Back in the days of early animation, movie theaters used to show seven-minute cartoons before the main feature started and according to science, the usual gestation period for a rabbit is a month, but Bugs Bunny, the iconic cartoon character, took a lot longer to come to life.
On July 27, 1940 marked the release of a Warner Bros. cartoon called “A Wild Hare”, in which Bugs appeared alongside Elmer Fudd for the very first time.
There had been previous incarnations of rabbits in Warner Bros. cartoons, but in this feature, directed by Tex Avery, the legendary rabbit actually looked sort of like the Bugs Bunny we know today and also featured the Brooklyn-esque voice and famous catchphrase for the first time — “What’s up, Doc?”
Bugs was named for another Warner animator Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who had directed some of the earlier incarnations of the rabbit.
The voice for Bugs was provided by the legendary Mel Blanc, who came up with distinctive voices for just about all the Warner Bros. characters for most of that studio’s run.
Bugs was introduced during an era when the Warner animation studio was still finding its way up against the other major cartoon studios, particularly Disney.
As a matter of fact, the Disney Studio had just started to shift its focus towards long-form animated feature films at the time. The decade of the 1940’s was, in fact, a big one for the creation of some big animated stars. Even the Fleischer Studios were impressed.
Tom and Jerry gained fame around this time over at MGM and the Walter Lantz studio introduced Woody Woodpecker as well (a character that Hardaway was instrumental in creating, interestingly).
It would prove to be a golden age for animated cartoons and Bugs quickly became the biggest star in the stable of outrageous characters from the Warner studio — a cast that would include Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, the Road Runner and many others.
The creation of Bugs Bunny marked a turning point of sorts. The Warner Bros. animation unit had been notorious for cartoon characters who were out-of-control, to say the least.
According to cartoon historians, this new rabbit was far less frantic and much more street-wise than the previous Warner Bros. efforts.
While characters like Daffy Duck would normally jump around and act like lunatics, Bugs was a far cooler cat. He’d be pretty fearless when confronted with scary situations and better able to outwit the villains he would be up against as a result.
While Bugs had his lunatic moments, he kept it in check a lot of the time, which made even more funnier those moments when he would bash Elmer Fudd or give him a pie to the face, and then turn to the camera and say, “ain’t I a stinker?”
I think this rubbed off on the whole Warner cartoon output. You saw a noticeable change in the other Warner Bros. characters following Bugs arrival. Daffy, in particular, calmed down significantly as a character in his later films.
I think a change in directors was likely responsible. Tex Avery and then Bob Clampett were particularly associated with the more frantic tone of the earlier Warner Bros. cartoons. Both moved on from the Warner lot.
Above all, Bugs was a creature of the 1940’s. He gained popularity so swiftly that he was immediately put to work on the war effort, appearing in promotions for war bonds.
It’s NOT easy for cartoon characters to stay popular for 80 years.
Who really cares about Betty Boop or Felix The Cat these days? For example, even Mr. Magoo seems to belong to another era, but Bugs has managed to keep on evolving. Mickey Mouse can’t even say that. Take that, Disney!!!!
A big reason for that was the work of great Warner Bros. directors, like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, who kept finding new ways to develop Bugs in the late 1940’s and through the 1950’s.
Believe me, Jones had distinct ideas about how Bugs should react to a situation.
In Jones’ films, Bugs was never going to be the instigator, it would usually be some other villain or something else that would force the rabbit into action. “Of course, you know, this means war.”
The other thing about some of Jones’ cartoons — at least ones that were also written by Michael Maltese — is that often Bugs would be shown burrowing up from underneath the ground at some destination he didn’t expect, like the South Pole or some bull ring somewhere and Bugs would always wistfully say he should’ve taken that left turn in Albuquerque.
The Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce surely owes a debt of gratitude to Bugs for all the free publicity they’ve gotten over the years.
Freleng, a director responsible for creating a number of iconic cartoon characters, helped Bugs grow as a character by giving him a far tougher adversary to deal with. Instead of the pathetic Elmer Fudd, Bugs would go up against the rough and tumble Yosemite Sam, with all his guns. Bugs needed all of his wits up against that guy, for sure.
Another memorable foil for Bugs was created by Jones — Marvin The Martian, whose plans to blow up Earth proved another worthy obstacle for the rabbit.
In all, it was the ability of all these directors to create these different characters and situations for Bugs that kept the franchise fresh in peoples minds, helping the Warner Bros. Studios rise to the top of the motion picture cartoon business.
I also think the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters were a classic instance of being in the right place at the right time, because their popularity peaked right when television began to dominate in the 1950’s.
So, these characters were in prime position to make the transition to that new media and gain a new generation of fans — my generation.
“The Bugs Bunny Show” ran for two years in prime time on ABC, starting in 1960. After that time, Bugs and his pals moved on to Saturday mornings where they would dominate the ratings on various networks for the next three decades.
But that run has long since ended and it’s been a struggle in recent years to keep Bugs in the public eye.
The old cartoons have faded from view, but Bugs has been involved in some new TV projects lately — to mixed results.
It was a brand-new and stylized Bugs who showed up in new episodes of the sitcom-style “The Looney Tunes Show” on the Cartoon Network — with traditionalists up in arms about the new look of the famous characters. Maybe, Bugs next TV project called Wabbit will fare better.
Another project that could be coming soon is a motion picture revival of “Space Jam”. In case anyone forgot, that was the successful 1996 animation-live action feature in which Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls teamed up with Bugs and the Looney Tunes gang against the intimidating Monstars.
Now, rumors are flying that former Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James might be part of “Space Jam 2”, after he just signed a deal with Warner Bros. Pictures. LeBron James and Bugs Bunny, together, on the big screen?! That’ll surely be a sight to see, a true Dream Team — better than what LeBron had going with the Miami Heat.
Hopefully, this project will achieve a wide audience and serve the purpose of keeping Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, The Tasmanian Devil, Foghorn Leghorn and everyone else prominent in the public eye for a new generation of cartoon fans. The old grey hare isn’t ready for the old age home just yet.
Happy 80th Birthday, Bugs Bunny, you rascally rabbit!!!!
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