A History Of Bugs Bunny
-By Matthew Hunter
Bugs Bunny has long been
a favorite among cartoon viewers. In fact, to some Bugs is THE cartoon
character, beloved around the world, and semi-mascot of Warner Bros., the studio
that released his first cartoon over sixty years ago. Bugs Bunny, in theaters
and on television since his creation in
There have been over 150 Bugs Bunny cartoons, and all but about twelve are still shown rather frequently on television today. Bugs has had a more diverse and accomplished career than many Hollywood actors ever have, and some of the zaniest and funniest performances ever in film history. This did not happen overnight, by any means. Bugs Bunny's cartoons were directed over the years by such creative geniuses as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Robert McKimson, Frank Tashlin, and others, all of whom left their mark in film history with these animated films, and Bugs was only one of the dozens of classic creations these men worked with and created. Also not to be forgotten are the creators of the Warner cartoon soundtrack, Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs) and musicians Carl Stalling, Milt Franklyn and William Lava.
Bugs Bunny began in a film directed by Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, in a black and white Looney Tunes Porky Pig film entitled "Porky's Hare Hunt". In this cartoon, the character was not exactly Bugs Bunny, he was short, simply drawn, white, and acted like a cross between Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker (It is said that Hardaway and vocal genius Mel Blanc can also be attributed to Woody's creation for Walter Lantz a few years later.) Porky Pig goes hunting with his dog, zero, and takes a beating from his prey in a situation much like the earlier Tex Avery effort "Porky's Duck Hunt"(1937), the film that introduced Daffy Duck. This rabbit can pull himself out of a hat, fly with his ears and bounce on his head, and he finally puts Porky in the hospital. Hardaway and Chuck Jones would continue to use this character, though slightly redesigned, in a series of color Merrie Melodies over the next two years, including the manic "Hare-Um Scare-Um" and "Presto Change-O". Most importantly, with the exception of "Presto", Bugs was turned into a gray rabbit with a more expressive face, but he was still not quite Bugs. In fact, some argue that this rabbit is only Bugs because of his name, derived from a model sheet calling him "Bugs' Bunny", with the apostrophe removed. Below: The rabbit from "Porky's Hare Hunt"
This changed forever in 1940, when director Tex Avery made "A Wild Hare", one of the most infamous short cartoons ever made. This film was the second pairing of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and Fudd's second cartoon. Elmer was previously a wildlife photographer after Bugs in Chuck Jones' "Elmer's Candid Camera" a year earlier. What Avery did differently was to make Elmer Fudd an incompetent hunter with a gun, and Bugs a timid woodland rabbit...er...until provoked, that is. Instead of running like typical cartoon characters of the day, from Disney's Mickey Mouse to Warner's Porky Pig, Bugs did not fear danger, but simply sat down next to it and calmly asked "Eh, What's Up, Doc?" It got laughs, so much so that producer Leon Schlesinger demanded more films from the rabbit, and the "Wild Hare" plot was varied over the next few years to include such memorable films as "All this and Rabbit Stew"(Avery) and "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt"(Friz Freleng). -below: "A Wild Hare"
It would seem that after Tex Avery's departure from Warner's in 1941 the character would be left for dead, but it was clear that the other directors at Warner's, especially Bob Clampett, as well as producer Leon Schlesinger, saw something special in Bugs Bunny, and thus the films continued. In fact, Bob Clampett directed the eigth true Bugs film, a promotion for U.S. government war bonds for World War II. It seems Bugs was already a celebrity after only a few films, and Bob Clampett's wild, energetic and zany interpretation of him could very well be the reason why: while still in his infancy, still this in-your-face Bugs DEMANDED that people pay attention to him.-below: The controversial ending to Bob Clampett's "Hare Ribbin" (1944)
Throughout the 1940's, Bugs Bunny quickly became the Warner cartoon department's flagship character, and the star of dozens of Merrie Melodies cartoons, titles like "Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid", "Fresh Hare", Little Red Riding Rabbit","Super Rabbit"," Buckaroo Bugs", and many more, with such costars as Elmer Fudd, Cecil Turtle, The Three Bears, and, in one memorable short, Chuck Jones' "Super Rabbit", Cotton Tail Smith, a rabbit-hatin' western outlaw (not to be confused with another rabbit-hatin' western outlaw introduced later.-below: This looks like a job for...SUPER RABBIT!
