A Tour Through Bugs Bunny’s Greatest Hits? You Love To See It
A compilation film of Looney Tunes classics shows how Bugs is who we aspire to be, but Daffy is who we are, in all our embarrassed ambitions and frustrations.
Did you know Bugs Bunny was a Brooklynite? It’s how he introduces himself from the grounds of a palatial, mid-century modern estate in The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, identifying his fabulously be-robed self as a “Back Bay Bunny, Back Bay of Brooklyn, that is.” Released in 1979 and directed by Chuck Jones, the preamble of this compilation film of classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies short films is Bugs assuredly leading us on a journey of his back pages, first via the beginning of the universe—when “nobody complained…there wasn’t nobody around to complain” —in a “sixth rate galaxy called the Milky Way.” On a “tenth rate planet called Earth,” humanity appeared and invented the first chase, quickly followed by the invention of boredom, which, of course, leads to the invention of moving pictures, which begat comedy and its tools: pratfalls, double takes, chases, and more chases.
The art of pursuit, and the brilliant schemes concocted to dispel their pursuers, is a classic scenario of cinema going back to the silent film era, and a situation that Bugs usually finds himself dragged into sans provocation. Or, as Jones puts in his 1989 memoir Chuck Amuck, Bugs is a creature “living peaceably, contemplating an obscure Wang Dynasty dissertation on carrots—a sort of Professor Higgins in sweet solitude. Then along comes someone with designs on his hide,” which he must, as a matter of course, resist, and does so with aplomb. “Bugs is what I would like to be: debonair, quick-witted…a sort of male Dorothy Parker-ish D’Artagnan,” as the director laments.
“Bugs is what I would like to be: debonair, quick-witted…a sort of male Dorothy Parker-ish D’Artagnan,”
Like a comfortably retired musketeer, Bugs guides the course of this film by walking an audience through “Wild Villains I Have Known,” represented by framed portraits in his hall of characters like Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and his number one frenemy (also voiced by Mel Blanc) Daffy Duck. The stroll-down-memory-lane-setup cues older, Jones-directed shorts like Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century from 1953, where Daffy plays an under-qualified but over-esteemed hero with an Eager Young Space Cadet (Porky Pig) as his sidekick in claiming planets “for Earth,” while Marvin Martian—a character originally created by Jones—arrives to put in his counterclaim, for Mars.
Daffy’s confident incompetence and hair-trigger rage at the always-quick-to-arrive signs that he is, indeed, losing, are the wind beneath the wings of the short films he carries. The pathetic element is, unfortunately for us, key to how relatable his distress and frustrations can feel, lacking, as he does, Bugs’ cool customer vibe and unerring problem solving. Even Daffy’s absurd voice, characterized by turns eagerly bombastic and snarlingly sarcastic lisp, is not entirely an exaggeration: it was inspired by the accent of a loathed boss—one Leon Schlesinger, the head of a cartoon studio Jones worked at prior to officially joining the Warner Brothers’ animation unit.
Jones primarily identified with the flustered panic of “inept contender” Daffy Duck, who “rushes in and fears to tread at the same time,” and who ludicrously claims, “‘I’m different from other people, pain hurts me.’” Bugs, a truly aspirational comic hero, charitably introduces the 1958 short Robin Hood Daffy, by identifying Daffy as “The Errol Flynn of duckdom”—Flynn was an old Hollywood star, total cad, and likely criminal who had a beloved turn as Robin Hood in a 1938 Michael Curtiz picture. Of the many brilliant moments in RHD is the painful and hilarious 'yoikes and away!' segment, just one of several missteps in a total failure to convince Friar Tuck (Porky Pig) that he is, indeed, the good thief of legend. Though he appears in a few other shorts throughout The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, it’s the inclusion of 1953’s Duck Amuck that completes the trifecta of Daffy’s exquisite humiliation. To whit, the animator tortures the put upon duck by refusing to commit to a story, or scenery, for Daffy to act upon. Deprived of a chance to falter from his own bad judgment, the show literally falls apart like some post-modern gag. Despite all our rage we are still just a duck in a frame, while an invisible hand is poised above, to direct proceedings, or not, at will.
In what’s surely one of the crowning achievements of the whole Looney Tunes enterprise, the high drama and durational haul of Richard Wagner’s nineteenth-century Ring Cycle is handily squashed down to seven minutes for What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), in which Bugs, as Brünnhilde, fools Elmer Fudd, as Siegfried, into romancing him off his perch of a fat white pony, before being found out as the disguised “wabbit” and suffering the consequences of the magic helmet. I’m sure I would have had no other exposure to opera as a youngster without this genius parody to spark intrigue.
While Jones—who also created Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, a pair forever engaged in struggle that needs no dialogue to convey its themes of ambition thwarted—could convey plot and personality with image and music regardless of script, he also knew how to pull language, like taffy, into attractive shapes of vivid color. This was apparently an inheritance from his father, an improvisational (read: failed) businessman who couldn’t abide the abuses that verbal grandstanding inflicted upon clarity of meaning. It was for this reason that Jones père found the twenty-ninth President of the U.S., Warren G. Harding, despicable, a phrase apparently invoked oft and memorably enough for Jones Jr. to carry it from boyhood and pass onto Daffy for his signature exclamation—“dethpicable!” The more you know.
All quotations taken from Chuck Jones, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (1989), published by Farrar Straus Giroux. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979) will screen on 35mm at BAM on Sunday, September 22, 2019 as part of the annual Animation Block Party .