Tuesday, 31 May 2016

400. Super-Rabbit (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 399.
Release date: April 3, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny / Cottontail Smith / Various voices), Kent Rogers (Professor Canafrazz), Ted Pierce (2nd observer).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs Bunny develops superpowers and goes on a mission to challenge Cottontail Smith - a cowboy who despises rabbits.

Animation by Ben Washam
In the early 1940s, the Superman franchise (who debuted in Action Comics #1, 1938) had become incredibly popular - even so, that the Schlesinger Studio leapt at the chance of producing a parody of their own. Due to Chuck Jones' success of his Rover Boys parody a year earlier - he becomes an obvious candidate to conceive a Superman take-off.

The franchise had also been very popular on radio, as well as a series of animated shorts produced by the Fleischer Studios - which is arguably their most elaborate work. The shorts were popular enough that their opening montage sequence for each short were directly spoofed shot-by-shot in Jones' parody.

A still from the Superman series -
seen at the opening of each short
from 1941 and 1942.
Its infamous opening narration which establishes Superman goes: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" were presented in a montage form in the Fleischer shorts.

However, Jones and Ted Pierce visually lampoon the opening with their Warner Bros. style - to some extent they channel the same level of humour Tex Avery used for his late 1930s shorts. (02/06 Edit: In relation to Eric O. Costello's comment - it's reminded me that Ted Pierce's experience at the Fleischer Studios proved handy, even more so as he had story credit for one Superman cartoon - The Arctic Giant.)

Instead of a dry-brushed bullet zipping past the screen; a cork gun is replaced. A streamlined locomotive in the Fleischer short is replaced with a fatigued steam train - a visual contradiction the "faster than a locomotive" statement. Finally, the leap to the highest building gag is topped - with Bugs accidentally trips his foot on the pointy top of the skyscraper, causing him to fall.

To make the parody more conspicuous; John McGrew sticks to a similar style to the Fleischer shorts in order to take advantage of Jones' direct parody on the montage. Alas, Bugs Bunny channeling the iconic Clark Kent/Superman image has a nice touch to it - as Bugs retains his own personality while still posing as a superhero. He is partly animated in the scene as his legs are held while he munches his carrot.

Ted Pierce also conceives certain gags directly spoofing recurring elements in Superman. Once Bugs Bunny reads a cut-out newspaper article of Texan cowboy Cottontail Smith's plan to eradicate all rabbits in the laboratory; he declares: "This looks like the job, for Super-Rabbit!".

He hops into a booth to change into his costume but finds himself dressed as the wrong alter-ego - as Bo Peep. Bugs quickly returns to the booth and comes back with the correct superhero costume. A nicely executed gag by Pierce full of spontaneity while maintaining Bugs' characteristics of being in drag.

Animation by Ken Harris
The sequence of Bugs flying to Texas is a fine example of Chuck  Jones taking pride with his flair for comedy and lack of logic.

As Bugs casually flies he greets a horse walking on air - a gag which feels very Clampett-esque. The horse greets Bugs back, and goes into a double take: "A rabbit? Up here?!". A hysterical gag which boasts about it's nonsensical environment in contrast to more realistic Fleischer shorts.

Pierce conceives another great gag where Bugs' ability to fly begins to trigger, as he munches another carrot to "recharge his batteries" - indicating that Bugs' superpowers aren't reliable or perfect compared to Superman.

John McGrew brings a slightly less ostentatious look as far as layouts go. The designs aren't as experimental or avant-garde as seen in the Texas sequence. The laboratory sequence at the beginning shows more of his simplistic, dynamic approach to style.

The pan shot of Professor Canafrazz preparing his experiment shows McGrew going to town in a complex camera pan arrangement. The effects animation (probably by Ace Gamer) are incredibly elaborate and appealing to watch, too.

The camera pans from Canafrazz's many flasks and viles; and along the way an "Eat at Joe's" gag is inserted. The pan stops momentarily at a radiated carrot - and ends with Bugs Bunny sitting in an "experimental rabbit" box. Note the box is labelled in apparent Latin "rabbitus idiotus Americanus"; a descendant gag of Chuck Jones which would be more popularised in his Road Runner shorts.

Animation by Bobe Cannon
In response to Bugs' "What's cookin', doc" phrase - Canafrazz reveals his experiment as he examines the carrot: "I'm cooking, as you so kindly put it, my great--my great--my greatest experiment! A super-vitamized, locked-in flavourized, ariumized, modern-designized super carrot".

Canafrazz's voice actor, Kent Roger, does an unbelievable impression of English actor Richard Haydn (today best known as Uncle Max in The Sound of Music), by nailing his own characteristics and distinctive dialect. Bugs' comes up with some witty lines conceived by Ted Pierce, like "Aw, you shouldn't have ought to have done that, Edison" when Canafrazz reveals he intends to give him superpowers. Also, any idea on the meaning behind Bugs' line; "Yeah, what are you gonna do with it, Burbank?".

