Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Gone to Get a Rabbit's Kin but Now the Rabbit's Gone Again...

Rabbit's Kin represents a one and only for me, as it seems to be the only time I can recall when someone geeked out even more than I usually do about a Warner Brothers cartoon.  And it's not a hard one to pinpoint, as it's the one and only screen appearance of a character by the named of Peter J. Puma, aka "Pete," also known as "Sneakin' Pete," voiced by the great Stan Freberg.  But due to some strange union clauses, only Mel Blanc gets voice credit on any of these things.  Freberg is of course the only guy with the right vocal chords to properly do a beloved character like Marvin the Martian... of course, Mel Blanc voiced Marvin one time in Haredevil Hare but it was just more of a generic nasal nerd character.  It also may have been Marvin's first appearance...
And as a special bonus on the DVD, Freberg shows up to do the Rabbit's Kin commentary!  As near as I can tell, he's the only celebrity to stop by to do the commentary.  But it is a special cartoon, and the DVD makers went to great pains to provide a special commentary.
Even Freberg himself doesn't understand the appeal of Pete Puma, but he did fail to mention its source of inspiration: a character from one of Jackie Gleason's sketch comedy TV shows... okay, apparently it started on The Jack Benny Show, kind of like how Ed Grimley started on SCTV, then ended up on Saturday Night Live and then on his own animated TV show.  In animation form, however, Pete seems to be the animated Felidae equivalent of Bob Denver's character on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"... I know, I know, if anything, it's the other way around.  Well, time passes, and all this stuff gets mashed all together into one whole decade somehow.  And now that the cartoon is well past its 60th anniversary, there seems to be a bit of a Hippie burnout vibe to Pete.  If I were a better crafter of headlines, I'd call this one "The Lion That Toked."
Now, I don't know who Bugs has less respect for in terms of his enemies.  Bugs seems to fear the Tasmanian Devil the most, followed by Yosemite Sam and his French and Scottish cousins.  At the bottom of the list is Elmer Fudd and Pete, with Pete somewhere under Fudd.  Bugs uses both Elmer and Pete to rest on when asking "What's up, Doc?"  And yet, with Pete's very first line... it was your proverbial love at first sight.  Pete may be a bad guy in the context of Rabbit's Kin, ... but he's just so damn goofy!  If I may use that word in a non-Disney context.
Bugs asks Pete, "...a LITTLE rabbit?  Wouldn't you rather have a BIG rabbit?"  If you listen to the DVD commentary while watching the cartoon, you'll notice that both Freberg AND Pete Puma say "Yep!" at the same time.  Dayamn... talk about synchronicity.  I know, I know, everyone else in the entire world will call it "creepy."  Correction: it's Hollywood creepy.
...damn, just thought of another example.  At the VERY BOTTOM of Bugs' enemies list has to be the dog from Hare Ribbin'.  The things he does to that beast... I think it's like how the kids treat a substitute teacher that sits in for a couple days.  But it's interesting to see each approach that Bugs takes to each enemy.  Take, for example, how Bugs reacts to Pete Puma's gift of an exploding cigar.  Bugs tucks the cigar away in his... vest pocket... whatever... and tries to ignore Pete's lit match.  "Well, I think I'll have to be going now!" exclaims Pete.  Enter the tea tray.  My friend and I love Carl Stalling's score for this cartoon.  Sure, it's no Bob Clampett cartoon, but hey.  The Carl Stalling Orchestra can't have maximum fun all the time.  I stand by my hypothesis even though I have yet to devise a suitable means of measurement.  Rife with Type I and Type II errors, a low 'n', what have you.
In between long silent gaps where Freberg's just soaking in the old cartoon, he pontificates on the place of cartoon violence in society.  The older I get, the more I tend to agree, and the less spontaneity I seem to have in my thinking.  Also, the older I get, the worse my breath gets, and the more likely I am to break off a conversation by saying "Okay, thank you!" over and over again, but those are probably perks.  On the other hand, Freberg found Rabbit's Kin rather violent... and the older I get, the more violent I find it.  Now, if Rabbit's Kin were made today, Bugs would save the "El Explodo" cigar for the Third Act of the picture, but Robert McKimson's a weak director... just kidding.  Hey, they all can't be The Sixth Sense, right?  Gotta do the occasional pass fake to keep people on their toes.  And so, to close the First Act, Bugs uses the cigar right back on ol' Sneaky Pete Puma right away, as Pete sits there, four lumps off the main lump on his head, eyes turning all colors of the rainbow.  As far as cartoon violence goes, I agree with Freberg.  When the cigar goes off, Pete's in a sorry state, the rainbow gone from his eyes and replaced with tiny, glowing red embers, fur burnt off most of his face.  Thankfully, this image is quickly faded out, and it's on to the Second Act.