titles were designed to boost American morale by placing Bugs in wartime themes
(such as airplane hijacks by mythical gremlins in "Falling Hare"(1943) and a few
others had Bugs take on America's enemies, most notably the infamous "Bugs Bunny
Nips the Nips", a now-rarely seen film with Bugs fighting the Japanese on a
Bugs Bunny's films continued onward into the later 1940's, and his films began to get more and more interesting and refined as time progressed. Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett continued their series of twists to the Elmer-hunts-Bugs scenario in classics like "The Old Grey Hare" and "Stage Door Cartoon", both 1944. 1945 saw the introduction of Friz Freleng's Yosemite Sam, and, sadly, 1946 saw the departure of Bob Clampett from the studio, after one final cartoon, the Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd classic "The Big Snooze".
Also in 1946, Robert McKimson directed his first Bugs cartoon, "Acrobatty Bunny". This was an important milestone, because, like Bob Clampett's had been the definitive Bugs in the mid 1940's, it would be Robert McKimson's version who would dominate in the late 1940's and early 1950's. All the more notable is the fact that McKimson created the model sheet used by all of Bugs' directors in the 1940's, even before he was a director of cartoons himself, only an assistant animator. Many Bugs cartoon fans claim that this McKimson character is the definitive Bugs, period. Watch a film like "Rabbit's Kin", "Rebel Rabbit" or "Hare We Go", just to name a few of McKimson's best, you will see. In 1954, McKimson created the Tasmanian Devil in a film called "Devil May Hare", and although he only appeared in five cartoons, this character is one of the most popular cartoon characters in the Warner canon. Bugs had changed over his first several years, and had noticeably evolved in the hands of so many creators into a mixture of all of their talents.-below: extremes in the evolution of Bugs Bunny
Bugs was refined and redefined
as a modest, unassuming and generally pretty cool gray rabbit...until provoked
by the likes of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, or any other adversary stubborn enough
to keep torturing him. Some wanted him to move, some wanted to eat him, some
wanted to kill him for the sport of it, and none got their
Also in the 1950's, the Bugs we all know as Bugs today emerged in the films of Chuck Jones. Jones hit his peak in the 1950's, and defined Bugs Bunny to the very last whisker, if it was McKimson who captured the idea of Bugs best, it was Jones who mastered it and took it to new levels. Chuck Jones first paired Bugs with his redefined, greedy version of Daffy Duck in "Rabbit Fire" (1951) and from that idea came up with two more classics, "Rabbit Seasoning" (1952) and "Duck! Rabbit! Duck!"(1943.) In these films, Elmer Fudd hunts Bugs and Daffy, who each try to prove that it's not their season, hence "rabbit season!" "duck season!" This partnership between Bugs and Daffy has continued ever since, and many cartoons from many different creators use Daffy as Bugs' foil. In fact, Chuck Jones said in a PBS special "Extremes and Inbetweens" that this relationship is much like him:
"I can dream I'm Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I'm Daffy."
