Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bugs Bunny Superstar (1975)

It's possible to be a movie lover and not like Greta Garbo or John Wayne or W.C. Fields, and still retain some credibility — but turn your nose up at Bugs Bunny and hell hath no depth too deep for you, you humorless poseur.

Too harsh? Not harsh enough, doc.

Director Larry Jackson celebrated all things wascally with the documentary Bugs Bunny Superstar. It contains live-action footage of the cartoonists and their staffs acting out stories before the animation began — Tex Avery was a hoot — but it's mostly long on cartoons (a good thing) by including nine full-length examples from the 1940s, only six of which star Bugs. It's short on documentary factoids about the history of the character and the gang who created and developed him in a creaky building called Termite Terrace on the Warner Bros. lot.

This anecdotal back story material is presented to us primarily by Bob Clampett, one of Bugs' papas. The picture's worth watching for Clampett's hideous hairpiece alone. It looks like something Elmer Fudd might have shot on one of his hunting expeditions when his rifle misfired. He explains that a major reason the cartoonists caricatured the Warner Bros. stars they did was that those were the guys who stopped by Termite Terrace pretty regularly to see what was going on and to shoot the breeze with the animators and their staffs. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were favorite visitors.

Included also are snippets from vintage interviews with Friz Freling and Tex Avery. From Avery we learn where the question "What's up, doc?" came from—he was quoting someone he knew, just as a relative of his used to grumble, "Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin," which found its way into Daffy Duck's vocabulary.

It's these reminiscences, especially from Clampett, that generated some hurt feelings when this film was released. While Clampett had complimentary things to say about Chuck Jones, Jones — who could nurse a grudge like Silas Marner could nurse a nickel — accused Clampett of being a credit hog. The thing is, when this picture was made, almost everyone from the days of classic animation was looking for credit for the work he'd done for hire in the 1930s-1950s, so a lot of exaggeration was going around.

But you can ignore this backstory and enjoy the film for the comedy it contains. Especially fun are the undeniable classics The Wild Hare (1940), A Corny Concerto (1943), My Favorite Duck (1942) and Hair-Raising Hare (1946). The movie is narrated by an obviously-in-on-the-joke Orson Welles.

My favorite from this collection is the Clampett directed A Corny Concerto. It's one of those 'toons that is all jolly good fun on the surface, covering at heart a wicked satire of Disney's 1940 Fantasia—just the sort of thing you'd expect from a Frank Tashlin script. It is divided into two parts, each part introduced with a brief appearance from Elmer Fudd playing a combination of Igor Stokowski and Deems Taylor. Wearing an ill-fitting tux and sporting a five-o'clock shadow that looks more like 9:30, he leads us through the music with observations like, "Wasn't that wovewy?" just before his flapping celluloid dickey snaps up and smacks him in the face.

The first story concerns Porky Pig and a dog hunting Bugs Bunny to "Tales From the Vienna Woods," and the second is a variation of "The Ugly Duckling" to "The Blue Danube." It's the duckling segment that contains the most blatant moment of Disney satire. When one of the characters whooshes past a pair of weeping willows, their branches whirl around frantically before the anthropomorphic trees end up hugging each other, an image that could have been lifted right out of a Silly Symphony.

For some reason, this isn't one of Clampett's favorites from among his own cartoons. Granted, it isn't as funny as his toupee, but it comes pretty damn close.

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