Thursday, 20 July 2017

420. Little Red Riding Rabbit (1943)

featuring BUGS BUNNY
Warner cartoon no. 419.
Release date: December 25, 1943 (see below).
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny), Billy Bletcher (Wolf), Bea Benaderet (Red Riding Hood).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Manuel Perez.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs Bunny and the Wolf battle each other inside Grandma's house; during her absence of contributing to the war effort.


Typically, I'd place Little Red Riding Hood as a 1944 release; as it shows up with a release date of January 4th on that year, in many filmography lists. With special thanks to Yowp's research - a newspaper ad from Hamilton, Ohio on December 23, 1943 reveals that this cartoon was already in theatres by that point.

Although an official release chart indicates its January release date - it appears that posted release dates of classic era shorts aren't entirely accurate. Perhaps the short opened first at smaller towns, before entering general release in January?

What I find a little perplexing in the advertisement, that it supposedly represents a Paramount theatre in Ohio; but it's also advertising an MGM musical, Best Foot Forward, and a Warner Bros. cartoon. Perhaps block booking wasn't practiced at smaller theatres in smaller towns?

This cartoon also marks the first time Mel Blanc gets billing credit in a Warner Bros cartoon. Such practice of granting voice artists screen credit was unheard of in Hollywood films. Even Walt Disney's earliest features omitted credit for vocal talents - likely to maintain the illusion of fantasy for audiences entranced by the magic of animation. For more information on Blanc's screen credit steal; see Keith Scott's article on Cartoon Research. The short also includes performances by Bea Benaderet and Billy Bletcher, who are both uncredited yet very talented.

The cartoon itself is another showcase of how the Schlesinger studio took liberties on parodying fairy tales. That same year, MGM released a very risque parody of the Riding Hood tale; Red Hot Riding Hood, by Schlesinger's former director, Tex Avery. The majority of the cartoon challenged film censorship since it was built around lust. Friz Freleng's parody of the same fairy tale might not be edgy; but it excels for its funny characterisations and smart writing by Michael Maltese.


Michael Maltese's take on Red Riding Hood opens up to a lot of gag opportunities. Many versions of the fairy tale typically depict Red Riding Hood as a sweet young girl with endearing qualities. Maltese portrayal, however, lacks such traits. Many cartoons previously parodied Red with a Katherine Hepburn persona. Instead, Red is stereotyped as a loud, obnoxious bobby-soxer teenager - vocalised irritatingly by Bea Benaderet with great comedy values.

The character was the inspiration of radio comedian Cass Daley - and Michael Maltese's young daughter! Daley was known for her energy and loudness; but some of Red's childlike dialogue ("ta-have!") was adapted from Maltese's daughter.

The opening sequence showcases Red's personality very vividly that realistically portrays the awkwardness of adolescents. Like the story, Red journeys through the woods with a basket -- but sings ear-splittingly in her rendition of Five O'Clock Whistle. An obnoxious piece of delivery makes Maltese's portrayal of Red, all the more hilarious!


Bugs Bunny arises from his basket, asking casually: "Watcha got in the basket, gorgeous?" Red responds loudly: "Ahh've got a little bunny rabbit which I'm taking to my grandma's. Ta-have, see?". Red's purpose of bringing Bugs as a gift is kept vague. A pet gift or a plate of rabbit stew? Depends how you see it.

Animated cartoons had come a long way from wholesome, cutesy interpretations of Red Riding Hood from the 1930s, popularised by Disney. MGM's Red Hot Riding Hood even claimed, "Every cartoon studio in Hollywood's done it this way!". Red is deliberately parodied as an unlikeable loudmouth that even a casual viewer would love to hate!

The traditional storytelling of the fairy tale slowly starts to change direction once the wolf appears. He diverts Red's route; whilst approaching Grandma's house. As discovered, it's revealed she's away from home contributing to the war effort, by working a "swing shift at Lockheed".

The wolf puts on the disguise; and even shoos away other wolves hiding under the covers on the bed, hoarding the spotlight, as he yells: "Come on, come on! Take a powder. This is my racket!". The disgruntled wolves leave the bed, muttering.

By the time Red Riding Hood enters Grandma's house for the traditional lines, Michael Maltese diverts the story from that standpoint - adding a comical twist to make way for Bugs' antics. The wolf overhears Red shouting, "I brought a little bunny rabbit for you, ta-have!".

