Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Star Is Bugs

Alas, Looney Tunes director Bob McKimson may never get his day in the sun alongside the likes of Friz and Chuck Jones and the always insane Robert Clampett, but What's Up Doc?... the 1950s Bugs Bunny cartoon, not the 1972 Barbra Streisand classic What's Up, Doc?, just might be his best satirical stab at Hollywood.  I forget at what point this one started to grow on me, but it probably started with the big musical number featuring Bugs and an increasingly disheveled Elmer.
...nah, that can't be it.  Now that I'm watching it again, it must've been the Vaudeville routine with Elmer going "Yuk Yuk Yuk Yuk!"  And arguably, that's pretty much what the earliest Looney Tunes cartoons were like.  But let's start at the beginning in Beverly Hills, and Bugs' home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The rooves back then were solar panels, but just absorbing the Los Angeles heat without turning it into electricity.  Now, I hate to be critical, but Disney probably would have handled the perspective shift on that umbrella better.  On the other hand, that's Disney for ya: geometrically correct animation with no soul.  I still remember this one Disney short where Goofy's body is mostly in a tiny box, forcing him to walk around slowly with only his hands.  I couldn't help but think to myself, oh!  An Iraq War veteran!  Not whimsical enough, Disney... not whimsical enough.
And so, like most of these things, it starts with a phone call, or a random TV show on The Simpsons.  Bugs gets a call from the "Disassociated Press."  Oh, s'z'nap!  Bugs helpfully fills in for the person on the other end of the call by saying "The public has been demanding my life story?"  We're far from the modest Bugs of "This Is a Life?"  But Bugs is indeed a star in his own right, and he knows how to play the game.  Plus, this was the old days when stars would answer their own phones.  And Bugs is always ready to talk about himself... and doesn't get tired of it, Mr. Clooney!  HAH!  See, Warner Bros. owns both of their souls... Anyway, Bugs says "Well, I can tell it to you right over the phone!"  And even though it's been only ten years since Bugs became a star, it's still a tumultuous decades' worth.  Most people don't live in a lifetime what Bugs went through in those ten years.  And I have it on the highest authority.... a Looney Tunes t-shirt... that Bugs' birthday was some time in 1939.  A pretty big year for movies in general!  ...okay, so it's eleven years.  See, What's Up Doc? came out in 1950.  I think Bugs' more dramatic brother stood in for him on Elmer's Pet Rabbit.  Just not the same voice that we know and love today.  I don't know who that was in Elmer's Pet Rabbit, but he wasn't even good enough to play Bugs on the radio!
And so, Bugs tells his life's journey to a reporter over the phone... something sad about that.  Now, if you're like me... scary thought, I know... you like to find connections between things.  And sure, the Looney Tunes probably explore a finite number of themes.  But since my Cray Heuristics department has been disbanded, I can't give you a complete list of cartoons similar to the instant case.  The one that springs to mind that is the most similar, in terms of basic plot structure, is the 1947 classic, A Hare Grows in Manhattan.  Of course, that one focused mainly on slapstick and the usual anti-bully hijinks.  So Hare Grows is more like a part of a mini-series, whereas What's Up Doc is the whole VH1 special... something like that.  But they both feature a young Bugs reveling in childhood.  On the other hand, the Bugs in Hare Grows... I mean, who'd think that that would amount to anything?  Also, did they switch the audio track when the cross-fade to the hospital starts?  Why?  The other take must've sucked or something.  Ah, directing.
And so, the years roll on, and Bugs proves himself to be not just another flash in the pan at Moray's Dance Academy.  Bugs is running the Star Marathon, not like the internet sensations of today.  Boy, those were the days, when movie stars had to be able to do everything: sing, dance, tapdance... the occasional dramatic acting.  Somehow Will Ferrell, for example, feels a little light; he didn't tapdance his way to the top, methinks.
