Seventy-five years ago next month, an unassuming gray rabbit was born in Brooklyn. And from those humble beginnings, he would go on to become one of the most famous anthropomorphic animals to ever grace the silver screen, a legend on par with longtime rodent rival Mickey Mouse. Bane to clumsy hunters, diminutive mustachioed criminals, and greedily ambitious ducks everywhere, this fluffy little bunny was christened … Bugs.
Okay, so technically, Bugs Bunny wasn’t born in Brooklyn (although that’s the story he puts out there). He was actually born in Hollywood in 1938, and sprung full-grown from the minds of Warner Bros. animators/directors Ben “Bugs” Hardaway and Cal Dalton, who co-directed their creation’s first onscreen appearance in Porky’s Hare Hunt. That cartoon, a virtual remake of the Tex Avery short that had introduced Daffy Duck the year before, depicted a very different rabbit–at least in appearance. But while this rabbit was white and rather short in comparison to his later incarnations, he still had the smart-mouthed gleeful spirit that would drive the character to many more adventures in the next seven-plus decades (and beyond).
Yes, Bugs Bunny is, strictly speaking, seventy-SEVEN years old this year. Yet the official date of his birth is touted as July 27, 1940, because that was when the definitive version of the Bugs we all know and love made his debut, in an Avery-directed short called A Wild Hare.
The proto-Bugs of Porky’s Hare Hunt originated as just a generic rabbit figure, christened “Bugs’ Bunny” on the initial model sheets for the character, after the animator who first proposed using a hare as a stand-in for Daffy’s usual-style antics. Still, it took several cartoons for the character to develop into something more than just “Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit,” as Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng would proclaim dismissively in later years. A number of “fathers,” as it were, had a hand in crafting Bugs into something much more than a Daffy clone with fur, with each animator and director drawing on various influences to build the character into an icon.
A closer look at Bugs indicates that the character may have deep roots in folktale tradition; per Stefan Kanfer’s Serious Business, the rabbit is likely based, at least in part, on the archetype of the trickster. The trickster is a figure who is chaotic by nature, creating mischief and causing trouble for the sake of dismantling conventional ways of life (i.e., Bugs’ reversal of the typical hunter/prey dynamic). Much like another famed trickster, Joel Chandler Harris’ Br’er Rabbit (brought to animated life in Disney’s Song of the South), Bugs is decidedly physically weaker than counterparts like Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, but he constantly betters them through the use of reverse psychology and his own quick wits. And much like trickster characters such as the Norse god Loki, Bugs’ motives are not always pristine; while Bugs generally engages with other characters either in defense or for revenge of some slight, he is also a provocateur, sometimes inviting trouble solely in the name of disturbing the peace and/or disrupting the usual order of things.
Though Bugs had appeared–in one form or another–in four cartoons prior to the 1940 production of A Wild Hare, he remained something of a fluid figure, with an ever-evolving personality and appearance. But with this short, animated by Virgil Ross, the bunny came into his own:
In A Wild Hare, some of the most familiar Bugs tropes find their roots:
- the carrot-chomping (famously borrowed from Clark Gable’s gnawing on one in 1934’s It Happened One Night);
- the hunter-prey relationship being turned on its head by Bugs’ utter lack of fear of his opponent;
- the anarchic breaking of the fourth wall (a Tex trait, through and through);
- the snappy one-liners brought to glorious, “Noo Yawk”-tinged life by Mel Blanc, including Bugs’ signature “What’s up, Doc?”, a line crafted by Avery in remembrance of high school slang back in Texas.
The result is not only an entertaining entry in the Warner filmography, but a clear indication of where Avery was heading as a director. All of the hallmarks of his previous cartoons–the little screwball touches, the inventive visual gags, the exaggerated takes–are present (if somewhat muted, compared to later cartoons), and would only grow zanier and infinitely cleverer in the years to come.
And as for Bugs?
While Avery may be credited with giving figurative birth to the Bugs Bunny personality, he did not stick with the character long enough to be a truly defining influence; directors Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones largely guided Bugs through most of his early 1940s output, as the character was further refined. Avery would only direct three more Bugs cartoons before heading over to MGM, all released in 1941: Tortoise Beats Hare, The Heckling Hare, and All This and Rabbit Stew. That last short, which was produced before Heckling Hare, was released after Avery had already left the studio, and his name does not appear in the credits. Rabbit Stew is also notable for its position as one of the notorious “Censored Eleven” Warner cartoons, due to stereotypically racist content (incidentally, two other Avery cartoons appear on that list: 1937’s Uncle Tom’s Bungalow, and 1938’s The Isle of Pingo Pongo).
Next week, we’ll take a look at how Friz Freleng put his own stamp on the wascally wabbit.