Alright, picture the scene. It’s Ireland. The mid-nineties. Deep in the Nirvana era.
A young Mouse is, get this, watching cartoons. Specifically, I’m watching the classic 1947 Tom and Jerry short, The Cat Concerto. Slowly, as I watched, a curious sensation of deja vu began to wash over me. I turned to my parents and asked, curiously:
“Um…didn’t this cartoon used to be about Bugs Bunny?”
My parents patiently explained to me that, no, cartoons don’t swop out characters and I must have just remembered the cartoon wrong. So. I went along with my life, carrying razor sharp memories of a cartoon where Bugs Bunny battles a mouse on a piano while trying to play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 and grimly resigned to the fact that I was just insane.
Little did I know that I had innocently stumbled onto one of the biggest controversies and most enduring and intractable mysteries in the history of animation. Rhapsody Rabbit versus The Cat Concerto.
Scandal at the 1947 Academy Awards
Ah, the 1947 Oscars. Who could forget The Best Years of Our Lives, the highest grossing picture of the 1940s and its epic nine Oscar sweep? Who could forget Harold Russell’s historic Supporting Actor win, the first for a non-professional actor? Or the fact that he became the first, and so far only, actor to be twice honoured by the Academy for the same performance?
Pretty much everybody. No, today, if the 1947 Oscars are remembered at all, it’s for the moment when Friz Freleng angrily leaped to his feet in the Academy screening room and accused MGM of stealing his cartoon.
The plot goes thus: a well known cartoon character, dressed in evening wear, enters the stage of a packed auditorium. He begins to play Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 but runs afoul of and is eventually upstaged by a mischievous mouse who lives in the piano.
That’s right “plot”. Singular. Two cartoons, the exact same scenario, down to the music played in each cartoon and with similar (if not outright identical) gags in both cartoons. The similarities were so immediately obvious that accusations of plagiarism began flying in the screening room and have never stopped flying since. But what actually happened?
Scenario 1: Rhapsody Rabbit ripped off Cat Concerto
This scenario has always felt more right to me, even though it actually has the least amount of evidence. As Joesph Barbera (the co-director of The Cat Concerto) famously mused; “what’s a rabbit doing with a mouse, anyway?”
And yeah, The Cat Concerto is definitely more “on-brand” for Tom and Jerry than Rhapsody Rabbit is for Bugs Bunny. Then there’s the simple fact that if one of these cartoons is rank plagiarism, you’d expect it to be worse than the original, right? Especially in animation. A legitimate animation studio releases something with real craft and effort behind and then someone comes along and does this:
Plagiarism is supposed to be a tool for lazy hacks who don’t want to put the work in. Right? And if you accept that, then things do look pretty bad for Rhapsody Rabbit . Not because RR is bad, but in my opinion, it’s pretty clearly inferior to The Cat Concerto. Putting aside the oddly out of character behaviour of Bugs, it wouldn’t make my list of top 20 Bugs Bunny cartoons, whereas The Cat Concerto is a serious contender for best Tom and Jerry short of all time. The animation in CC is more fluid and, most tellingly, Tom is actually playing the Hungarian Rhapsody. Whereas Bugs is just playing musical gibberish. The Cat Concerto just looks like it had more time, money and craft put into it.
And the Academy agreed with that assessment. The Cat Concerto went on to win Best Animated Short in 1947. Rhapsody Rabbit failed to earn a nomination.
Scenario 2: Cat Concerto ripped off Rhapsody Rabbit
So if you’ve ever watched CSI we’re at about the mid-way point where the most likely suspect drops some new bombshells that completely flips everything on its head.