For the introduction of rabbit hater Cottontail Smith - Ted Pierce's knack for creating exceptionally witty, unpretentious dialogue and gag development presents wonderful exposition for Bugs' first encounter of him. Bugs discovers the trail for Cottontail Smith as he watches a group of rabbits fleeing the area - leading him to go undercover in order to infiltrate and trick him.

As Cottontail Smith and his horse hop across the Texan desert - Bugs hops along with them, and states his business. This leads to a complex yet fun piece of layout work where the characters hop in and out of the scene - and in each hop, there is a different action.

First, Smith is riding on the horse and Bugs hops - and several hops later, the action is reserved as Bugs rides the horse. As each hop goes, the nuttier the gag gets - leading to Bugs riding on top of Cottontail Smith.

It's a hilariously executed sequence that's been perfected from every department - from McGrew's layouts to Chuck's timing - as well as Ted Pierce's creative abilities. Cottontail's dialogue is extremely amusing while establishing his personality, as heard in the line: "I hate rabbits! If thar's anythin' I hate more than a rabbit - it's two rabbits!". A perfectly written line which is kept simple and to the point - and a perfect emphasis for his hatred of rabbits. It's famously known that Cottontail Smith is a precursor to Freleng's Yosemite Sam as Mel Blanc uses the same persona and voice for the character.

Chuck Jones has already excelled in the pace of the Warners style - and takes pride with it in an energetic sequence involving Bugs' improvised basketball game. Cottontail Smith has attempted to exterminate Bugs by firing a cannon - although Bugs takes advantages of his powers by quickly grabbing the cannonball and turns this into a game of basketball. Bugs uses his quick wits to trick Cottontail Smith and the horse in participating.

The sheer energy and timing couldn't have been handled superiorly by Bobe Cannon. His great use of drybrush and speed captures the tone and pace of not only the sequence, but the action of the sport.

Bugs hasn't finished his fun as he continues to exploit Cottontail and his horse's gullibility by having them chant with him in a cheerleading rally. Mel Blanc nails the charisma and vocal clarity of the performance as he chants, "Bricka-bracka, firecracker...Bugs Bunny, Bugs Bunny rah, rah, rah!".

Ken Harris also carries out the scene with his outlandish animation. It's very daring for Harris to use that level of exaggeration in a scene like this; who takes complete complete advantage of the fast action with smear animation. It's a very loose, but solid looking piece of animation at the same time.

Successive timing asides, Chuck's great use of continuity and bold expressions also carry out the cartoon. In an attempt to make each facial expression inventive and new in each cartoon - Chuck pulls off a unique 'burn take' for Cottontail Smith. Once Bugs has tricked Cottontail into thinking he's a horse - he double-takes and burns in effigy, realising Bugs is a rabbit - while still wearing a grazing muzzle.

The anger in Chuck's expressions read very clearly - especially when much of his face is covered from the muzzle. Chuck also pulls off a red glow effect surrounding his head; to help emphasise his anger. An effect rarely used by Chuck.

Some innovative pieces of dynamics and staging are taken advantage of in the following scene of Bugs supposedly making his sacrifice to Cottontail. The POV shot of Cottontail navigating his  scope shaped in the form of the rabbit shows great coordination as far as layouts go.

While standing in position; Smith fires multiple bullets at "Bugs" - but finds the real Bugs is standing behind a model of himself. By this time; audiences have become familiar of Bugs' conniving ways of avoiding his own peril - making the suspense build-up deliberate.

The sequence of Bugs being patrolled by Cottontail Smith and his horse on a piece of aircraft is comparable to the action scenes depicted in the Fleischer shorts - except it's played up for laughs. McGrew and Jones tackle some ambitious layout navigations and dynamic angles to make the action as compelling and intricate as the Superman shorts. A POV scope shot targeting Bugs is very ambitious as far as a Warner short goes.

Bugs once again defeats Cottontail as he effortlessly holds onto plane; causing it to detach - leaving the pair floating in mid-air. Animation acting couldn't have been topped in the shot of the horse tapping Cottontail to hint the perilous situation they're in. Cottontail looks down; then turns back and immediately they fall from the remains of their plane. It's a hilarious piece of animation delivery - the anticipation of Cottontail turning back and supposedly expecting the giant fall from the sky is an icing on the cake.

While Bugs Bunny has enjoyed his victorious running time in the short; Ted Pierce constructs an exceedingly exciting climax to meet new challenges for Bugs. While flying, Bugs finds he has lost his energy to fly and opens his carrot case; but clumsily lets all the carrots fall to the ground.

