While this week marks the very important and serious 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, there’s another, older, fun anniversary to note as well: the 75th anniversary of that all-American trickster, Bugs Bunny.
The wise-cracking bunny with a Brooklyn accent got his official start in 1940’s “A Wild Hare.” Since then, he’s trounced, out-talked, and outwitted a host of flamboyant but hapless opponents including Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, the Tasmanian Devil, and Elmer Fudd.
Bugs Bunny was a star for Warner Brothers. And, watching Thursday’s Republican debate in Ohio, I was reminded of some of the colorful characters that emerged from their cartoon studio in addition to Bugs: the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepé Le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, and Sylvester, to name a few. At least one candidate displayed a passing resemblance to Foghorn Leghorn, the loud, blustering, overbearing rooster who appeared in cartoons like the “Leghorn Blows at Midnight” (1950).
During the golden age of American animation, the team at Warner Brothers created 167 brilliant and memorable Bugs Bunny cartoons. These Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were shown in theaters before the feature films. After paying very inflated prices for a ticket, today’s moviegoers are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of commercials instead of a cartoon — another sign of how cultural life in America has gone downhill.
As with all high drama, Bugs’s foils were as delightfully offbeat as the “cwazy wabbit” himself. Who can forget Yosemite Sam, the roughest, toughest, root’nest, toot’nest hombre west of the Pecos? Or Elmer Fudd? Perpetually outsmarted by Bugs, Fudd has to rank as one of the worst hunters of all time (although I’m sure both he and Yosemite Sam were dues-paying members of the NRA). Then there’s Daffy Duck, who usually got the short end of the stick when dealing with Bugs. In the classic Duck Amuck (1953), he got the short end of the pencil, too, as a sadistic animator (who turns out to be Bugs) constantly changes Daffy’s shape, location, and even voice.
On the other hand, Daffy Duck was one of the first American ducks to go into space when he fought Marvin the Martian in the very famous “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century” (1953), long before Star Wars appeared in the firmament.
While Bugs Bunny always comes out on top, he is not infallible. For one thing, he is seriously direction-challenged. Whenever he goes on vacation, he always takes a wrong turn in Albuquerque, or “Albukoykee,” as he would pronounce it. That has led him to some strange and sometimes dangerous places, including the middle of a bull ring in Mexico in “Bully for Bugs” (1953), and Nazi Germany in “Herr Meets Hare” (1945), where he confronted Adolph Hitler and Hermann Göring. Of course, having been to Albuquerque, I can see how easy it would be to take a wrong turn there.
How many of us had our first exposure to opera in “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950) and “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd give us their version of great Rossini and Wagner operas? Bugs as Brunhilda is hard to forget. The most frequent directors of the Looney Tunes shorts were Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, and Robert McKimson, and they did takeoffs of just about everything, from opera to the story of Robin Hood in “Rabbit Hood” (1945) to the American Revolution in “Bunker Hill Bunny” (1950).
During World War II, Bugs went to war just like the rest of America. He was made an honorary master sergeant by the U.S. Marine Corps after he appeared in a Marine Corps dress blue uniform in “Super-Rabbit” (1943). Some of these wartime cartoons like “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”(1944) have been “banned” by over-sensitive cartoon channels because they are pretty frank about who the enemy was. Bugs Bunny even got drafted during the Korean War in “Forward March Hare” (1952) when he got his neighbor’s draft notice by mistake.
In civilian life, he has been very versatile, holding a lot of different jobs, including subbing for a lazy Easter Bunny in “Easter Yegg” (1947). When the Road Runner went on vacation, Bugs Bunny subbed for him too, in “Operation: Rabbit” (1952) and “To Hare is Human” (1956). “Operation: Rabbit” is particularly memorable because it is one of the very few times that Wile E. Coyote talks. And which one of us wouldn’t want access to the extensive catalog of the Acme Company, the greatest retailer of bombs, cannons, guns, missiles, rockets, and Rube Goldberg devices of every kind?
I teach a law-school class on election- and campaign-finance law, and I usually end the class by playing “Ballot Box Bunny” (1951), in which Bugs runs against Yosemite Sam for mayor of a small town. They play every trick you can imagine on each other to try to win, an appropriate lesson with the start of the 2016 campaign. As I tell my students, this cartoon is a good, metaphorical illustration of the kinds of real things that candidates do to each other. And as happens in real life, Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam spend so much time attacking each other that in the end they are both beaten by a dark horse — in this case, literally.
Just as well-known lines from famous movies like Casablanca have entered the cultural canon, so also have the great lines from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that were voiced by the brilliant Mel Blanc, one of the most talented voices that ever came out of Hollywood. Blanc made his reputation as a regular on The Jack Benny Radio Show, which was the most popular show on radio during the 1930s and ’40s, when radio was king. One of the most repeated lines, besides “What’s up, Doc?” is “Of course you realize, this means war.” Or, “He don’t know me very well.” And one of Bugs Bunny’s commonly uttered derisions, “What a maroon,” comes to mind fairly often as I watch various Washington politicians in action.
The American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Md., has been showing many of the original Bugs Bunny cartoons in celebration of the anniversary. Last weekend, I went to see them with my wife and kids, who are in high school and college. There certainly were families with young kids in the audience, but more than half of us were adults. That’s because these cartoons are probably the best animated shorts ever made.
They are clever, witty, imaginative, and funny. Kids can certainly enjoy them, as I did when they were still being regularly shown on Saturday mornings. But they were also written by intelligent adults for adults with a mischievous sense of humor. Most of today’s cartoons, perhaps with the exception of Pixar’s, are boring, dull, and the complete opposite of clever. They don’t even come close to matching the quality and fun of the best of the Bugs Bunny cartoons made from 1940 to 1964.
So let’s cherish the 75th birthday of this American cultural icon, who even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As Bugs himself would say, that’s all, folks!