Under Jones, Friz Freleng and Robert McKimson, Bugs continued to do almost everything into the later 1950's. Bugs, in these films, was calmer, more secure, but equally as funny. What makes these films different from the 1940's Bugs and, in my personal opinion, better, is that Bugs tends to step back and plot against his tormentors more. Instead of Bugs rushing into action, he steps back and thinks about his next move, and the audience has more time to laugh with Bugs instead of at him. In fact, Bugs encourages his audience to laugh at his enemies, he will, especially in Jones' films, give a sly "look" toward the audience while some villain does something stupid. Some people tend to pick at these films for declining in quality, but I beg to differ, these films are great, each one has something to like about it. More recurring costars from elsewhere in the Looney Tunes stable tend to show up in these films, like Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and the perennial Elmer Fudd.-below: self-proclaimed "Super Genius" Wile E. Coyote, from one of his five appearances with Bugs,"Rabbit's Feat" (Jones, 1960)
Friz Freleng's long-running series of Yosemite Sam films, all but two of which starred Bugs, also took off during this period, as Friz put cowboy outlaw Sam in places where he didn't belong just to prove that it would work, in such cartoons as "Sahara Hare" (1955) and "Captain Hareblower" (1954).In fact, Bugs Bunny's only Oscar was recieved for a cartoon in which Yosemite Sam played a Black Knight, "Knighty Knight Bugs"(1958). This isn't too different from John Wayne doing war films, some worked and some didn't, but in Sam's case, when they worked, they really worked. It has long been noted that Freleng did not like Elmer Fudd, so he came up with Sam , who apparently so closely resembled Freleng that no other director used him regularly. Sam also had another unique quality, apparently, his big, loud voice was the most difficult of all for Mel Blanc to perform.
By 1961, Bugs Bunny was a national icon, he had his own prime-time television series, "The Bugs Bunny Show", and while it is rarely seen today, this series essentially introduced the Warner cartoons of the past, not just those featuring Bugs, to a new generation, the TV viewers, and the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons have been somewhere on television ever since. Unfortunately, Bugs Bunny's theatrical films at the time suffered, possibly due to the efforts of the studio in compiling the Bugs show, and while there are several highlights, the 1961-1964 Bugs Bunny cartoons are not near as good as the others. For one thing, Milt Franklyn, the retired musical genius Carl Stalling's succesor, died in 1962, and was replaced by William Lava, a scorer of live-action television shows. Lava's music was not the worst thing in the world, it was still good, but compared to the work of Stalling and Franklyn it was inferior. Part of the reason was the low, downbeat tone of some of the orchestrations, and the reduction of the cartoon music to merely background instead of part of the action and humor. Also, it appears from watching these films in sequence that budgets were lower, but animation far cheaper than this has also been made classic in its own right (The works of Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera for television, for example.) Money was not the problem, the main problem here is lack of enthusiasm, lack of spirit. Watching Bugs' final films in sequence is like watching Bugs die, he dies admirably and humorously in typical Bugs fashion, but still, somehow, dies, and this time it's not just a prank to fool Elmer Fudd. His last theatrical cartoon was Robert McKimson's "False Hare" in 1964. The Warner cartoon studio closed and reopened again that same year, but this time Bugs Bunny was left out of the films, they seemed to realize that Bugs had run his course. They instead went on to produce dozens of cartoons featuring Sylvester, Daffy Duck, and Speedy Gonzales, later introducing new characters like Cool Cat the hip-talking tiger.
Bugs is still a cartoon character, though, so, predictably, he didn't stay down for long. Bugs Bunny was a favorite for years on television, and an entirely different web page twice this long could be written on the televised history of this character alone. With over 150 cartoons rerun constantly, plus several award-winning television specials and several compilation movies, Bugs Bunny just kept going, and has ever since. His films never get old, and while several of them are no longer shown on television, they are only a fraction. Bugs now appears often on the logo of Warner Bros., tons of merchandise, a 1996 feature film 'Space Jam" costarring basketball legend Michael Jordan, and even an annual celebration of his films, "June Bugs" on Cartoon Network cable channel. Bugs Bunny is possibly the greatest cartoon entity ever created.
Is Bugs my favorite character in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies? No. But I have seen every Bugs Bunny film, in sequence, and I think Bugs is the most important character in the series, without Bugs there would have been no Sylvester, no Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, no Speedy Gonzales, no Pepe Le Pew. Bugs was in more cartoons than any of them, and has played a very large part in American culture. One of Hollywood's greatest icons is a cartoon rabbit.
All characters and images © Aol /TimeWarner. Article written by Matthew Hunter. Image credits: Thanks to Jon Cooke, Dave Clements, http://www.cartoonresearch.com/, and Cartoon Network affiliate resources.