Wednesday, 27 July 2016

408. Wackiki Wabbit (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 407.
Release date: July 3, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny), Michael Maltese, Ted Pierce (Self-caricatured castaways).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Trapped in an uninhabited island, a pair of castaways sees Bugs Bunny as a source for food.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of the cartoon, asides from the background work, are the two castaways. Both characters are self-caricatures of Termite Terrace stalwarts: Michael Maltese and Ted Pierce, who are best remembered for writing Chuck Jones' shorts in his WB career. The premise of the cartoon is centred on two hungry castaways; who discover Bugs as the only source of food in an uninhabited desert island, with a desire to eat him.

Ted Pierce (left), and Mike Maltese (right).
With the self-caricatures portraying the antagonists; one could consider the potential for comedy by adding a unique foe for Bugs Bunny; and using the writers' personalities to blend into their animated counterparts. But, the humour would've been primarily an in-joke; it would've been an innovative concept.

However, I'd doubt Ted Pierce would want to satirise his alcoholism, and this results in the characters having thin personalities which doesn't supplement the caricature. Both caricatures are portrayed with a similar Abbott & Costello persona.

Maltese's caricature comes across as stout and dim-witted; while Pierce's caricature is lanky and a companion of the Maltese castaway. Both characters are granted a running gag, but it has little to show for and no pay off. It merely features the Pierce castaway slapping the Maltese castaway in the face as an acknowledgement of his slow-wits - a very one-dimensional, lame gag.

The opening sequence introducing the two castaways are an example of a wasted opportunity as far as comedy goes. The pair are first seen sitting on a raft, drifting along a choppy ocean. A lot of the action is being overlapped by the elaborate effects of the oceans waving, achieved from Johnny Burton's camera department. An elaborate effect, but very ostentatious, as it overlooks the story elements.

The sequence (animated by Ben Washam) features the two self-caricatured castaways turning delirious, and they go into hallucination spells in wanting to eat one another; while Carl Stalling has Asleep in the Deep playing in the underscore.

It's a pretty stale opening that shows no gag merit and missed opportunities. None of the scenes with the pair tempted to eat one another have comedic values. The quiet, sombre atmosphere feels like a throwback to the awkward pantomime cartoons Chuck Jones was directing only a few years earlier.

The closest the sequence has in getting a gag, is the Ted Pierce castaway's line, "Hold the onions", in a delirious moment of picturing his companion as a hamburger. A popular in-joke in the Warner Bros. cartoons, it's too petty to make the scene worthwhile.

As stated briefly; the beautiful background and layout art are another iconic element in Jones' short. The abstract design almost dominates the short entirely; although it's a stunning portrayal on the castaway's perspective of arriving at a remote island with outlandish scenery. The vertical set-up seen on the right (courtesy of the late Michael Sporn's Splog) is a prime example of abstract, and yet beautifully dynamic.

Whether or not Chuck's layout artist John McGrew had much influence on the layout work is uncertain, as the early Warner cartoons omitted such information. However, the experimental background work in this cartoon is credited to Bernyce Polifka; who replaced McGrew around that same era. So, it's likely McGrew left around the time the short was in early stages of production.

The reception of these background innovations were strong and acknowledged by some artists in the industry. This is evident in a cartoonists' union newsletter, The Animator, dated: December 24, 1943, when Disney layout artist Karl Van Leuven reviewed the background work in this cartoon:
"This opus is notable not for its habit-formed story, but for the imaginative experimentation of its layout and background". 
Van Leuven goes as far as to acknowledge: "Schlesinger is pacing the current background breakaway from cute." It's a great document that reveals the small recognition Fleury and Polifka received from outside the Schlesinger studio; and a rare acknowledgement for its time. For more on the quote, see Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons, p. 446-447.

For the most part; the short is hampered with a quiet atmosphere that feels reminiscent to the sluggish pace of Chuck Jones' earlier cartoons. While the gags are there; they are delivered the wrong way. However, the scene in the castaways's foiled attempt in enticing Bugs to jump into the cauldron to collect the coin is nicely executed.

Bugs' bathing in the cauldron is a gag recreated from Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt...although in the former, it's delivered much better. Bugs sings as he bathes, and tricks the fat castaway into thinking he's giving him a bath, as he requests to have hot water poured down his back.

The timing and character animation of the scene is slow and awkward; that feels unneeded for a cartoon with potentially hysterical moments. The premise feels misplaced and contrasting to the more vibrant tribal dance scene.

Fortunately, the short's poor opening is swept away with the short's funnier sequence that are inventive and entertaining. The sequence of Bugs' semi-disguised as a native, and greeting the castaways is the short's highlight in my book. Not only is Mel Blanc's delivery on Humuhumunukunukuapa'a'a'a hilarious; but Bugs' foreign language translated into English subtitles is sublime.

