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Short Film Week: “What’s Opera, Doc?”

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Short Film Week: “What’s Opera, Doc?”

It starts with an overture and ends with a quip; it is a short and an epic, a spoof and a heartfelt exemplar of the mode that it mocks; it is a seven-minute Warner Bros. cartoon by director Chuck Jones called “What’s Opera Doc,” and once you’ve seen it—as every person with a television set is likely to have done at some point—it becomes difficult to hear the melody of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkryies” (or watch the chopper attack sequence from Apocalypse Now or the introduction to the mineral spring in 8 1/2) without wailing, hoarse-voiced, “Kill da wab-bit…”

Why highlight this Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd duet, of countless more credentialed short movies worth admiring? Because it’s my favorite Looney Tunes short, and because the DVD just happens to be in my laptop at this very moment, and because it is—in my scientifically quantifiable, absolutely objective opinion, as well as that of my toddler-aged son, who watches it every day and consequently refers to all Bugs shorts from every decade as “Kill da rabbit”—as perfect as a movie, any movie, can get. It’s a peerless example of what it means to make every screen second count; pure entertainment that doubles as a conscientious tour of Wagner’s catchiest melodies, a compact tutorial in visionary filmmaking; a cartoon encyclopedia of tragic-operatic cliches that confirms the transformative potential of animation, comedy, music, theater and mythology while showcasing what is—scientifically quantifiable, indisputably objective fact coming at ya, folks—Bugs’ greatest drag performance ever.

There she is, our lapine femme fatale, the flaxen-pigtailed Brunhilde: the epitome (and epito-you) of feminine grace; a long-lashed babe bestride a morbidly obese yet oddly dignified steed, awaiting an entrance cue from the plateau of a slate-colored hill. Milt Franklyn’s pastiche score cranks up the overture to Tannhauser. Brunhilde gallops down the hill in what seems like slow motion (but it’s really just an optical illusion conjured by horse’s Brobdignagian grace), the director following the horse’s downward trajectory in a Dutch-angled tracking shot cross-cut with the hero’s gobsmacked reaction; and then—Dear Odin!—Brunhilde turns the horse around (showcasing an up-close view of equine ass-crack) and wills it to sit so that its gelatinous caboose folds under its stubby hind legs, then slips down the creature’s back like a little kid on a playground slide and spins into her pas-de-deux with the horned schmuck hero.
The flirty lass will die, of course, at the hero’s hand, a casualty of lightning, north winds, south winds, typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes…smog! (Er…Smog?) It’s the most savage act of violence in Looney Tunes history: a Wagnerian gay panic attack capped with a murder-annihilation. As Elmer calls down lightning (”Swtike da wabbit!”) and then leers over a castle parapet at the fruit of his rage, his eyes flash with hateful glee. But then, after realizing the magnitude of his sin (“What have I done?/I’ve killed da wabbit/Pooow widdle bun-neeee...Pooow widdle rabbit...”) he scoops up Bugs’ limp body, casts his pleading eyes heavenward, heaves a great, guilty sob and carries the rabbit’s corpse away, presumably to the gates of Valhalla.

Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?

There are dozens of Looney Tunes I can’t resist re-watching, but this one exerts a fascination that dwarfs the rest. What is it, exactly? Perhaps it’s the obsessive completeness of Jones’ vision. Brunhilde’s mascara and miniskirt, the flowers in her horse’s mane, the lichen-encrusted tree trunks in the background behind the pirouetting lovers are the same piquant fuschia. The wide shots of jagged mountains, rock outcroppings and castle towers, the low-angled views of white temples and sculptures and columns, the forced-perspective shafts of sunlight and gloom, all bespeak the influences of silent German expressionist horror, fascist architecture and Orson Wellesian theater-of-the-mind grandiosity. And is it just me, or do Jones’ fish-eyed establishing shots ransack Welles’ Othello and Macbeth?

Scientifically quantifiable, indisputably objective conclusion says: That Chuck! What a stinker!

“What’s Opera, Doc?” might have dazzled anyway had it merely constructed a facsimile of opera as enclosed by the proscenium arch. But Jones and his team upped the ante by building a cinematic fantasy of opera: the sort of daydreamy mind-movie that listeners might unreel while listening to Wagner or reading Norse mythology or studying woodcuts at a Northern European folk art gallery. Armed only with ink and paint, animators Ken Harris, Abe Levitow and Richard Thompson, layout ace Maurice Noble and background artist Treg Brown devise abstract yet geographically tactile panoramas—sets that would be unaffordably gargantuan in any live-action film, even the priciest Eisenhower-era blockbuster. There’s no single set in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1955 remake of The Ten Commandments that matches the ostentatious enormity of the castle across which Elmer hopscotches while searching for his sorcerer’s perch, or Bruhilde’s ivory temple, or the ravine in which Bugs expires, a broken-stemmed rose weeping raindrops on his face, his body ringed by a star-shaped corona. And is it just me, or does the design of the planet Vulcan in 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock appear to have been pilfered from Jones’ masterwork?

Scientifically quantifiable, indisputably objective conclusion says: Live long and prosper, pointy-eared kleptos!

And finally: Performance. The genius of the Looney Tunes characters—like the core Disney characters and the Muppets—is the conceit that they’re not characters, but performers that happen to be animals: a competitive roster of studio talent. Just as James Cagney was always, in some sense, James Cagney, Bugs is always Bugs and Elmer is always Elmer, no matter what the role or project. When watching the WB shorts, much of the fun originates in those moments of connection between viewer and performer—the instants when you recognize a familiar expression or bit of body language as you would a friend’s and grin in acknowledgment. (In Looney Tunes, the characters often smile back—especially in shorts by Jones, who loved to break the fourth wall.) Mel Blanc (as Bugs) and Arthur Q. Bryan (as Elmer), were at the peak of their games here, and within the context of Jones’ daft dream, they create some of the best multilayered jokes on performance ever seen in a cartoon short. (Note how Bryan’s voice breaks at the end, the last time Elmer pronounces, “rabbit.”)

Certain details seem like bits worked out between actors and a director in rehearsal: Elmer’s ramrod posture and up-from-the-diaphragm belting as he launches into “Retoin, my wuv”; the way that Bugs as Bugs folds his hands while singing, “Oh, mighty warrior, ’twill be quite a task,” then takes a deep breath before continuing, “Might I inquire to ahhhhsk” (a faux-classy false rhyme with “task”); Bugs as Brunhilde “absentmindedly” walking her fingers across the horse’s flabby back. What’s stunning about these touches is the way they further the notion that these characters have personalities and artistic temperaments that exist outside of the running time of this cartoon; that they’re actors, dammit, and they’re so obviously thrilled (and perhaps surprised and gratified) to have been asked to appear in a “serious” production that they’re pulling out all the stops. These non-existent, two-dimensional constructs give the performances of a lifetime. Cartoon characters have rarely seemed so human.

Matt Zoller Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of The House Next Door.