Dynamic Duos In Classic Film Blogathon: Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck
Although MGM, at the height of their popularity, used to advertise themselves as the studio with “more stars than there are in the heavens”, the truth is, during the era people like to call “classic Hollywood”, most of the major studios were not exactly slouches in this department. Warner Brothers, for example, could boast of having under contract the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Paul Henreid, and many others. It’s also true, of course, that when the studio system started its decline in the late 40’s/early 50’s, and stars were no longer necessarily tethered to one studio and were starting to go where they pleased, Warner Brothers was affected by this trend as much as anyone else. Still, even this decline, there were two stars who not only stayed with the studio, but managed to keep their popularity going throughout the 1950’s and well into the 60’s. Not only that, but despite the fact they were often rivals, at least on-screen, they appeared in over 15 films together during that time, and had each built up a considerable following before that. And to top it all off, all of this was accomplished despite the fact these stars, despite being beloved by both audiences and theater owners, were, along with the part of the studio they worked for, forced to work for smaller budgets than almost anyone else. Those two stars were, of course, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
In his preface to Joe Adamson’s book Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare, Chuck Jones – who was the director of many of the most memorable Bugs/Daffy team-ups, put it simply; “We love Daffy because he is us, we love Bugs because he is as wonderful as we would like to be.” Bugs, with occasional exceptions (with Cecil the Turtle in three cartoons, the Gremlin in one cartoon, and the Motion Picture Academy in another), was generally able to wisecrack or out-think his way out of any situation; not just perpetually nemeses Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, but also dogs, vultures, rabbit haters, baseball teams, doctors, gangsters, and even the Nazis. Daffy, on the other hand, while he was as fast-talking and wisecracking as Bugs, was more manic, and also tended to lose as much as win, whether with his frequent co-star Porky Pig (who was alternately a menace, Daffy’s friend, sidekick, straight man, or foil), hunters, other animals, and even a wife or two (along with, like Bugs, the Nazis). And while Daffy might have gotten there first (his first appearance was in 1937, in Porky’s Duck Hunt, while Bugs didn’t show up as we know him today – there were prototypes in 1938 – until 1940, in A Wild Hare), it was Bugs who became the most popular. So when it was decided to put them together in Rabbit Fire (1951), directed by Chuck Jones and written by Michael Maltese, Daffy was the one who ended up playing second fiddle.
The irony is, when Bugs and Daffy actually first appeared together, they were friends. In Porky Pig’s Feat (1943), directed by Frank Tashlin before he made live-action films, Daffy and Porky try desperately to escape paying their outrageous hotel bill (from the Broken Arms Hotel), but the hotel manager is able to thwart them every time. Finally, they’re both chained up in their room, and Porky wishes Bugs were there. Daffy gets the idea of calling Bugs (in a trademark of Warner Brothers cartoons, Daffy and Porky remember how Bugs got away from a hunter “in a Leon Schlesinger cartoon”), but when he calls Bugs, Bugs asks what they tried (Daffy recaps the short), and it turns out he’s in the same predicament as they are. They also both appeared that same year in Corny Concerto (though not at the same time); while Bugs matches wits with a hunter (Porky) and his dog, a younger version of Daffy is rejected by a swan until he rescues her children from a vulture (Robert Clampett directed this one). Starting with Rabbit Fire, Daffy was no longer interested in being friends.
Rabbit Fire was the first of what later became known as the “hunter” trilogy, in that all three films (this one, Rabbit Seasoning (1952), and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (1953)) co-star Bugs’ frequent foil Elmer Fudd. The formula for all three movies is pretty much the same; Daffy puts up signs saying it’s rabbit season (when it’s really duck season), Elmer finds both the signs and the rabbit tracks leading to Bugs’ hole, Elmer threatens to shoot Bugs, Bugs manages to outwit Elmer in some way, Daffy gets angry and tries to keep Elmer on point, and Bugs is able to trick Daffy into having Elmer shoot him instead. The way Bugs was able to do so wasn’t new – Daffy himself had done it to Porky in Duck Soup to Nuts (1944) – but Bugs took it to an art form, as with this memorable exchange from Rabbit Seasoning:
Bugs: Would you like to shoot me now, or wait till you get home?
Daffy: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs: You keep out of this! He doesn’t have to shoot you now.
Daffy: He does so have to shoot me now! (to Elmer) I demand that you shoot me now!