The gag features Bugs speaking prolongedly in a foreign accent that deceives the listener into believing the message is long, but the English subtitles reveal he's simply saying: "What's up, doc?". And vice versa, his shorter messages are even longer in English. The subtitle translation are a parody to the gag popularised in Bob Hope's radio shows.

The gag is extended to a funnier follow-up, where the Pierce responds: "Well, thanks"; and takes as he reads the foreign subtitle translations underneath him. The Maltese castaway's remark, "Gee, did you say that?" is a clever, subtle usage of breaking the forth wall.

Bugs' rendition of a tribal dance is hilariously executed by the wonderful work of Bobe Cannon. Cannon brings a lot of spontaneity and haste into his work; that's full of life and energy. Impressed by his dancing, the two castaways attempt to mimic his dance - which results in something silly and hysterical.

Acknowledgement must to Carl Stalling for bringing tribal music into excellent form - creating a believable atmosphere to the foliage island. The off-screen tribal chant is also a nutty but appropriate addition. As the castaways dance awkwardly, Bugs sniggers and walks away; making them a victim of Bugs' infamous pranks.

If Chuck Jones ever had an animator who was reliable for animating the most challenging was Ken Harris. Harris has the feat of bringing life and believably to a skinned chicken who advances threateningly towards the two castaways; who are oblivious to Bugs' handling of it like a marionette. Ken uses strong poses to add realism to his work, as well as a sharp eye for clarity.

The skinned chicken, controlled by Bugs Bunny on top of a tree house, threatens the two castaways convincingly by setting the notion that the chicken is possessed, causing the pair to cowardly back away. After all, I'd be fooled if I saw a roasted chicken with the ability to snap a fork.

The sequence also serves as a pinnacle moment for Bugs Bunny who is playing with the minds of the castaways' delirious episodes. The castaways see through the trick; as they look up Bugs at the tree house, struggling to adjust the strings of his marionette piece.

At first, the pair successfully retrieve the skinned chicken, that is, until Bugs yanks the strings away; with the skin that follows. Chuck's strong posing goes unmatched as the castaways break down and bawl over their hopeless circumstance.

At this moment of despair, some hope is immediately restored when they see a ship dock by the uninhabited island. In a series of quick shots; they exclaim: "A ship" and celebrate in a delirious state. Bugs, once again, takes advantage of the situation; and decides to have the last laugh.

He interferes with the celebration by tossing leis at them, as they chant: "We're going on a boat!" He supposedly greets them farewell as they advance towards the docks. It's an amusing piece of incoherency that an uninhabited island somehow has its own docks; but, can be taken for granted.

Then, Bugs connives them in a time-honoured switcher-roo trick; as he boards the ship, while the castaways wave goodbye to Bugs. It's a crafty characterisation that only Bugs could pull off spontaneously. With the pair of them going into a double-take upon realising they've been tricked from going on-board; they realise their situation is even more hopeless. To end the short, the pair go into another hallucination episode where they imagine each other as a hot dog and hamburger; and chasing each other in the distance. While the ending comes across as a humorous resolution - it has a dark approach to it; leaving their fates ambiguous.

Like The Aristo-Cat, the cartoon is dominated with beautiful, abstract backgrounds that would intrigue a variety of artists. As a whole, the short is passable at best. One of the major drawbacks of the short is the missed opportunities from the Mike Maltese and Ted Pierce castaways. It's a pity on how two very funny cartoon writers are playing themselves as two unfunny characters. In comparison to shorts like Super-Rabbit where Chuck excelled in the Warners pace and sheer energy - the short is somewhat lacking in that. With story and direction problems aside; the cartoon contains some gems of its own: primarily the tribal dancing scene, which has the true spirit of a funny Warner Bros. cartoon than any scene here. Bugs Bunny's characterisation and admired quick-wits aren't utilised to its greatest advantage; but he has his moments of brilliance, as depicted in the latter part of the cartoon. All-in-all, a so-so cartoon.

Rating: 2/5.


  1. I reckon this was before Pierce added the second D to his name... the story I heard was it was his response to puppeteer Bil Baird removing an L from his name (something cartoonist Bil Keane also did).

  2. I'm much more fond of this cartoon than you seem to be. The "tribal dance" sequence is wonderful!

    I could not help but notice you have not reviewed "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" (1946). You should!

    1. I'm reviewing the Warner Bros. cartoons from chronological order, so I'm a little while away from reviewing "Great Piggy Bank Robbery", but I'll happen!

  3. Hard to sympathize with Bugs here considering he's actively denying food to starving castaways.

    I mean yeesh he even pulls away the chicken!