Today, July 27th, marks the official seventy-fifth birthday of one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time, the inimitable Bugs Bunny. To celebrate, the Retro Set looks back at a trio of classic Bugs ‘toons.
In the early 1950s, Warner Bros. animation director Chuck Jones took two of the studio’s biggest stars–Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck–and paired them up in a series of three cartoons, known familiarly as the “Hunting Trilogy”: Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (1953). All written by frequent Jones collaborator Michael Maltese, these shorts feature Bugs and Daffy squaring off with Elmer Fudd, who is determined to shoot one or both of them–if he can only figure out which “hunting season” it really is. Daffy continually tries to throw Bugs into harm’s way–whether to protect himself (because it’s really duck season) or to cause trouble for his rival in the midst of rabbit season. Bugs, for his part, manages to skirt out of that trouble at every turn, usually at Daffy’s expense, while Elmer essentially stands around waiting for his cue to fire. The result of all of this madness is a trio of witty, entertaining cartoons that set up a winning dynamic of co-mingled friendship and rivalry between Bugs and Daffy that remains a vital ingredient of their animated relationship to this day.
Rabbit Fire (like its two successors) is somewhat unique for Warner Bros. in that it relies heavily on the wordplay and dialogue (the infamous “rabbit season”/”duck season” exchanges) between the characters instead of the wild action associated with most of the studio’s shorts. As the first cartoon to feature both Bugs and Daffy in starring roles, it might be expected that one or both characters would be short-changed in some way to make room for the other; instead, they are given equal stature–though to me, at least, Daffy is the true focus of these shorts (if anyone comes off as a third wheel here, it’s Elmer, whose only function is to provide the catalyst for Daffy’s punishment). The formula for the characters’ future encounters is pretty much set: Bugs is the wiseacre winner, and Daffy is the defiant loser.
Indeed, Daffy really can’t win. Even when he tries to flip the script, disguising himself as Bugs, his rival outwits him by dressing as Daffy, and the “real” Daffy takes another bullet to the face. His moral outrage in the wake of that incident is marked by a side-splitting stream of ranting dialogue as Daffy verbally lambasts Bugs:
“Yes, you’re dethpicable! And … and … and picable! And … and … you’re–you’re very definitely dethpicable! How–how a person can get so … so dethpicable in one lifetime is … is beyond me! It isn’t as though I–I haven’t met a lot of people! Goodness knows, it isn’t that! It isn’t that–that! Goodness knows! It isn’t … it’s … dethpicable …”
The scene is marked by a brilliant delivery by voice actor Mel Blanc that fully demonstrates the depth of Daffy’s frustration. This is a duck that is ready to snap (which he does, eventually, by the time the third installment in the series rolls around).
It’s important to note that Bugs and Daffy aren’t entirely antagonistic toward one another in this short; when the opportunity arises to have some fun with Elmer, the two team up as a comely female hunter (because, seriously–does Bugs ever pass up the chance to dress in drag?) and her “naughty bow wow.” But even then, as the plan fails and their disguises fall apart, they immediately slip back into rivalry … until the absolutely perfect denouement, when they team up once more to partake in “Elmer Season.”
[Before I move on, I have to mention one of my favorite moments of this cartoon: when Bugs retrieves a book of recipes from his hole, called “1000 Ways to Cook a Duck,” and starts reciting them in an effort to entice Elmer. Not to be outmatched, Daffy reaches into Bugs’ home … and inexplicably pulls out a book called “1000 Ways to Cook a Rabbit.” As a kid, I always wondered why Bugs owned a cookbook devoted to cooking rabbits–it really made me wonder about him for just a minute …!]
The focus of the cartoon is once more on wordplay, and features a delicious exchange in which Daffy finds himself in a bit of “pronoun trouble”:
Bugs: “It’s true, Doc. I’m a rabbit, alright. Would you like to shoot me now or wait ’til you get home?”
Daffy: “Shoot him now! Shoot him now!”
Bugs: “You keep out of this! He doesn’t have to shoot you now!”
Daffy: “He does so have to shoot me now! [to Elmer] I demand that you shoot me now!”