Of course, Elmer shoots him, and that’s the way it goes. Only in the first of the three does Daffy get any sort of triumph; as he and Bugs fight over whether or not it’s rabbit season or duck season, and they rip down various signs, they discover the bottom one says, “Elmer Season”, and the two of them become the hunters (“Be vewy, vewy quiet. We’re huntin’ Elmers!”). Except for this, Bugs always triumphs alone (Rabbit Fire is also when Daffy first used the phrase, “You’re despicable!” to describe Bugs, and would do so at the end of the other two in the trilogy).
Daffy had tried to put Bugs in harm’s way for both sporting reasons (“It’s fun!”) and to avoid being shot himself (“I am a duck, bent on self-preservation”). When Bugs, Daffy and Elmer reunited two years later (aside from a couple of cameo appearances, which I’ll get to below) in Beanstalk Bunny (1955) – also directed by Jones and written by Maltese – greed was added to Daffy’s characteristics. He plays Jack – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – while Elmer plays the giant of the tale. Only Bugs would have been perfectly happy to stay out of it until Daffy, who recognizes he’s in a story where he’s guaranteed treasure for himself, pushes Bugs off the beanstalk to get rid of him (instead of Bugs’ usual catch phrase, “Of course you realize this means war!”, we get, “I don’t remember any rabbit in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, but there’s gonna be one in this one!”). Daffy is willing to work with Bugs when they’re both trapped (unlike the usual hapless figure Elmer usually plays, this time, he’s genuinely menacing; of course, he’s also a giant), but again, if it’s between him and Bugs, Daffy will always choose himself (“He’s Jack – Jack Rabbit!”) – although, to be fair, Bugs also double-crosses him – and when Daffy has a chance to get away, he chooses to go after the gold. The end result? Bugs escapes and discovers a giant carrot garden, while Daffy becomes the watch hand on Elmer’s watch (“Eh, it’s a living”).
This wasn’t the end of Daffy’s greed being used as his justification to either do Bugs in, or at least beat him. In Ali Baba Bunny (1957), also directed by Jones, Bugs and Daffy wind up in Bagdad (once again, Bugs didn’t take that left turn at Albuquerque) instead of Pismo Beach, but end up finding treasure, which Daffy wants all for himself, though unlike any other cartoon they did together, he didn’t want to eliminate Bugs, since Bugs had no interest in the treasure. That detente didn’t last long; in People Are Bunny (1959), directed by Robert McKimson, Daffy discovers a hunting show he watches is willing to pay $1,000 to whoever brings in a rabbit, and naturally decides to bring in Bugs at gunpoint. A television show is also the backdrop of The Million Hare (1963), also directed by McKimson, the show “Beat Your Buddy” is giving a $1 million prize to whoever gets to the studio first, Bugs or Daffy, and Daffy of course will stop at nothing to make sure he gets there first. Finally, in The Iceman Ducketh (1964) the very last theatrical short Bugs and Daffy would do together for 26 years (as well as the next-to-last theatrical short Bugs would do for 26 years himself), Daffy, while in the Klondike, hears there’s money to be made from rabbit pelts, and naturally thinks of Bugs (Phil Munroe directed this one). As usual, Daffy fell short; instead of getting treasure, he angered a genie, he ends up tricked into dressing up as a rabbit so Bugs could collect the money himself, and instead of getting Bugs’ pelt, he gets attacked by bears. Only in The Million Hare did he end up with any kind of triumph (he won the race), but even that proved to be short-lived; he thinks the prize is worthless and decides to give it to Bugs, but it turns out he was wrong.
Of course, sometimes Daffy was only greedy for the spotlight he desperately wanted, and which he felt Bugs was hogging, and director Friz Freleng seemed to specialize in this interpretation of Daffy. In This is a Life? (also 1955)*, Bugs ends up being a guest on the popular TV show This Is Your Life, with both Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam using the reunion as an excuse to do in Bugs once and for all. Daffy, of course, thinks he should be the one that’s honored, which leads to him taking a time bomb meant for Bugs. In A Star is Bored (1956), Daffy is a janitor who tires of Bugs’ stardom and wants to become a star in his own right, only to be cast as Bugs’ stunt double whenever he’s threatened by Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam. The following year, in Showbiz Bugs, Bugs and Daffy are both stars of a variety show, but not only does Bugs get top billing over Daffy (which, of course, makes him angry), but the audience seems to prefer Bugs no matter what, until Daffy pulls out all the stops with his last act, which, as he points out, he can only do once. Finally, in Person to Bunny (1960), Daffy comes over to Bugs’ house while he’s being interviewed by Edward R. Burrows, and keeps trying to insist he’s a better interview. Of course, only angling for the spotlight didn’t prevent Daffy from trying to off Bugs, from cutting a tree limb that Bugs is sitting on in A Star is Bored to rigging a xylophone to explode when Bugs tries to play the song “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” (a gag Freleng and writer Warren Foster seemed to like, since they had used it six years earlier in the Bugs/Yosemite Sam cartoon Ballot Box Bunny). Of course, both schemes fail; in usual Looney Tunes logic, when Daffy tried to saw the limb, the rest of the tree, with him on it, fell down instead, and when Bugs tried to play the xylophone, he played one wrong note so often and enraged Daffy pushed him away and played it right, at which point he was blown up instead.
