Saturday, 5 April 2014

320. Tortoise Beats Hare (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 319.
Release date: March 15, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny / Cecil Turtle / Other Turtles).
Story: Dave Monahan.
Animation: Charles McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs, disgusted of the predicted title, protests at Cecil Turtle by challenging him to a race in an attempt to prove the title otherwise, though Bugs is oblivious to the Turtle's many tricks.

Bugs Bunny is already the growing star of the Warner cartoon series. After appearing in two shorts, the directors have finally managed to establish Bugs' personality as a trickster with a Brooklynese accent. In his third appearance, being directed by his creator, Tex is already experimenting further with his character very early on.

Tex, having a love for satire and parody has set the idea of satirising The Tortoise and the Hare tale; which is what the short really does; so Avery is already playing his cards right rather early.

He is already attempting to challenge Bugs' wise-cracking personality very early on, similar to how Clampett interpreted Bugs. Bugs is portrayed as the loser of the short, and Tex is already attempting different personas for the rabbit, by giving him a cocky and brash attitude, as well as give him common appeal for his popular audience. Perhaps Tex only attempted the persona for laughs, or including a moral that sometimes you just can't win. Bugs's position in the short is handled very properly in a satirical matter. Bugs has already become a popular character, that a parody version of the Aesop fable featuring Bugs blends in very well, making the satire more hysterical.

Bugs has also given Tex more fresh gags which is one step further than what he would usually go. The gag and the satire already starts at the very beginning at the short, at the hilarious title card sequence. Bugs walks in, chewing his carrot and curiously reads the credits as well as the title for what would appear to be a predictable short, much like Sniffles Bells the Cat. The gag works greatly as Blanc gives Bugs more of an identity by making him pronounce the artists' names (save Carl Stalling) in the credits incorrectly, like Dave Monahan, Charles McKimson, and of course Tex. However, at the point Bugs double-takes on the title Tortoise Beats Hare, Tex has already got the plot going. Bugs protests, "Why those screwy guys don't know what they're talking about! What a big bunch of jerks!", and then directly references his creators: "And I ought to know, I work for them".

At that point; Bugs' outburst was a deliberate setup by Tex and Dave Monahan, as already the short turns straight to unpredictable. Bugs wants to challenge against the title, as he tears the credits away frantically opening doors to people's homes demanding, "Where's that toitle?".

Notice how Bugs starts off with the casual, streetsmart trademark the audience already came to know him for. Tex wonderfully blends the cocky and brash personality in, as the thought of a tortoise beating a hare has ticked him off, perhaps its Bugs' instincts.

After frantically searching through homes, he discovers the home of "Cecil Turtle" through a letterbox, and proceeds to bang at his door. He lets out a deliberate mistake by demanding the door to open or "I'll huff, and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in", in which Bugs sheepishly corrects, "Sorry, wrong story".

This suggests Bugs is only human, though Tex thought it was a great opportunity for chuckles, and it is executed well.

After the door opens, Cecil Turtle is introduced to the short; and Blanc's performance of the character compared to Toby Tortoise from the Silly Symphonies are indeed, parallel. Bugs' brash attitude is also similar to Max Hare, though most of the Warners directors claimed more than once his personality was heavily influenced from the Disney character. Full of rage, Bugs demands the turtle to challenge Bugs in a race match, as he is willing to bet as much as $10 that Cecil won't win. Adjusted for inflation, $10 is worth today, about $159.71, which back in 1941 would have been a crusher. At this point, the story is already off at a great start; as Tex is already satirising the tale by having gambling playing a part.

At that point, Cecil Turtle plays a part in this story; whereas in the fable he was just a humble character who went slow and steady, with little identity. His third-dimensional personality is evident when the race has started. He quietly sneaks into a telephone service tree, where he begins to make a few calls to some local relatives.

Cecil already has plans to sabotage Bugs secretly cheating by using his local relatives to help trick Bugs, by giving him the impression that Cecil is in the lead, Cecil gives out the commands: "Get out the works".

The diversion is well-baited with excellent satire. Only Tex would have revealed a double-crossing side for a supposedly meek turtle. The sequence is a great bracer for what is to happen. Then the sequence evolves into a series of montage shots where quick close-up of hands and fingers dial numbers calling further relatives to be on the gag which creates great suspense and overture. Stalling uses the piece the Athalie Overture which fits in with the suspense wonderfully.

Afterwards, the rest of the short mainly turns to a string of gags one-by-one, in which the audience experience Bugs being the victim. The story construction has already been handled greatly; setup and personality play a part in the first act, whilst in the second it focuses on the jokes on Bugs.

Despite being a great satire to the fable, as the character personalities as well as caricature was ahead of its time, Tex still hadn't quite got the ability to achieve faster and broader timing.

