less than 18 months after the cartoon’s release, America itself would seem like a plucky underdog, entering a war in which the whole world was being menaced by little men with big guns. (“A Wild Hare” ends patriotically with Bugs re-creating the “Spirit of ’76” march.)

The tropes in “A Wild Hare” immediately established the rules of the hunter and the game: In their many encounters to follow, we’d find a clueless Elmer unaware that he is talking to Bugs—followed by a dramatic realization (“that was the wabbit!”); a comic death scene by Bugs—followed by exaggerated guilt pangs from Elmer. Nearly two decades later, “What’s Opera, Doc,” perhaps the single best Bugs Bunny cartoon, readdressed all those leitmotifs in grandly Wagnerian terms. The No. 1 rule isn’t so much that Bugs always wins (although that’s usually the case), but that physical aggression is always punished. Bugs triumphs by driving his antagonists crazy (as he does in “A Wild Hare”); rather than by responding with force, Bugs will taunt, tease and gaslight them until they just quit in sheer frustration. The only times Bugs loses are those rare instances when he is the aggressor, as in his three encounters with his persistent racing opponent, Cecil Turtle.

Yet as firm as the rules are, there was room for infinite variation on those familiar themes. And while the brilliant voice actor Mel Blanc gave Bugs his distinctive—and consistent—New York accent, there were noticeable differences in the approaches of the various directors: Bob Clampett’s Bugs was the most wacky, egomaniacal, out-of-control incarnation of the rabbit, in distinct contrast to Chuck Jones’s vision of the character, who was much more coolly calculating. Friz Freleng gave us a highly theatrical Bugs who seemed to exist on a vaudeville stage, always ready at the drop of a downbeat to fly into song and dance.

Even so, those directorial transformations are subtle compared with those that Bugs himself effortlessly achieves. He instantly morphs into the king of England, an imperious symphonic conductor, and a variety of drag roles—from a perky bobby-soxer to a Noo Yawk manicurist to a Teutonic Valkyrie perched on a corpulent white steed.

“Bugs needed a stronger adversary than Elmer, because Elmer was about as stupid as you could get,” Freleng said. “So I came up finally with a character called Yosemite Sam.” And in a cartoon parallel to the Cold War arms race, Bugs’s adversaries grew increasingly powerful over the years. Elmer toted a rifle he rarely used, but Sam’s six-shooters were constantly a-blazing. The rogues’ gallery of heavies gradually grew to include predatory animals (a wolf, a lion, a bear, a hunting dog), mad scientists, a furry monster, giants, an abominable snowman, a gorilla, a pirate, a Martian, a Nazi, a witch, and a Tasmanian devil. In several episodes he even goes up against the entire U.S. Army.

Bugs sometimes presents himself as an actor in a role, although in especially meta moments he is conscious of being a pen-and-ink creation. But Chuck Jones was fond of a little boy’s response when his father introduced the cartoonist as “the man who draws Bugs Bunny.” The child protested that Jones didn’t “draw Bugs Bunny”—rather, he drew “pictures of Bugs Bunny.” The difference is crucial. Even now, as an octogenarian, Bugs is alive and well, no matter who is drawing him.

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