The only time Daffy’s actions were motivated by pure self-preservation was in The Abominable Snow Rabbit (1961), co-directed by Jones and Maurice Nobile. Once again, instead of turning left at Albuquerque, Bugs and Daffy end up in the Himalayas, where the Abominable Snow Man lives. In this version (inspired by Of Mice and Men), the Abominable Snowman doesn’t want to kill the rabbit, he wants to own one so he can love him and hold him and squeeze him and so on. Naturally, when Daffy gets mistaken for a rabbit (his pants accidentally went the wrong way), he calls for Bugs. Naturally, however, Bugs once again manages to out-manuever him.
Daffy also ended up making cameo appearances in two Bugs shorts, though in these examples, he wasn’t the enemy. In Sahara Hare (1955), directed by Freleng, Bugs once again fails to turn left at Albuquerque, and instead of finding Miami Beach, he ends up in the Sahara, and having to do battle with Yosemite Sam (in this case, a sultan calling himself Riff-Raff Sam). At the end, it turns out Bugs wasn’t the only one who ended there by mistake, as Daffy comes out looking for the beach as well, and Bugs decides what Daffy doesn’t know won’t hurt him. In Apes of Wrath (1959), also directed by Freleng, Bugs gets kidnapped by the stork when the baby gorilla he was supposed to deliver goes missing and he needs a baby. Bugs is finally able to escape when the real baby gorilla finally shows up, only to be presented with a baby of his own; Daffy. Bugs, however, turns the tables on Daffy in the Chuck Jones-directed Duck Amuck (1953), my favorite cartoon short of all time (as well as my favorite movie released that year in the U.S.), Daffy finds himself subject to the increasing whims of the animator, who turns out to be Bugs (“Ain’t I a stinker?”).
For me, aside from Duck Amuck, nothing really topped the “hunting trilogy” with Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd. It’s true there was a certain predictability with the form of each cartoon, but the inventiveness of the humor goes a long way towards offsetting that predictability. There are funny moments in many of the other shorts, but by the 1960’s, the Bugs/Daffy cartoons seemed to be spinning their wheels (to be fair, most Looney Tunes cartoons were like that as well). After 1964, Bugs and Daffy could be seen on TV, where the old cartoon shorts found a new life, and also in compilation movies released theatrically. After they both appeared in the smash 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, though not together (Bugs was paired with Mickey Mouse, while Daffy was paired with Donald Duck, whose career – being a jealous second fiddle – bore a striking resemblance to Daffy’s), there were a few attempts to bring Bugs and Daffy back to the big screen, either through cartoon shorts (the best of which is Box Office Bunny, where Bugs discovers a movie theater has been built over his home; Elmer Fudd is an usher determined to keep Bugs out, and Daffy is a movie patron) or films that combined live-action and animation. For true Looney Tunes fans, the less said about Space Jam (1996), the better. A much better attempt to catch the spirit of Bugs and Daffy, though also problematic to a certain extent, was Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), directed by die-hard Looney Tunes fan Joe Dante (his film Gremlins 2: The New Batch, aside from featuring both Bugs and Daffy in a great gag, was also the closest to a live-action Looney Tunes movie ever made). Once again, Bugs and Daffy were rivals, both at work (when they’re in front of executives, Bugs is able to charm them, but they ignore Daffy) and when the plot, involving a missing diamond and the evil head (Steve Martin) of Acme, who wants his hands on it. It featured callbacks to several Bugs/Daffy shorts, and gave Daffy the rare chance of being a genuine hero. I haven’t seen the current Looney Tunes show that’s on TV, but Dante’s movie, I think, is the best representative of the legacy of two of my favorites stars of all time in any format.
*Though YouTube no longer has most of the old Looney Tunes shorts, I was able to find, and re-watch, all of the Bugs/Daffy shorts except for “This is a Life?“, which is why my description of it is more vague than the other cartoons, for which I apologize.