Bugs Bunny turns 80 philately
Monday, July 27 marks the 80th anniversary of the theatrical release of the animated short film "A Wild Hare", part of the Merry Melodies series of shorts produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions for the Warner Bros. film studio, which featured the debut of an at the time unnamed lapine (called a "wabbit" by his rhotacism afflicted co-star) who would soon be known as Bugs Bunny. This character would become somewhat popular over the last eight decades.
To celebrate the world's most famous bunny's birthday, the United States Postal Service has released a set of ten stamps featuring Bugs Bunny in multiple outfits he's worn in his over 168 starring roles in the original Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies 1930-1969 run; and that's not counting cameos there and starring roles in cartoons outside that run. Featured outfits include his barber's outfit from "Rabbit of Seville", his Tea-Totaller team uniform from "Baseball Bugs", his basketball team jersey for the Tune Squad from the movie Space Jam, and, in one of two featured drag get-ups, his disguise from often-cited-as-best-cartoon-EVER "What's Opera, Doc?". Ironically not featured is his standard outfit of au naturel except a pair of white gloves; disappointingly, neither is his fox fursuit from "Foxy by Proxy" .
Though "A Wild Hare" is now considered the debut of Bugs Bunny, the character had been gestating more than a year prior; a prototype Bugs Bunny made his debut in the 1938 black-and-white Looney Tunes short, "Porky's Hare Hunt". This rabbit character was never given a name in the shorts, but has become known as "Happy Rabbit", to distinguish him from Bugs. Originally a white rabbit, the character would slowly morph into a grey rabbit over the course of four shorts; though the rabbit still didn't look exactly like the classic Bugs Bunny character, the difference in appearance wasn't drastically out of line with other Looney Tunes characters such as Daffy Duck or Porky Pig's early incarnations. But the general consensus among fans and historians alike is that, while the "Happy Rabbit" may be a prototype for Bugs Bunny, he wasn't Bugs Bunny.
The main difference is in the personality of the "Happy Rabbit", who is arguably a prototype of not only Bugs Bunny, but another famous cartoon animal. "Porky's Hare Hunt" was directed by Ben Hardaway, who would eventually leave Warner Bros. and joined the Walter Lantz Studio, where he created their biggest star, Woody Woodpecker. He's certainly got the laugh, at least. And it's not like the Looney Tunes hadn't pulled the "leave one animation studio, set up a new one, keep doing the same character but switch the species" trick themselves. But, getting back to the rabbit, though Woody Woodpecker was and still is a popular character in his own right, he's no Bugs Bunny. The screwball shtick is a classic cartoon go-to, but it just doesn't have the staying power. To become the "wascally wabbit" we know today, something had to change. So, what happened?
Well, It Happened One Night. Though the movie was five years old at the time, this screwball comedy (note: "screwball" in the context of romantic comedies and "screwball" in the context of cartoon comedies carries different meanings) was extremely popular at the time (it swept the "big five" Oscars), and Clark Gable's Oscar-winning performance is rumored to have inspired men to stop wearing undershirts. Oh, and also Bugs Bunny's personality. The Brooklyn accent was inspired by a mobster charade Gable's character does to scare off a rival, and Bugs' habit of talking through a mouthful of carrots is a direct homage (and though it has nothing to do with Bugs in particular, watch that full clip to see the original version of what would become another popular cartoon gag).
The difference between the last "Happy Rabbit" cartoon ("Elmer's Candid Camera", which is also the debut of one Elmer J. Fudd) and "A Wild Hare" is night and day; the final ingredient is director Fred "Tex" Avery giving the rabbit a line from his own childhood memories of Texas. Reportedly, the audience reaction of the day to a rabbit calmly walking up to a hunter and asking the simple question, "Eh, what's up doc?" was explosive. Today, what's really surprising is how little the character has changed. Sure, his "classic" look (designed by Robert McKimson, the only animator who worked on the Looney Tunes from 1930 to 1969) was yet to come. But the (still technically unnamed) creature who pops out of the rabbit hole here is recognizably Bugs Bunny.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Bugs and his prototype "Happy" is, surprisingly, a moral compass. Bugs Bunny's personality would be defined by the idea that he doesn't start fights; he finishes them, certainly, but he's happy to live and let live. This is present in "A Wild Hare", though a few of Bugs' early shorts don't quite get this at first. Ironically, though it would be Chuck Jones who would most famously describe this personality trait of Bugs', his early Bugs cartoons most egregiously lacked this. Though the "Happy" Rabbit went up against hunters twice, he also tormented a pair of curious dogs and Elmer Fudd, not as a hunter, but a wildlife photographer for no real reason either time. It's possible to view "Elmer's Candid Camera" and "A Wild Hare" as a diptych where an innocent animal lover becomes a hunter with an obsessive vendetta against grey rabbits after first being tormented by a malicious "Happy", then by an oblivious Bugs after a case of mistaken identity (though only if you ignore every other Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon; Looney Tunes aren't big on continuity, folks).
One of the last details added to Bugs was, well, Bugs. The most accepted reason for the unusual name was that he was in a roundabout way named after Ben Hardaway, the director who first introduced "Happy" to the world. Hardaway's nickname was Bugs; an early model sheet of the still unnamed rabbit was labeled "Bugs' Bunny". Apparently, the animators at Warner Bros. decided they liked the sound of that, and the name stuck, minus the apostrophe. It should be noted that, though Hardaway has some claim to originating the character, the birth of Bugs was more of a team effort, with directors and animators Hardaway, Avery, Jones, McKimson, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng and vocal performer Mel Blanc all contributing (with a final credit to Leon Schlesinger, who, as a producer, did pay for it).
"A Wild Hare" was so successful and popular that it was of course nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film; the fact that it subsequently lost to the "The Milky Way" blows the whole Citizen Kane-losing-to-How Green Was My Valley thing from the next year out of the water. As some of Bugs' relatives might say, he was robbed. The 1944 short "What's Cookin' Doc" actually featured Bugs Bunny protesting his lack of an Oscar. He eventually won one for "Knighty Knight Bugs", which, while a decent enough short, wasn't even the best medieval-themed Warner Bros. short of that year (note: No shorts starring Daffy Duck or Porky Pig were ever nominated for Best Animated Short.); it may be the one example of the fabled "competitive lifetime achievement Oscar" going to a cartoon rabbit.
Bugs Bunny's last short in the original run was the 1964 short False Hare; the Warner Bros. animation studio was shut down that same year. Further Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies were outsourced for a few years; due to complicated rights issues, Bugs Bunny shorts were not allowed to be produced, so Bugs retired. The studio did reopen near the end of the 60s, but these final shorts are not fondly remembered, so Bugs apparently made the wise decision to stay retired. Since then, Bugs (or characters based on Bugs) have appeared in every revitalization or spin-off of the Looney Tunes brand since, so he's kept busy.