A Birthday for Bugs: The Pre-War Cartoons (1938-1942)
The next era runs roughly from Porky in Wackyland to 1942’s Crazy Cruise, the first WB cartoon (#359) clearly acknowledging the wartime theme. Once Bugs uses his ears to make the “V for Victory” that closes Crazy Cruise, the cartoons have gone to war (several months after Pearl Harbor, given the lag time in production and release), and they were all in. (1941’s Meet John Doughboy and Rookie Revue have military life as subject matter, but are not Allies/Axis WW2 specific. You start to see a bit of wartime commentary in Who’s Who in the Zoo in early 1942.)
Overall, these years can be summed up with Bob Clampett speeding things up with Porky, Chuck Jones slowing things down with Sniffles, and Bugs Bunny being birthed by committee. 1940’s A Wild Hare (cartoon #294, reissued with a slight name change as The Wild Hare) is the first official Bugs Bunny cartoon, although if you ran Elmer’s Candid Camera from earlier in the year to just about anyone, they would tell you they just saw a Bugs Bunny / Elmer Fudd cartoon. The only differences? Elmer brandishes a camera instead of a rifle, and the voice and appearance of Bugs are still evolving.
If ethnic sensibilities are removed (which is an impossibility), the cartoons of this era, especially starting with 1940, range in quality from amusing to delightful. The Clampett Porky Pigs are reliably hilarious. The color Merrie Melodies of the time look a bit old-fashioned and stodgy compared to the lightning-fast black-and-white Looney Tunes, but the gorgeous background work and fluid character animation go a long way towards making up for it.
Confederate Honey, a Gone With the Wind parody from 1940 (cartoon #280, with Elmer Fudd as the romantic male lead!) is a case study in the problems of censorship. It is currently available as an extra on the Erroll Flynn western Virginia City DVD, but with all of the scenes with black characters removed (or pan-and-scanned to remove said characters). The problem with this approach is that the missing scenes establish the set-up to the film’s punchline gag, and the cartoon makes no sense without them. And that’s not even discussing whether the best way to rectify the use of black stereotypes is to merely erase all the black characters regardless of how they were portrayed. If you watch Confederate Honey, view the uncut original.
On the other hand, encountering the sixth official Bugs Bunny cartoon, 1941’s All This and Rabbit Stew, is a deeply unsettling experience. Not only is the hunter protagonist the worst example of the lazy, shuffling ethnic stereotype, but Bugs ultimately distracts and defeats him with a pair of dice in a craps game. There’s hardly a shred of humor left in this cartoon when viewed with anything resembling a modern sensibility. This is the only Bugs Bunny short on the Censored Eleven list.
Many of the usual suspects are rounded up as caricatures during this period, especially comic and dramatic actors under contract to Warner Bros. It apparently was a huge deal in popular culture during the late 30s and early 40s that popular entertainers Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor only sired male or female offspring (respectively). Were the incessant references to the Crosby and Cantor families big audience crowd pleasers back then?
Watching A Wild Hare now, especially in a high-def, restored version, is an unalloyed pleasure. It’s gorgeously drawn and animated, it’s hilarious, and all the pieces are there, including a dramatic death scene for Mel Blanc’s voice. The flat-out funniest moment is when Bugs halts Elmer’s point-blank firing upon him under the tree, not because he’s afraid of being shot, but because he’s standing directly beneath a couple of birds that might poop on him. He takes a couple steps to his left before giving Elmer the go-ahead, because of course he knows the brave hunter will miss anyway. 17 cartoons later, Elmer’s Pet Rabbit would be the follow-up, with Bugs as his official name, but with a strange voice, an aggressive personality and Chuck Jones as director.
The third official Bugs Bunny cartoon, Tortoise Beats Hare, is a brilliant subversion of a formula that was just getting started, and the first of a magnificent trilogy with Cecil Turtle. It’s amazing that in the three Cecil vs. Bugs films, the always unflappable good guy Bugs Bunny becomes the bad guy, is vanquished and humiliated, and we love every minute.
The prenatal Bugs cartoons are worth viewing in order: Porky’s Hare Hunt, Prest-o Change-o, Hare-um Scare-um, Elmer’s Candid Camera. Other highlights from this era include a couple of change-of-pace Chuck Jones non-comedies, Old Glory and Tom Thumb in Trouble. The exact opposite, Clampett at his unhinged best, may be found in The Daffy Doc, The Lone Stranger and Porky and Porky’s Last Stand. Friz Freleng returned to Termite Terrace after a stint at MGM, and his credits include the Who Framed Roger Rabbit inspiration You Ought to Be in Pictures, the endlessly delightful Rhapsody in Rivets, and his Bugs Bunny film Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt. Tex Avery, in addition to A Wild Hare, also directed the hilarious classics Thugs With Dirty Mugs, Dangerous Dan McFoo, and Porky’s Preview.
I find the Chuck Jones of this period hard to reconcile with the later director of Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening; he slows everything down and cutesifies it all, as if to show he could be working for Disney. A good example is Porky’s Prize Pony, one of a couple of Porky Pigs Jones made in 1941. Clampett’s series of Porky Pig cartoons are unsurpassed in their frantic pace and unhinged humor. Once Jones gets hold of Porky and applies his super-slow-motion frustration humor approach, the whole series stops dead in its tracks. Despite Porky’s Prize Pony’s horse race story line, which by definition should involve speed and dynamism, Jones finds a way to insert an endless, maddening sequence with the horse trying to arrange its own tail.
A few cartoons later, the Chuck Jones style suits the material much better in Porky’s Midnight Matinee. Here you have Jones going from strength to strength: the world as seen from the tiny pygmy ant’s perspective, and Porky’s facial expressions as he tries to capture the ant. Unfortunately, as so often during this period, the cartoon ends with a blackface gag.
I liked Sniffles when I was 6 years old, but now not so much; the Inki films are memorable mostly due to their brilliant use of Mendelssohn’s music. For my money Jones didn’t really hit his stride until he gave us the Dover Boys and Hubie and Bertie later on.
1941’s The Cagey Canary is a forgotten treasure. Not readily available, the cartoon was started by Tex Avery and finished by Bob Clampett. Avery was fired in a dispute with Leon Schlesinger over the ending of The Heckling Hare. The Cagey Canary, despite the change of directors, shows no seams and moves like lightning. To modern eyes it seems like the genesis of Tweety, Sylvester and Granny (without the eventual look and sound of those three characters) and appears to be the blueprint for dozens of cat vs. the canary films later on.
In the Complete Illustrated Guide, Jerry Beck refers to Chuck Jones’ 1940 cartoon Good Night, Elmer as “one of the most irritating cartoons ever made.” Even considering that animation history includes the likes of Little Lulu, Baby Huey and Ren and Stimpy, he’s right. Also in this period you’ll find several “spot gag” cartoons like travelogues, trips to the zoo or jungle, and spoofs of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” These are, by definition, exactly as entertaining as the jokes they contain.