In my previous post on What’s Opera, Doc? I’d hit upon the idea that when, nearing the end, Elmer called upon all the forces at his command to destroy Bugs he was motivated by Bugs’ deception.* He’d sung and danced his love to and with Brünnhilde and she turned out to be Bugs in drag. It’s that disappointment, that frustrated love, that drove him into a rage. And that’s different from, in addition to, the almost pro forma antagonism that drove him at the beginning of this cartoon and that drives him at the beginning of all his encounters with Bugs.
I’d liked that idea when I had it, which was in the process of writing that post, but afterward I had some misgivings. For I’d long felt that one good answer—perhaps the best answer—to the question “Why’d he do it?” is: Because the author made him do it. The author wanted to achieve a certain effect, and having the character do whatever, that’s the way to achieve that effect.
So, what’s the immediate effect of Elmer’s remorse? Surprise! That’s not what we were expecting.
And that, of course, is what goes on in the typical Bugs and Elmer cartoon. It’s a game in which the cartoonist keeps us guessing about how Bugs which trick Elmer and keeps surprising us with new gags. Just as Bugs’ (apparent) death was a new move, so is Elmer/Nordic warror’s (real) remorse.
With that in mind, let’s reconsider What’s Opera, Doc?
The Bugs and Elmer cartoon revolves around pairs of moves: Elmer threatens Bugs, Bugs evades the threat. Consider a not-so-standard example from 1951, Rabbit Seasoning. In this case Daffy Duck is trying to get Elmer to shoot Bugs. So the threat comes from Daffy, and the deflection takes the form of Bugs getting Elmer to shoot Daffy. By my count this happens six times. (One of those times Bugs dresses in drag, and Elmer falls for it. So Bugs-as-Brünnhilde is not a new kind of move for Bugs.)
In What’s Opera, Doc? we have only two threat-evade pairs. The first happens when, after demonstrating the powers of his helmet, Elmer notices that Bugs is indeed the wabbit. He gives chase and, in relatively short order, Bugs dons drag and we have a relatively long courtship sequence which ends when Bugs’ helmet falls off while he’s in Elmer’s fond embrace. And that leads to the second threat-evade pair. Elmer goes into a rage and, once again, calls on his helmet powers, this time to kill Bugs. Bugs evades this threat by playing dead. He reveals that only to us, the audience, and then only at the very end of the cartoon.
So, the pace of this cartoon, when measured in threat-evade moves, is very different from the other Bugs and Elmers. It’s much slower. And that slower pace changes the scope and valence of Bugs’s and Elmer’s actions. It changes the nature of Bugs’s first evasion and of Elmer’s reaction against it.
It’s not simply that Elmer buys-in to Bugs-in-drag. He’s done that before. It’s that we have two sung duets and a pas de deux lasting a bit over two minutes before Bugs’s cover is blown. Yes, we can see that Bugs simpers and fidgets even if Elmer can’t, but that second duet, “Return My Love,” is so good, even if the voices are cartoon voices. The singing is on pitch and expressive. It’s sincere. Forget the effect it works on Elmer, what effect does it work on us, the audience?
What can possibly come of this? We know, of course, that it’s just got to fall through somehow, but just how—we can’t wait to find out.
With all this in mind, let’s go back to the beginning and take another trip through the cartoon, this time picking up some things we passed over on the first trip.
The Turn to Love
Once the title credits and music are over, we see a lightening-struck sky and hear violent storming music. These sky shots are intermingled with the huge shadow of a helmeted and thickly muscled figure apparently directing the music and, thought that, the stormy sky. This goes on long enough that we just have time to ask ourselves, who or what is this creature?
No sooner do we formulate that question than the camera zooms down, and in, to reveal the answer: It’s Elmer Fudd in costume as a mighty Nordic warrior. At this point Elmer becomes separated from the hulking shadow, the music quiets, and he’s now chasing wabbits.
That opening is important, however, because it establishes the connection between Elmer and storming even before we know it’s Elmer and it also establishes Elmer almost outside the film itself. An Elmer who commands the very weather is more than a mere Nordic warrior. He’s close to the Elmer of Rabbit Rampage, who played the off-screen animator of Bugs.
Once Elmer’s hunting the wabbit, he sees the rabbit tracks and, shortly thereafter, Bugs himself, though he doesn’t seem to recognize Bugs as a rabbit. When Bugs wonders about his magic helmet, Elmer offers a demonstration. He climbs to the top of a pinnacle (podium?) and, in effect, evokes the opening sequence by, once again, bringing on violent music and violent weather. Lightening strikes a tree next to Bugs, who then scampers away.
Why invest Elmer with this kind of power? That’s the question: Why this kind of power? What effect is Jones trying to achieve that requires this? As an ordinary Wagnerian Nordic warrior Elmer’s pretty much what he is in a standard cartoon, a peevish little man out to get a wabbit. When he invokes that helmet power, well, we’re in the land of myth logic. Elmer has become a wizard, a mage.