And so, Bugs goes from dancing school, to being swamped with fan mail?  But how... where... when... ah, skip it.  Oh, this thing's full of lessons for wannabe stars, I tells ya.  Note my disagreement with Network from earlier.  But Bugs doesn't have a sense of his self-worth yet.  I mean, the first three roles he gets on Broadway, well... hmm!  They seem to be preparing us for a callback!  Anyway, fate intervenes, and Bugs gets his big chance to move up through the veritable blackberry vines of Broadway stars.  He gets the starring role in one of those plays he was doing.  I hate to do the play-by-play on it, but I guess it's a good teachable moment... I mean, learning experience for him.  But his first takeaway... I mean, his first reaction is to quit the biz forever.  Needles to say, Bugs bombs worse than Daffy tapdancing to "Jeepers Creepers"!  As a lifelong watcher of Bugs, I kinda hate to see him falter like that.  But this isn't Yosemite Sam he's taking on, in this case.  It's New York, and they're kinda tough to please.  Which is why Bugs' next starring role is on a Central Park bench.  Boy, I hope things turn around, and soon!
Enter Elmer Fudd, "that big Vaudeville star."  And here's lesson #2 for wannabe stars.  Although it does put me in mind of the story I saw about how David Steinberg became a star.  He was performing in a theater off Off-Broadway, and there were only six in the crowd... one of which was a theatre critic for The New York Times.  After that, well... now you know why he's a Hollywood gatekeeper, asking Bob Zemeckis how it felt to win the Oscar.  Of course, Forrest Gump and Going Berserk aren't quite in the same league, but I think Steinberg kinda knows that.  And so, Elmer showers Bugs with praise, Bugs eats it up, and off they go on the road.
But much like the Ford brothers at the end of... what's it called?  Benjamin Button?  Nah, that can't be right.  Oh, right... The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford... Bugs being the Charley Ford in this Movie SAT example, Bugs gets tired of the monotony of the road, and the monotony of the act.  Personally, I don't see what the problem is.  Elmer tells a joke, says "Yuk" seven times, and Bugs dances!  What's not to like?  But no, Bugs has to have it all.  Bugs has to be The Man, because his ego can't leave well enough alone.  Bugs, amongst other indignities, hits Elmer on the head with a giant novely mallet, and Elmer is reduced to basics... even less than basics!  He's just a hat and two shoes!  But I admire his professionalism, because Elmer's hat and shoes does Bugs' dance anyway, and completely in the dark, on top of it.  Bugs gets his moment in the spotlight, and out of his clown outfit, parading his nakedness as though he's in a production of Hair or something.  But then... Elmer's got a shotgun on Bugs.  Ah hah!  Finally, a little truth!
And then, the ode to Tex Avery's A/The Wild Hare, which is the first time that Bugs uses the phrase "What's up, Doc?"  The assembled audience reacts.  Oh, how complicated these things get in such short order... contrary-wise.  Sorry, my mom's been saying that a lot lately.  Damn you, Dodgson!  And so, like everything else in showbiz, Bugs and Elmer take what seems to work, and beat it to death for the rest of their lives.  This persistence takes them all the way past the studio guards at Warner Brothers and into the studio, where Bugs and Elmer film "What's Up Doc?" in the Third Act OF What's Up Doc?  Confused yet?  Anyway, now that the bright lights are on, and Elmer's in that damn hunter costume, you might notice the disappointed look on his face.  This is not the life for a former Vaudeville star.  I mean, ten seasons of "Fibber McGee and Molly," for God's sake!  Does that count for NOTHING?!
Yes, it does not, because life's just unfair that way.  And showbiz is positively littered with such examples.  For example, did you know that Jennifer Lawrence once played a recurring character on "The Bill Engvall Show"?  Of course not!  Because she's Jennifer freakin' Lawrence, for f... God's sake!  I could give other examples... but why?  JENNIFER LAWRENCE!  Anyway, back to Bugs, who finished his phone interview, telling the other party on the line that he's late for the studio, as he starts filming his life story TODAY!  I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to Private Snafu in a similar situation.
And so, we get another WB clapboard, but an extremely lavish, monogrammed set and then... well, you can probably guess what it is.  But note the expression on Bugs' face.  Alas, being a movie star is at times much like any other job: full of drudgery that has to be done, but with slightly higher stakes.  Plus, celluloid lasts forever, so be sure to get it right the first time, or you'll end up like Wheeler and Woolsey: digitally remastered, and deservedly obscure.

Good double bill with: the aforementioned A Hare Grows in Manhattan... and possibly The Old Grey Hare, which features the joint childhoods of BOTH Bugs and Elmer!!!

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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