SECOND ACT: As in most of the Tom and Jerry cartoons I saw... seems like only yesterday, and seems like they got quickly forgotten.  Almost a shame.  Anyway, the point is, usually when the bulldog lays down the law, Tom resorts to strategy for his second attack.  In Pete's case, he's got the right idea, but the execution fools nobody.  But Shorty's a defenseless little twerp, and he has to hide behind Bugs.  Pete pretends to be Shorty's mother, and Freberg's performance is even goofier than the First Act, that it's hard not to laugh.  Pete almost makes his getaway with the small rabbit, but Bugs quickly shuts him down, grabbing hold of the lion's tail... I mean, the puma's tail, with poor Pete hitting his ass against the ground at exactly three beats per second.
Now, I hate to spoil every last detail of these things as is my usual habit, but Pete Puma is nothing if not a conundrum.  In a way, he's like how Saul Berenson feels about Carrie Mathison: smart and dumb at the same time... something like that.  Pete seems to learn new tricks quite quickly, but his strict adherence to Bugs' mind games balances all that new stuff out.  I mean, Pete gets the strategically sound idea to dress up as Shorty's mother, but completely screws up the costume... for one.  And the accent, and hiding his tail, etc.  Pete also gets the idea to prepare for another head-bashing, but the preventative measure he takes could have been better.  It's perhaps the best visual-only example of Bugs' triumph via logic, as Bugs produces an Acme Stove Lid Lifter to counter Pete's Acme Stove Lid acting as a makeshift helmet.  Now, maybe I'm overthinking this slightly, but it seems to me that a helmet isn't good if all it does is prevent a head lump from swelling to its proper size.  But that's just me; maybe this is one of the rules of Cartoon Physics.  Typically, in the world of cartoon head lumps, the lumps are narrow, cylindrical, and typically colored red, glowing or otherwise.  There's not usually tiny lumps off the main lump.  But keeping with the honorable medical tradition of dealing with these cartoon lumps, in Act One, Bugs taps the extra lump back into Pete's head with a tiny mallet.  Much more civilized than, say, the way Tom Cat deals with the bulldog's lump in Putting On the Dog.

THIRD ACT: Shorty comes dangerously close to being a villain now.  With Pete Puma vanquished anew a second time, it's time to take a stroll out in the world, free of its old dangers.  Time to stop and smell the roses, and reflect on the meaning of it all.  Alas, things quickly shift back to Pete, because a cartoon vanquishing of a bad guy never seems to last.  But the Warner Bros. screenwriters like to keep things fresh and moving ever forward, even the cartoon screenwriters.  Bugs' mentoring of his one-time co-star, the small brown bunny called Shorty, is now ready to move up to the highest levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: self-actualization.  Alas, it seems that self-transcendence is going to have to wait, as it's time to actualize some more mischief against that sneakin' old Pete Puma.  And in keeping with the ancient screen traditions, we in the audience only hear some of Bugs' dialogue, as he lays out the plan to Shorty.
Next scene: we see Shorty ambling along a road lined with thick green bushes.  When suddenly... the arm of Pete Puma reaches out and grabs poor ol' Shorty by his long brown ears.  Shorty disappears into the bushes, leaving a poof of cartoon smoke in his wake.  But Pete's not a complete savage, and he decides to run home to have Shorty for dinner in a familiar environment.  We see the outside of Pete's abode, and it kind of looks like one of those "hole in the wall" places that Wile E. Coyote would sometimes have in the side of a desert mountain!  Odd.
So, as much as I hate to agree with Bugs, he was definitely right in referring to Pete Puma as "sneaking."  Pete's normally a formidable opponent in battle, with his long, wiry arms and sharp claws, but he's no match for Bugs in the social butterfly department.  And even Bugs would have to admit that Pete had some good ideas, perhaps too good, for Bugs disguises himself as one of Pete's cousin... I just can't remember the name.  Fred, maybe?
Anyway, Bugs' puma costume is several orders of magnitude better than Pete's mother rabbit costume.  I'm thinking Rick Baker's involved somehow.  For the audience's benefit, Bugs lets the head of the puma costume hang off his head, lest we get too confused.  Pete himself falls for the ruse, hook, line and sinker.
But even Bugs isn't confident enough to try the tea routine again.  There must be some other way to bring lumps into the conversation... I guess I'll leave that part for you to see for yourself.  There's probably a lesson in Contract Law here someplace, but I'm just not perceptive enough to see it.  Always check the fine print; let's leave it at that.  As for unintended consequences, well... hey, how about climate change?  That's the ultimate one!  The best you can do is try to make the damage less severe.  Pete, on the other hand, goes the other way.  He grabs the mallet from Bugs and says "Oh no you don't.  I'll help myself!"  And help himself he does.  My good lifelong friend and I like the musical flourish that arises when Pete starts bopping himself on the head with the mallet.  I guess it's like that joke that Joe Biden told about the guy who hits himself in the head with the hammer.  His reasoning?  It feels so good when he stops, the guy says.  That's about at Pete Puma's level of logic.  If Pete's got to get hit on the head, well, Pete might as well do the hitting this time to save a little face.

EPILOGUE - And so, Rabbit's Kin ends as it should: happily.  Bugs and Shorty walk out of the proverbial lion's den, but with the lion hitting himself in the head with the mallet.  Must be a '50s thing or something.  But even though Bugs has vanquished his foe, part of Pete Puma lives on in all of us, and Bugs goes so far as to imitate Pete's trademark wheeze as the cartoon closes, much like Bugs imitates Beaky at the end of Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid.  I wonder if it was Mel Blanc doing the wheeze, or if Freberg did the extra one.  I think it was Blanc, because somehow the last one didn't seem to have that extra Freberg flair to it.

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

No comments: