The animation of the studio era settled early on into a comfortable pattern. These short cartoons usually showed funny animals doing crazy things. While you might find a few examples of verbal humor, for the most part the comedy was intensely physical, with characters chasing each other, hitting each other, and sometimes blowing each other up. You really wouldn’t use the word “subtle” in talking about the cartoons of that time.
Until Chuck Jones came along. Jones started out in the early thirties on the bottom rung of the animation ladder, but by the end of the decade he’d become a director, working under Leon Schlesinger at Warners. His early efforts were uneven, with just a few hints of his personality showing through. It wasn’t until after WWII that he really hit his stride, but by 1950 he had created a style that was completely his own.
Every director who worked in the Warner Bros. animation department had their own take on the stock company of characters. Bugs Bunny imagined by Bob Clampett was not the same as Bugs Bunny imagined by Friz Freleng. But Bugs Bunny imagined by Chuck Jones was something else altogether. Instead of relying mostly on madcap slapstick, Jones imbued his work with subtle shadings you didn’t see in other cartoons. Daffy’s wild ranting would suddenly melt into a pathetic display of helpless incomprehension. Jones would take a moment between gags to show us Porky cock his eyebrow in a small gesture of weary disdain. In the split second before a bomb went off, we’d see the Coyote overwhelmed by total despair.
Jones reshaped the Warners stock company to create his own, very personal, fantasy world. His way of drawing the characters was distinct from the other directors at Warners. Instead of the crisp, sharp lines that previously defined Bugs, Porky and Daffy, Jones’ lines could be fragile, sinuous, twisted, eccentric. In the course of a seven minute short, Jones would take you from displays of raging hysteria to scenes that were oddly touching.
What’s Opera, Doc? is one of Jones most complete efforts. It’s certainly not the first time cartoons parodied the world of opera, but in Jones hands’ it’s not just a parody. Sure, he’s making fun of the mythic heroes and doomed romances, but with its vast landscapes and dramatic vistas, this short cartoon revels in the gorgeous excess of opera. Jones is in love with the very thing he’s satirizing.
In the first scene we see a warrior’s majestic shadow cast on the side of a towering cliff. Then the camera descends to show us that the shadow belongs to Elmer Fudd, decked out like Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle. In this case, Elmer’s not out to destroy the evil dragon Fafnir, but to hunt down Bugs Bunny. The story is the same one we’ve seen in dozens of other shorts that feature these two characters. The comedy comes from seeing them play out the same routines against the extravagant backdrop of grand opera. Instead of hunting Bugs with a shotgun, Elmer now summons the destructive forces of the storm to hunt his prey. When Bugs goes into his familiar drag routine, this time he’s not just a sexy vixen, he’s Brünnhilde, lying on a divan in an elegant pavillion.
In animation, everything we see on the screen has to be created from scratch, and the best animation directors have always relied on teams of talented people who make this happen. On What’s Opera, Doc? Jones had top-notch crew, all of whom had worked with him for years. It’s worth mentioning them all by name. The story comes from long-time Jones associate Michael Maltese. The animation was the work of Ken Harris, Abe Levitow and Richard Thompson, with Maurice Noble doing the layouts and Philip DeGuard taking care of the backgrounds. Editing and sound are by Treg Brown. Milt Franklyn did an excellent job of condensing the music from Wagner’s massive Ring cycle into just about seven minutes. Elmer’s voice is by Arthur Q. Bryan, and of course, Bugs’ voice is provided by the incredible Mel Blanc.
What’s Opera, Doc? came toward the end of Jones’ tenure at Warners. The studios that had animation departments were shutting them down, and it wasn’t long before Jones and his crew were shown the door. It’s a shame, but it was inevitable. Over the course of three decades the animators at Warners created an incredible body of work, turning out some of the most imaginative cartoons you’ll ever see. But making those cartoons was becoming increasingly expensive, and after 1950 the studios were doing everything they could to cut costs. Jones went on to some excellent work on television, but the golden age of studio animation was over.
As Porky would say, “That’s all, folks.”