Monday, June 02, 2008

The Ideal Bugs Bunny Cartoon...

Is "Racketeer Rabbit" (1946).

I don't know why this one isn't very famous; I guess it's because Friz Freleng covered some of the same ground later with "Bugs and Thugs" (1954), which became one of the best-known Bugs cartoons ("You might, rabbit, you might" is one of the most-quoted lines from any cartoon). "Bugs and Thugs" is good, but "Racketeer" is just about perfect. Even by the standards of 1946, almost certainly the best year for Warner Brothers cartoon releases -- Clampett (in his last cartoons for the studio) Jones and Freleng all in peak form, the first cartoons from McKimson and Davis -- I've always thought this one was special.

The gags are from Mike Maltese and Friz Freleng's top drawer: the "and me, boss?" sequence, the "making something really fast just so you can hit the villain with it" scene, the "hiding Rocky" scene, and of course the amazingly written and timed scene where Bugs actually gets into costume to impersonate a policeman (even though Rocky can't see him doing it and there's no reason for him to do it). It has several of my favorite Maltese lines of dialogue, particularly "Would I have the temerity to do this if my bosom chum was encased therein?" It's got Freleng's excellent '40s animation team and Paul Julian's backgrounds ("Hotel Friz"). And it just strikes me as the perfect mid-point between all the different stages of Warner Brothers cartoons: it has the wackiness and pop-culture references of the early '40s, combined with the sharp gags (but not just blackout gags like in some of the '50s cartoons; they're integrated into the story) and explosions and more socially-conscious Bugs of the post-war period.

Freleng and Maltese were an exceptionally good team when it came to Bugs Bunny; they were on the same wavelength when it came to the character, both believing that Bugs shouldn't go looking for trouble but needed to be ruthless once the trouble started, and that he should go up against characters who are at least reasonably threatening. (The common thread among most of Freleng's Bugs villains, culminating in Yosemite Sam, is that while they're too stupid to be much of a threat to Bugs, other people find them dangerous and you get the feeling that they were up against anyone other than Bugs, they might not be as inept.) In this cartoon, Bugs isn't smug like he'd later become, and he's not obnoxious like he is in some of the Clampett or McKimson Bugs Bunnies. He's a likeable force for good and he's a bad-ass who enjoys inflicting violence and extremely intelligent and resourceful. And more than any other cartoon character, he takes us into our confidence: what makes the "give it to me!" joke is the way he looks at us for a split second, as if to share our enjoyment of what's about to happen. He's a fully-rounded character like few other cartoon superstars.

If the cartoon has a flaw is that there's a story gap -- we never do see how Bugs gets rid of the Peter Lorre caricature, Hugo. Knowing nothing about it, I'd guess that a scene like that was probably written but that they didn't have time to animate it. (The cartoon is almost eight minutes as it is.) Still, it actually works all right because by this point, Bugs's abilities are so well-known that we just accept that he'll get out of any situation; we don't even need to see him do it.

Personal note: back when I was in college, I organized a sort of video festival of 15 Bugs Bunny cartoons. About eight people showed up, but I think they had a good time. Of the 15 I selected, "Racketeer Rabbit" is the only one that hasn't been on a Looney Tunes Golden Collection yet, but hopefully the series will last long enough for that to change. (And it will be a bonus on a Gangster movies collection later this year.) For the less-than-eight people who care, here are the 15 Bugs Bunny cartoons I picked as a representative "best-of" chronological sampling of his career. Actually except maybe for the last two I'd probably pick the same ones today.

A Wild Hare
Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid
Little Red Riding Rabbit
The Old Grey Hare
Racketeer Rabbit
Hair-Raising Hare
Bugs Bunny Rides Again
Haredevil Hare
High Diving Hare
Rabbit of Seville
Hillbilly Hare
Operation Rabbit
Duck! Rabbit, Duck!
Sahara Hare
Ali Baba Bunny


Thad said...

"Hair Raising Hare" is the ideal Bugs cartoon for me, but "Racketeer Rabbit" is a masterpiece, for all the reasons you highlighted. The coup de grĂ¢ce is the whole Virgil Ross segment, fading out abruptly with Bugs as a 'gay 90s' motorist, with "In My Merry Oldsmobile" starting on the soundtrack. There's barely any time given for the gag to register, but it just works beautifully.

I always assumed Hugo's corpse was found later in a Juilan-painted landfill somewhere. But that's just me. "A-HEH!"

Yeldarb86 said...

This is one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons. It's awesome how he can put on a one-man show.

I always liked the Edward Robinson characterization of Rocky better.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

1946 was indeed a great year for Warner Bros. cartoons. Racketeer Rabbit is one of my favorites. My favorite scene is where Bugs is imitating a gangster, flipping a coin ala George Raft, and telling Rocky that it's curtains for him -- and Rocky's comment afterward, "Aw, they're adorable!"

