Rightwing Film Geek

Wabbit season!!!

At Matt Zoller Seitz’s group site, Wagstaff has a great essay on showing the classic cartoon shorts by Warner Brothers and Disney to his toddler son. It’s long but RTWT.

The first critical opinion I recall holding as a wee lad was that there was something about Bugs Bunny that made his cartoons special. And which turned me away from the Disney shorts. Most of the commenters in the field also seem to have the same preference for Warners over Disney. I remember annoying my parents for days on end once by singing “kill de wabbit, kill de wabbit” after seeing “What’s Opera, Doc.” Not until years later, when I began watching them again as an adult cinephile, could I put my finger on why I found “Bugs and Pals” funnier. It was Bugs’ character.

It would be overanalyzing it to call Bugs my ego-ideal (that would have been Muhammad Ali). But his sang-froid, his insouciance, his irreverence, his wit, his grace under pressure, his smart-aleckness — I admired and liked everything about Bugs. The Disney shorts struck me as made “for kids,” too much like education and parental uplift. To this day, the quickest way to anger me is to talk down to me, and my parents and aunts and uncles knew that I didn’t like being obviously treated as a little boy, even as a little boy. Mickey Mouse, in particular, I thought was a goody-two-shoes. Goofy and Pluto were too bizarre. Only Donald really hit my strike zone, and he suffered in comparison with Warner Brothers’ Daffy Duck (because again, the adult-wiseacre and irony factors that suffused Warners product was so absent from Disney). Suffice to say that I have never felt any need as an adult to revisit my 30-year-old memories of the Disney shorts. In epigrammatic form: Disney was about funny characters, and Warners was about characters doing something funny. Or to use Wagstaff’s typology (but dead-on observation) — Disney was about “humor”; Warners about “wit.”

Some commenters in the thread tried to type Warners and Disney according to a Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd template. The comments aren’t wrong, but strike me as unimportant. In fact, Chaplin himself said it best about his start at the all-knockabout-and-chase Sennett studio of 1914: “Little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.” At the annual Slapsticons (in DC in a fortnight) I’ve found the same thing about my taste in cartoons (“I like Bugs”) also applies to silent shorts. If there is a central character whom I find likeable, I’m almost always on board; when not, usually not. I find the early Mack Sennett, Jimmy Adams, Billy Dooley, the Boyfriends, Clark & McCullough, most of Fatty Arbuckle quite resistable. I prefer the Hal Roach series to the Fox Sunshine Comedies. I like “Harold” and “Buster” in the sense that I’d want to spend an afternoon with them (not so much The Tramp, though obviously Chaplin’s silent genius is indisputable). It’s obvious too, how much Bugs owes to the great silent clowns, Chaplin most of all. His shorts “A Woman” “The Masquerader” (he shoulda sued “Tootsie” for plagiarism on that one) and “The Floorwalker,” for example, show Chaplin using drag flirtations and a sudden kiss on the mouth to get under the skin of his antagonists, exactly as Bugs would do with Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil. There are also specific gags and gestures taken for Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. But prior to Chaplin, and back into the 19th-century stage, it was rare for the “clown” to also be the “hero.” Bugs simply WAS the clown-as-hero (and in his later shorts, invincible hero — the kind who, as in “Bully for Bugs” can turn to the audience in mid-flight and say “of course, you realize THIS means war”), and I think that’s what I found so appealing as a boy.

The other main reason for my preference for Warners is that its sense of humor is drier, more ironic. I prefer, to refer back to Wagstaff “wit” to “humor.” To this day, I generally don’t find obvious efforts at “funny” or “wacky” like broad physical comedy divorced from context to be very amusing — to the great annoyance of the person who sits opposite me at work, who has the precise opposite disposition. He can’t tell a joke without laughing at it, and prefers ANIMAL HOUSE, THE JERK and BLAZING SADDLES to THE PRODUCERS and DR. STRANGELOVE. Ernst Lubitsch famously said that “if you give the audience two and two, they don’t have to be told it’s four,” and the Warners cartoons understood that better.

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I just laughed myself silly just thinking of the way in “High Diving Hare,” the “camera” holds on the middle of the ladder while all we see is an already-ten-times-defeated Sam alternatively climbing up on the right edge of the frame and falling down on the left. Warner’s has as many great-but-out-of-context-banal walkoff lines as Lubitsch disciple Billy Wilder — Porky’s “b-b-b-b-b-b-big deal” and “ain’t I a stinker.” There’s also nothing inherently amusing about the line “how now, brown cow.” What makes it hilarious in the context of “Roman Legion-Hare” is the way Bugs says it and how it’s a pure taunt against Yosemite Sam. The very fact that the line means absolutely nothing besides being a hackneyed elocution lesson is what purifies the line into gesture. Even though there is something there is something inherently ridiculous about the phrase “Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator,” the joke is still primarily about Marvin Martian’s hyper-fussy, pedantic way of saying it — the contrast between his enormous power (“I’m about to blow up the earth”) and wimpy person. Pedantry (or perhaps more precisely self-regard) is also mocked, in a different way, in the line “Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius,” a phrase that’s now entered the language as an insult ready to apply in many a case (it’s ironic that I love anti-pedantry jokes, huh?) There’s also more uninflected “side jokes” in Warners and side references that not all will get (but never dominate the action). First to come to mind — in “Rabbit Punch,” Bugs’ fight with the Champ lasts 110 rounds; this is the exact number, so it’s probably not a coincidence, of the longest gloved boxing match on record (the 1893 fight between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke).

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But my favorite Warners short is “The Rabbit of Seville,” because it has everything I love both about Bugs and Rossini. Indeed the Barber overture is my single all-time favorite piece of music, and most of the adjectives I’d apply to it — breezy, witty, lilting, graceful, charming, shaded, compulsively listenable, melodic fun — I’d apply to Bugs too. The animation, the gestures, and the parodic lyrics themselves both stay in perfect step to the Rossini music (even though Bugs has to grow an extra finger to do it). It’s like a seven-minute high-wire act that never looks down. In retrospect, it was the perfect piece of music for scoring a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In fact, frankly I don’t know how to separate my love for both “Rabbit of Seville” and the Rossini overture — which is chicken and which is egg. I know I saw the cartoon first, and that I was resitant to opera as a boy. But what “Rabbit” did later was make me unafraid to laugh at “Barber.” But you know what … you’re *supposed* to laugh at “Barber”; it’s a romantic comedy and Figaro is a puckish mixer, not completely unrelated to Bugs. We Anglophones so cover opera with the mantle of “classic” and “high culture” that we forget that so much of even the most conservative opera canon is silly romantic comedy — comedia dell’arte with songs. Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “The Marriage of Figaro” probably round out, with “Barber,” my three favorites. And loving “Barber” made me realize how much of Warner’s animation resembles nothing more than a contemporary form of opera buffa (centering on movement rather than notes), how much it owes to the traditions of the past, and how we can connect one to the other and make the past come alive and give depth to the present.

July 8, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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