When Elmer–after a brief, quizzical glance at the audience–acquiesces to Daffy’s demand and shoots him in the head, an infuriated yet strangely calm Daffy returns to Bugs and demands that they repeat the scene, which they do rather matter-of-factly:
Daffy: “Let’s run through that again.”
Bugs: “Okay. Would you like to shoot me now or wait ’til you get home.”
Daffy: “Shoot him now, shoot him now.”
Bugs: “You keep outta this, he doesn’t have to shoot you now.”
Daffy: “Ha! That’s it! Hold it right there! [turns to audience] Pronoun trouble. [turns back to Bugs] It’s not, ‘He doesn’t have to shoot you now.’ It’s, ‘He doesn’t have to shoot me now.’ Well, I say he does have to shoot me now! [turns to Elmer] So shoot me now!”
Rabbit Seasoning demonstrates Daffy’s disastrous tenaciousness–even when he knows that he’s in too deep (exclaiming, “Not again!” when he realizes he’s about to be shot once more), he cannot let it go and move on. He is forever trying to win, and forever losing to someone more clever than he, and the frustrating cycle just goes on and on with little relief. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the situation with the (non)performing frog in Jones’ masterpiece One Froggy Evening (1955), in that Daffy’s constant striving reflects an inescapable sense of futility from which he cannot extricate himself–and in the end, it’s yet another way in which the character is made more relatable to the audience, because who hasn’t been there? In many ways, it’s the very nature of human existence, encapsulated in a six-and-a-half minute cartoon.
Incidentally, Rabbit Seasoning is the only one of the “Hunting Trilogy” to have been voted onto the list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons–it ranks at number thirty (it’s worth noting, however, that its predecessor was given an honorable mention on the list).
DUCK! RABBIT, DUCK!
The reliance on wordplay is again intact: for instance, in a winking nod to the “pronoun trouble” in the previous entry of the trilogy, Daffy demonstrates his lack of spelling prowess when asking Bugs to spell “fricasseeing rabbit.” Instead, Bugs spells out “fricasseeing DUCK,” which results in Daffy getting shot once again. But the best gag in the cartoon involves a series of signs designating different hunting “seasons.” Every time Daffy inadvertently likens himself to an animal, Bugs holds up a sign saying it’s that animal’s “season,” and Elmer takes aim on the hapless duck:
Daffy: “You’re a dirty dog.”
Bugs: “And you are a dirty skunk.”
Daffy: “I’m a dirty skunk? I’m a dirty skunk?”
Bugs immediately holds up a sign reading, “Dirty Skunk Season,” and Elmer fires.
The ending of Duck! Rabbit, Duck! employs some seriously dark humor, as the other two characters crack under the pressure of dealing with the unconquerable Bugs. First, Daffy loses his marbles–understandable considering he’s been shot in the head multiple times and lived to tell about it (kids, don’t try this at home)–and demands that Elmer shoot him again and again and again: “Shoot me again! I enjoy it! I love the smell of burnt feathers and gunpowder and cordite!” Soon after Daffy’s breakdown, a frustrated Elmer also succumbs to the madness after three years’ worth of go-rounds with the zany pair. When a disguised Bugs informs Elmer that it’s actually BASEBALL season, something snaps in the hunter, and he sets off chasing a baseball over the snowy hills, shooting it gleefully as he runs. And even after Elmer runs off and Daffy comes back to reality, Bugs still manages to get in one last shot (literally) at Daffy. The rabbit’s victory is nothing short of complete.
Together, the three cartoons that make up Chuck Jones’ “Hunting Trilogy” are undeniable classics of the animation genre. Not only are these shorts absolutely hilarious, but they are intelligently composed, with an attention to dialogue and detail that was far from the norm at a time when action shots and slapstick gags reigned supreme. And while these cartoons feature their fair share of physical humor, it’s the verbal interactions between the characters that really drive the action and make these such memorable entries not only in the career of Jones, but in the history of animation itself.
Note: all three cartoons in the “Hunting Trilogy” are available on Blu-ray in the Looney Tunes: Platinum Collection, Volume Two (a series of releases which we highly recommend for fans of the classic Warner Bros. shorts!).