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.
I think the key thing in the Warner Brothers arsenal is that they were, how shall I put it, a might parsimonious? They liked to win awards. An animated short had to be seven minutes long to qualify for the Oscars, therefore, Warner Brothers shorts would be seven minutes long. That meant everything extraneous had to go which gave them their pace.
Of course, the scripts are essential, too. Sylvester and Tweety came after MGM’s Tom and Jerry, but they still feel fresher at least partially because they can’t meander.
That reminds me – you going to talk about Tom and Jerry anytime soon, Mouse?
Not this go round I’m afraid.
Loved this short growing up. I always found bulls to be big scary murdercows (glad I never watched Song of the South or I would have had nightmares), and seeing Bugs defeat one was cathartic.
Of course, now I had the image in my mind of a big scary murdercow that could fire bullets from its horns, so maybe it did more harm than good.
Let’s hope no one manages to genetically engineer one to do that. Goats that lactate spider silk is messed up enough.
I love Bugs Bunny! I actually voted for him for Congress once (my congressman was running unopposed and I didn’t like him). I remember watching this one all the time on the VHS tape my family had as part of its Loony Tunes collection. It’s not my favorite Bugs Bunny (I will yet again mention “What’s Opera Doc?” because I have to) but man is it fun.
America might be better off if a lot of people did that for the Presidential election this year.
I always preferred Disney over Looney tunes…the latter one tended to have a mean spirited element to them which I really disliked…
It’s rather sad you missed the boat on MGM’s Tex Avery material… personally, I think Droopy and Screwball Squirrel consistently beat even most of the earlier Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies efforts on virtue of sheer maniatic energy and raw vitality.
The early Woody Woodpecker stuff is great as well. As for the sixties, might I suggest, instead of taking a depressing look at the Dork Age of Looney Tunes, you might focus on the initial Fritz Freleng Pink Panther, which arguably did right at everything they did wrong?
Also, Marvin is Bugs’ best adversary ever. Sam is okay too.
Oh man, you ever see the Lonesome Stranger?
Just last week I watched The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie. It’s pretty much a compilation of shorts with Bugs narrating the transitions between them. One of the shorts in it was this one, and it helped remind me why I loved Looney Tunes, since I hadn’t watched any in a while. It also had other classics like Duck Amuck, Rabbit Fire and such.
Not much to add; this is pretty much the best way to pass seven minutes without access to either romantic partners or Martinis. It is also the only time you’ll see me rooting for the matador – for two reasons. One: it’s Bugs Bunny. Two: it’s a fight he didn’t seek. Just wondering how kids will see this in 50 years (assuming Trump doesn’t win and there’s at least five decades ahead of us) when bullfighting will most likely be a thing of the past. Oh well, at least the detestable (hey, I enjoy the occasional Chateaubriand, but no use being a dick about it) institution of the corrida will have at least one achievement in the plus column: it spawned this cartoon.
How long’s it been since circuses had elephants in them? I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being viewed into a similar vein as Dumbo in some ways
Man, “sassy irreverent anti-Disney” seems like a pretty constant niche. Dreamworks could pretty much be described as the same thing (though maybe it’s also starting to become something else as well). And yeah, it’s quite something how the comedy in these shorts is strong enough to make the humour a clear selling point up to making the sets quite literally and proverbially a background element. They’ve got a pretty clear feel to them, adding to the whack factor without really flaunting it to the point of being distracting. I believe Maurice has done a Noble job of creating them (insert muted trumpet tune here).
Yeah, I remember this one. I’ve seen it quite a few times on the Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show (which I seem to remember having a bit of a limited pool of shorts, so we’d get to see the same cartoons enough times to near-memorize them). By the sounds of it, Bugs patched things up with that bull at some point, if Space Jam is to be believed (he’s got a bunch of Bugs Bunny merchandise in the theatre, and looks pretty worried when the fat monstar squashes him).