Looney Tunes: An Appreciation (Part 2)

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Key characters were refined over time, developing from initially one-dimensional players into rounded, flexible characters who could adapt to fit different comic situations and needs. Porky Pig, the series’ first popular star, became a foil for the antics of the more potent figure of Daffy Duck, in some ways anticipating the role of Elmer Fudd. Later, as Daffy developed from a mere capricious screwball into a vain, ambitious would-be star, Porky eased into a straight-man sidekick role, slyly showing up the bigger star in shorts like “Drip-Along Daffy” (1951) and “Robin Hood Daffy” (1958).

Bugs Bunny, like Daffy, started as a troublemaking loon, evolving over time into a nonchalant trickster with an underlying sense of fair play, only messing with those who mess with him first, and often repeating Groucho Marx’s line, “Of course you realize this means war!” As a rabbit, Bugs’s natural foil was of course the hunter Elmer Fudd, and Elmer figures in some of Bugs’s greatest achievements, including “The Rabbit of Seville” (1947) and especially the transcendent “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957)—possibly Bugs’s finest moment.

When “The Old Grey Hare” (1944) assayed Bugs’s life from infancy to old age, Elmer was naturally his lifelong antagonist. But Bugs turned out to be the most versatile star in the Looney Toons pantheon, taking on any and all comers, from lumbering mooks and preening bullies to the indefatiguable little Yosemite Sam, Bugs’s most adaptable foil, with his endless alternate guises: outlaw, pirate, Confederate soldier, Roman centurion, etc.

It was Chuck Jones who first realized the comic gold to be mined from pitting the two biggest stars, Bugs and Daffy, against one another in “Rabbit Fire” (1951)—and, in a stroke of genius, he added Elmer Fudd into the mix, creating a comic triangle unlike anything else in the Looney Tunes world. Revisiting the three-way scenerio in “Rabbit Seasoning” (1951), Jones anticipated another side of the Bugs and Daffy tension in an incipiently self-aware scene in which Bugs and Daffy take a perfunctory run through their dialogue (“Shoot him now, shoot him now”)—foreshadowing Bugs and Daffy’s professional rivalry as show-biz stars.

This self-aware quality—cartoon stars who know that they’re cartoon stars—was a key element of the Looney Tunes sensibility, going back at least to “You Ought to Be in Pictures” (1940), with Porky shaking hands with a live-action Schlesinger. (The Fleischer Studios’ “Out of the Inkwell” series had done similar things.) Bugs and Daffy’s rivalry, though, took the conceit to new meta-heights—never more brilliantly than in “Duck Amuck” (1953), one of the most formally inventive cartoons ever made, with Daffy interacting with an unseen animator as well as all the elements of animation and filmmaking: background art, line and color, sound effects, camera shot types, the image frame, the closing iris, the filmstrip itself and even his own animated status.

The triumvirate of Bugs, Daffy and Elmer went on to star in a number of cartoons, from “A Star is Bored” (1956) to their last hurrah, “Person To Bunny” (1959). To be sure, Bugs and Daffy’s rivalry didn’t need Elmer—shorts like “Ali Baba Bunny” and “People Are Bunny” are proof of that—and for that matter Daffy and Elmer had their own moments without Bugs. But there’s something magical about the three of them together that isn’t matched anywhere else. Nothing is closer to the center of gravity of Looney Tunes genius than this trio.

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