Compared to even Disney's The Tortoise and the Hare, where the short not only pioneered faster animation, but the speed was very believable--the pace Bugs is racing at seems very adequate. Perhaps this was to emphasise that the mediocre pace would be no match for the turtle?

And so the tricks begin, Bugs turns puzzled when he finds Cecil has showed up, supposedly ahead of Bugs Bunny. Baffled, he removes his shell acting like a bad sport and proceeds to keep running, until he pauses feeling more puzzled. "I can't figure it out back there, I'm going along at a good clip, didn't see him pads me. Then, bingo--just like that, and there he was in front of me". Tex's timing couldn't go perfectly as the camera quickly pans to Cecil, indeed standing in front of Bugs whilst he made that delivery point. Puzzled, Cecil and Bugs' personality appear to trade unnaturally as Cecil gives Bugs a peck in the lips.

And so, more gags are pulled in the climax of the short. Bugs waves back "So long shorty" so what was Cecil off-screen, until an off-screen reply yells, "So long, speedy?" Bugs is tricked into believing he is not watching his own speed, especially as he notices "Cecil" standing on the other side of the bridge. Just as Bugs zips past, Cecil also lets out a cutting remark, in one of Tex's usual forth wall lines: "We do this kind of stuff to him all through the picture", which again suggests that every gag will be predictable.

Bugs then proceeds to block a path, using lumber, stones and barbed wire to prevent Cecil; but only to notice that the turtle has supposedly overtaken Bugs. Every trap Bugs creates becomes more climatic, and yet he is still falling for Cecil's great diversion. He proceeds to cut off the ropes of a bridge, but yet still finds that Cecil is on top of him on a tree.

At that point, Bugs then goes to his frantic speed, though the pacing of the animation tells otherwise. He hops, and rushes with great capacity, until he skids towards the finishing line. The animation of Bugs, relieved is beautifully character animated by Bob McKimson himself.

The chuckling and the subtleness of the animation is rather remarkable, as it suggests how Bugs went through a lot of strange experiences with the turtle, and Bugs certainly feels very "alive" in the scene.

Until that point, an off-screen "Speedy" is called to Bugs with a distinctive voice. Cecil is seen sitting quietly by a tree, asking plainly, "What kept ya?". At that point Bugs, lost for words, vows to strangle Cecil:

 "Ooh you blankety-blank-blank turtle!", in which Cecil reminds him of the $10 bet. Bugs reluctantly hands over the money and scoffs: "And I hope you choke!". The character animation for the closing sequence by Rod Scribner definitely displays how subtle and human Rod's animation could be, even though his exaggeration is quite evident. At that point, Bugs paces back questioning how he had been beaten by Cecil. For challenging Bugs' personality very early: it has been pulled off successfully, and also ambiguity as it suggests how the Turtle is one of a few Bugs can't outwit, especially how Clampett and Freleng interpret it that way in future shorts: Tortoise Wins By a Hare and Rabbit Transit. At this point, Bugs questions: "I wonder if I've been tricked". This concludes with a hilarious payoff by Tex where multiple turtles respond, "Mmm, it's a possibility" and kisses Bugs in the lips. The payoff works well so successfully that Tex has used it several more time, all wonderfully too.

Tortoise Beats Hare is a wonderful portrayal of how Bugs was given a different layer of personality. Already having been given the street-smart personality that was cherished by everybody, Tex already is playing around the character's personality, by experimenting how Bugs can work in several levels. Real people's personalities are constantly evolving, which I believe is what Tex was trying to achieve, not making predictable all the time. Clampett would take inspiration with the different personality, and would interpret Bugs Bunny very differently compared to the other directors. It's one of the few exceptions in character personalities, that is naturally accepted by everybody. Overall, the satire of the fable is beautifully caricatured, as Cecil Turtle has more of an identity, as well as having a crafty personality being no match for Bugs. At the same time, the moral of the fable is also blended in the story, except the moral appears to be you can't always win a battle of wits, instead of the infamous "slow and steady wins the race". If the short had been made a couple of years later, it would have been a beautifully paced short with faster timing by Tex, which to be is lacking in the short, though Clampett would improve on that two years later, with a sequel...

Rating: 4/5.


  1. Very good cartoon, though perhaps the turtle's trick of "being a step ahead everywhere Bugs Bunny is" may be debated as great as used here, compared to "Northwest Hounded Police", or other studios for theatrical and TV using it (NWH has more than one Droopy's and Porky Pig had been the first, at least, for Avery, to use this and it was in the best way---NO lookalike cousins or brothers! :) Besides Clampett, Freleng still later used the turtle. I'd kinda wished that Cecil was used a few more times..Steve