by Pat Perry
By sheer, happy coincidence, I come today to sing the praises of a legendary Looney Tunes short on the 100th birthday of its creator – Charles M. “Chuck” Jones.
I can clearly recall a time in my childhood when most of what I knew about classical music I’d learned from Bugs Bunny.
Like so many kids who grew up watching Chicago television in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Looney Tunes were once an integral part of my early morning routine. From Channel Nine’s Ray Rayner and Friends show, we got a daily, before-school dose of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote… and, of course, the “wascally wabbit” who forever outran hunter Elmer Fudd.
During those formative years, I was introduced to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Bugs’ enthusiastic performance of it in Rhapsody Rabbit, and to conductor Leopold Stokowski by Bugs’ impersonation of him in Long-Haired Hare. In Rabbit of Seville, Bugs escaped the gun of Elmer Fudd by leading him into an opera house and subjecting him to a variety of tonsorial torments set to the rhythms of Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture. And from today’s countdown honoree – What’s Opera Doc? – I learned unforgettable lyrics to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” – to this day, I cannot get them out of my head when I hear that music. C’mon, sing ‘em with me now: “Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit! Kill da Wa-a-a-a-bit!!!!!”
What I couldn’t fully appreciate as a youngster was that, in What’s Opera Doc? director Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese brought their musical tomfoolery to a new level of artistry and ambition. They essentially filtered Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle through Elmer and Bugs’ well-worn shtick while incorporating gentle swipes at Disney’s Fantasia and the conventions of both opera and classical ballet as they were typically staged in that era.
In other words, there was more going on than initially met the eye.
Take the opening scene for example. We see the shadow of some great, horned being against a tall, blue cliff. Is it a god or a monster? We’re not sure. He’s conjuring a storm into being, seemingly pulling dark clouds, lightening and thunder down from the skies with a few sweeps of his enormous arms. His movements silhouetted against the cliff clearly evoke the opening of the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia, yet his ability to create storms raises the possibility that he may be Donner, the storm god of the Ring Cycle operas.
Then comes the laugh. The camera pans down to reveal that this ominous being is just a very small Elmer Fudd, in armor and “magic helmet,” casting a very big shadow.
What’s Opera Doc? is filled with these kinds of multi-layered, comedy-plus-cultural-reference moments. Elmer and Bugs, for example, aren’t just enacting their usual escapades with a classical music soundtrack. They’re actually playing Wagner’s most iconic characters, Siegfried and (for most of the running time, anyway) Brunhilde. The incongruity of the casting provides the comedy. (Tubby little Elmer with his softly croaking voice and too-big helmet constantly falling down over his eyes; the lean and limber Bugs, applying his nasal-ly squawk to Wagner’s music and coquettishly cavorting through a role stereotypically played by a portly, powerhouse soprano.) But they’re also performing against a flat, stylized landscape which has been carefully crafted to evoke the kind of scenic design common in opera productions. And when they dance a deliriously silly pas de deux, their movements are actually very precisely executed and true to the movements of actual dancers – no accident as Jones had his animators spend time sketching actual ballet dancers at work before putting together this sequence. As Jones himself says in the short documentary Wagnerian Wabbit: The Making of What’s Opera Doc?, it’s not what the characters are doing, but who they are that makes it funny.
Incidentally, this was not the first time that that Bugs had appeared in Brunhilde drag. Frtiz Freleng’s Herr Meets Hare, a World War II propaganda piece, put Hermann “Fatso” Goering, in the Elmer Fudd role, matching wits with Bugs in a Black Forest rabbit hunt. At one juncture, Bugs rides in on a horse, sporting braids and a Nordic helmet, to the strains of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhauser, the same tune which would be used for the “Return My Love” duet in What’s Opera Doc? Goering, depicted as a corpulent, lederhosen-clad buffoon, then appears in Siegfried garb, ardently pursuing and swooning over the disguised Bugs – much as Elmer would fall instantly for the tarted-up Brunhilde/Bugs.
What’s Opera Doc? is a brilliant mash-up of highbrow grandeur and lowbrow lunacy, a deliciously funny blend of the sublime and the ridiculous. It’s been claimed (most notably by Bugs himself, while introducing the short on a Looney Tunes collection DVD) that the film “squashes” the entire eighteen-hour Ring Cycle into seven minutes of cartoon. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the film does actually touch on a number of elements and themes that are essentially true to Wagner, yet also define his operas for middlebrow audiences without extensive direct experience of them. (I include myself in that group, by the way.)
Elmer’s magic helmet may be a reference to the helmet created for the dwarf, Alberich in Das Rheingold. Bugs’ horse is surely meant to evoke the horse that Brunhilde rides into Siegfried’s funeral pyre in Gotterdamerung – although the horse is so fat, it’s a wonder it’s able to go anywhere. Apparently Jones felt that he couldn’t alter Bugs’ physical dimensions to those of a typical Wagnerian soprano, so the horse was given the imposing physique instead. As in the actual operas, there is certainly the ecstasy of romantic love (the “Return My Love” duet and subsequent ballet), the sense of betrayal by characters that are disguised then revealed (Brunhilde is just Bugs in a wig and makeup), and dramatic moments of loss, grief and regret (Elmer succeeds in killing Bugs, then immediately mourns him, crying “What have I done?”)
(On that last point, however, fear not- the story does not get irretrievably dark. In the final shot, even as Elmer tearfully carries Bugs’ limp body up a winding cliffside, we get one last moment of comic relief. Bugs, suddenly alert, raises his head and asks the audience “Well, what did you expect from an opera? A happy ending?” As ever, the rabbit gets the wise-ass curtain line.)
What’s Opera Doc? was the first cartoon short ever voted into the National Film Registry of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” films, and the first of three Chuck Jones shorts to be so honored. That the others – Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening – have already been featured in this countdown seems entirely appropriate.
How What’s Opera Doc? made the Top 100:
Frank Aida No. 3
Sam Juliano No. 8
Jason Marshall No. 27
Dean Treadway No. 40
Bobby McCartney No. 46
Pat Perry No. 49