By the way, I think Hugo's disappearance is intentional. We don't need to see what happened to him to know that Bugs got rid of him somehow. The real joke is when Rocky assumes Bugs is Hugo when the rabbit returns, and not believing him when Bugs tries to convince Rocky otherwise.

Michael Jones said...

I can die a happy man now. Finally a Bugs cartoon that I'd never seen. How did I miss this one? It's adorable!

I can't fault any of the toons on your list, but I'd add Homeless Hare as one of my favourites.

J Lee said...

One of the things that separates this from some of the later "do gooder" Bugs cartoons, is he doesn't have to declare his intentions to set things right, as in Freleng's "Hare Trimmed" or Jones' "Bewitched Bunny", he just gets handed a sawbuck by Rocky and his face lights up, which segues right into the "How 'bout me, boss?" gag, which may be the fastest gag Bugs ever did. The "curtains" gag is also great in it's pacing and reaction -- it's an obvious joke, and one that wouldn't have been put across right five years earlier (pacing to slow) or 10 years later (when the gag really would have been telegraphed). Here, it works perfectly and is topped off by Rocky's "Aww, they're adorable" line.

(Friz never really gets the credit he should for essentially defining Bugs in his cartoons with Maltese from 1941-48, possibly because while Freleng had the best stories of the period, in the early going he also had the worst-looking rabbit, compared to what the other units were doing.)

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget Mel Blanc's contribution. The "And me, boss?" sequence is masterful--in the space of a few seconds, using only that same three-word phrase, Blanc comes up with six different voices each suggesting a distinct character.

Larry Levine said...

This is INDEED a masterpiece!!!

Friz was great throughout the which makes it frustrating how his 50's output slid into formula cartoons with few real laughs & Hawley Pratt's bland layouts--IMO a big reason why his work isn't held in the esteem with the Jones/Maltese cartoons.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Yes this Friz's best Bugs Bunny cartoony most notably because he emphasized on the fact that Bugs Bunny was a great actor. As for the getting rid of Hugo part, that was just genius bit of dark comedy.

Larry Levine said...

PC, I agree with you 100%. It's much more fun to imagine how Bugs got rid of Hugo.

Will Finn said...

"..and me too, boss!"

One of the funniest of the Bunny's. thanks for posting.

Robert Hutchinson said...

My very favorite part of this cartoon (and I'm thrilled to watch it again to be reminded of it) is the second attempt at hiding Rocky, in the urn. The timing is absolutely perfect, and makes me laugh out loud every time.

Anonymous said...

Hello to all - about 18 months ago I was on a media course and was asked to do a presentation on 'Stars', and what makes them; naturally, my choice was the Brooklynite bunny.

After managing to allay any lingering doubts as to my sanity by explaining that Bugs is as tangibly 'real' as Harrison Ford, or Anne Hathaway (a couple of other examples proffered by my class), I did OK enough to swipe a Merit grade, and showed a suitable clip ('Hair-Raising Hare', natch).

I also handed out a sort-of 'h2g2' Bugs sheet I made up, explaining in greater depth some of the points covered, and it included a list I labelled "Ten of the Best: A Few Favourite Bugs Classics", as suitable examples for further investigation (not that any of 'em did, mind you... the swine).

Anyhoo, as I have absolutely nothing whatsoever better to do at this time, here's the list to see what y'all think. Enjoy:

* Hold the Lion, Please (massively underrated, if you ask me - 'Eh, who wears the pants in this family?')
* Hare Force ('Oh no - out YOU go once & for all!')
* Hare Remover (A weird one, I know, but it still has the ability to provoke some kind of reaction from anyone who sees it: 'Eh, I think Spencer Tracy did it better - don't you, folks?'
* Hare Splitter ('Is this what you guyls have to go through?')
* The Grey-Hounded Hare ('...a little shadow on that bicuspidor')
* The Windblown Hare ('Why, Granny! You're just a wolf in cheap clothing...')
* Frigid Hare ('It ain't every day you get to go formal!')
* The Hasty Hare (One Overconfident Earth Creature Vs. Two Disgruntled Martians)
* Piker's Peak (NOBODY has EVER included this on VHS or DVD - what's up, doc?... oops - I mean 'Vas ist der Uppenzie, Herr Doktor?' P.S. Somebody just uploaded this on YouTube, thank Buddha, so y'all can see what I'm banging on about:
* False Hare (the last round-up, and as far as I'm concerned, as good as any of the best - 'Ohh, I get it NOW!'

Bob said...

This is off-topic, but I need your help! I am trying to remember a cartoon with animals playing Thiries era gangsters. The leader is a frog, and his line is "Cause I'm the frog, see?", in a Jmmy Cagney voice. I honestly can't remember if Bugs was in it or what studio it cameout of. Ring a bell with anyone?