Bugs is always aware of himself as Bugs. When he dons his Brünnhilde drag he’s aware that he’s playing a role. Elmer never gives any indication that he’s playing a role, but though his helmet powers he inflates himself to achieve a power over this Wagnerian world and so, even over Bugs-as-Brünnhilde. But not over Bugs as, well, Bugs Bunny. That Bugs is safe.
There’s two versions of Elmer: Elmer as Nordic warrior, Elmer as mage weather master. And there’s two versions of Bugs: Bugs as Bugs Bunny, and Bugs as Brünhilde. If you will, Bugs as Bunny escapes the Wagnerian world by retreating into mere mundane reality. Elmer animates the Wagnerian world by inflating into primordial pagan magic. There’s a peculiar symmetry about this arrangement that I’m at a loss to formulate in a coherent way.
In any event, once Elmer’s invoke his helmet powers and Bugs scampers away, Elmer is able to recognize him as the wabbit and he gives chase. It’s at that point that Bugs enters the Wagnerian world by donning his Brünnhilde drag. That leads to over two minutes of passionate courtship that ends when Bugs’s helmet falls off—notice that, it’s the helmet that gives him away. Accident or not?
Now we’ve got to pay close attention. Bugs immediately scampers away. We’ve got the same white-black-grey-pink color scheme we had during “Return My Love.” Notice that little Bugs casts a big shadow on the wall, as though echoing Elmer’s shadow at the opening:
As soon as Elmer goes into a rage the color changes dramatically, into deep blues, reds, and magentas. Once again he’s become a mage, and the world has changed.
Notice Bugs way down there running off toward the mountains:
Elmer invokes the North winds, the South winds, typhoone, hurricanes, earthquakes, and, of course, smog. Bugs continues running.
Now Magic Elmer orders the lightening to “stwike the wabbit.” It is one thing to kill a rabbit with a shotgun, or a spear. But to do so by invoking the weather, that’s action of a whole different order.
Elmer runs to see the fruits of his magic-enhanced rage. Notice the anger on his face as he looks down:
This is what he sees, presumably:
Bugs appears to be dead. The storming ceases and the music becomes calmer. We see Bugs, recumbent on a rock as a flower sheds tears on his dead body, as though the natural world itself mourned his death.
It is only now, after we’ve seen that flower weeping, after we’ve been able to register Bugs’s death, that Elmer, once again merely a Nordic warrior, feels remorse: “What have I done?” This is important. It’s as though Elmer’s remorse serves as a vehicle for our own sadness over Bugs’s death.
Notice that the lurid color scheme has disappeared; it disappeared as soon as the camera turned toward the dead Bugs.
Elmer rushes to Bugs, picks up the corpse, and carries it off to glory. Bugs, of course, escapes from the Wagnerian scenario by simply informing us, but not Elmer, that he’s alive. And this, in the logic of myth, seems parallel to opening where Elmer first appears through his shadow as conductor of the orchestra and master of the weather.
There you have it, a second run through What’s Opera, Doc? The observations I made in my first post still stand, I believe, including the assertion that Elmer’s rage is to be seen as being occasioned, not by the cartoon situation itself, but by a specific set of actions within the cartoon, the courtship sequence and its collapse. But that observation has been refined by a sense of how the relatively relaxed pacing of this cartoon facilitated a change in the valence both of Bugs’s donning drag and of the exposure of his deception.
I also want to emphasize the importance of Elmer’s duality as both Nordic warrior and helmet-powered wizard. Such a duality doesn’t exist in other Bugs Bunny cartoons, but it’s central to this one. This is more than an extraordinary device for pursuing Bugs. It’s doing work that I’m not sure how to characterize.
Yeah, myth logic, that’s what it is.
It’s as though when Elmer invokes storms and lightening, he changes the world from one state to another. The first change made Bugs’s identity as a rabbit visible, and thereby necessitated the Brünnhilde guise and the attendant courtship. The second change reversed the first but at the cost of eliminating Bugs from action.
When Chuck Jones decided to take on Wagner he did more than simply cut way back on the gags. He moved into a different kind of psychological and narrative territory. The fact is that our sense of this as being performed on a stage is weaker, weaker than in the case of Disney’s Dance of the Hours. Once we get past the opening credits with the warm-up music and the opening shadow play there’s very little sense that this is taking place on a stage. The physical structure of the world is larger and more complex than sets on any stage. No, this story is taking place in a Nordic world and Bugs is more like an interloper from an alternative universe than a wise-guy who’s wandered into an opera.
What was hatched as something of an uber-gag, Bugs and Elmer do Wagner, became almost a new kind of cartoon. While Bugs never becomes completely absorbed into the high Wagnerian seriousness that has captured Elmer, that seriousness has managed to move What’s Opera, Doc? into new narrative, emotional, and expressive territory. While the film doesn’t quite distil 14 hours of Wagner into six minutes, as Chuck Jones used to say, it does expand what a cartoon can accomplish in six minutes. That’s a lot.
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*I note that Daniel Goldmark makes this point in his excellent discussion of What’s Opera, Doc? in his Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon (2005. p. 155). Since I’d read this book a couple of years ago it’s possible that I got the idea from Goldmark and simply forgot the source.