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« This Week in WTF: "King of Comedy", the Musical | Main | Yes No Maybe So: Spectre »
Thursday
Jul232015

Tim's Toons: In celebration of Bugs Bunny's 75th birthday

Tim here. We're coming hard upon one of the most important birthdays in animation: Bugs Bunny is turning 75 this week. It was on July 27, 1940, that the world first got to see the Merrie Melodies short A Wild Hare, written by Rich Hogan and directed by the legendary Tex Avery. And it was in this short that the unnamed comic rabbit character that the cartoonists at Warner Bros. had been noodling around with for a few years reached the final form of his personality. Though not, in fairness, anything close to his final design.

An ever-changing face notwithstanding, it was here that voice actor Mel Blanc premiered the sarcastic Bronx accent and the instant catchphrase, "Eh, what's up, Doc?", that separated the one true Bugs from the Bugs-like characters tormenting the primitive form of Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd in a few cartoons up to that point. And while refinements were still to be made – he wasn't yet an effortless in-command wit, but still a manic slapstick creation; it would also be five years before he'd take his first wrong turn at Albuquerque – it's remarkable how stable the character has been through all of the intervening decades.

 

In contrast to Mickey Mouse, his counterpart at Disney, Bugs's transformation into corporate mascot & spokesanimal was never turned into the kindly old uncle or boring boss, obliged to put on an amicable face while his sidekicks got to be the funny ones. Throughout all of his appearances between 1940 and 1964, he remained a consummate wiseass, tormenting his enemies because it delighted him to prove that he was always smarter than they were. True, most of his appearances subsequent to his first retirement, such as his occasional cameo roles in the '90s TV series Tiny Toon Adventures, or his supporting performance in the dodgy theatrical features Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action have rendered him as a respectable voice of authority, a depressingly tame version of his old self. But that same fate has befallen all of the Looney Tunes menagerie in those same vehicles; it's a matter of corporate tinkering ruining legacy properties more than Bugs being particularly defanged.

So it's fair to say that the character's legacy relies entirely on thse first 24 years; but what a legacy! Bugs was the first cartoon star inducted into the National Film Registry, in 1992, on the basis of 1957's What's Opera Doc?; he was the first cartoon character to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

The character's charm has nothing to do with his skills as an advertising object, or the anchor for Warner's merchandising efforts, of course. Bugs lives on, simply put, because he's a great cartoon character. He always wins, but he's never the aggressor: the writers and directors who shaped him in the '40s took great pains to make sure he was always put in a defensive position before he started to unload on his foes. He has intelligence and creativity enough to get him out of every scrape that fate throws at him, while also throwing off smug, devastating quips that make it clear that he knows just how great he is. If the easily flustered loser Daffy Duck is the person most of us are, Bugs Bunny is the cool, unflappable wit that we aspire to be.

So after 75 years, thanks be to Bugs, one of the great raconteurs and winners in the annals of American cartooning. As a present, may I offer this list of five essential Bugs Bunny shorts, some of the greatest achivements in the medium:

  • What's Up, Doc? (dir: Robert McKimson, 1950) A fanciful biography of the character that introduced his theme song.
  • Rabbit Seasoning (dir: Chuck Jones, 1952) The first film of the "Hunter Trilogy", in which subterfuge and verbal dexterity win the day against hapless Elmer Fudd and inept Daffy Duck
  • Bully for Bugs (dir: Chuck Jones, 1953) Bugs ends up in a bull ring, where his bull-taunting results in some of the character's most iconic visual jokes
  • What's Opera, Doc? (dir: Chuck Jones, 1957) Bugs and Elmer in a summary version of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, and the arguable masterpiece of American cartoons
  • Knighty Knight Bugs (dir: Friz Freleng, 1958) Bugs and Yosemite Sam in the Middle Ages; the only Bugs cartoon to win an Oscar

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Reader Comments (9)

Bugs as aspirational.....a very post-Depression American ideal. Bugs grows out of the screwball comedy, the wise-ass GI, the best personification of who we want to be.
Let's celebrate his birthday for a long time. If we can do HMWYBS for music videos ......why not Bugs? Or at least the Merrie Melodies collection.

And I so love What's Opera, Doc?

July 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

The best Looney Tunes shorts might be the pinnacle of all cinema.

Bugs was my childhood favorite, and still holds a strong place in my heart.

July 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCoco

Tim, wasn't Rabbit Fire (1951) the first film of the Hunting Trilogy? Great to read this, since I've been watching a lot of Bugs Bunny cartoons lately...

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

"If the easily flustered loser Daffy Duck is the person most of us are, Bugs Bunny is the cool, unflappable wit that we aspire to be."

Truer words were never spoken. I miss them both like childhood

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

What's Opera, Doc? is such a great Bugs Bunny cartoon. The sight of him riding majestically on that enormous horse still makes me erupt with laughter every time.

I'd wager Bugs was every boy's first lesson in drag.

July 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Truer words were never spoken. I miss them both like childhood

Bugs was my childhood favorite, and still holds a strong place in my heart.

Of interest might be an "interview" I did with Bugs regarding the Houston Astros and the deep baseball WAR stat. That is explained at length in the piece, if you're not a baseball fan (as Bugs was and is). "Of course you realize, this means WAR" is utilized to its ultimate and in an entertaining way! Enjoy, and thanks!:

http://therunnersports.com/bugs-bunny-on-astros-saberstats-of-course-you-realize-this-means-war/

February 6, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbradsmack

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