Firstly, Rhapsody Rabbit is actually a sequel. Sort of. Back in 1941 Friz Freleng directed Rhapsody in Rivets, a cartoon featuring a cast of animal construction workers building a skyscraper to the tune of, you guessed it, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2. Smoking gun! How can Friz Freling have ripped off The Cat Concerto if Rhapsody Rabbit was always intended to be a sequel to his own cartoon? Ah! But but but! Rhapsody in Rivets is suspiciously like A Car-Tune Portrait which was a 1937 cartoon by Fleischer studios and featured an animal orchestra playing, what else, Franz Goddamned Liszt’s Hungarian Motherfucking Rhapsody Number 2 which possibly means that Friz Freleng had priors and ripped off not one but two cartoons featuring that piece…
Goddamn do you see why it took me ten years to tackle this? You just fall down a rabbit hole (or maybe it’s a cat hole?!)
Okay, let’s cut through the bullshit and speculation and talk solid facts.
Thad Komorowski, who did a fantastic deep dive on the controversy over at cartoonreasearch.com, has written that recording records from the time show that the music for Rhapsody Rabbit was recorded by pianist Jakob Gimpel on 02 February 1946, whereas the music for The Cat Concerto was recorded in April of that same year (as the music was such an integral part of both cartoons, the respective studios took the unusual step of recording the music before the animation was produced). So…case closed, right? Rhapsody Rabbit‘s music was recorded two months before The Cat Concerto‘s, ergo Rhapsody Rabbit was in production first and therefore can’t be a rip-off of The Cat Concerto without some kind of time machine, right?
Well, probably. I suppose it’s technically possible that MGM came up with the idea first but that Warner Bros found out and rushed production on Rhapsody Rabbit but that’s all they would have been ripping off. An idea. Plagiarism pretty much depends on there being an existing work to rip-off, not just a vague concept.
But what about the general…offness of Rabbit Rhapsody? Doesn’t it just make more sense that the original idea was for a Tom and Jerry cartoon? Well, it’s actually not that out of character. A lot of the objections people have to Bugs’ behaviour in this short (that Bugs is the aggressor and that he loses to the mouse) can be explained that this is a pre-Chuck Jones short. It was Jones who instituted the famous “winners and losers” hierarchy, and who established that Bugs should only commit violence in self-defence. Bugs in the forties didn’t usually lose, but there were definitely shorts where he did. And also, he was kind of an asshole. Komorowski also makes the point that The Cat Concerto also represents a big formula break for Tom and Jerry. Prior to this short Tom was just a barely anthropomorphised house cat, and suddenly he’s playing Carnegie Hall?
Scenario 3: The Shura Cherkassky Connection (MGM ripped off Warners, unwittingly)
The Shura Cherkassky Connection is not, as you might expect, an airport thriller by Robert Ludlum but a theory that was floated by Peter Gimpel in 2005. Gimpel is the son of Jakob Gimpel, the composer who anonymously provided the piano performance for Rabbit Rhapsody. Gimpel fils claimed that, having listened to the piano performance of The Cat Concerto, he believed he could identify the pianist as Shura Cherkassky, an extremely well regarded Ukrainian-American pianist who was friends with Jakob Gimpel. Peter Gimpel suggests that Cherkassky, who was something of a prankster and an odd duck, may have learned of Jakob’s gig providing the score for Rabbit Rhapsody and then took the idea to MGM, more or less for a larf. MGM then hired Shura to provide the score for The Cat Concerto, entirely unaware that Warner Bros were already working on a very similar cartoon.
However, Komorowski claims that there’s a pretty big flaw in that theory: Shura Cherkassky was not the pianist for The Cat Concerto.
According to Komorowski, the recording studio records show that CC pianist was Calvin Jackson, not Cherkassky. Dead end.
Scenario 4: Just a Massive Goddamned Coincidence
And so we come to the last possibility, paradoxically the most seemingly far-fetched and the most likely. Could it really happen? Could two studios produce two such similar cartoons in the same relatively short period of time? Well, I think that’s a misleading way of looking at it.
If anything, it was more likely to happen within a short period of time. First, assume that neither party had any interest in plagiarising the other. If there was a longer gap between the release of the two cartoons, it would have made it far more likely for, for example, MGM to see Rhapsody Rabbit and then not make The Cat Concerto because it would seem like obvious plagiarism. In order for the mere coincidence theory to work, both cartoons would have to be in production at the same time and neither studio be aware of the other’s work until it was too late.
