This week marked the 75th anniversary of the appearance of Bugs Bunny, the most famous of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies stable of characters. Having grown up watching bugs on television (not quite old enough to have seen him in theaters before the featured movies), I have nothing but fond memories of the “waskally wabbit” and his charmed life (surely that rabbit’s foot gave him plenty of luck). But it amazes me sometimes that others—my wife included—don’t get what makes him so special, so revered and so memorable… in short, what has made him a bona-fide American icon recognized and loved around the world.
So take a load off and I’ll ‘splain everything, doc.
When Bugs was created by Leon Schlesinger Productions (later Warner Bros. Cartoons) in 1938, the character was originally used to make life miserable for a hunter (Porky Pig) trying to shoot him. His demeanor would sometimes get a bit more aggressive in his efforts to torment hunters and other characters, but it eventually settled into a more playful, less intentionally violent character that epitomized Bugs. Chuck Jones, upon taking over the Warner’s animation studios, locked down his personality for all time afterward.
Bugs Bunny represented, in his many incarnations, the American “little guy”… one of the downtrodden, huddled masses, yearning to be free. He never had much, but he was glad of what little he had… and held on to it tenaciously. And though he didn’t have the equivalent of a college degree, Bugs had a quick wit, street-smarts and plenty of natural intelligence. He could get along with anyone, and held no prejudices or malice towards any group. He was the kind of guy who could naturally get ahead, if he just got the right breaks… but honestly wouldn’t be too concerned if he never got them.
This was the good-natured character that was always pitted against those who callously sought to do him harm, whether it was a traditional hunter (like Elmer Fudd) hoping to bag him for dinner… a construction worker intent on building a skyscraper on top of his home… or a crazed soldier denying him access to the succulent carrots being grown south of the Mason-Dixon line. And Bugs didn’t seek to kill his opponents, as they so often tried to do with him: He was satisfied with their surrender; and often arranged things so they didn’t know they had lost at all… or didn’t care in the end.
Like early 20th century America, Bugs never looked for a fight; but when he was drawn into them, he didn’t back down. And against his opponents’ superior strength, numbers or firepower, Bugs would use only his wits, trying to trick, cajole or otherwise bamboozle his opponent into giving up the fight and letting him go his own way. And when he won, he didn’t gloat or celebrate… though he’d give a knowing wink to the audience and an acknowledgement that he was always the smartest of all, the deserving winner of every bloodless coup.
(And only once was Bugs’ shoe put on the other foot… early in his career, when wartime cartoons introduced America to the “Gremlin,” the mysterious force that seemed to damage machines at just the wrong time. Bugs’ struggles with “the Gremlin from the Kremlin” represented a one-time turnabout for Bugs: For once he was the hapless aggressor who could not catch or stop his tiny tormenter.)
Bugs always represented the likable Average Joe, just looking to make a modest living like any good American. And his ability to think his way out of a jam (instead of being the bully and beating opponents into submission). He remains the icon of perseverance, cleverness, wit, grace under pressure, (mostly) non-violent action and an essentially optimistic outlook on life that has been admired by people in every walk of life… in every culture. Bugs became an American ambassador that resonates with audiences to this day. All of us wishes we had a little (or maybe a lot) of Bugs Bunny in us; his ability to accept the life he’s chosen, to rise above adversity, to turn the other cheek… and to be able to lower the boom on those who truly deserve it.
In a non-lethal, funny way, of course.
Happy birthday, Bugs. May you have 75 more… easy.