Last Monday marked a momentous occasion in the history of motion pictures.
That’s right, Bugs Bunny was born 75 years ago on that date. (Well, sorry, I know people reading this cinema column were hoping to read something upper-crust, but you’ll have to put up with Bugs for this week.)
Back in those days, movie theatres used to show seven-minute cartoons before the main feature started. July 27, 1940 marked the release of a Warner Brothers cartoon called A Wild Hare, in which Bugs appeared alongside Elmer Fudd for the first time.
There had been previous incarnations of rabbits in Warner’s cartoons, but in this feature, directed by Tex Avery, the legendary rabbit actually looked sort of like the Bugs Bunny we know today, and also featured the Brooklyn-esque voice and famous catch-phrase for the first time — “What’s up, Doc?”
Bugs was named for another Warner animator Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who had directed some of the earlier incarnations of the rabbit.
The voice for Bugs was provided by Mel Blanc, who came up with distinctive voices for just about all the Warner’s characters for most of that studio’s run.
Bugs was introduced during an era when the Warner animation studio was still finding its way up against the other major cartoon studios, particularly Disney. The Disney studio had just started to shift its focus towards long-form animated feature films at the time. The decade of the 1940s was, in fact, a big one for the creation of some big animated stars . Tom and Jerry gained fame around this time over at MGM, and the Walter Lantz studio introduced Woody Woodpecker as well (a character that Hardaway was instrumental in creating, interestingly.)
It would prove to be a golden age for animated cartoons and Bugs quickly became the biggest star in the stable of outrageous characters from the Warner studio — a cast that would include Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, the Road Runner and many others.
Bugs’ creation marked a turning point of sorts. The Warner animation unit had been notorious for cartoon characters who were out-of-control, to say the least.
According to cartoon historians, this new rabbit was far less frantic and much more street-wise than the previous Warner efforts. While characters like Daffy Duck would normally jump around and act like lunatics, Bugs was a far cooler cat. He would be pretty fearless when confronted with scary situations, and better able to outwit the villains he would be up against as a result.
While Bugs had his lunatic moments, he kept it in check a lot of the time, which made even more funnier those moments when he would bash Elmer Fudd or give him a pie to the face, and then turn to the camera and say, “ain’t I a stinker?”
I think this rubbed off on the whole Warner cartoon output. You saw a noticeable change in the other Warner characters following Bugs’ arrival. Daffy, in particular, calmed down significantly as a character in his later films.
(I think a change in directors was likely responsible. Tex Avery and then Bob Clampett were particularly associated with the more frantic tone of the earlier Warner Bros. cartoons. Both moved on from the Warner lot.)
Above all, Bugs was a creature of the 1940s. He gained popularity so swiftly that he was immediately put to work on the war effort, appearing in promotions for war bonds.
It’s not easy for cartoon characters to stay popular for 75 years. Who really cares about Betty Boop or Felix the Cat these days, for example. Even Mr. Magoo seems to belong to another era, but Bugs has managed to keep on evolving.
A big reason for that was the work of great Warner directors like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, who kept finding new ways to develop Bugs in the late 1940s and through the ‘50s.
Jones had distinct ideas about how Bugs should react to a situation. In Jones’ films, Bugs was never going to be the instigator, it would usually be some other villain or something else that would force the rabbit into action. “Of course you know, this means war.”
The other thing about some of Jones’ cartoons — at least ones that were also written by Michael Maltese — is that often Bugs would be shown burrowing up from underneath the ground at some destination he didn’t expect, like the South Pole or some bull ring somewhere. And Bugs would always wistfully say he should’ve taken that left turn in Albuquerque.
The Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce surely owes a debt of gratitude to Bugs for all the free publicity they’ve gotten over the years.
Freleng, a director responsible for creating a number of iconic cartoon characters, helped Bugs grow as a character by giving him a far tougher adversary to deal with. Instead of the pathetic Elmer Fudd, Bugs would go up against the rough and tumble Yosemite Sam, with all his guns. Bugs needed all of his wits up against that guy, for sure.
Another memorable foil for Bugs was created by Jones — Marvin the Martian, whose plans to blow up Earth proved another worthy obstacle for the rabbit.
In all, it was the ability of all these directors to create these different characters and situations for Bugs that kept the franchise fresh in peoples’ minds, helping the Warner Brothers studio rise to the top of the motion picture cartoon business.
I also think the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters were a classic instance of being in the right place at the right time, because their popularity peaked right when television began to dominate in the 1950s. So these characters were in prime position to make the transition to that new media and gain a new generation of fans — my generation.
The Bugs Bunny Show ran for two years in prime time on ABC, starting in 1960. After that time Bugs and his pals moved on to Saturday mornings where they would dominate the ratings on various networks for the next three decades.
But that run has long since ended, and it’s been a struggle in recent years to keep Bugs in the public eye.
The old cartoons have faded from view, but Bugs has been involved in some new TV projects lately — to mixed results.
It was a brand-new and stylized Bugs who showed up in new episodes of the sitcom-style The Looney Tunes Show on the Cartoon Network — with traditionalists up in arms about the new look of the famous characters. Maybe Bugs’ next TV project called Wabbit will fare better.
Another project that could be coming soon is a motion picture revival of Space Jam.
That was the successful 1996 animation-live action feature in which Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls teamed up with Bugs and the Looney Tunes gang against the intimidating Monstars.
Now rumors are flying that LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers might be part of Space Jam 2, after he just signed a deal with Warner Bros.
LeBron James and Bugs Bunny together, on the big screen? That will surely be a sight to see, a true “Dream Team” — better than what LeBron had going with the Miami Heat.
Hopefully, this project will achieve a wide audience and serve the purpose of keeping Bugs, Daffy, Elmer and everyone else prominent in the public eye for a new generation of cartoon fans. The old grey hare isn’t ready for the old age home just yet.
Happy birthday Bugs Bunny, you rascally rabbit.