Like I did earlier this year when I wrote about the legacy of Tom and Jerry, I would like to take the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of Bug Bunny to talk about one of the most influential and popular cartoon characters that have ever existed.
I’ll disclaim my bias upfront: Bugs Bunny is my favorite, and has been for as long as I can remember. I’m, of course, not alone on the opinion that he is a great character. Unlike Tom and Jerry, who were enormously popular but enjoy relatively little critical respect today, Bugs’s legacy only seems to improve with age. Animation fans and scholars will recognize Chuck Jones as one of the biggest geniuses of the genre, and his work with the character in shorts like What’s Opera, Doc? and the Hunting Trilogy are regarded as some of the best animated film ever made.
Also unlike Tom and Jerry, who definitely appeared for the first time in 1940’s Puss Gets the Boot, Bugs’s 75th Anniversary could be the source of some dispute. A Wild Hare, directed by Tex Avery and released on July 27th, 1940, is regarded as the first “official” appearance of the character, for it is the first short that features a rabbit that we can unambiguously recognize as the Bug Bunny. Before that, Warner Bros. animators -particularly Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton- had been experimenting with a rabbit character as far back as 1938, when a hyperactive rabbit terrorized Porky Pig in Porky’s Hare Hunt.
It wasn’t until A Wild Hare, however, that Mel Blanc -who had voiced the rabbit in his previous appearances- adopted a sardonic Bronx accent and the iconic “Eh, what’s up, doc?” that we associate with the character. Bug’s design would still go through some significant changes up until the fifties, and he wouldn’t be identified as “Bugs Bunny” on screen until the following year’s Elmer’s Pet Rabbit, but this 1940 short solidified the personality of the character that America -and the world- would fall in love with.
The impact of Bugs Bunny in the culture is unarguable. Not only did he become a company mascot for Warner Bros., but he became the first cartoon character to be portrayed in a U.S. postal stamp, he was the star of the first animated short to be inducted in the National Film Registry (What’s Opera, Doc? in 1992), and he became the second cartoon character to be awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame after, of course, Mickey Mouse.
As a corporate mascot, he hasn’t been as protected as Mickey. The most significant difference is the fact that corporate partnership hasn’t drained Bugs of his original mischievous personality. While some of his later career appearances can be a little tame compared to the classics, he is still easily recognizable as the same character. Alternatively, compare a contemporary depiction of Mickey Mouse to his debut in Steamboat Willie and you will see two similarly designed, but completely different characters as far as their psychology is concerned.
For this consistency of character we most likely have to thank Chuck Jones, who directed the character in his most iconic appearances, and his strict method of production. While Jones is celebrated for the wacky imaginative comedy of his shorts, he understood that the character he was working with worked best under a strict set of rules that defined their personalities and the way they would behave. He was probably responsible for making sure we would forever remember Bugs as a laid-back, cool, and smart character who, once provoked or put in danger, won’t stop until he proves how much smarter he is than anyone who is tormenting him at a given moment.
While Jones perfected the image of Bugs, and probably put the rules of his personality in writing, he most likely derived his understanding of the character from his early appearances. Tex Avery’s work with the character were the shorts that gave Bugs his initial popularity, and A Wild Hare, for example, already defined him as smart -in a sarcastic kind of way- and essentially pacifist. A lot of the responsibility for the character’s defining traits, of course, must also be given to Mel Blanc, who was there since the beginning and whose vocal performance must undoubtedly influenced the animators.
So, if you have any attachment to the character or the history of animation, why not celebrate by taking a look at some of his greatest moments? You can start with the “Hunting Trilogy” -made up by Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit! Duck!– which features the quintessential triangular conflict between Bugs, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd. Continue with the musically-inclined shorts, which are some of my favorites: Long-Haired Hare which features Bugs as a conductor, Rabbit of Seville, and, of course, the monumental achievement that is What’s Opera, Doc? After that, take you pick. There are so many shorts to choose from, and something worth re-discovering in most of them. If you want more suggestions, you can check out the recommendations at the end of this essay by Tim Brayton, and I would also recommend checking out the video essay below on the work of Chuck Jones by the great Tony Zhou.
Happy birthday, Bugs!