Jiminy Christmas, hard to believe we’re already halfway through Shortstember. I’ve honestly been having a blast with these reviews and I hope you have too. The downside of focusing on only one short per decade, though, is that we’re now halfway through the twentieth century and I’ve already missed two chances to talk about Bugs Frickin’ Bunny and the Goddamn Looney Tunes and that shit ain’t right. The Looney Tunes series of shorts and its sister series Merry Melodies began in 1930 and 1931 respectively, as a naked attempt by Warner Bros to ride Disney’s coattails in the wake of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies Shorts. In case you’re wondering, the different between Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies originally was that the ‘Tunes were in black and white and the Melodies were in colour (kinda, Disney had Technicolour exclusively at the time) and certain characters were exclusive to each (Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny both started out in a Merry Melody despite now being the quintessential Looney Tune characters). By the forties though, both series were being done in colour and characters were freely crossing over from one series to the other and there wasn’t really any appreciable difference between the two. So, if I say “Looney Tunes” from here on in, just assume I’m talking about a Warners Brothers short that could have been either a Looney Tune or a Merry Melody. Makes no difference. They’re all beautiful, man.
Broadly speaking, (and I rarely speak any other way), the Looney Tunes started out as Poor Man’s Disney in the thirties, had become the sassy, irreverent anti-Disney by the forties but by the fifties Disney were completely out of the equation. Warner Bros had established an artistic and comedic sensibility that was entirely their own and was beholden to nobody. And we talk a lot about how funny these shorts were (and make no mistake, a top-tier Looney Tune is nothing less than the Platonic ideal of comedy itself) but less discussed is just how beautiful the shorts of this period had become, with special credit due to the absolutely stunning backgrounds of Maurice Noble.
As for the animation, by the fifties the Looney Tunes characters had evolved from rubber limbed, bug-eyed loons to comic actors with the poise and timing of a Carey Grant or Peter Sellers. The phrase “Looney Tunes” conjures images of anarchic, bombastic violence but the fifties-era shorts are possessed of a wonderful sense of subtlety and comedic restraint. Forties era Bugs Bunny might turn to the audience and yell “Crazy, ain’t it?!”. Fifties era Bugs Bunny does the same gag with a single, perfectly raised eyebrow. This is the era where you get shorts like “One Froggy Evening”, “What’s Opera Doc?”, “Duck Amuck” and the hunting trilogy (“Duck Season! Wabbit Season!”). Every element just came into its own here, the direction, the voice acting by the incomparable Mel Blanc, the animation, the writing, the music…
To watch Looney Tunes shorts from the fifties is to be in the hands of masters at the very top of their game.
I’m not going to review one of the really big name shorts like the ones I’ve already mentioned because I try to go a little off the beaten track with this series (Steamboat Willie was an exception because its influence is so vast I knew I’d have to talk about it anyway) so instead, let’s take a look at 1953’s “Bully for Bugs”.
Or rather, let me describe it to you ‘cos it’s not public domain.
So in Spain, Bugs tunnels into a bullfight arena in the middle of a bullfight between a milquetoast Matador and a ferocious bull. The bull attacks Bugs, which of course you realise means war? And Bugs and the bull basically destroy each other until Bugs blows him up with an elaborate trap and some TNT. That’s the plot.
Whaddya want, it’s like seven minutes long.
Couple of things of note here. Toro the bull is one of the most effective and dangerous villains that Bugs ever faced, coming across as genuinely menacing and even getting the best of Bugs in some of their duals.
While Elmer Fudd had been Bugs arch-enemy for many years (Bugs actually debuted in an Elmer Fudd cartoon, not the other way around) this role was de-emphasised over time. Longtime Bugs director Friz Freleng felt that Elmer was so adorable and hapless that Bugs kinda came off as a bit of a bully in their encounters since Elmer was clearly so outclassed mentally by the rabbit. That’s why in later cartoons, even where Elmer is back in his original hunter role, like the hunting trilogy, it’s actually not Elmer who’s the victim of Bugs’ schemes, but Daffy Duck. The short is also a great showcase of facial animation, with a lot of the biggest laughs coming from tiny, subtle little moments like the nervous, queasy smile the matador gives the bull when he sees him first.
Or just look at the expression on the bull’s face when he realises that, having swallowed Bugs’ shotgun, he can shoot from his horns.
And then there’s Bugs, just an ordinary rabbit not bothering anybody and just trying to get to the Coachella Carrot Convention (can’t miss Carrotcon). By now all the traits that make Bugs Bugs are well established. He’s never the aggressor. He never starts trouble. It just seems to find him. And when it does, he makes trouble wish it had never been born. He is, quite simply, the absolute greatest.
Look at this suave motherfucker.
This is a great cartoon, from a series of some of the very greatest cartoons. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, a very different decade was looming on the horizon. Join me next week when we look at what the sixties had in store for the Looney Tunes.