And so, eating a rabbit appeals to the wolf more than Red. The wolf grows irritated by her presence as she attempts to speak the infamous lines from the tale: "That's an awfully big nose for you; ta-have!". Red is quickly shuffled out of the door by the wolf, who turns his attention towards Bugs Bunny, residing inside the basket. The twist is both spontaneous and build by characterisation - as the characters themselves take the cartoon in a different approach.

Michael Maltese would take advantage of Red's irritating personality; by using her as a recurring gag throughout the cartoon. Maltese is innovative enough by mocking traditional values of a fairy tale story. He understood parody well enough to not rely too much on the source material - if better gags are called for.

Sporadically, Red would re-appear in several scenes - still asking the wolf questions based on the fairy tale: "What sharp teeth ya got, Grandma!". The wolf would always respond by disposing Red out of the house.

At the height of his annoyance, the wolf expresses courtesy towards Red, by speaking French! I don't know what the rough translation is; unless Billy Bletcher improvised it. This is soon followed by an unwelcoming yell from the wolf: "Get out!". The comedy delivery works as an amusing juxtaposition of etiquette and rudeness!

Freleng's comic delivery comes to advantage in a short interruption of Red knocking on the door, and questioning loudly. Inventive smear animation by Gerry Chiniquy, the animator of that scene, comes into effect when the wolf slams the door in front of Red.

The most complicated and highlighted elements of Friz Freleng's comic timing are showcased authentically in this cartoon. Applying musical timing to animated action isn't an unheard trait of Freleng, but the short features some very fine examples.

A remarkably complex piece of timing occurs in a gag involving Bugs Bunny running up the stairs and closing the door, whilst in pursuit of the wolf. Bugs then reappears through different doors during an in-and-out routine. The layout work is relatively simple; but it's an unbelievably complicated piece of action.

Both Bugs and the wolf's stepping movements are arranged by different instruments respectively. To keep the musical timing consistent whilst Bugs is deceiving the Wolf is an incredible tour-de-force on Freleng's part. For a gag executed successfully, it would eventually have its encore in Buccaneer Bunny (1948).


A less difficult but engaging piece of musical timing applied to action is featured in a scene introducing the wolf. As seen, the wolf is hiding behind a tree while spying on Red's trail. The wolf would discreetly tiptoe his foot towards another tree nearby, and slide his body forward without exposing his presence.

Stalling's use of musical pantomime amplifies the wolf as a conniving and sneaky character. The scene, animated by Dick Bickenbach, indicates some strong poses of the wolf's tip-toeing action, whilst keeping on form with Friz Freleng's timing pattern.

Much of Bugs' escapades in this cartoon is matched with a certain kind of energy seldom practiced by Friz Freleng. In a scene of Bugs Bunny striking the wolf with a paddle, and deceiving him of his whereabouts - it shows a standard use of smear animation that enhances animated energy.

For more intriguing dynamics, Friz Freleng practices his own cutting style during a scene of Bugs whistling his whereabouts to the wolf, but zips out of shot when he arrives.

To begin with, the pacing is kept stable. Once a series of consecutive shots of Bugs whistling at various places of the house takes place, the cuts become more rapid.


Friz seldom practiced fast-cutting amongst his directorial abilities. His style of cutting might not be as dynamic as Frank Tashlin's, but it works well enough to assimilate the cartoon action.

The fast-cutting ends with a pay-off once Bugs Bunny points towards a cupboard. He exits upon the wolf's arrival, but he opens to find Bugs hiding inside. Freleng's timing is both subtle and zany in its execution. The action flows very quickly with such subtleties that otherwise could come across as contrived.


Mel Blanc and Billy Bletcher both play off each other with sublime fashion, in a sequence of Bugs mimicking the wolf's actions. Bugs finds himself cornered, but his quick wits enforces him to copy the wolf's speech and posture. They both yell, "Why you... / Hey, now! / Cut that out or... / Say, wise guy! / Oh, yeah?"), and are both perfectly synchronised at the further of delivery  of "Yeah!".


The mimicking works so well from many departments - from the duo's voice collaboration right down to its animated form. Intentionally, Bugs is out of sync for much of the mimicking, to create a realistic scenario. Only Friz Freleng's meticulousness could do a scene such justice.

Gerry Chiniquy's animation is met with many challenges. Imaging seeing an exposure sheet for that scene, which would've required complicated charting. It's one of the few times in animation, when twinning the characters' poses are called for.

Then, Bugs takes control through psychology by shouting out nonsense words, and distracting the wolf by muddling up his speech, and breaking into the song: Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet. A Tex Avery-esque gag quietly appears as Bugs holds a "Silly, isn't he?" card.