After hitting the ground in a great piece of squash and stretch motion; he finds that all of the carrots have been eaten by Cottontail Smith and his horse who morph as superheroes - making Bugs Bunny feel threatened.

A quick thinker, he declares: "This looks like the job for a real superman!". He quickly rushes inside a booth while Cottontail Smith and his horse anticipate an attack action. As the door opens, they very quickly salute as Bugs marches out wearing a Marine uniform, while singing The Marines Hymm.

He briefly pauses and turns back to the pair, "Sorry fellas, I can't play with ya any more. I've got some impoitant woik to do!". He continues his march and walks past a sign where he is heading for Berlin or Tokyo. A now slightly-dated gag - it works well in Bugs Bunny having the last laugh - escaping the dangers of Cottontail Smith from then on.

A short that Chuck Jones felt he finally achieved the comedy standards he was looking for - Super-Rabbit is an excellent parody of the Superman franchise as well as a riotous adventure for the wascually wabbit. As parody is a difficult theme to write successfully - Ted Pierce doesn't let it get in the way of the story - creating a healthy balance for the Superman references and gags for a typical Bugs Bunny short. Jones' confidence is all over the cartoon - and perhaps creating one of the funniest parodies from the Warner Bros. cartoon library. Not only does the short scream with energy and excitement - but it takes complete pride of the studio's style of animated shorts; and it shows that when lampoon Fleischer, as the gags are done so creatively and incisively. Ted Pierce conceives Cottontail Smith wonderfully; by establishing a perfect rival for Bugs - due to his extreme hatred for rabbits; which is hilarious itself. The ending sequence might have aged overtime; although it doesn't let the whole cartoon itself suffer at all.

Rating: 5/5.


  1. Steve, I think Rogers is saying "iriumised." Irium was supposedly an ingredient in Pepsodent toothpaste (as advertised on the Bob Hope show) and was the subject of jokes on radio shows.

    1. The story I read (probably in the Robert Metz book about CBS) was that an executive at Pepsodent or its ad agency asked for a name with "two consonants and three vowels" for a new ingredient (sodium alkyl sulfate, if I recall), and someone came up with "Irium."

      The opening montage would be repeated with Daffy in "Stupor Duck."

  2. And that horse (Blanc):"A Rabbit..UP HERE!"

    These days with the war we've had with IOraw, the slightly dated war gags fit well with today's situation!:)

  3. It should be noted that Ted Pierce, in the late 30s and early 40s, worked for the Fleischer studio, and in fact has at least one story credit in the Superman series. Thus, Pierce had an intimate familiarity with what was being spoofed.

    I agree with the comment above regarding Irium. "Modern design" and "Locked-in Flavor" were also advertising slogans of the era. (Cf. the usage of the former in Clampett's "Tortoise Wins By A Hare")

    As a further aside, it's interesting to see the way Bugs plays basketball, circa 1942-1943 technique, with the underhanded shot to the basket; once a common technique, it's now virtually extinct in the sport.

  4. I’ve always wondered if this cartoon, with its “super-carrots” that tended to run out at unfortunate intervals, was the inspiration for the Disney comic book SUPER GOOF, with Goofy as a super hero gulping down “Super-Goobers”. Begun in 1965, Super Goof appears in Disney comic books to the present day – some of which I’ve scripted.

    You say: “While standing in position; Smith fires multiple bullets at "Bugs" - but finds the real Bugs is standing behind a model of himself.”

    Fascinating, how two people can see different things in the same scene. In all the years I’ve enjoyed this cartoon, I’ve always figured that – because Bugs was “super” and impervious to bullets – that he just STOPPED THE BULLETS COLD, in a perfect cartoon-style outline of himself. Didn’t they just “fall away” when he moved?

    At least I don’t recall him stepping away to reveal he was behind a stand-up model of himself.

    I’m not for a moment saying you’re incorrect about this… just that I saw it differently. I wonder how others saw this…

    1. That's how I've always understood the gag as well, Bugs being "bullet-proof" as a Super-Rabbit.

  5. Hi! Nice piece about a great cartoon. The "Burbank" joke refers to botanist & horticulturist Luther Burbank, after whom Burbank, CA was named.

    1. Actually it was named for a dentist named David Burbank, owner of the land on which the town was built. Whether David was related to Luther, I don't know.

  6. One of three cartoons where Jones gives Bugs a physical advantage over his rival, the other two being 1960s efforts -- "Hare-Breadth Hurry" with the Coyote and the end gag with Marvin Martian for "Mad as a Mars Hare".

    It works far better here because the gags are funny enough to offset the idea that Bugs is normally at his best when he's at a physical disadvantage to his opponent and has to rely on his wits to come out on top.