And, indeed, we have evidence that that’s what happened. The two cartoons were so similar that Technicolour accidentally sent early footage of Rhapsody Rabbit to MGM. Now, Warner Brothers would later claim that it was this mistake that allowed MGM to copy Rabbit Rhapsody. But Joe Adamson’s book; Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare claims pretty much the exact opposite:
“Tex Avery was a witness when the folks at Technicolor, evidently stressed out, delivered one day’s Rhapsody Rabbit footage by mistake to the MGM cartoon unit, apparently confusing it with a disturbingly similar Tom & Jerry cartoon, on which Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were then pinning their Academy Award hopes for 1947. When Bugs Bunny came up on the MGM screen, it was Hanna and Barbera who were disturbed first: a project much like theirs was apparently closer to completion over at Termite Terrace, and it was clearly going to be an Oscar contender for 1946.“
So, according to Tex Avery, MGM were already working on The Cat Concerto, and were so freaked out that Warner’s were apparently making the same damn cartoon that they put the pedal to the metal to get theirs out of the gate first.
Likewise, it seems Warners may also have been aware of the impending clash as (again, according to Komorowski) they shuffled their release schedule to screen Rabbit Rhapsody earlier than they originally intended.
Is it possible that it was just a coincidence? Yes. Here’s how I know.
In my second year of college I was commissioned by the university drama society to write a play to be performed by the newer members of the society. And I wrote a little comedic one act play called “A Play for Bad Actors” which was about a production of an Agatha Christie style murder mystery play that’s been cursed and where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. And since then, on three separate occasions, people have contacted me to tell me that somebody stole my play.
And I get why they think that. It’s a play about an Agatha Christie style murder mystery play where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. And indeed, often the very same things go wrong as go wrong in my play. It’s quite eerie, honestly. But I know for a fact that, no, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields did not steal my play that was seen by at most a hundred people and then proceed to win a Laurence Olivier Award with it. We just had the same basic idea, a pastiche of The Mousetrap, which is the theatrical equivalent of doing a movie making fun of Star Wars. It’s not that original. And once you have the same basic idea, a play going wrong, a lot of the same jokes are going to naturally suggest themselves. Oh no, this actor got their line wrong, oh no, this prop didn’t work etc.
And, by the same token, it’s actually not at all shocking that there were two cartoons in the same year that featured Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 because I’ve already mentioned two other cartoons that also used that piece of music and, trust me, that’s only scratching the surface. Hell, here’s a Micky Mouse cartoon from all the way back in 1929 that features Mickey playing the piece on a piano.
Hell. Here’s a SEVEN AND A HALF minute compilation cartoons using this piece of music:
So no, the fact that they both used this piece of music isn’t THAT big a coincidence. And likewise, the fact that both cartoons feature their main characters sitting at a piano and playing isn’t that big a coincidence either. What else are they going to be playing, the theremin?
And once you accept that that’s not such a big coincidence, the similarities suddenly seem less jarring. Because, let’s face it, the two cartoons are hardly carbon copies of each other. Tom doesn’t play his piano like a type writer. Bugs doesn’t get his fingers flattened by the piano lid. There are similar jokes, certainly, but that can just be explained by the fact that they’re riffing off the same piece of music which lends itself to the same gags.
But ultimately, it comes down to a complete lack of motive. What was the result of the controversy? Suspicion and accusations of plagiarism that persist to this day and tarnished both MGM and Warner Bros.
What was the benefit? Sure, MGM got an Oscar for Cat Concerto, but that was luck of the draw. If Rabbit Rhapsody had been shown before Cat Concerto, the Academy voters might well have deemed their cartoon to be the rip off instead. More to the point do you really think Friz Freleng suddenly ran out of ideas and needed to steal one? Do you really think William Hanna or Joseph Barbera decided to just half ass things and copy whatever was popular at the time?
These men weren’t hacks (in the forties). These were three of the greatest names in the history of short form animation (in the forties).
Sometimes, great minds really do just think alike.