Bugs Bunny Superstar (1975, Larry Jackson)
Usually I try not to grade movies at this blog on a “nostalgia” curve, or out of any kind of reverence that may speak to a personal bias because of childhood exposure to something. You could argue, of course, that a lot of things I’m passionate about are part of my life as a direct result to my environment when I was a kid, but there’s also plenty of stuff I loved then that hasn’t endured at all for me, and I think I can make a reasonably strong “objective” case for the Beatles, for Edgar Allan Poe, and for that matter, for Warner Bros. cartoons; but occasionally, I come across something I find almost suspiciously endearing, as much for the vague memories it sparks as for any of its content, and Larry Jackson’s Bugs Bunny Superstar is such an example. Even though I would unheasitatingly cast many Looney Tunes cartoons as Great Art, I would probably not be able to find my footing making such an argument for this hodgepodge of documentary and compilation film, yet it was such an important stepping stone in what I think of as my development that I can hardly help seeing it as a movie that deserves a place in my personal canon if not anyplace else.
(Additionally, perhaps it seems pathetic in some way that I have as many positive associations with media I liked when I was a kid as I do with any specific events in my childhood, but thoughts of watching television in my room are honestly some of my happiest memories of growing up, despite all the beach days and bike rides and friends, and played a big role in what fixations I retained as time went on; there are reasons for this that require me to be long-winded, and this isn’t really the right place.)
Superstar is the first feature-length film comprised of cartoon material from the Warner studio, a low-budget exploration of the early years of character designs, production and in-studio goofing off at Termite Terrace, the building on the Warner lot in which the Leon Schlesinger animated unit was situated at one point. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced from 1933 to 1963, with a brief return in the last three years of the ’60s, but this film concentrates on cartoons and events from the 1940s and prior, for the simple reason that when it was made in 1975, distributor United Artists owned the rights to all of the pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons but none subsequent. (This allows for a lot of “golden age” material but it does shut out some of the studio’s most iconic films, many of which date from the ’50s, while also skirting its sad declining years.) As that inconvenience implies, this is quite the low-budget affair, its slightly campy behind-the-scenes material heavily reliant on stock footage and on grainy interviews, as well as a voiceover narration by Orson Welles so muffled it seems to add to the strange allure of all this the way an old classroom filmstrip fascinates.
The film is affably hosted by Bob Clampett, almost indisputably tied with Chuck Jones as the greatest director of the Looney Tunes and maybe of American animation in general, responsible for a number of cartoons so ingenious they can still leave a viewer who’s seen them numerous times staggered. Animation historian Michael Barrier has described Clampett as “very rewarding as an interview subject, because he was extraordinarily accurate on most matters of fact; but he was very difficult, too, because he was so often unreliable as a guide to interpeting those facts.” In other words there may be some (possibly unintended) darkness underneath his cheerful remembrances of happy times at the studios. Larry Jackson claimed that Clampett made his own approval of the final cut a stipulation of his involvement in the film, and other Looney Tunes directors — specifically and most loudly Jones — objected to Clampett’s (and therefore the documentary’s) favoritism of himself over other figures who were just as important, if not more so, to the studio’s development. In particular his courting for credit for having played a large role in the creation of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig appears to be specious, and this really shouldn’t be necessary because of how much Clampett did accomplish at the studio. Friz Freleng and Tex Avery were both interviewed for the project and appear briefly, but only in short talking-head snippets compared to all of Clampett’s (clearly scripted) contributions, and Jones is not present apart from two of his films and some positive words from Clampett, which feels like a kind gesture since the two had an extreme falling out in the late 1930s and were on bad terms for the rest of their lives.
Jones’ criticisms of the film and with other interviews of Clampett are understandable to some extent. The Warner Bros. cartoon studio hadn’t been permanently closed for much more than five years when this film was released, and apart from publications like Barrier’s Funnyworld, it marked the first time that its output had been approached with any degree of dedication and seriousness; the artistry of the cartoons themselves speaks for itself, and it’s acknowledged, for example, that they were really made for adults going out to the movies rather than children who by this point (1975) would know the films from Saturday morning TV showings. By mere virtue of giving a platform to the cartoons’ directors and the history of the studio division that originated them, not to mention the presence of an important figure like Welles, Superstar invites treatment of the Warner canon as a vital, rich entity even if the tone focuses on fun ‘n’ games on the Warner lot, Tex Avery acting out poses for a scarecrow and such. And Clampett would not claim to have created seemingly every Looney Tunes character if those characters were not being positioned for the first time as legacies.
As a kid, of course, I knew none of this and just enjoyed Clampett’s naive friendliness, and what I’ve been able to glean about his real life eccentricity suggests that it’s a fairly accurate representation of his personality. Having come to admire his work with quite intense fervor as an adult, I appreciate the chance to see him and his office. Moreover, the home movies and private drawings littered throughout the film and provided by Clampett are genuinely wonderful to see, and collected here in a manner so as to be accessible and enjoyable to even a general audience of non-devotees — and truthfully, even to a six or seven year-old kid fascinated by the glimpses inside such hallowed ground as this. Looking back as well over the movie’s yearning celebration of studio-era Hollywood, it’s hard for me not to wonder if the imagery it contains had a large effect on my subsequent interests even beyond how deeply I would dive into cartoons and animation history when I grew up.
