Friday, November 13, 2015
Directors: Tex Avery, Robert Clampett, Friz Freleng
Writers: Aesop, Dave Monahan, Warren Foster, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce
Animation: Charles McKimson, Robert McKimson, Ken Champin, Gerry Chiniquy
Music: Carl W. Stalling, Milt Franklyn
Editor: Treg Brown
Cast: Mel Blanc
The World War II years marked the crucible for the Warner Brothers cartoon character Bugs Bunny. That's when he solidified into the sassy, confident rabbit we know today, picking up his Brooklyn accent, his catch phrase, his carrot, and all his winning ways. Others foolishly think they can take advantage of him—he's just a rabbit, right?—but in fact he's the unassuming wise guy who never loses—never, ever loses. He became a kind of model for America in the world during the war years and after—unassuming but skeptical and jeering, and always a winner. More than anything he was about minding his own business, and that business was about being left alone, another long-term yearning of the American soul. But when dumbass hunters, ducks, and other miscreants come along, the rabbit's only choice is to rid himself of them. And he is always successful—no one loses to Bugs Bunny. He is faster, smarter, and more funny than anyone who challenges him. That's his way.
In the Aesop fable, by comparison, it's the rabbit who is doomed to fail, and only the rabbit. So the decision to create not one but three cartoons based on the story is an interesting one. Yes, a steady wellspring of cartoon makers in the '40s were fables and fairy tales, they are scattered all through the Warner Brothers catalog, made to be seen before feature films in theaters. In fairness, Bugs does have his struggles in some cases, but he is really thrust into an impossible situation this time. The tortoise wins that race—you can look it up. But the hare, the rabbit, is—Bugs Bunny. It's the famous case of the irresistible force and the unmovable object. But three times? What punishment must Bugs endure, and how can it possibly be resolved?
In the first version of the showdown, from 1941, Tortoise Beats Hare, Bugs is still not entirely himself (not coincidentally, released in March of that year, America was not yet involved in the war either). He doesn't look or sound quite like the Bugs Bunny we know—in appearance he's too fluffy and rounded. Voice artist Mel Blanc was still too new for credit in this cartoon. He hasn't fully established Bugs Bunny's characteristic voice either, though it can be heard in snatches, mixed with other intonations. He's still searching it out in many ways. This is the funniest of the three cartoons, as the tortoise, Cecil J. Turtle, turns out to be a cunning mastermind, calling in a dozen lookalikes of himself and setting them up along the raceway, surprising Bugs again and again, driving him mad. As Cecil tells the camera in a quick cutaway after one such prank, "We do this kind of stuff to him all through the picture."
The hare is thus already getting split fine. Technically Bugs loses but he is a victim of an elaborate scheme. Also, it's not just his voice and appearance that are off, but his personality too. He's not exactly the Bugs Bunny who always wins. He can pivot into an unpleasant swaggering bully kind of manner, or become a rude jerk, and Cecil has definitely got the better of him in all ways, which only makes the rabbit's fits of rage more explosive. The version of Bugs we know rarely gets so rageful that he is out of control, but we see some of that in these cartoons.
In fact, it's even worse in the second installment, Tortoise Wins by a Hare, which is the best of them in terms of the high concept—dizzying, dense with riffing on its ideas. Released in 1943, with a prologue swiped from Citizen Kane that provides highlights of the first race, here is where Bugs Bunny resembles Daffy Duck more than I have ever seen. Still enraged that he lost to a tortoise, Bugs proposes a second race. An underworld crime syndicate of rabbits gets involved, betting all their money on Bugs and determined that he wins no matter what. Meanwhile, Bugs has decided that looking like a tortoise will enable him to win the race (the streamlining), so he dons a steel shell and shower cap midway through the race. Of course the mob mistakes him for the tortoise and does all they can to thwart him. At one point, Cecil is seen in a threadbare rabbit costume, eating a carrot, agreeing with the mob that he is the rabbit.
Once again the hare is shaved fine—Bugs should have won as either the rabbit or the tortoise, he's clearly the fastest animal, but he was felled by his own hubris in the form of his overly intricate machinations to cheat fate. You can't cheat fate. This is like a time travel story in the old DC Comics. No matter what, you can never change the past. You just can't. You can't. And the hare never beats the tortoise—he never has in this story, and he never will. The great mistake of Bugs is to think he can.
Or is it? Last comes Rabbit Transit, which is the least of them. Or is it? One more race, a grand cross-country affair starting in Yellowstone National Park and ending at Grant's Tomb in New York. In the postwar world of 1947, that means Cecil is outfitted with jet propulsion. Now he is the fastest. So it proceeds, in a kind of proto-Roadrunner fashion, as the rabbit and turtle steal the shell from one another. There's a few funny gags involving telegrams and Christmas cards—it's not bad. And then it ends on a very odd note. For one thing, I don't see Grant's Tomb. For another, Bugs actually wins the race. He crosses the finish line first, and even Cecil admits that Bugs beat him. But somehow Bugs is still not the winner. In their conversation at the finish line, Cecil tricks Bugs into admitting he was speeding, and then some cops show up to cart him off to jail.
So there you have it from the finish line, folks. The first round Bugs loses because he's not quite himself and he's tricked. The second round Bugs loses because Cecil just plain outthinks him—which is not like Bugs at all. And the third round everyone agrees Bugs won, but he still goes to jail. But wait. The last shot. Cecil watches the cops take Bugs off, then looks over his shoulder at the camera and says, "Ain't I a stinker?" In this grand three-part opera of having cake and eating it too, Bugs Bunny once again finds a way to actually win, even if it's by inhabiting the body of a tortoise. There's no other way to look at it.