A part of myself is curious if Blanc and Bletcher might've recorded their lines together for that scene? Not only would the delivery work better, but it could've saved expenses of sound film stock - had they recorded their lines separately. Still, the sequence has strong comedy merit from those talented men, as well as Freleng's direction. Such a gag like that could've easily gone wrong without the importance of team effort and careful planning!


Suspense builds up as the wolf creeps towards a dark room. An elaborate scene of a fireplace reveals Bugs Bunny is hiding underneath the gown - as indicated in a reflection. Much of the suspenseful action contains lavish composition. This is evident when the wolf enters a dark room, with Bugs' hot coal as the only source of vivid light.


The darkness ends in the blink of an eye when the wolf shoots upwards from his gown - screaming in pain from Bugs' hot coal. Bugs places a large shove full of hot coals - causing the wolf to catch his feet on the edges of two benches. The vibrating action has some nice timing to it.

From this moment, Bugs Bunny has finally outwitted the wolf, and is ready to give him the coup de grace. Bugs punishes the wolf further by dumping heavy objects on the wolf's hands. The scene dissolves to a tall structure of house objects. The camera pans upwards as Bugs is ready to apply some finishing touches until...

..."GRANDMA!", Red cries off screen. Bugs has finally had enough of Red's earsplitting voice! Her presence prompts a new motive on Bugs, who remarks: "I'll do it, but I'll probably hate myself in the morning."

Animation by Virgil Ross.
Bugs climbs down the ladder, and the next shot reveals another twist: Bugs had switched the wolf with Red; whose now given the burden of carrying all that weight whilst avoiding her rear end from getting scorched. The camera pans towards Bugs and the wolf, now friends, as they both share a carrot and watch Red's torture with satisfaction.

And a satisfying ending it is! Red's recurring presence is paid off in a hilarious gag, that merits shock value. It probably represents a more sadistic nature for Bugs - but justice feels truly met. Michael Maltese's use of twists are excelled in this cartoon. The overall ending is hilarious by its entire execution - right from the storyboards onto the finished product.

For a director whose sometimes criticised for being "conservative", this cartoon is anything but that! It's arguably one of Freleng's most energetic and spontaneous cartoons he did for Warner Bros - and its entertainment values are sky high! The cartoon highlights Freleng's true talents as a director. Much of the short is built on constant activity and fast pace which creates excitement. Michael Maltese reconstructs the fairy tale for his own parody, with wonderful spontaneity and twists. His characterisations are very funny; especially when the characters themselves drive the story away from its traditional roots. Much of Maltese's structure has a natural, loose feel towards it which is anything but forced. Little Red Riding Rabbit is the least bit pretentious, and it still serves as one of the most entertaining and thrilling cartons produced by Warner Bros.

Rating: 5/5.

5 comments:

  1. This is a great cartoon by any standard. Mention should be made of Lenard Kester's backgrounds. Friz must have loved light and shadow because when Paul Julian replaced Kester, he used similar highlights.
    When I still had access to the newspaper site above and found ads for WB cartoons, Jerry Beck mentioned that once prints arrived at the exchange, theatres could run them. There was no hard and fast rule about when shorts had to be screened. They were shorts; no one really cared.

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  2. There was a key difference between Friz's Bugs cartoons and Clampett's Bugs efforts around this time -- Bob's Bugs could be nasty towards his overm-atched adversaries from the start, while Friz's saved Bugs' meanest stuff here and in 1944's "Hare Force" for the end of the picture.
    Putting Red over the hot coals or throwing Granny out of the house is far more funny when it's more surprising because it comes out of nowhere (especially for 1944 audiences not used to seeing the star character do that).

    Combine that with the timing Friz had and the voice work here (taken together, Mel, Bea and Billy may have done the best combined voice acting of any Warners cartoon ever here), and you get a not just a great cartoon, but a great one with a just-as-great ending.

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  3. In the Beck/Freidwald books on Warner Brothers cartoons, it is mentioned that Red Riding Hood's design was co-created by Hank Ketcham who created DENNIS THE MENACE, and that is why Red looks somewhat like Margaret, the little girl who always seems to follow Dennis around.

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  4. I'd heard about Maltese's daughter having inspired Red's personality, and I also read that Red was modeled on Virginia Weidler.

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  5. one of my personal favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons and probably the best one (rivaling with two of Tashlin's only credited Bugs Bunny cartoons and a Jones cartoon Duck, Rabbit, Duck). I was studying most of Freleng's animators especially Gerry Chiniquy and Manny Perez & I actually found their animations zanny.

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