Two thirds of the running time of Bugs Bunny Superstar are occupied by rather shoddy-looking prints of cartoons, and for the most part they are well chosen. The opening Clampett piece What’s Cookin’ Doc? is one of the studio’s more haphazard Hollywood parodies, with a surprising amount of live action footage interspersed with Bugs’ response to an Academy Award ceremony and a very brief Bugs mini-episode that feels almost like a parody of the conventions of the character’s films (which means that the cartoon’s placement first in the sequence doesn’t make much sense). This is followed by the very first Bugs Bunny short, Tex Avery’s magnificent Wild Hare, which introduces all of the touchstone characteristics of Bugs Bunny and the Elmer-Bugs conflict with remarkable completeness and speed while remaining fresh and witty. Next up: Clampett’s Fantasia parody A Corny Concerto is, curiously, the only one of his included contributions that suggests what a monumental director and animator he was, and its brilliance can scarcely be overstated. The first half, set to Strauss’ “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” places Bugs, Porky and a hunting dog in a murderous ballet some years ahead of the similarly themed What’s Opera, Doc?; the second, an impressively thorough satire of Disney’s Silly Symphonies series in general and especially the 1939 Oscar winner The Ugly Duckling, tracks a group of rhythmic swans swimming in time to the Blue Danube waltz, whereupon they are followed by an annoyingly loud duck. This second sequence in particular is a phenomenal example of impeccable timing and flawless gag writing — not to be too hyperbolic but every subtlety, every sound, every expression and frankly every second is wonderful. If someone came to this feature unaware of the existence of Looney Tunes or their cultural prominence, this would be the moment that would likely persuade them that the film’s eulogy for these animators’ efforts was necessary.
Friz Freleng is represented rather strangely, first by an archetypal but very funny Sylvester & Tweety cartoon, I Taw a Puddy Tat (which reused some elements of Frank Tashlin’s Puss ‘n’ Booty due to the rush to follow up a previous entry with the two characters that won an Oscar); then by the somewhat troubled Rhapsody Rabbit, inexplicably featuring Bugs as a concert pianist and bizarrely similar to a Tom & Jerry cartoon made in the same year. It’s well-timed and funny but nowhere close to being Freleng’s best work, in large part because its characterization of Bugs is so strangely aggressive. Lesser-tier Warner director Robert McKimson, whose association with Looney Tunes would linger even in the years when the series was licensed to the DePatie-Freleng studio in the ’60s, is represented by one of his many Foghorn Leghorn cartoons Walky Talky Hawky; these are funny but mostly because of Mel Blanc’s voice for Leghorn, and the placement of one of them here seems odd. (McKimson’s Bugs cartoons were mostly rather weak.) Happily, we then reach the good stuff with two Chuck Jones entries, the hysterical pairing of Porky and early “wacky” Daffy, who terrorizes the former as he tries to set up camp, My Favorite Duck; and better yet, one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons of all, Hair-Raising Hare, in which he encounters a monster after being lured to a sinister castle. The film closes out with Clampett’s enjoyably apocalyptic The Old Grey Hare, featuring Bugs and Elmer as old men in the year 2000 (!); it wasn’t the last Looney Tune, as it’s seemingly positioned here, but it could have been.
Why does Bugs Bunny Superstar deserve to be remembered or valorized? When I saw that it was included as a special feature on one of the DVD collections of the cartoons, I rushed to revisit it. There are better ways to see these cartoons; Warner Bros. has been erratic about releasing a complete collection of Looney Tunes to home video but there are a great number out there and readily available on disc. And as we’ve demonstrated, the film isn’t the most reliable source for learning the history of the Schlesinger cartoon studio. It is, however, a compilation that seems to reflect real love and affection and, while the faces of Avery and Freleng and Clampett have aged thirty to forty years beyond their glory days captured in their cartoons here, it’s genuinely moving to see Freleng speak wistfully of the artistic freedom he enjoyed at the studio, and quite haunting to watch Avery wax about how young they all were, how they had nothing to worry about then. Through the haze of poor print quality and primitive editing, the beauty and vitality of their work still zooms out at you, and with still forty more years gone since they looked back in this footage, it feels like a more generalized monument to the permanence of the greatest, most inventive art. Welles is joking in the opening sequence that has him comparing Termite Terrace to the Taj Mahal, but maybe he shouldn’t be. It’s somehow more moving because Jackson doesn’t dwell on the fact that it’s all over, apart from an offhand Welles remark about it being impossible to duplicate those years and those films; Welles ends it all by promising he’ll see us next time, but “that’s all, folks.” It all seems to linger in the air, like it was something that was still happening. In a way it is; there probably won’t be a time in my life when Carl Stalling’s music isn’t periodically blaring from my television — I wouldn’t want there to be — and I hope my six year-old self would be pleased with that.